Scientists agree on climate change: How should we communicate that?

Scientists agree: humans are causing climate change, and if we don’t drastically change our behavior, there will be catastrophic consequences.

The Consensus Handbook, a recent publication by communication researchers John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach, and Stephen Lewandowsky provides a clear and concise compilation of research on communicating scientists’ consensus on climate change. Here are some of my highlights from the report*.

First, what percentage of scientists agree? There are a number of ways to measure consensus — examining published research, surveying scientists, or studying public statements made by scientists, for example. Different researchers have studied this question in a variety of ways, but each result has suggested that 91-100% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring. The majority of these studies actually converge on the estimate the 97% of scientists agree, which is why many of the studies that research the effects of consensus messaging use that number. Regardless, agreement is high. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe addresses this consensus in a great video on her channel Global Weirding.

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Does the public realize how high scientific consensus is? No.

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Why is there a gap between public perception of scientific agreement and actual scientific agreement? There are two primary culprits. The first, the authors refer to as a “cultural bias.” On average, people who are more conservative report lower consensus than those that are farther to the left. This report doesn’t delve into too much detail on the role of people’s ideological worldview in shaping how they think about climate change, but work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about here) is one resource for learning more about that.

The second — and larger — cause of the perception gap is a combination of a lack of information and misinformation. Misinformation campaigns have been relatively successful at confusing the public about scientific consensus on climate change. The most notable is probably the Global Warming Petition Project, in which “people” (some of whom are not real people and many of whom are not scientists) have signed a petition urging the US government to reject global warming agreements.

Adding fuel to the misinformation fire, the media often shows contrarian and climate scientist opinions in comparable ways, suggesting that there is a balance and that climate change is still an issue of debate among scientists.

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Why is it important for the public to know the true consensus on climate change? Research has shown that it’s a gateway belief:

what people think about expert agreement influences a range of other key climate attitudes, including whether global warming is real, caused by humans, resulting in serious impacts and importantly, whether we should act to solve it.

Since communicating consensus is also helpful for encouraging people to embrace other crucial beliefs held by climate scientists, the authors comment that “the 97% consensus offers a lot of bang for one’s communication buck.”

Given the importance of understanding scientific consensus, how should we communicate about it? The handbook offers a number of evidence-driven suggestions:

  • Use the number (97%). This is more effective than a description of the consensus as “an overwhelming majority” for convincing people of the reality of the consensus.
  • Consider a pie chart to show consensus. A study led by van der Linden (which I’ve written about previously) showed that the pie chart was more convincing than a simple description or analogy.
  • Encourage people to estimate consensus first. Revealing the consensus after people have estimated it has been shown to be more influential than simply revealing the same information.
  • Inoculate against misinformation (I’ve also written about this strategy). Research shows that people can encounter misinformation about the consensus and still come away with favorable climate attitudes if they’ve been warned about tactics that contrarians often use before they encounter them.

These are all promising tactics for communicating the climate change consensus, but amid these nuanced strategies, we should also not lose sight of the golden rule:

  • People need to encounter straightforward and clear messages that are repeated often and from a range of sources.

*All are figures from Cook, J., van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Lewandowsky, S. (2018). The Consensus Handbook. DOI:10.13021/G8MM6P. Available at http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/all/consensus-handbook/

Cover image from NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/images/index.html

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Climate change and mental health

Sometimes I think about climate change and feel a gripping fear. I might step outside to a 60-degree day in the middle of January or read an article about the worsening state of our air, land, and sea, and experience a sudden panic. I have a feeling of impending doom, lack of control, anger at decision-makers who aren’t doing enough to fix this global problem.

But that’s just me.

How does climate change affect other people’s mental health? In previous posts, I’ve written about how the way climate change is framed can affect the way people think about it — whether they think it’s a real threat and what they might be willing to do about it. This post takes acceptance of climate change as a starting point, and focuses on the psychological effects of perceived and actual effects of climate change. Once climate change is accepted or experienced as a reality, what are its impacts on mental health?

A recent study revealed two distinct responses. While some people have little anxiety, others experience substantial stress, and in some cases, depression, to their perception of the impacts of climate change. What causes different people to have such different reactions? The researchers examined the extent to which people had egoistic concern (about the effects of climate change on themselves), altruistic concern (about the effects of climate change on others, such as future generations), and biospheric concern (about nature, plants, and animals). They found that people with biospheric concern reported the highest levels of stress related to climate change, as well as the highest levels of depression.

Other reviews (1)(2) describe additional mental health conditions that, for some people, are linked to the gradual effects of climate change. These include anxiety, depression, and substance use. We can also expect climate change to negatively impact physical health — for example leading to increases in asthma, allergies, exposure to pests and toxic substances, and heat-related death, and a decrease in general fitness.

The gradual effects of climate change will continue to wear away at our mental and physical health until we address the problem.

The sudden effects of climate change are also harmful to mental health. As natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, they threaten the mental health of those who are directly affected. One project that shows these mental health impacts clearly is the The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (“RISK”) Project. For this project, the researchers had already begun a longitudinal study of vulnerable women (poor single mothers in community college) in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, they continued to conduct surveys and interviews of these women, which allowed them to better understand the tolls that a natural disaster can take on mental health, particularly for people who are already vulnerable.

An article on “Katrina Brain” reports what they found: 4 years after the storm, 20% of their participants still reported anxiety and depression that was higher than they had reported before the storm. A small group of participants reported even more serious mental health impacts like PTSD. The mental health impacts of storms like Katrina tend to be especially bad for people with low incomes and those without strong social supports.

Fortunately, about a third of the participants reported “post-traumatic growth,” a sign of resilience. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all completely doomed to psychological ruin when disasters hit, but it’s not consolation for the “psychological scars” that disasters like Katrina inflict on those who are directly affected and most vulnerable.


Cover photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Completing a PhD: What worked for me

I defended my PhD on a Wednesday in November. One week later, I boarded a flight to Washington, D.C. from San Diego. I had sold almost all my furniture, donated books and clothing, and packed the rest of my belongings in cardboard boxes that my husband helped me schlep over to USPS. The day before my flight, I filed for my PhD. I had forms signed by each member of my committee, and held my breath as the administrator flipped through my dissertation to ensure that every margin, header, and sub-section met regulations.

I arrived in DC 10 days before starting a new job. In those days I attended a conference, unpacked the few belongings I had shipped, made multiple trips to Target to supplement, and celebrated Thanksgiving with family.

When I started work, I was intellectually overwhelmed by the social and scientific issues I would be working on, the research methods I would hone, and my brilliant colleagues.

With this rapid and major transition, I didn’t have much mental energy to devote to reflecting on my PhD process immediately following my defense. But it’s been a few months, and I have some of that energy now.

I defended my PhD just over four years after I started grad school. In the US, and starting this process just months after earning my Bachelor’s degree, this was pretty quick. But I didn’t start grad school with the goal of finishing quickly; the process of earning a PhD is so much more important than the end point that racing to finish will, in many cases, seriously detract from the quality of research someone produces and their experience along the way. Finishing quickly is not the reason that I feel that my PhD experience was “successful.” However, I am proud that my research was high-quality, that I had a positive experience in grad school (overall I loved it!), and that I had enough of a sense of what I wanted for myself intellectually and professionally after four years that it made sense to finish.

Here’s what worked for me.

 

Granular Planning: For Academic Expedience

A PhD is a multi-year project, so there’s no way around planning. I think it’s a natural strategy to work on breaking the massive project down into smaller ones, and maybe breaking those smaller ones down further, to generate a timeline, and I certainly did this (again, recalibrating often). But my work plans were more granular than that. I often set goals for the week, and for each day, and then scheduled the time specific time that I would do each task (usually scheduling specifics about two days in advance). I was also conscientious about the time of day I scheduled different types of work for. For me, mornings are great for deep work, like challenging statistical analyses and writing, so those tasks were scheduled for mornings. Whenever possible, afternoons were reserved for meetings and reading.

Probably not surprisingly, my weeks almost never went exactly as they were initially scheduled. Some tasks took longer than I had anticipated, and sometimes things just came up and plans were derailed. Luckily, Google Calendar is forgiving. It lets you drag and extend or move entries, which can encourage user flexibility.

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But there was always a default plan for how I’d use time, and that was huge. I never sat down at my desk and wondered what I should work on. Even when I had short gaps between meetings or classes, I had deliberately decided what I’d spend that time doing in advance. Without that default plan, I’d inevitably start mindlessly checking email, Facebook, and Twitter and going down rabbit holes until the next commitment.

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Introspection: For Charting and Changing Course

I’m introspective by nature — constantly asking myself, What do I like about my situation? What do I not like? What are my personal and professional values and priorities, and how do they fit into my current situation? Sometimes I wrote my responses down. Other times I just talked about them with people I’m close to, or reflected while commuting or jogging.

It’s been invaluable to continually recalibrate my actions and goals when I realize my current situation doesn’t line up with my values and priorities. What I wanted last year might not be what I want today, and my actions tomorrow should reflect that acknowledgment.

For me, quality introspection requires down time. I can’t reflect on how well my daily life aligns with my broader ideals if I have no break from that daily life, if I’m constantly working. I’ve made space for hobbies like crafting (crochet, knit, and greeting cards) and exercising (training for my first half marathon in my first year of grad school did wonders for my mental health and introspection).

Non-Research Research: For Ideas and Opportunities

Reflection can only get you so far when it comes to figuring out what you want to do after earning a PhD. You also need to gather ideas to give you something to reflect on and seek out opportunities that will make it possible to achieve your goals. PhD students hone their critical thinking and information-finding skills, which can be applied to “non-research research” — idea- and opportunity-seeking outside your academic research.

There are many ways to do this non-research research, so individuals can find what’s best for them. For me, Twitter was a huge conduit for this research. I followed accounts related to my interests (psychology and cognitive science, language and linguistics, science communication), my location (university and city), and people I came across in real life or online who intrigued me. I follow the digital magazine Aeon, for example, and one day stumbled upon an article by Michael Erard on his work as a “metaphor designer,” which put FrameWorks, a communications think tank, on my radar. Today, I work there.

Twitter’s use of hashtags makes it easy to discover more accounts to follow and to find specific content. For example, I learned about ComSciCon, the communicating science workshop for graduate students, by browsing #scicomm. I’ve written about ComSciCon numerous times, so for now I’ll just note that my involvement in this group has been incredibly influential for the path I’ve taken and where I am today.

To sum up…

It’s important to take an active role in your PhD progress and your post-PhD prospects. My own PhD “success” is largely thanks to consistent planning, introspection, and curiosity.


Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Language shapes what we see

Language shapes the way we see the world. For example, the metaphors used to describe a concept like crime can shape the way people reason about it; native speakers of different languages tend to conceptualize time in ways consistent with their language; and when an object (say, a chair) is assigned the feminine grammatical gender in one language and the masculine gender in another, speakers of the former language actually think of that object as more feminine than speakers of the latter.

But new research (here’s the pdf) shows that the language we speak literally affects the way we see the world. By tracking people’s eye movements as they watched scenes unfold, researchers found that speakers tended to fixate more on parts of the scene that their language would require them to encode when communicating, relative to speakers of another language.

The experiment included German and Korean speakers. One way these two languages differ is in how they refer to spatial relationships between objects. In German (as in English), there’s a word for containment (in, which means the same as it does in English), which contrasts with the word used for one object supporting another (in German, auf, analogous to on in English). Preposition use in Korean isn’t dictated by whether one object contains or supports the other; instead, different prepositions are used depending on the tightness of the fit of the relationship. For example, putting a cap on a pen is a tight fit, which Korean describes with the word kkita. This contrasts with putting an apple in a bowl, which is a loose fit, so the preposition netha would be used instead (though the authors note that netha tends to be used for loose containment while notha is used for loose support, the line is a bit more blurred than in English or German).

In German, then, the most relevant part of a spatial relationship (for communication purposes) is whether one object contains or supports the other. In Korean, the most relevant part of a relationship is the tightness of fit. The researchers predicted that German and Korean speakers may habitually pay closer attention to certain parts of a scene — the ones their language requires them to communicate — than others.

In the experiment, participants watched videos of objects coming in contact with each other (screenshots are below), while the researchers tracked their eye movements. Participants always saw a pair (one video followed by a second) and rated how similar the two videos were to each other. Importantly, participants were not told which dimension their similarity ratings should be based on — this was for them to decide on their own.

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Consistent with language practices, Korean speakers based their similarity ratings on tightness of fit — for example, videos from the second and third rows above (both showing tight fits, and therefore typically described using kkita), were seen as more similar than the first and second, or the third and fourth were (both of which would include one kkita video and one netha or notha video). German speakers, on the other hand, based their ratings on containment vs. support. For them, the first and second (both described by auf) or the third and fourth (in) were more similar than the second and third (auf vs. in). Again, it’s especially relevant that participants were not told to use their language practices to determine similarity; they were simply encouraged to determine how similar different pairs were to each other, and their language practices guided them in this task.

The really novel part of this study, though, is in the eye-tracking. The researchers found that German speakers spent more time looking at the base figure (the bowl, block, or tray that the second object would sit on or in) than Korean speakers did, probably because that object contains more information for a person who needs to determine whether the relationship will be a supportive (on) or containment (in) one, which is what Germans habitually have to encode. Instead of looking at that base figure as much, Korean speakers looked more at the one that did the resting on or in, and particularly looked at the area where the objects intersected, which again holds the most information for speakers of a language that requires communicating the tightness of fit.

Even though participants were not watching these videos in order to communicate about them, their viewing patterns still reflected the tendencies of their languages. They have years of experience needing to pay attention to containment vs. support or tightness vs. looseness, so they now approach the world with a predisposition to look for those same characteristics that their language encodes.

This finding may not have huge practical consequences. People’s vision isn’t impaired by what their language encodes or doesn’t. But the study does show that our attention can be influenced by our language. Visual attention is a pretty low-level process, in the sense that it’s constant and so much of it happens without conscious awareness. That, I think, is why this study is so cool — even when people are watching simple videos of objects, their language shapes the way they approach the situation. Just imagine what our language does for us when we actually go out and navigate the world.


Cover photo by MabelAmber. CC.

Metaphors Trump Tweets By

Metaphors are everywhere — in our classrooms, hospitals, homes… and in Trump’s tweets.

In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book, Metaphors We Live By, that catalyzed extensive research on the relationship between metaphor and thought. That book and much research since has argued that the metaphors we use in language reflect much deeper patterns in thought.

For example, we talk about arguments in terms of war — you can fight, defend, win, and lose both arguments and physical wars, for example. Researchers like Lakoff and Johnson suggest that we’re not merely talking about arguments in terms of wars, but actually thinking of them that way too.

Trump loves these metaphors.

Criticism directed at Schumer is a beating, to Trump. He also invokes the vivid idea of holding hostage to talk about arguing with Democrats during the government shutdown.

Another pervasive metaphor is the idea that good things are up (when you cheer someone up you lift their spirits, and in times of extreme happiness you’re on top of the world, for example). Relatedly, metaphors commonly express the idea that important things are large (like when we have big ideas or grandiose plans). Trump likes to rally his audiences by talking about how big America is(metaphorically), and the ways in which we are on top.

We dream big and reach high. And on the flip side, Trump’s enemies occupy low positions:

Another topic that we almost can’t talk about without invoking metaphors is time. There are many ways we use spatial metaphors to talk about time, but referring to the future as ahead of us and the past as behind is among one of the most common ways. Trump is well aware that forward is the direction of the future and of progress.

Then there’s the thing that, for Trump, is usually literal, but possibly for a small time became understood as metaphorical, which led to Trump’s assertion that it is MOST CERTAINLY LITERAL:

And in case you were wondering, the jury is still out on potential metaphorical underpinnings of covfefe.

Rule-breaking analogies

The defining feature of an analogy is that it compares two different things.

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Those two different things are often relatively different from each other. Differences between the two topics being compared are likely why analogies are illustrative — they help us understand new or complex topics by pointing out ways they’re similar to more familiar or simpler ones. The new or complex topic being explained is often abstract — something we can’t see or touch, while the more familiar or simpler one tends to be concrete.

For example, the “structure of an atom is like a solar system. Nucleus is the sun and electrons are the planets revolving around their sun.”

I’ve recently come across a few exceptions to these definitional rules of analogies. Although the exceptions still make comparisons in order to explain or illustrate something, they compare different features of one single thing — they both use time to explain time.

This might seem like a lazy or misguided way to communicate, but I think it works. Here are two examples.

The next one jumped off the page at me when I was reading The Remains of the Day:

All right, so neither of us are exactly in our first flush of youth, but you’ve got to keep looking forward… You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.
-Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

My final example of a rule-breaking time analogy also jumped out at me, this time for its terrifying nature:

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Screenshot from New York Times, January 25, 2018

I wasn’t aware of this metaphorical clock that has existed for decades. Apparently, the Doomsday Clock is “a potent symbol of scientific concerns about humanity’s possible annihilation.” And, as the headline expresses, it’s now closer to midnight than it has been since the Cold War.

Why are these successful analogies? In each case, they help us to understand more complex, less graspable time concepts by comparing them to more graspable ones. Both cases draw attention to ways that longer time spans (evolutionary history or an individual’s life span or humanity’s existence) are analogous to shorter time spans (one year or one day — in both of the latter examples). For me, the first analogy was definitely informative — it improved my sense of the amount of time between the emergence of different life form. The second analogy I found intellectually satisfying (I actually put the book down and started reflecting on the fact that I don’t love evenings; I love mornings. And then realized that I’m 26 years old and maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I’m not on Team Evening yet). And the final one definitely conveyed a sense of urgency — there are a lot of scientific and political risks that we really need to get under control.

I like these analogies. I like that they helped me learn and to reflect, and that they were rebellious rule-breakers in the process.


Cover photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

Framing your SciComm Message

When you’re communicating, whether about the frustration of finding facial hair stubble in your bathroom sink or the importance of addressing climate change, it’s useful to think not only about the idea you want to get across, but also how you want to get it across. Which words do you want to use, or which ones do you want to avoid, for fear that they’ll make your spouse or conversation partner feel defensive or closed-minded? How do you want to bring up this topic? What other situations do you want to compare it to?

We’re accustomed to framing our everyday conversations carefully in order to maximize the chances of a desired outcome, like a clean bathroom sink, and minimizing the chances of an undesired one, like offending. We need to use this same meta-cognitive strategy — framing — when we communicate all science, and especially when communicating science that some audiences may want to resist.

I’ve created this handout to give an overview of framing in the context of published research. What does research tell us about how we should communicate issues like the importance of vaccinations or addressing climate change? The handout includes takeaways from each of the topics to help science communicators apply research on the science of scicomm.

Click here to download the pdf.

What other strategies would you like to learn more about? I’m brainstorming my upcoming handouts and would love to hear from readers about topics from the science of science communication that would be most helpful.

Was a PhD worth it? Weighing the pros and cons

As I was wrapping up my PhD work, I found myself having many conversations with peers (some who had already defended, others who were hoping to get it done in the next year): Would you do it all over again? What have you gained in the process? What has disappointed you?

Not surprisingly, different people (even those at the same university, and even within a single department) have very different responses to those questions. Every PhD experience is so different, thanks to the mingling of research area, advisor relationship, and internal goals and values. But I’ve also noticed some recurring themes and insights that I’ll share here.

One way of assessing whether you’re happy with your grad school experience is to do a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the costs and benefits are black-and-white (like 5 years of your life or learning how to program in Python), but many others are implicit. Have you taken more from the experience than it took from you?

Benefits

One friend told me a benefit he’s especially grateful for is sharper analytical thinking skills. Before he came to grad school, he noticed that PhD scientists seemed to think a few steps ahead and approached problems from many angles, and he thinks he’s closer to that point than when he started.

Another friend came to grad school in San Diego to try to find some direction for his career while living in a new place. He, like most of us, loves San Diego, so the city has not disappointed. That friend also feels that he found direction for his career, though not from working on a primary research project for the past 4 years. Instead, he thinks a lot of his progress in figuring out what he wants to do has resulted from being around brilliant and interesting people and having time and space to explore new intellectual topics.

I agree with both of these friends’ assessments. For me, the sense of direction I gained was the realization that I don’t want to be a professor. That realization came from a mix of doing my own academic research and observing faculty members work on and communicate about theirs.

Luckily, I also gained a better sense of what I do want to do, a better understanding of my personal and professional priorities and values. For this direction, I credit many of the non-research aspects of my grad career, like my deep involvement in ComSciCon.

And I also gained skills that I hope will help me not only in my career, but throughout the rest of my life too. For example, I became a better listener, better at extracting meaning from complex ideas as well as intuiting what people actually mean when they say something (or don’t say something). I also became a better communicator, in academic and non-academic writing, as well as in conversations. This includes advocating for myself and for my work, which has been especially challenging to improve. I gained exposure to new ideas and people, and my 4 years in grad school have provided a wonderful environment for developing as a person during my early twenties. I’ve had my world views challenged and have learned to accept myself, and even though those didn’t directly result from grad school activities, the PhD environment set the stage for these changes.

Costs

To be sure, there are costs to doing a PhD. Luckily in the sciences we are paid stipends as grad students and do not pay tuitions, so the financial costs are actually somewhat low. The reason there are financial costs is because PhD students spend 4-7 years making much less with a grad student stipend than their salary would likely otherwise be. And although PhDs probably end up earning more after their degree, so that their time in grad school becomes an investment towards a higher salary later, in general I don’t think this is true to the extent that it is for medical doctors or lawyers, for example.

Beyond money, there’s an undeniable time cost. One of my friends who did feel there were benefits also added that he was unconfident that the benefits outweighed the cost of requiring 5 years of his young adult life to reap them. There’s always some other way you can be spending your time.

But maybe most importantly, doing a PhD has emotional costs. It’s an intellectually trying process filled with potential risks to mental health, like geographic distance from family, failed experiments (which are inevitable and numerous), uncertainty about the present and future, and often challenging academic relationships to navigate.

My Verdict

For me, the benefits of doing a PhD are invaluable, and they easily outweigh the costs. This assessment results in part from the profound benefits I detailed above, but also because the costs were relatively low for me — since I was happy most of the time, I didn’t really feel like doing a PhD cost me time I’d rather be spending in other ways. I’m also somewhat doubtful that I would have been making lots more money doing something else over the past 4 years (and somewhat indifferent about it anyway), so the monetary cost felt negligible.

The emotional costs were probably the ones that had the greatest impact on me, but I was fortunate to have a stellar support system to lean on. In the long run, the emotional challenges have actually become benefits, for example by helping me learn to prioritize my mental and physical health and advocating for myself.

I’m incredibly grateful that for me, doing a PhD was full of benefits that outweighed costs. But I also know that my situation is not always the case. I think it’s helpful for people to try to estimate the costs and benefits before starting a PhD, but also consistently throughout. Doing so may help us realize when we need to make changes in some aspect of our personal or professional life to reset the scale in our favor.

The unhelpful academic/non-academic distinction

I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years since I started grad school, like how to analyze data in R, where to get the best food in San Diego, and how to file taxes (sort of). But one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that there are two types of PhD holders — those who work in academia, and the others (people who pursue careers labeled as non-academic or alternative [to my knowledge, there’s no systematic difference in the way these terms are used]).

When you’re in academia, being part of the others is generally undesirable. Jacquelyn Gill described one pervasive mindset, that academics say “to the general public, ‘we want you to value us and our work, and be informed citizens, but we don’t want to walk amongst you– we are not you.'”

A lot of people ascribe to this strong categorical distinction between PhD holders “in” and “outside” the academy. But it’s a puzzling way to think about careers one might have with a PhD.

Talking about careers as either academic or non-academic suggests that those two are mutually exclusive, maybe even opposites in meaningful ways. But actually, whether PhDs are academics or non-academics, there are a lot of similarities in what their careers often entail: applying analytical and research skills to solving new problems, collaborating with others, reading, writing, teaching, and presenting. On the other hand, the only true difference between PhD-holding academics and non-academics (that I can think of) is whether their paycheck comes from a university or other organization (and even here there’s some flexibility). Is that difference really a meaningful one? One that warrants constantly separating PhDs into two distinct categories?

I also suspect that referring to non-academic or alternative careers turns many graduate students off of exploring those paths. If you had to choose to have either coffee or alternative coffee, what would you choose?! What if the alternative option was rebranded, maybe as a mocha or green tea? Under a new label, the option likely becomes more appealing for some people, and it definitely becomes more informative. Defining a massive suite of careers simply by what they are not is not very helpful.

Then why are so many careers referred to alternative or lumped together as non-academic?

In the not-too-distant past, receiving a PhD and embarking on a career that wasn’t traditionally academic was much rarer than it is today. There were fewer people graduating with PhDs than there are today, and there were almost as many academic jobs available as there were new PhDs, so remaining in academia was much more common. Now there are fewer available academic faculty jobs relative to graduates, and an exploding number of ways to apply PhD skills outside the academy.

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Figure from The missing piece to changing the university culture, (2013). Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis. Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 doi:10.1038/nbt.2706

If we want to have meaningful discussions about PhD holders’ careers, we need to go beyond an academic/non-academic dichotomy.

Luckily, many people and groups are already raising awareness of the vast space of possibilities for PhD holders. For example, I’ve enjoyed following #withaphd discussions on Twitter, since they’re often initiated by PhD holders with jobs that help me realize there’s no end to the creative, impactful, and innovative work PhDs can do throughout their careers. I also participated in a Questioning Career Transition Group (though I do think the word “transitioning” reinforces the distinction I don’t love) at my university. In the group, we were guided through the process of introspecting on our values and goals for our careers, and to translate those into concrete career-related steps. I’ve also found the book So what are you going to do with that? to have great resources and anecdotes for PhD students thinking about post-defense possibilities.

These resources are helpful for raising awareness of the vast world that we often lump into the non-academic or alternative categories. I’m glad they exist. But I think we can and should go further to be more conscientious of our tendencies to juxtapose academic work and everything else, and the way this distinction might hinder career possibilities for grad students and PhDs.

I’m biased, and so are you. Considerations for SciComm

I really like being right. Chances are you do too, because we humans are psychologically inclined to seek out evidence that suggests we’re right. We tend to interpret neutral information in our favor and contrary information as flawed. These related tendencies are often referred to as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is inevitable, and it colors how every one of us sees the world. If I’ve just received an email from a student asking me to bump their grade up so they can get into med school, I might start grumbling to myself about my lazy students. Then as I’m ruminating on lazy students, I might interpret the next student’s well-intentioned question as a manipulative attempt to score higher on the exam. In other words, I may interpret this latter interaction as confirming my feeling that arose from the prior one — the students’ laziness — even if the second student wasn’t lazy or manipulative at all.

Confirmation bias can, in part, explain why there are still way too many parents who don’t have their children vaccinated. Once they believe that vaccines might be harmful for their children, they seek evidence to confirm that belief — for example, clinging to the very small percentage of people who do have adverse reactions to vaccines. Even an overwhelming amount of data demonstrating the benefits of vaccines and the fact that the vaccines-and-autism rumors started from completely fraudulent “science” will not persuade this person. They’ve chosen which evidence to believe and which to discard, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a conscious choice.

An audience’s confirmation bias can be extremely frustrating for science communicators. It can make it feel like communication attempts are futile, since some members will already have their mind made up, and will interpret new information through the lens of their current belief.

But successful science communication is not just a process of information transmission. The idea that the public just hasn’t received enough science info, and that they’ll hold more pro-science beliefs and make more pro-science decisions is incredibly misguided. Confirmation bias illustrates why heaping information on people will not change minds if they have contrary beliefs they seek to confirm. I’ve written about this before, and so have many other great writers.

We need to meet our audience where they’re at: LISTEN, recognize their concerns, find common ground, and empathize with them. Start there, and then share your message.

For science communicators: Your audience is going to have cognitive biases. It’s important not to let your awareness of their biases color how you think of the people you’re communicating with. In fact, if you start to characterize your audience as stubborn or irrational because their biases act as obstacles to accepting the science you want to share, you are falling prey to yet another cognitive bias —  a fundamental attribution error, or a correspondence bias. This bias plays out when we attribute someone else’s behaviors to their personality (for example, they’re not understanding my science because they’re irrational) more than we would attribute our own behaviors to our personalities.

Remember, you, too, have cognitive biases. Although at times those biases might drive you to make stubborn or irrational conclusions, you probably don’t think of yourself as a stubborn or irrational person. Instead, you might recognize that your unique background and your current circumstances have led you to make biased decisions. Acting stubborn in a certain context does not necessarily make you a stubborn person. We must remember this is true, even when we’re communicating with seemingly stubborn people.

So when you’re communicating, recognize that your audience has cognitive biases — this part, I think, is not too hard. What’s more difficult is to also recognize that you have cognitive biases. No real communication can happen until you do this — until you acknowledge that your audience is comprised of human beings, all of whom have wonderfully complex cognitive baggage, just like you.