Welcome to our April 2016 newsletter: A report from the 2016 ASC Conference


What’s new in science communication? In March, we went along to the 2016 Australian Science Communicators national conference to find out.

Many thanks to the organisers for a stimulating day in a fabulous venue.We’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam,

Jenni Metcalfe, Mary O’Callaghan (newsletter editor), Sarah Cole (on maternity leave), Jane IlsleyJay Nagle-Runciman and Melina Gillespie.


It’s still about the story

By Mary O’Callaghan

Technologies come, technologies go, but stories are still ‘the thing’. That’s what I took away from the 2016 ASC Conference.

The thread of ‘the story’ was woven into many of the talks, at times overtly, at times seamlessly.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel kicked off the conference arguing that artificial intelligence is not a threat to human storytelling.

He referred to journalism bots, such as Wordsmith, which can churn out annual reports, given a structured set of data. Wordsmith can even write an obituary, if you have the need for speed and don’t mind blandness.

‘Robots can’t come up with “I have a dream”’, he says.

‘Good writing isn’t measured by eyeballs but by minds inspired.’



Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Dr Finkel is working on a 15-year plan for ‘science innovation’ in Australia and part of that, he says, will be telling stories of commercial success—that’s what the government is interested in.

Selecting a good story is still ‘Journalism 101’ according to Genelle Weule, editor of ABC Science Online, though she despaired at the rehashing of press releases as ‘wire stories’ that are essentially advertorials, with no-one interviewed and no opposing view put forward.

Scientific American editor George Musser went as far as to say it’s ‘unethical’ to run a press release as is.

Stories also have a place in evaluating and reporting on science, according to Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, Julian Meyrick.

He rewarded my post-lunch attention with these 3 precious nuggets:

  • Most people think that measuring is hard and expensive and that telling stories is easy and cheap. They are wrong—it’s the other way around.
  • Beware of reporting just on numbers. Use narrative instead, or as well. The numbers don’t tell all the story and may tell the wrong story.
  • When you have a number, think of it as an opportunity to tell a story. ‘The number is the petrol, not the car’.

‘Improv’ your communication

By Melina Gillespie

While you may not be ready for drama classes, consider that many scientists who are using improvisation techniques report that they’re presenting their research quickly and creatively, with less fear, in plain language and with their whole bodies.

The benefits are due in part to them paying more attention to their audience’s needs and forming a connection.


improv in action

© Aude Vanlathem / www.audevan.com, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Canada license

Christine O’Connell is a scientist and science communicator with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University in New York. She gave the closing keynote talk at the 2016 ASC Conference on how using improv can help people communicate better with their audience.

We were on our feet for most of her talk. She asked us to pair up and tune into our partner by mirroring their movements. One person led, the other followed. If Christine could tell who was leading, you were out of the game. It was difficult, but also interesting to note how you had to work together.

Interest in using improv techniques to communicate science has been increasing. In a recent ASC interview, Christine said one of the challenges of talking about science was focusing on the audience.

‘Communication doesn’t actually happen unless they get what I’m saying, otherwise I’m just talking’, she says. ‘You need to always be listening, even when you are talking.’

Vicky Miller is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol in the UK, and she’s been attending improv classes to improve her communication skills.

‘It’s teaching me to tune in to the rhythm of a conversation, to listen as well as to talk, and to work out how and when to make myself heard most effectively’, she says in an article in Science.

We’re all aware of the importance of knowing our audience. As presenters, it seems what improv does is allow us to focus less on ourselves and more on our audience.

Improv techniques are being adopted at many universities and improv is helping PhD students to explain their work and loosen up.

Christine’s methods certainly worked on me. She made me feel as though she was in conversation with me. Me and the other 100 people in the room.

You can find out more about improv work at the Alda Center in this Nature podcast,  ‘Acting Up’.


Balanced reporting or false equivalence?

By Jay Nagle-Runciman

Listening to COSMOS Magazine Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Finkel describe the fierce debates that drive scientific understanding forward set some cogs moving in my brain.

She spoke of how ferocious scientists are with each other, tearing down each other’s hypotheses, because that’s how science progresses.

Hearing what it is like to report on conflicts that can transform into academic supernovae made for compelling listening.

Later, my brain cogs sent me a reminder about the danger of giving false equivalence to scientific statements.

False equivalence is giving equal weight to opposing ideas or arguments, even when one is demonstrably more supported.

Presenting two opposing views works well for stories about culture and politics. But the formula is a double-edged sword for science stories, as it can paint a false picture of the level of consensus on a given topic—think of the lag in accepting climate change, or the still virulent (pun intended) conflation of vaccines and autism.

‘Science works by carefully examining the evidence supporting different hypotheses and building on those that have the most support. Journalism and policies that falsely grant all viewpoints the same scientific legitimacy effectively undo one of the main aims of science: to weigh the evidence.’ That’s how the University of Berkeley’s Understanding Science 101 puts it.

Each of us has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. But that doesn’t mean that bad science should be given equal weight to expert opinion.

To avoid false equivalence in your story, ask yourself these questions (source: Understanding Science 101):

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Are the views of the scientific community accurately represented?
  • Is the scientific community’s confidence in the ideas accurately portrayed?
  • Is a controversy misrepresented or blown out of proportion?
  • Where can I get second and third opinions?


The Cube, QUT

Post-conference awards and shenanigans were held at The Cube, QUT.


Quote of the month

“Stories are the capsules we carry information in.”

― Elizabeth Finkel