What is research? Implicit learning during a PhD

Each spring, UCSD requires all MFA and PhD students to undergo an annual evaluation. The department and university’s graduate division make sure we’re making adequate progress toward our degree. This includes coursework, but also requires each student and advisor to reflect on progress in the last year, plus strengths and weaknesses. It’s a formality and we can get away with writing very little of substance, but for me it’s a great reminder to stop what I’m doing and reflect on the past year. What have I done well? What would I like to improve? How will I do so in the next year? This is a time to reflect on how I’ve developed as a researcher, teacher, thinker, and person.

From my progress report, May 2014, at the end of my first academic year in grad school:

I have engaged in a lot of implicit learning during my first year of graduate school. Undoubtedly, I’ve also learned a lot explicitly – the theoretical foundations for cognitive science, an overview of systems neuroscience, and how to program an experiment in Matlab are a few examples. Though more difficult to quantify and articulate, the knowledge I’ve learned implicitly may be what best characterizes the progress I’ve made this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many successful cognitive scientists, ranging from grad students who are only one year ahead of me to tenured faculty and distinguished speakers. As a result of this exposure, I’ve not only learned more about the field, but have also gained a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question and solid research methods. I’ve also realized that collaboration and community are essential for conducting good research, and that sharing ideas with others, whether informally over lunch or more formally at a CRL [Center for Research on Language] talk, is beneficial to both sharer and listeners. I’ve learned when to ask for help and whom to approach with different types of questions. By doing this, the phrase “it takes a village” has taken on a new importance for me – the idea of doing research in a vat is nearly as unrealistic as expecting cognition to manifest from brain in one.

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Community… by Kamaljith K V. CC BY

My research projects this year may best demonstrate the implicit learning I did. I only ran a few pilot studies, and I certainly have no significant findings to show for my work. However, I learned what working on a relatively nebulous (and intriguing) question entails. It includes defining a question, thinking creatively about how to investigate it, and doing exploratory work.

I wrote more, but I’ll spare my loyal readers from what I aptly referred to in this progress report as “academic soul searching.” I took a lot in that year, and it didn’t feel like I put out nearly as much. In hindsight, I’m comfortable with that investment of time to deepen my understanding of the world I was joining. Grad school is really different from undergrad.

Here’s how I summed up my first year in that same reflection: During my first year, I have recognized the importance of communities and communication for success in graduate school and academia. I still believe that communities and communication are some of the most important pillars in my grad school and professional career, so maybe all that implicit learning wasn’t quite as implicit as I believed it to be.

TLDR Guide to Ch 5 of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3, ch4). Today I’ll cover the final chapter.


Chapter 5: Building the knowledge base for effective science communication

This chapter brings back a number of issues discussed in earlier chapters with a focus on how the science of science communication can continue to be more informative.

Scientific communications often have an underlying assumption that when communication is done well, the public’s understanding of and attitudes about societal issues will be affected. It seems like a reasonable assumption, but it has not been extensively tested, and there are likely many conditions under which the assumption is false. “Good” communication alone won’t suffice for many of science communicators’ goals.

Future steps for science communicators

The report calls for more partnerships between researchers and science communicators to put into practice the lessons revealed by research on science communication. These partnerships will also be important for furthering research on science communication and testing hypotheses about ideal communication practices.

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I had never considered the possibility that science communication could be irrelevant for the achieving end goals. I think science communicators generally believe that it’s important for their messages to be communicated, and in many cases this is probably true, but I think it is worth considering the relative importance of science communication in creating changes compared to all the other things that also matter.

Using a systems approach to guide research on science communication

In cognitive science, we’re often drawn to look at the cognition of a system. For example, we might not just look at neural activity in order to try to understand some cognitive process, but instead will consider the whole body, environment, and culture in which the cognitive act is situated. This report calls us to think about science communication similarly: every communicative effort is part of a larger system, encompassing the content being communicated, its format, the diverse organizations and individuals who make up the communicators and audiences, the channels of communication, and the political and social contexts that the communication takes place in. This kind of holistic perspective takes into account the system-wide complexity instead of focusing on isolated elements, since findings about elements in isolation may not hold in complex and realistic situations. Since research does often need to be specific to be productive, the report suggests that researchers who are focusing on a single level or element in the system should at least be “acutely aware” of the broader context.

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communicate by johnny goldstein, CC

More research

We need more research that will inform best practices for communicating science. Some of this research should come in the form of randomized controlled field experiments, which will involve comparison conditions (for example, strategy A was more successful than strategy B) that take place in identical groups (participants were randomly assigned so that people who received strategy A didn’t differ in any way from those who received strategy B except in the strategy they received).

The report also calls for more training for researchers at all career levels, both so that the science of science communication can continue to become more rigorous, and also so that all other scientists can improve the way they communicate about their own work.


Seriously, we can all get better. This report is long, but it has a lot of important points for science communicators, which I’ve tried to distill into this series of blog posts. For me, the report provides encouragement: there’s a lot we already know about ways to most effectively communicate science, and there’s a comprehensive agenda for continuing to improve.

TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: CHAPTER 3

For the past two days, I’ve posted my highlights of the 127-page guide for communicating science and research agenda published by the National Academies of Science (ch1, ch2). Today I’m sharing my highlights from Chapter 3.


Chapter 3: Nature of science-related public controversies

There’s no shortage of controversial science issues to communicate about:

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The report points out three features that controversial science issues often share:

  1. Conflicting beliefs, values, and interests of individuals and organizations are central
  2. The public perceives that the science itself or its implications are uncertain
  3. Influential groups and people succeed in having their voices heard above many others, making it hard for scientific evidence to come through

Religious views in particular can play a more central role in beliefs about controversial science issues than political ideology:

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There are some strategies for reducing the effects of competing beliefs, values, and interests (1 above):

  • Tailoring messages from science for understanding and persuasion
    • When information is presented in a way that’s consistent with people’s values, they tend to be more open-minded about the message than when the same information is presented inconsistently.
    • Audience Segmentation: the practice of dividing a large potential audience into subgroups and tailoring messages differently for each subgroup. Research on this area is very new, but it has the potential to help researchers understand how much of an effect science communication can have, for whom, and in what contexts
  • Engaging the public
    • The most effective public engagement happens as early as possible in a public debate, and stakeholders should be engaged over many rounds of discussion. “Repeated deliberation over time builds trust.” (p. 58)
    • We need more research to understand the structures and processes that encourage effective science communication in public forums across a range of issues and controversies.

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Research also suggests some ways to deal with public perceptions of uncertainty (issue 2 above):

  • When there are inaccurate claims of uncertainty (for example, claims that not all scientists believe climate change is a result of human activity), it can be useful to use repeated communications to convey the extent of expert agreement. These communications should occur in a variety of places, involve diverse people, and take many forms, like conversations, social media, presentations, advertising, communication campaigns, and media interviews.
  • It also seems beneficial to be explicit about the uncertainty that’s present in scientific understanding, and particularly depicting how uncertainty decreases over time. This tactic might build credibility and also garner public interest in a scientific story that unfolds over time.
  • But more research is needed on the most effective ways of presenting risks of varying degrees of uncertainty

Finally, the report discusses strategies for ensuring that science is heard among amplified voices of organized interests and influential individuals (issue 3 above):

  • Debunking misinformation
    This can be especially difficult when the false belief is consistent with how people already think about an issue. Communicators should be aware that repeating false information, even if doing so in order to correct it, may reinforce the belief. Corrections may be ineffective if inaccurate information as been repeated enough already. One strategy is to “prebunk” the information when possible by warning people that they might encounter misinformation and explaining why that information is being promoted. But more research is needed to reveal when and for whom this is an optimal strategy.
  • Work with opinion leaders to inform and persuade

This chapter confronts a major hair-pulling issue for science communicators. While communicating science might be hard to begin with, communicating about controversial issues seems at times impossible. The chapter shines light on what prior research can show us about effective communication despite an issue’s controversial nature and articulates areas for future research to continue improving in this direction.

Tomorrow I’ll break down chapter 4: Communicating science in a complex, competitive communication environment.

Chapter 2 TLDR Guide to Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

The National Academy of Science published a thorough (127-page) guide for communicating science effectively, with a detailed description of what the science of science communication has already revealed, but more importantly, with an agenda for the future of research on this topic. It’s long but useful, so I’ve broken it down into an abridged guide. Yesterday I posted my distillation of chapter 1, and today’s focus is chapter 2.


Chapter 2: The complexities of communicating science

Public engagement: seeking and facilitating the sharing and exchange of knowledge, perspectives, and preferences between or among groups who often have differences in expertise, power, and values

  • Public engagement is important for goals of generating excitement, sharing info needed for a decision, and finding common ground on an issue among diverse stakeholders.

Challenges posed by scientific content

Uncertainty. People generally dislike uncertainty and avoid ambiguity. As a result, it might seem like avoiding talking about the uncertainty inherent in science will be a productive way to communicate. However, avoiding discussion of uncertainty is a problem too, since it creates a false sense of certainty among people, and if (or when) new findings arise that require original information to be revised, people are likely to lose trust in the communicators. So far, presenting relevant narratives seems to be an effective way to engage audience with scientific issues, helping them to remember and process the information, but we need more research on the role of narratives for communicating science and on broader best practices for communicating scientific uncertainty.

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Lifescape series. Ambiguity or Opportunity? by ArtistIvanChew CC

Different audiences, different needs

Aspects of audiences that affect science communication help explain why the same information can be understood very differently by different people:

  • Prior knowledge of scienceScreen Shot 2016-12-18 at 3.22.01 PM.png
    Plus, scientific knowledge alone doesn’t necessarily lead to holding positive attitudes toward science. Instead, someone’s characteristics, background, values and beliefs, and the information they receive from the media all influence the role their scientific knowledge has on their attitudes.
  • Ability to understand numeric information
    When communication strategies rely on quantities, rates, or probabilities and they take into account that people (including scientists, particularly when the issue is outside their area of expertise) struggle to make sense of numeric information, they are often more successful than just presenting the numbers. In health communications, at least, the following strategies have proven helpful:

    • Don’t avoid the numbers – provide them.
    • Reduce the cognitive effort required by the consumer
    • Explain what the numbers mean
    • Draw attention to important information
  • Ways of interpreting new information
    Everyone has their own beliefs about that way the world works, and these beliefs play prominent roles in making sense of new information. We also rely heavily on mental shortcuts when we encounter new information:

    • Heuristics: We often believe information that is consistent with our preexisting beliefs and information that we encounter more often than inconsistent and less frequently encountered info.
    • Emotion: Our initial emotional reactions to new information can shape the way we continue to think about that information, and some research suggests that we tend to pay more attention to negative than positive information.
    • Motivated reasoning: We’re biased to make sense of information in a way that is consistent with our immediately accessible beliefs and feelings.
    • Cognitive dissonance: we’re able to hold two conflicting thoughts, but that often makes us feel uncomfortable, and we try to resolve that conflict for ourselves. If you really love Big Macs, for example, and you also know that health professionals say Big Macs are not good for you, you might feel some dissonance. You can either change your behavior (stop eating Big Macs) or justify your behavior by tweaking your belief (well, I walked into the restaurant instead of using the drive thru, so I got my exercise and can probably have the Big Mac OR well, those scientists are studying mice so really, does that apply to me? OR well, I’m poor and a Big Mac is cheap OR, or, or…).

Presenting information in different forms

The way we present information affects the way it’s received.

Framing is used when information is presented in one way to influence how people interpret it. When issues are communicated about in terms of being a priority or a problem, or when specific causes and solutions are focused on, the issue is being framed. Framing is an inherent part of persuasion and communication about complex topics: You can’t possibly present an issue in its entirety, so a communicator must decide what to highlight and what to downplay. When frames are relevant to the way a person already thinks about the world, they’re most likely to be influential.

  • Gain/loss framing: A 70% success rate and a 30% failure rate are mathematically the same, but depending on the context, may actually influence people in different ways. However, whether framing an issue in terms of potential gains or potential losses influences people more seems to vary based on the issue at hand, so we need more research to understand when each framing is most beneficial.
  • Emphasis framing: Complex issues are often presented as story lines that suggest different trains of thought, which in turn emphasize some features of an issue over others. In particular, scientific information is often presented in terms of personalized stories (episodes) or more generally (themes). Again, the issue at hand determines how productive emphasizing episodes vs. themes will be, so we need more research.

Trust and credibility of science communication

People primarily rely on different social information to figure out what and whom they believe about scientific issues:

  • Having common interests, in that the communicator and the audience both want the same outcome from the communication
    • This point relates to the earlier points on the ways we encounter new information. When scientific information conflicts with someone’s political ideology, they might not only reject the information, but their trust in the communicator might also decline.
  • Perceived expertise which is not equivalent to a communicator’s actual expertise.

Applying the lessons of large-scale science communication efforts

  • It’s important for audiences to receive sufficient exposure (aka, a lot) to information so that it can reach enough of the target audience and bring about change.
  • Communication that’s provided before people form strong opinions on a topic is likely to be more educational than communication after, so timing matters. It can be helpful to expose people early to counterarguments for the misinformation they may eventually receive, as a way of “inoculating” them from misinformation.
  • Duration is also crucial: “long-term and comprehensive approaches” will likely be successful and necessary for communication goals. Isolated attempts are not enough.

An overall theme of this chapter is that because of the many complexities of communicating science, “…an effective science communication strategy will be iterative and adaptable… it will evolve over time based on lessons learned about what is and is not working, as well as shifting needs and opportunities.” (p. 35)


Tomorrow I’ll post a condensed guide to Chapter 3: The Nature of Science-Related Public Controversies.

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (Chapter 1 TLDR Guide)

Happy New Year! If one of your resolutions is to do better science communication this year, you might be interested in this 127-page guide for communicating science effectively published by the National Academy of Sciences. It’s thorough, filled with references to empirical work on science communication, especially about controversial topics (like climate change, energy, vaccines, obesity, and food safety). But it’s 127 pages. I’ve broken it down to share my greatest takeaways, and will post my TLDR guide to one chapter each day this week.


Chapter 1: Using science to improve science communication

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“What is this ‘science communication’ you speak of?” written by Sarah Boon

Most science communication rests on the assumption that when science is communicated well, the public has a better understanding of an issue and more science-backed attitudes toward the issue. But actually we don’t know this assumption is true.

Science communication can be broken down into different goals, and the particular goal at hand should be considered for communication efforts. The report listed:

  • Share findings and excitement for science
  • Increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and acting in the world
  • Increase knowledge and understanding of science related to a specific issue that requires a decision
  • Influence opinions, behavior, and policy preferences to accord with scientific evidence
    • Related debate: Where should scientists draw the line for using science to persuade? Sometimes what may start out as science communication can become communication about policy or behaviors that lie outside the strict domain of science…
  • Learn about diverse groups’ perspectives about science for consideration in seeking solutions to societal problems

A common but misleading model of science communication is the deficit model.
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The deficit model is inaccurate for most science communication concepts since scientific “facts” are complex and can often be interpreted in different ways. Plus, there are often many mediators in science communication. Information doesn’t simply go from scientists to audience (often), but instead is first disseminated to different organizations, media, and others, who in turn add their own voice to the issue when communicating it. Plus, as mentioned earlier, communication of knowledge does not necessarily mean the communication goals will be achieved. And of course there are layers of complexity, for example that different messages will achieve different successes with different audiences.


I’ll blog about the next chapter tomorrow. It focuses on the complexity of communicating scientific information to provide scientists and communicators with explicit awareness of the challenges they face and begin to overcome them.

Cog Sci for a High School Student

One class I’m taking this quarter is called “Communicating Science.” The fact that this class exists is exciting because it says that scientists recognize the importance of communicating beyond just to further their own careers (which also certainly requires top-notch communication, in order to receive funding to do research and in order to get that research published).

One assignment we have is to summarize an article in our field for a high school student. This was a fun task, and I’m posting my attempt here. High school students (and non-high school students), have at it – tell me how I did!

The paper is called “Swearing, Euphemisms, and Linguistic Relativity,” and is by Jeffrey Bowers and Christopher Pleydell-Pearce:

Have you ever said a swear and then felt a little amped up after? Maybe your heart started beating a little faster, or you felt your cheeks flush red. It seems that we have a physical reaction to swearing. Is this true? And if so, is it the swear word itself that we react to, or is it the meaning behind the swear word that we’re reacting to? An experiment by researchers named Bowers and Pleydell-Pearce set out to answer these questions.

The researchers measured participants’ skin conductance, which is a measure for how mentally or physically aroused a person is. When we become very aroused (for example if a teacher calls on us in class while we’re not paying attention or we receive a grade that’s much better or worse than we expected), our skin temporarily conducts more electricity. More arousal leads to more skin conductivity. The participants came into a lab and were looking at a computer that flashed different words at them, which they had to repeat. Sometimes those words were swears. Other times, they were neutral words (like glue).

The researchers found that after people said swears, their skin conductance was greater than after they said neutral words. In other words, saying a swear aroused them, even though the context in which they said it was exactly the same as the context in which they said the neutral words. This finding still does not address whether there’s something special about the swear words themselves, or whether their meanings are what arouse people. For example, it could be that thinking about poop (the meaning behind the “swear” shit) is what arouses people, as opposed to the word shit itself.

To answer this question, the researchers included an extra word type in their experiment. In addition to saying the swear words and the neutral non-swear words, sometimes people had to say a swear word euphemism (like f-word). The logic was that if the swear word itself led to the increased skin conductance, these euphemisms would not also do so. But if thinking of the meanings of the swear words was what increased skin conductance, these euphemisms should also do so.

They found that people’s skin conductance was greater to swear words than to their euphemistic counterparts, suggesting that we have a strong physical response to the actual words. This is probably because those words have been closely associated throughout our lives to emotional situations. Euphemisms, on the other hand, are less tied with emotional contexts, and produced a smaller skin response. However, these words still produced more arousal as measured on the skin than the completely neutral words did. These findings suggest that euphemisms that take the place of swears are still somewhat emotionally linked, but not as strongly as the swear words themselves are. Worth considering next time you swear or hear someone swear – your body is probably reacting to saying this word, whether you realize it or not!

 

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