Why is the Why Difficult for Scientists?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, Karen McLeod (Interim Executive Director of COMPASS) asks scientists why, when their passion for their job is so evident in the work that they do, they rarely share their sentiments with the rest of the world.

Why Ask Why

If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle and embrace the Philosophy in your PhD for more effective #scicomm? Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important.

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

*This article was originally published on October 8, 2014. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.


The Top 10 Qualities of Scientist (Communicator) Leaders

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Nancy Baron (COMPASS Science Outreach Director) shares the key traits that define leaders in science. What’s the top quality that most sets them apart from their peers? Their expert ability to communicate.

Over the past 12 years as a communication trainer for the Leopold Leadership Program, and as a coach for many scientists, I have observed an intrinsic link between communication and leadership.  As I wrote in a past Nature Comment:

It’s no coincidence that environmental scientists who lead the pack, both within academia and beyond, are good communicators. These scientists know how to articulate a vision, focus a debate and cut to the essence of an argument. They can make a point compelling, even to those who disagree. They talk about their science in ways that make people sit up, take notice, and care.

I have also witnessed that, as scientists work toward becoming more effective communicators, they increasingly move into realms of leadership. When I look back at the early days and the scientists I have worked with this is evident in their trajectories. In a rough video clip I produced of a Leopold gathering in 2001 called “True Confessions: Coming Out of the Ivory Tower,” the fellows reveal why they decided they needed to work on communicating their science. “True Confessions” now has the unforeseen impact of a “before” glimpse of many scientists who have increasingly risen to leadership.

When you stand up and speak out – to the media, or policymakers, or you write an opinion piece or blog post – it is like a drop of water hitting the surface. It sends out ripples with unexpected repercussions – often, good ones.  Doors may swing open, new opportunities may arise.  You will meet new people and make new connections. Yet there are also challenges. Being a leader also means learning how to deal with the criticisms that arise, and keeping on keeping on. One thing, however, is clear – putting yourself and your science out there is a form of practice, learning, and giving.  And, by giving in that way it will somehow come back to you… thus a spirit of good intent is important.

"Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects." Dalai Lama. Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” –Dalai Lama.
Photo courtesy of Mark J P via Flickr

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they are not necessarily flashy. There is no single way to be, no single destination. It’s really a process of exploration, experimentation and finding your own voice.

And while communication is a critical aspect of leadership, there are other qualities as well. Here are the 10 key attributes that I see in scientist leaders – scientists who are making their science matter:

1) They have a vision – and can articulate it.

2) They are passionate. But don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve.

3) They work hard at communication… even if they make it look deceptively easy.

4) They are generous and think beyond their own work to support others.

5) They take risks and are willing to fail – sometimes publicly.

6) They are resilient. And pick themselves up and keep on going when they fall.

7) They are self-examining and adaptive.

8) They seek solutions. And address the “so what” so people care.

9) They have a fun factor or some kind of charisma – but are not necessarily extroverted.

10) They are persistent. Patience eventually pays off.

While these ten things make a leader, not everyone will have all of these qualities. But most, in my experience, have many. Do you agree or disagree? And who, as a scientist communicator and leader, is currently inspiring you?

*This article was originally published on May 13, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.


Is “Cold But Competent” A Problem in Science Communication?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Liz Neeley (current Executive Director of The Story Collider) explores the perceived ‘cold’ reputations of scientists in comparison to other professionals. What is the quality we call  ‘warmth’ and how important is it to the way people view scientists and to their level of trust in science? Keep reading to find out.

A flash of insight can be profoundly pleasurable. For me it’s a little pop that’s the mental equivalent of clearing my ears while diving. Sharing that same electric sensation with hundreds of others in crowd? Then the pop feels more like a champagne bottle, with our individual ‘aha!’s spiraling outward as a fizzy wave of tweets. At the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication, Susan Fiske of Princeton University uncorked one such shared moment in her presentation about beliefs and attitudes regarding science when she began speaking about warmth and competence.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 4.25.02 PM

You can sometimes get a sense of the pulse of a meeting by watching the ebb and flow of its TweetStream. This graph shows the first day of the Sackler Colloquium. The biggest buzz was generated by Susan Fiske’s remarks, with some 900 tweets during her 90 minute session. Analysis using Topsy.

You can read the tweets sharing and reacting to Fiske’s talk here. Within the first four minutes of her presentation dissecting when and how people make decisions, Fiske told the audience that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Trustworthiness, she explained, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence. Warmth in this work is not exactly ‘likeable,’ rather, it refers to the judgments we make about person’s motives. Competence is their ability to act on those intentions. Scientists, Fiske says, are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions.

If you read our previous posts about trust in science, you know this is a topic dear to my heart. It’s also incredibly fertile ground for discussions of how we might start applying what social science tells us. Hearing Fiske talk, discussing it over lunch and coffee, and reflecting in the weeks to follow, I wanted to understand:

  • What is this quality we call ‘warmth’ and why is it important?
  • What do we know about how people view scientists in terms of warmth and competence?
  • How can we – individually and collectively – counteract ‘cold’ reputations, if that is an important and valid goal?

The Research

This 2007 review paper by Fiske et al in Trends in Cognitive Sciences caught my eye with it’s unambiguous title: “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence.” I encourage you to give it a read – the text is remarkably sharp and minces no words. Across cultures, with respect to individuals and groups, thoughts, and behaviors, warmth matters, a lot. In three quotes from the paper, here’s why:

  1. “In sum, when people spontaneously interpret behavior or form impressions of others, warmth and competence form basic dimensions that, together, account almost entirely for how people characterize others… “
  2. “Considerable evidence suggests that warmth judgments are primary: warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”
  3. “competence and warmth stereotypes combine to predict emotions, which directly predict behaviors.”

In short, Fiske et al. argue that we have “decades of experimental social psychology laboratories, election polls and cross-cultural comparisons” all telling us that our instinctive judgments of warmth explain most of how we assess strangers, happen in split seconds and are more important than our assessments of competence, and directly predict behavior. The data on how scientists are perceived is as-yet unpublished, though Fiske showed some of it at the Sackler Colloquium.

Fiske presenting data from Cydney Dupree, showing warmth and competence assessments of different professions. Science-related careers (scientist, researcher, professor, teacher) indicated in red. Photo by Liz Neeley, Creative Commons license.

Until we can take a hard look at the data, we should maintain healthy skepticism. But if it is true that scientists are seen as cold but competent, we may have a problem. My understanding is that this combination of traits can breed envy and jealousy, which psychologists link to “passive association and active harm.” When we talk about public trust or science as a brand, this is no minor issue.

It’s also important to acknowledge too that this literation about stereotype formation can lead to uncomfortable insights and hard conversations about race, gender, class, and other dimensions. Most social groups are not in the admired ‘very warm and very capable’ category. We must think carefully, and question assumptions that people are responsible for negative perceptions about them and could control those judgments if only they behaved differently. This is dangerous territory.

So What Do We Do?

We all know what it feels like to be working to make a good impression. When I asked twenty or so friends and colleagues to contribute to this post by sharing what they think signals warmth, they talked about smiling, eye contact, posture and body language, authenticity, and above all, listening to other people. This aligns with related work on impression management, finding that “when people want to appear warm, they tend to agree, compliment, perform favors, and encourage others to talk. When people want to appear competent, they emphasize their accomplishments, exude confidence, and control the conversation.” That quote comes from a paper by Holoien and Fiske with the intuitive but fascinating finding that people downplay positive impressions in the warmth dimension in order to appear more competent. Another group went so far as to include “You want to appear competent? Be mean!“ in the title of their paper. This seems to particularly relate to hypercriticism. I can’t help but think of how this manifests, for example, in journal clubs and job talks.

The bottom line for me is that if we are concerned about trust in science and perceptions of scientists, we must focus not only on competence but also – and perhaps more importantly – warmth. Rather than artificially exaggerating traits we think convey friendliness, scientists and science communicators should simply resist the tendency to emphasize their credibility at the cost of their personality. In short… perhaps the best advice is the simplest. Be yourself.

Journal Club

The methods, statistics, and theory of this kind of research is fascinating, but far outside my own expertise. We value your feedback and thoughts, so please take a look at some of the other papers that informed this post. I would love to discuss further:

*This article was originally published on October 21, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Science communication: Science in the media

This post was originally written for the Naturejobs blog by Emily Porter and posted on 8 July 2015.

Emily Porter shares the top five lessons she learned from a media training workshop with the BBSRC.