Science Online 2012 – The Aftermath

Good times. From

I’ve officially survived my first Science Online, and returned mostly intact.   This gathering of scientists, journalists, bloggers, and others came together in Raleigh from Wednesday to Saturday, and created one of the most unique conference experiences I’ve had so far.  Never have I seen such a diverse group of people have so much in common.  Never have I felt that sitting on Twitter while someone is giving a presentation was absolutely vital.  Never have I heard so many references to duck genitalia.

One of the things I try to do here is provide good coverage of the conferences I attend.  I’m going to try to do justice to Science Online, but there was quite a bit going on, both online and in the physical world.  The #scio12 hashtag is still pumping out tweets, so be sure to check there for the inevitable flood of recap posts with different perspectives from mine.  Some names may be changed to protect the not-so-innocent.  On with the recap.

Rather than take my usual path and recap sessions I attended in chronological order, I’m going to arrange this recap by the overall theme of what I learned.  Here goes:

Tips, Tricks, and Tools of the Trade – The one overarching trait of everyone at Science Online is that everyone in attendance is some combination of scientist and communicator.  Therefore many of the sessions involved improving and targeting the communication of science.  These ranged from equipment and techniques to make writing easier to the most effective use of humor to communicate complex ideas.

The most technical session I attended was probably the one moderated by Brian Switek, Maryn McKenna, and David Dobbs, which discussed strategies for paring down those huge piles of data, quotes, and literature into one cohesive book.  I kind of wish I’d gone to this before starting on my thesis (I’d probably have actually finished in May).  David Shiffman’s session on social media as a conservation tool was about half technical tips on how to get such a thing started, and half frank discussion of the role of scientists as advocates (more on that later).  Two other sessions dealt with humor: Brain Mallow and John Rennie lead a discussion about the use of humor to communicate science, while David Manly and Dr. Rubidium used clips from Mel Brooks movies to illustrate some very serious advice about how to keep your communication style from getting stale.  On a more serious note, Janet returned with Holly Bik to chat about how to deal with institutional resistance to blogging and other social media.  I lucked out in that my advisor actually likes using the internet to get science out there (and because he reads this, I should also add that he’s the greatest advisor ever) but in other places bloggers have been less fortunate.  There were some neat tricks I learned from this session, such as saying you’re a writer for Scientific American (or whatever blog network you may be on) or listing yourself as the “editor of a website” (your blog) on your CV.  I’ve been keeping all of this advice in mind as I write this post, and will be factoring it in as this little blog hopefully continues to get larger, older, and more dangerous.

Communication is Complicated – Getting the technical stuff down is all well and good, but the media world is a wild place, and science communicators need to know the lay of the land and be ready for the dangers.  This was touched on a little during David’s session, which turned to a conversation about the balance between advocating good science and pushing for a better world.  It may be tempting to not report a piece of data that doesn’t necessarily fit your stance, but you and everyone else advocating for the same goal will lose all credibility in the process.  As scientists, we are obligated to report the truth, dammit.  A similar session by Amy Freitag and Janet Stemwedel dealt with the use and ethics of citizen science, and in that case credibility is all about how well you treat your citizen scientists.

What complicates communication is that it involves other people.  Scientist communicators can’t get by on simply lecturing to a passive audience, and the audience can be an unpredictable beast.  The internet is prowled by roving packs of trolls devoted to derailing conversations about anything that might be somewhat controversial, including such compulsory science topics as climate change, vaccines, and anything, anything related to sex.  Kate Clancy and SciCurious lead a session on writing risky topics (some of which can take you by surprise, thanks to some internet dwellers’ tendency to be offended by anything), and how to deal with problem commenters, personal attacks, and even the occasional stalker.  Overall, the idea is to keep the conversation going, including participants you don’t agree with, as long as the whole thing stays civil.  Of course, the trolls can get nasty, and are particularly problematic for women in science.  There’s a disturbing amount of old-school misogyny still kicking around in the sciences, and Kate came back to take it on with Christie Wilcox.  Because the internet is a huge, relatively anonymous place, it can be tough to tell whether this situation is getting better.  Worse, the old strategy of “not feeding the trolls” doesn’t work when the trolls are organized (often swarming posts on their topic of choice).  Women (or any minority, for that matter) can also be benevolently “othered” (i.e. “isn’t it nice that you’re a woman in engineering”) usually in misguided attempts to look more diverse.  The best thing the average person can do is just be a decent internet citizen and not condone the actions of a few insecure assholes.

The most contentious relationship of all can occur when communication science goes through the press.  Scientists and journalists can have a very dysfunctional relationship, with scientists paranoid about their results being twisted for the sake of the story, while journalists don’t want to have to simply parrot everything said by the scientists.  Miriam Goldstein and Craig McClain, both from Deep Sea News, ran a session on just that, and this topic was revisited during the closing plenary panel.  At times I was seriously concerned that these often-heated discussions would end in a West Side Story-style street fight, with scientists and journalists advancing menacingly towards each other from across the room while snapping.  The only major breakthrough seemed to occur at one of the many after-parties, during which some of the journalists’ minds were blown by the revelation that scientists working at universities often don’t get to look at the press releases about their own research (way to go, Christie).  Further proof that alcohol can solve anything.

The Social Science – At any conference, it’s great to meet your research idols and see them as “real people,” and it’s just as good to meet new and exciting people.  This was my first Science Online, but I’m perversely proud of the reputation those in the oceanic blogosphere have built at this event, and that I was able to help this time.  I’m talking about the infamous DSNsuite.  And really, it’s a valuable service, because it continues the conversations started during the day into an arena where people can relax and be a little ridiculous.  Not everything in this section will involve the DSNsuite, but I’ll make sure to be discrete with names to protect professional reputations.  Basically, here’s a very incomplete list of funny stuff that happened at Science Online:

– One respected researcher attempted to power-lift another respected researcher for a photo op, resulting in an unfortunate but all-to-predictable tumble.  After hitting the ground, respected researcher B got up, brushed themselves off, and left for a bit like a cat that doesn’t stick the landing and wanders off to contemplate how in pain it really is.  This being Science Online, the unfortunate tumbler quickly found an actual medical doctor to make sure they were okay.

– The second day of the conference, a mysterious Twitter feed calling itself Science Online is On It appeared (same concept as the amusing The NY Times is On It), and took it upon itself to make sure no one at the conference was taking themselves too seriously.  As if to really drive this point home, ScioOnIt made its first appearance, within minutes of the session on women bloggers in science ending, by asking for people to tweet in their favorite Science Online hotties.  ScioOnIt would continue to be occasionally funny for the rest of the conference (and is still going right now).  Full disclosure: at one point I was publicly declared a bigger science hottie than PZ Myers by this source (so it can’t be all bad?).

– Thanks to a recent expansion in their distribution, I got to introduce the science bloggers to Narragansett beer.  You’re welcome.

– The food and social situation at this conference was great.  Three free square meals a day, plus unlimited beverages at the socials.  Why can’t every conference do this?  Also, the opening banquet at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences was fantastic.

– Several of the ocean bloggers and a few innocent bystanders engaged in a discussion about how we’d like to see a tuna-safe dolphin fishery.

– Everyone is really friendly at this conference.  The keynote speaker, Mireya Mayor, hung out for most of the week, making her the coolest keynote speaker ever.  I also had the opportunity to meet some of my science communication heroes, including the minds behind Out of Context Science and SeaMonster, and some very smart people with some very cool ideas, including some from outside my discipline.

– The Open Mic Night (headed up by ocean blogger/sea shanty slinger/my hotel roommate Kevin Zelnio) was a blast, featuring out-of-tune sea shanties, Johnny Cash sing-alongs, and a science-themed version of “Bust a Move.”  If anyone has video of any of this, please send it along.

– The storytelling session from The Monti was highly entertaining, including some romantic advice from Bug Girl.  Apparently something called revenge crabs exists.  Ew.  Also, I commiserated with MC Jeff Polish, who looked and sounded exactly like Ray Romano, that I felt his pain since I look like Dan Akroyd.

There’s a lot more I could put up here and I may be editing more into this post in the very near future.  For now, I hope this little recap has adequately portrayed this epic conference.  If I’ve missed your favorite moment, by all means recap it in the comments.  Now if you don’t mind, I’ve still got sleep to catch up on to make up for Science Online.

Edits – 12:30, Jan 24th.  I forgot a whole bunch of stuff, so the recap has been considerably expanded.  I blame Science Online withdrawal.


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