The necessity of science communication

I read two articles this week, which I just have to share here on this blog. The two articles are both inputs to the discussion on the role of science communication in general society today.

Self-censorship among vaccine researchersnewyorktimes

The first article “Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage” by Melinda Wenner Moyer is published in The New York Times and discusses how the anti-vaccine movement have contributed to what looks like self-censorship in parts of the vaccine science communicty and how it seems to be  eroding the integrity of vaccine science.

“Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

The article gives example from the vaccine science community where researchers feels pressure from their peers not to publish negative results, but also describes the importance of continuesly studying and transparently discussing also the research that touches upon the negative sides of vaccines. The article closes with an encouragement that researchers, who do good science must share their research – even when there is a risk of its meaning being twisted – and not apply self-censorship.  As the writer points out in the conclusion:

“One thing vaccine scientists and vaccine-wary parents have in common is a desire for the safest and most effective vaccines possible — but vaccines can’t be refined if researchers ignore inconvenient data. Moreover, vaccine scientists will earn a lot more public trust, and overcome a lot more unfounded fear, if they choose transparency over censorship.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

scientific americanA cry for help

The other article “The Truth Sometimes Hurts” by Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and published in Scientific American responds to Melinda Wenner Moyer’s request that scientists continue to share their knowledge, finding and results also when they hurt.

Kate Marvel however points out that even though science thrives on the oxygen of transparency, reality is that doing it is hard! And that scientists (especially in hot topics like vaccine and climate change) often times are up against beliefs, which are not based on science and therefore cannot be refuted by science:

“But outside the confines of the lab, scientists have to operate in an environment polluted with lies and bad faith. Vaccines do not cause autism, but many people believe they do. And because this belief is not based on evidence, it cannot be refuted by science. But charlatans can still use what appears to be the language of science, weaving inconclusive studies and minor effects into a persuasive web of lies and fear.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

The reality is that communicating science is hard and especially hard for scientists who are by definition trained primarily to be scientists and not communicators. As Kate Marvel points out, very few scientists receive training in communicating science or are taught how to handle it when their words and conclusions are twister or delibrately misinterpreted and misrepresented.

Kate Marvel shares examples from her own area of work, climate change, where the fear that climate change deniers will misuse scientific findings or transparency about uncertainty in climate change projections to push forward their own agenda. She also points out that there are no institutional rewards for communicating science and thus little institutional incentive to allocate time and energy on communicating their work.

She closes her input to the debate with a heart-felt request:

“So I want to approach this with something the stereotypical scientist is not known for: humility. Please don’t just tell us to be honest, help us to understand how to be transparent in an opaque world.  Truth is messy, and lies can be simple and appealing. I may not know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to listen and learn.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

Make science communication mandatory

I can only agree with Kate Marvel about the need to offer more insight and training to researchers, scientists and scholars on how to communicate science. I enjoy teaching science communication to Ph.d students at the Faculty of Health at University of Copenhagen, but also experience how little they know and how distant the idea of communicating science outside the scientific world seems to many (luckily it’s definitely not all) of them. Having taught a masters course on Public Health Science Communciation to public health students also at University of Copenhagen was inspirering and I wish it could be mandatory for all students to have some training and insight into how to communicate science . Even if it limited in time, it could at least give them insight into what they may encounter and perhaps give them some appetite to dig a bit deeper into science communciation later on and dare to challenge their own fear of communication what they do.

Thank you to both Melinda Wenner Moyer and Kate Marvel for inspiring inputs into the discussions around the role of science communication in today’s society and for highlighting both the importance of science communication, the risks if we don’t and the need for more training and help .


Become the ‘Ultimate Expert’ in Social MEDia

I need to update my business card with a new title. I am now a certified ‘Ultimate Expert’ in the use of social media in Medicine. This is a title I have achieved after completing the final module of the free online Social MEDia Course offered by Webicina.coma or more specifically by Bertalan Mesko, MD, PhD, a self-declared Medical Futurist, and founder of Webicina.com

The course is a spin-off of a university course offered to medical and public health students at the University of Debrecen, Hungary since 2008. Bertalan Mesko’s created the course as a response to the lack of digital literacy among doctors:

SocialMEDiacourse

“Social media are changing how medicine is practiced and healthcare is delivered. Patients, doctors, communication or even time management, everything is changing, except one thing: medical education.” 

After having run successfully for a few years and in response to requests from people abroad to travel to Hungary to follow the course, Bertalan decided to develop an online version of the course – making use of all that social media offer and continue his quest to change the attitude of future doctors and their knowledge about online issues and ultimately revolutionize medical education at a global level.

Prezis, YouTube and a lack of scientific knowledge

socialMEDiacourse2

The course is organized in 16 different modules all followed by a test, which you have to pass in order to achieve the badge (I felt a bit like a girl scout getting labels to put on my uniform). Each module consists of a Prezi, which systematically takes you through all corners of the topic. Pictures, YouTube videos, take home messages etc. makes the courses dynamic and fun, but at times also a bit commercial and sometimes a tending towards being too unscientific, especially for a university course I miss more solid data. The length of each course varies between one and two hours.

As with any other course, some modules work better than others, probably partly due to one’s interests and baseline knowledge level. I have taken the course over a long period of time (I think 6 months), so I can’t really recall all modules or which ones functioned better than others. Working myself with social media and public health I felt I had to complete the course and get the Ultimate Expert certification, but the modules can quite easily be taken on an individual basis according to one’s needs and interests. Actually, I think my recommendation would be to take the course on a topic by topic basis without aiming to go through all 16 modules unless you get totally hooked on the format. If one aims to take the full course I’d probably spread it over a few weeks or even months taking a module now and again. Going through too many Prezis in a day might make you a bit overwhelmed and the commercial side of the module gets a little too dominant. Besides, if you want to really learning something, you need not just take each module but afterwards experience using Twitter, trying out the possibilities of Wikipedia, engage in medical communities etc. In other words do it yourself.

modules

More medicine than public health

Although the course is meant also to target public health students it is my impression that the primary audience is medical students and doctors. This doesn’t make the course irrelevant to public health students/professionals or other non-medical-but-health-related professionals, but it just means that you do not always feel the content that relevant to you. There is a lot of focus on doctors-patients relationships and apps relevant for medical doctors etc. Relevant stuff but mostly to doctors.

Especially to new-comers to social media (for other than private purposes) the course provides a good baseline introduction to how Twitter works; what the idea behind Wikipedia is and how you can use it; and how social media opens up for entering new communities and crowd-source at a much larger scale. Social media as a tool for communications, finding resources etc. also makes some of the modules relevant to researchers in general.

Take notes!

As mentioned, each module is followed by a test containing 25 multiple choice questions, of which you have to answer at least 23 correctly to pass. For each questions you have 30 seconds to respond. The questions relate very closely to the Prezi and I can strongly recommended taking good notes. The test is really meant to test that you watched the whole Prezi and is not so much a test of what you actually learned. Questions like “What year was Google launched?” and “Who is the founder of the search engine Duckduckgo?” really requires good note-taking. Many questions are framed negatively, e.g. “‘Which is not a suggestion to avoid violating HIPAA?” which requires a lot of (unnecessary?) sentence analysis and can stress you out a bit, resulting in answering incorrectly to questions you actually do know the answers to. To my taste the tests are a bit too useless and doesn’t really add anything to your own learning. But I guess the objective has been to test that you paid attention throughout the Prezi and not that you actually learned anything (which is assumed you did if you know the Prezi by hard) or can apply what you learned. The tests (and Prezis) could use a good editing by an English native speaker, as it in many places is clear that it was developed by a non-native-English-speaker. For one module its okay, but if you take too many in a row you get a bit annoyed.

Interactive

In the spirit of social media the course is of course interactive and you are encouraged to comment and give suggestions for improvements. The response rate to comments is impressive and you have a feeling that your comments are taken seriously. You can also share your achievements (the badges you earn after passing each test) on Facebook and other social media and thus help spread the word not only about the course but in a way also promote the use of social media in medicine.

More academia, revised tests and further studies 

All in all the course is interesting, entertaining and an impressive amount of work has been put into developing it. I have learned a lot of good tips, but perhaps because my baseline knowledge of social media is above the average it wasn’t a big eye-opener to me. Being based on a university course, I would have expected a bit of a stronger academic basis of course. It heavily relies on YouTube videos, TEDtalks and lots of popular data. If I was to recommend anything for the future development of the course it would be to put a bit more ‘academic’ material in the modules. If not in the Prezis then perhaps as an additional recommended readings list. Also a test that feels more relevant to the student might be helpful and some tips on how to get started, or continue exploring the topic after each module might be a good idea.