Today we have a bit of an education for the scientist audience. We scientists are not known as exemplar communicators when it comes to sharing research results with the press, non-scientists or government. Conservation organizer and environmental advocate Samantha Lockhart shares her insight on translating science-speak into advocate-speak step by step, so you too can communicate your science meaningfully! ~Courtney
For years, scientists have had trouble communicating about their work to the general public. It’s part of why so many people continue to call evolution “just a theory” because no one can understand the difference between what “theory” means in the world of science and how that’s different than my theory that your boyfriend is cheating on you because of the way he just looked at that waitress.
This communication gap is particularly troubling when it comes to the environment. It wasn’t until James Hansen, the NASA scientist and foremost authority on the science of the climate crisis, decided that researching facts and publishing that research was not going to create the kind of massive political change that was necessary. There were too many stakeholders, too many people who saw something to lose should his findings be accurate. Unfortunately, the climate data were accurate and, if anything, too modest in describing the speed and intensity of global temperature rising and arctic ice melt. That’s why he decided to speak up, to push himself outside of his comfort zone and communicate publicly about his research to the press, to non-scientists and to Congress. You can listen to James Hansen’s compelling story for yourself in his TED-talk below.
The challenge when a climatologist decides they need to tell their story is the question of how to make a bunch of research and analysis not only understandable to the average person, but actually engaging, exciting and sexy. To make it something that gets non-scientists like me to hear the story and get fired up. To make it something that changes the course that humans are on; to make it something that fundamentally shifts the politics in the country in a way that responds to the problems that our nation’s research program has identified.
Telling Your Story
The first step in changing science-speak into advocacy-speak is to find the story. Sometimes it’s the story of what’s been happening in the environment and why that’s unprecedented, but (and here’s where it gets hard) the best stories are the ones that feel personal. The personal story is the story of discovery and exploration; it is the story of the scientist. The reason I know the story about James Hansen is because he told it to me and that made me lean in and listen. Knowing that his findings were so dramatic that it pushed a brilliant man way outside his comfort zone because of the urgency of the situation made me care. It made me care much more than hearing a description of the measurements he took or the testing he conducted to reach his conclusions.
So, first you have to figure out what your story is and what the story of your research is. And don’t rule anything out, from the first time your parents got you a science kit to the college class you took that changed your life to the day in the lab when you figured out what your research meant. Then pare it down to the pieces that hang together the best. Organizers do this when we talk about organizing – the very first question one organizer asks another is “so what’s your story?” and we know it means: why do you organize. Scientists have to know their story and how their story and the story that their research is telling about the environment and the world are inextricably linked. And that scientists are human. And that they’re exciting. And sexy. And we should listen to what they have to say.
But, scientists don’t have to be the story. The story can also be a little girl plagued with asthma because of the coal plant in her backyard or it can be the story of the family that moved into a house with a beautiful pond that is now contaminated by toxic pollutants. However, I will caution – make the story about a person or about people. Environmental activists and, for that matter, many scientists have been labeled as caring more about the impacts of environmental degradation on the notorious “spotted owl” than the impact on people one time too many, and we’re losing the larger battle for our planet. The way organizers structure stories to motivate the people they engage with is to start by outlining the problem, talking about the proposed solution to the problem in a broad way, explaining why the problem is urgent and then articulating a clear action that our audience can take to work towards the solution. Finally, organizers tell their personal story in an effort to put the work that they do in context and provide it with a human face. I would also highlight two other key parts of any good story with the function of advocacy. First, have a clear villain and a clear victim in the opposition piece and a clear hero in the solution and action piece.
Here is an EXAMPLE regarding climate:
Problem: When I started doing my research I didn’t know what I would find. However, what I uncovered was that the global temperature was rising quickly, much more quickly than at any other time in the planet’s history – and that this temperature rise had a human cause. Certain pollutants called Green House Gases or GHGs are trapped in the atmosphere contributing to this temperature change.
The problem was that the pollutants were coming from some of the most powerful and profitable industries in the world: oil and coal. Not only are these industries incredibly politically influential and well-monied, they also power every other major industry. Taking on these industries is taking on a web of significant and powerful actors.
Solution: But I also knew that solutions were already being developed. What we needed was a technology that could replace these dangerous forms of energy production in a clean and sustainable way, and the field was already off and running. Solar and wind technology in particular were pretty promising. So what I needed to do was to use my research to create the political will to invest in the sorts of technology that can support a clean energy future.
Urgency: Unfortunately, my research was also pointing out that the climate was changing at a much faster rate than anyone had thought. According to my initial estimation, we had roughly 10 years to turn the boat around on the climate before we would be past the point of no-return.
Action: The only way we can win against these powerful interests on such a short timeline is to educate, inform and inspire more people so that together we can influence key actors to invest in the solutions we already know to be viable. That’s why I’m here talking to you folks about my research and my hope is that you will talk to your friends and family, post my articles on facebook and work in your community to fight large-scale energy projects that threaten the climate.
Personal Story: I am originally from Texas, a state known for its extractive industry and I have been politically conservative my whole life. Saying no more oil to a Texan is like saying no more vegetables to a vegan – folks naturally ask themselves: how will we survive? To complicate things, I still own property in Texas and about 5 years ago an oil company was offering a good deal of money to build a pipeline through the southwest corner of my property. I was just starting to do my research on climate and was starting to see in the field some pretty scary stuff about the future of our planet. However, as a professor, I don’t make a ton of money – so this offer meant a lot to my family. But I looked at my children and I thought about what they would gain from the funds this oil company offered – no college debt, I could pay for my daughter’s education, and then I thought about the price they would pay if my generation failed to act on the climate crisis and it was no question. I decided right there that I had to do more to share my research with people and to act to protect our family and community from the most complicated challenge the world will ever face. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew that as long as I was doing this, I would be doing the most important thing I could possibly be doing as a scientist for my planet.
WHO WAS THE VILLAIN? Extractive energy industries like coal and oil – NOT ordinary Texas conservatives who can’t imagine a future without oil.
WHO WAS THE VICTIM? The next generation. The scientist’s children
WHO WAS THE HERO? The scientist, of course! AND potentially the audience!
Don’t use big words that we don’t understand. Use analogies, no matter how crude. When Al Gore compared the fraud perpetrated by big oil and big coal against this country in the climate movement to what big tobacco did – America finally started to understand. These people are killing people and they know it and they don’t care – there is no debate. The debate over climate was fabricated by big-money-stakeholders in the same way that the tobacco industry attempted to create a sense of controversy over the impact of cigarettes on our lungs. But Gore didn’t have to say all of that. In the US, and to some extent the world, we have a common social consciousness and vocabulary. When you can find these historical links and relationships, you can help people to “get it” without so many words and with very little science talk.
When you do that you also create a political context for your work so that you trigger a sense of outrage. Any time you can trigger that kind of an emotional response using an analogy, you help yourself.
Numbers, surprisingly, are ok. The problem is the tendency to give numbers so much context and so many caveats. “There’s no way to prove that hurricane Sandy in particular was caused by climate change, but surely the increase in global temperature by one degree has caused an increased frequency of extreme weather events” is not helping. However, “the planet’s temperature has already increased by one degree as a result of human activity and pollution, and our research demonstrates that if we reach a two degree temperature rise the consequences will be catastrophic. To put that in context, at one degree we are seeing hurricane Katrina, forest fires in Russia, melting glaciers and, most recently, hurricane Sandy flooding New York and New Jersey. What will we see at 2 degrees?” is helpful.
Using charts to demonstrate information is also important. I have seen several graphs comparing global carbon output from the US and China (with China slightly higher now), but then showing the same data with carbon output per capita by country – and let me tell you, I remember it. I don’t remember the numbers, but I remember the US bar graph reaching beyond the top of the Power Point slide while the Chinese per-capita graph lingered close to the bottom. It’s some scary stuff and it sticks with you.
Think About Your Audience
Do not tell your story the same way every time. Go through this process for each audience you are presenting to, and think about what would resonate with them. If you are being interviewed about your research for the New York Times you are going to tell your story differently than if you are asking Congress for funding. The New York Times cares about human interest; funders care about practical use and how your research can be applied. For that matter, asking a Congressman from Texas for funding is going to sound different than asking a Congressman from Vermont.
There are a lot of tools in your toolbox that you can use to make your research relatable (and fundable) to legislators, foundations, and citizens. The most important thing to do is to turn your research into a story. Give your story characters. Make sure that your story is attached to an action item. Sharing research for its own sake is great, but even better is to have an ask for your audience, whether it’s “fund this research” or “ call your Congressman.” It’s helpful to use analogies and (some) numbers, but it’s imperative to make the story personal and targeted to your audience.
Samantha Lockhart is a conservation organizer for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. She has a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and has completed a year-long training program for environmental organizing with GreenCorps. She has worked on numerous environmental campaigns, including No on Prop 23 in California, fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline in Texas and working to end corn syrup subsidies for healthier food choices with consumer-rights group NJPIRG. She is currently working with the Power Past Coal Coalition to stop coal exports in the Pacific Northwest.