A necessary journey: Learning how to communicate science

I'm going to go out on a limb here... Science can be exciting and interesting! It doesn’t have to be boring or monotone or gray. It can be a rainbow. Come on, it’s the 21st century! Science provides some of the most compelling and intriguing stories.

The problem is that science is usually not told as a story. It's reported plainly as facts. To be clear, I'm not talking about scientific literature designed for further scientific or academic use. In those cases, thorough explanation and sticking to the facts is essential. I'm talking about science that is meant for the general public, to help explain topics of interest or concern to society.

Look, I love science, especially environmental science, but most of the time when I find an article, news story, or some other source of information on science, it's just dull. I have to force myself to get through the whole thing, then I barely remember any of it.

Just the other day I went to a presentation on renewable energy. The event was open to the public, and the purpose was to inform on a particular organization’s findings on the state of renewable energy. The hour-long presentation was just a simplified regurgitation of their data and graphs. I could barely stay awake. I think they had some great information, but I just wish they had presented it in an engaging and fascinating way.

I believe there is a way to properly communicate environmental science and still tell a memorable story. That is what I am going trying to find. That is the point of this blog.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Self, what makes Michael qualified to discuss environmental science?” Great question. I knew you were smart. Am I an expert? No, but I do have a background in both political science and environmental science. I am a graduate student in the Environmental Resource Policy program at George Washington University. I graduated in 2014 from Colorado State University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Global Environmental Sustainability. After graduating, I worked for two years at CSU's School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

Through my studies and work, I have come to realize that there are significant communication gaps between the scientific community, the policy makers, and the public that are holding back the implementation of environmental sustainability practices on a widespread level.

A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center showed that 87% of all scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe climate change is mostly due to human activity compared to only 50% of U.S. adults who believe the same.

Among specifically climate scientists, the gap is even larger, with 97% saying climate change is human-caused. Either people no longer believe in science, or there is a serious gap in science communication. Personally, I refuse to believe the former.

Ultimately, I want to help bridge the gap between science, policy and the public. I believe the first step in doing so is finding a way to get the information to the public in a way they will enjoy and remember.

Also, and most importantly, I love a good story. I’ve always been a fan of movies or books with vivid characters who take you on a journey. A story that really makes you care, that gives you a vested interest in the outcome. The quality of the writing or dialogue is important, but what catches my attention the most is a well-developed storyline. If the story catches my attention, that’s what makes me unable to put a book down or gives me sweaty palms when the plot thickens. That is what I’m looking for (minus the sweaty palms) when learning about science.

I don’t want to be unrealistic here. I know I’m not going to find the same level of storytelling in environmental science. Communication of science is restrained by these things called facts. You can’t compromise the science just to enhance the storyline. But you can find a way to give your science a story. You can find a way to make the audience care. Give me a reason to care. Give me a reason to remember and want to share the information.

Through this blog, I'm looking to find examples of environmental science being told as an interesting story. Along the way, I hope to identify some common qualities that the best stories share, and highlight some successful environmental science communicators. I want you to come along with me on this journey. I want this to be an interactive experience where you can share your (respectful) opinions and suggestions with me. In my next post, I will get into further detail on what I will be looking for in these environmental science stories. 

Until next time!

— Michael

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.