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Paul Holper

Communicating climate change internationally

Jamie Liew
Scientell Intern

The international climate change assessment body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has launched a communication guide for scientists, put together by Climate Outreach — a UK-based team of social scientists and communication specialists focused on climate communication.

The IPCC’s regular assessments of the latest climate change science findings are written by scientists for all levels of governments and the public. The choices of language and narratives are important when communicating as controversial a topic as climate change.

The handbook recommends that scientists keep in mind six principles when communicating science, especially climate change science.

  1. Be a confident communicator

Scientists are generally highly trusted. When speaking about a range of climate change topics, be clear about whether you are expressing yourself in a professional or personal capacity – that is, either representing the views of an organisation or speaking as an independent expert. Be aware of which topics demonstrate social consensus and which do not.

  1. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas

Numbers are not directly relatable to people’s daily lives. Framing your science in a certain way – like avoiding wastefulness, health benefits, and balance – is helpful for engaging audiences. Use metaphors and analogies, such as climate change loading the dice to favour more severe weather, to convey concepts.

  1. Connect with what matters to your audience

Facts are essential but not sufficient for effective science communication. Values and political views affect people’s attitudes about climate change more than their level of scientific knowledge. It is important to know your audience well so that you can connect with widely-shared public values or points of local interest related to a topic.

  1. Tell a human story

Instead of graphs and statistics, use anecdotes and stories to convey your work, because we understand information better via narrative structures like the ‘And, But, Therefore’ template. Sharing your life outside being a scientist can also ‘humanise’ the science and help you tell a captivating story.

  1. Lead with what you know

Although uncertainty is a huge component of climate change science, it should not obstruct your narrative. Focus on the ‘knowns’ before the ‘unknowns’ and express areas of strong scientific agreement on a topic so that uncertainty is not misinterpreted by people as ignorance. For example, incorporate the consensus that humans are responsible for climate change into your story.

  1. Use the most effective visual communication

Choose your images and graphs wisely. For example, showing real people instead of staged photo opportunities, local climate impacts, and telling new stories – not just polar bears and deforestation – can be effective. Images can be sourced from The Climate Visuals project.

Click here for the full copy of the Climate Outreach communication handbook for IPCC authors.

When in doubt, cut it out: editing tips

Recently I edited a large, complex scientific report. As an editor, one of the first things you do is remove extraneous words. Why force a reader to read two or more words, when one will do?

As I worked through the report, I compiled a list of terms that I decided usually add nothing to meaning or understanding. So here is my list of words that can almost always be removed from scientific reports, with an example of each deleted so that you can read the sentence with the offending term removed:

going forward
The manufacture of cars with no reverse gear will significantly change driving habits going forward

currently
Professor Smith is currently head of the university association

in the longer term
The manufacture of cars with no reverse gear will significantly change driving habits in the longer term

in order
There is a need for interdisciplinary training to be provided in order to enhance Australia’s capacity

It is important to note
It is important to note that a good editor adds considerable value to a document

relatively
Australia’s market for these products is relatively small

very
DNA synthesis is outsourced very effectively in Australia

completely
Acme chemicals had to completely re-engineer the synthesis pathway

Finally, just for fun:

It is very important to note that in the longer term in order to improve writing, relatively little can currently be gained from completely overlooking my excellent tips going forward.

What other terms do you suggest should be removed from documents?

Writing in Nature, naturally

Scientell’s new home, the historic Royal Society of Victoria building, houses a stunning library that includes the first edition of the journal Nature. It’s clear that people communicated science in 1869 differently from now.

The first research article in that first issue is entitled, ‘On The Fertilisation Of Winter-flowering Plants’. Here is a paragraph from the author, Alfred Bennett:

‘During the winter of 1868-69, I had the opportunity of making some observations on this class of [winter flowering] plants; the result being that I found that, as a general rule, fertilisation, or at all events the discharge of the pollen by the anthers, takes place in the bud before the flower is opened, thus ensuring self-fertilisation under the most favourable circumstances, with complete protection from the weather, assisted, no doubt, by that rise of temperature which is known to take place in certain plants at the time of flowering.’

The writing is clear and evocative. The first person ‘I’ paints a picture of Alfred’s experiences as he strolled amidst the ‘hazel-nut Corylus avellana, the butcher’s broom Ruscus aculeatus, and the gorse Ulex europæus’.

 Early scientific discourse favoured the active voice, which helps to make writing personal, clear and concise. An active sentence is one in which an agent (Alfred) does something (observed) to a person or thing (plants). For a passive sentence, the reverse is true – the subject has something done to it by an agent. Had he written in the passive voice, Alfred could have begun: ‘During the winter of 1868-69, observations were made on this class …’.

Subsequently, researchers decided that scientific writing needed to be objective, casting the observer as a disinterested, objective party recording dispassionately the behaviour of ‘objects, things and materials’ (Ding 1998). The passive voice distances the writer from the consequences of their actions and findings. Bart Simpson, for example, stating ‘mistakes were made’ is far from an admission that he has erred.

Scientific writing is now moving back to active voice. The Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, for instance, has the following piece of advice for authors on its website:

We will ask authors that rely heavily on use of the passive voice to re-write manuscripts in the active voice. While the use of the phrase “the author(s)” is acceptable, we encourage authors to use first and third person pronouns, i.e., “I” and “we,” to avoid an awkward or stilted writing style.

This is good advice. Active language is easier to understand. It is more like normal speech and makes clear who is doing what.

You can find that first Nature paper here.

 

References

Ding, D., (1998) Rationality reborn: Historical roots of the passive voice in scientific discourse, in J.T. Battalio ed., Essays in the Study of Scientific Discourse: Methods, Practice, and Pedagogy, Ablex, Stamford, CT, pp. 117–135.

Leong, P.A. (2014). The passive voice in scientific writing: The current norm in science journals. Journal of Science Communication, 01(A03), 1–16. Retrieved from http://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1301_2014_A03.pdf Google Scholar

Winning, even if you don’t win (and we did)

Recently our company Scientell won the 2016–17 Monash Business Award in the Micro Business category. My co-Director, Simon Torok, said in his acceptance speech in front of a packed ballroom, ‘We were delighted to have been nominated for this award – and we nominated ourselves, so imagine how excited we are to have actually won.’

A business coach suggested that we enter the award. It was excellent advice, but not just because we won. The entire process of entering, being assessed and then attending the awards night was invaluable for us.

For starters, the nomination process helped us dispassionately assess our business, its activities and ambitions. We had to ask ourselves what our main focus was, what our objectives are, and how we can simply describe the business in a few sentences.

The judging process included making a short presentation at a lunch where we met other small business owners. This led to us catching up with a number of them over the ensuing weeks to share business ideas and look for opportunities to collaborate in future. As any small business owner knows, success comes from relationships. The Monash Business Awards introduced us to lots of people.

Of course, winning generates valuable publicity opportunities. It helped us highlight the value of communication of environmental, scientific and technical information. But even if we had known at the outset that we would not win, we would still have entered, such was the value of the process.

Sponsored by the City of Monash, the Monash Business Awards serve to ‘promote business success and excellence through the recognition of significant achievements and innovations’. The City of Monash, with almost 200,000 residents, is one of Victoria’s most populous municipalities. There are 18,000 businesses in the area.

 

MBA award to Scientell

How to write a media release

Scientell prepared this summary for members of the Ecological Society of Australia, who have employed us to provide communication support and advice.

Despite the rise of social media, writing and distributing a media release is still a very effective way of communicating your research to the media and hence to a variety of audiences including the public.

Preparing a media release has lots of benefits. It will help you think through the essential elements of your story, and order your findings in a way that highlights the important points first. It ensures that your colleagues, manager, funders, supporters and employer will be aware of your work. It will represent an agreed, accurate and enduring record of your findings.

So, here is a step-by-step guide on how to write a media release.

First, please seek the assistance of a professional communicator or an experienced colleague to write your release. You may be too close to your work to find the news angle. Moreover, an experienced person can help write a release that grabs journalists’ attention. They will also have media contacts to increase the likelihood of your work receiving coverage. They also might suggest that a release is not going to be the most effective way of telling your story and might have some other communication options for you (e.g. pitching directly to online discussion sites such as The Conversation).

 

  • Summarise the main points of your story, with ideally one main take home message. These are probably going to be the three or four points you make at a barbecue or party, when someone with little or no knowledge of your field asks you what you’re working on and why. Order your points from most important to least important.

 

  • Identify what is the newsworthy angle or ‘hook’. Why is this relevant to everyday people now? Do your findings shed interesting new light on a topic? Does your work overturn current thinking? Is it new evidence of things getting worse or better? Will people talk about your insights at the pub?

 

  • The first paragraph of the release is critically important. It should contain the who, what, when, where, why (who cares), and how of your story. Here’s an example with the above elements identified:

 

Birds’ wings growing to help escape the heat?

The wing length [what & how] of Ringneck Parrots [who] in the south-west of Western Australia [where] has been increasing since the 1970s [when], coinciding with that region becoming hotter and drier. This is a possible rapid evolutionary response to changing climate [why/who cares].

 

  • Write in the ‘inverted pyramid style’. After the lead paragraph, each subsequent paragraph should be less important. The release should make complete sense if it is cut from the bottom up. That is, it needs to work if just the first paragraph is used, or pars 1 and 2, or pars 1, 2 and 3, etc.

 

  • Write in short sentences and short paragraphs, with simple language (no scientific jargon).

 

  • Keep it simple. You need to interest a journalist who is not a science or environment correspondent, writing for people who know nothing about your science.

 

  • Include quotations, attributed to a named person with their position and affiliation stated (most likely you, and possibly a senior person in your agency).

 

  •  Add a punchy headline. Most journalists will read only the headline and first sentence of your release.

 

  • Check to ensure that the release contains no typographical or grammatical errors and then have it approved by your manager, and ensure your communicator, agency, funders, colleagues and anyone else involved are aware of the release before it is made public.

 

  • Restrict the release length to one page, add ‘Media Release’ to the top, agency logo, the date (clearly noting any embargo), and contact details including mobile number at the end.

 

  • Good photos or videos will help ‘sell’ a release. State their availability.

 

  • Look for networks and linkages with other agencies such as universities, partner organisations and sponsors to help promote the release.

 

If you’d like advice or assistance in preparing a media release, please contact Scientell (www.scientell.com.au)

 

Rent, don’t buy?

When I was young, my parents always told me that if I wanted to buy something, I should save my money and pay for it outright. ‘Buy, don’t rent’, was their recommendation for procuring everything from a TV set to a house. The logic in this advice was that rent, or its equivalent in ongoing payments, represents ‘dead’ money.

We all used to apply my parents’ logic to software. We’d fork out several hundred dollars for the latest version of Microsoft Office and spend ages feeding the multiple CDs that stored the program into our computers. Then, when it became too annoying dealing with Word 7 when you had only version 6, you would upgrade.

A few years ago, the software industry woke up to the wisdom of my mum and dad – if you are on the supply side, far better financially to get the punters to rent, not buy.

So, Microsoft quietly, but forcefully, pushed their millions of users to a ‘rent’ model. It’s just a couple of dollars a week, they said. You’ll always have the very latest software on your computers, they told us. Say goodbye to version incompatibility.

That’s all fine, but what if you simply want to write stuff and don’t need to be able to import, rotate and link a Pivot table from Excel into Word? I know there are plenty of free programs that will just let you type. But then there’s the challenge in reading other people’s work that they email you in packages like Microsoft Word, with all its associated design elements.

So, we’re back to renting.

Let’s do a quick stocktake of all the software that our company Scientell rents. There’s the Microsoft Office subscription at $10 per month. We pay $60 per month for our accounting software. Delivering our public webinars and teleconferences incur a $12.50 monthly charge. Our web site and email host charges $15. We pay Google $4.58 for hosting documents. Dropbox subscriptions fees of $10.75 a month let us share files.

Take a deep breath and add up those subscriptions: the business subscriptions are $112.83 per month, which is $1,354 each year.

It all quickly adds up. Do we really need all this software and data? Good question – and one that is worth asking regularly. I’ll add a reoccurring note to my calendar to do a stocktake. I just have to ensure that my monthly Internet bill gets paid so that I see it.

 

 

On dinosaurs, widows and badly named pubs

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

The first dinosaur fossil ever found was named ‘Scrotum humanum’, owing to its resemblance to a petrified scrotum. Some thought it was a Roman war elephant’s thigh, or that of a biblical giant. It was, in fact, a Megalosaur’s femur.

Some cultural relativism ought to be applied to this laughable blunder. Before dinosaurs were known to science, giants and dragons were the natural explanations for impossibly hefty unearthed bones. Presumably with much eye rolling, biologist Richard Owen suggested that these bones belonged to an extinct group of reptiles. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, Latinised from the Greek ‘deinos’ meaning ‘terrible’ and ‘saurus’ meaning ‘lizard’. Incidentally, the word ‘dire’ stems from the same terrible root.

On terrible roots, let’s exhume some dismaying English artefacts. According to 1500s mindsets, a woman after her husband’s death became a dusty fossilised relict. Alas, our word ‘relict’ is from the Latin ‘relicta’ meaning ‘widow’. Further abandonment-flavoured words like ‘relinquish’ and ‘derelict’ derive from the Latin verb form ‘relinquere’ – to leave behind. Before deserting this etymological tangent, a dip into maritime lingo. ‘Derelict’, now synonymous with a state of neglect, technically refers to cargo irretrievably sunk at sea. Accidentally lost but still floating cargo is flotsam (both ‘f’ words are from the Germanic ‘floter’, meaning ‘to float’). Jetsam is cargo deliberately thrown (‘jettisoned’, from the same Old French root ‘getaison’, meaning ‘a throwing’) overboard to stabilise a ship in crisis. Hence ‘flotsam and jetsam’ has become a phrase to describe miscellaneous worthless trash (much like a widow in the 16th century, apparently).

Far from flotsam and jetsam is fossilised tree resin. Not only can it fossilise other creatures in a gloopy tomb, it can form a fossil per se: amber. Amber has a curious quality of acquiring an electric charge when rubbed with certain materials. Some 1640s amber-rubbing escapades led polymath Sir Thomas Browne to dub this attractive property ‘electric’. The leap from ‘amber’ to ‘electric’? Our old friend Latin, in which amber is called ‘electrum’.

Finally, an alphabetical fossil. Old English was written in runes. Christian missionaries arriving in the 9th century soon imposed not only their religion on the Anglo-Saxons, but the Latin alphabet too. The rune ‘thorn’, pronounced ‘th’, looked most similar to the Latin ‘Y’. Thus ‘Y’ took thorn’s place as the ‘th’-sounding symbol, while thorn was jettisoned into an alphabetical mass grave.

It follows then that pseudo-historical venues named ‘Ye Olde’ so-and-so ought to be pronounced ‘the old’, not ‘ye old’. A world-view flipping bombshell, I know. Now you know how the benighted masses felt when their ‘dragons and giants’ turned out to be dinosaurs.

On stones, mathematics and eschewing bad puns

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

Excluding patients with multiple titanium joint prostheses, the most common metal in the human body is calcium. This fact will assist in countless pub trivia competitions.

Chemist Humphry Davy first isolated pure calcium in 1808 by electrolysis of limestone. He named it ‘calcium’ from the Latin ‘calx’ meaning limestone. Fittingly, a decade prior he himself had become significantly stoned on nitrous oxide gas during a series of experiments to discern its chemical properties. (He concluded that it caused ‘a great disposition to laugh’, while noting in passing its soon-to-be groundbreaking anaesthetic effects).

The Latin word ‘calculus’ is the diminutive form of ‘calx’. A calculus described a little pebble used for counting. Strings of calculi on a frame formed an abacus. The verb ‘calculere’ literally meant ‘to use pebbles to perform arithmetic’ – to calculate, if you will. Leibnitz thus chose ‘calculus’ as the name for his newly invented system of calculating rates of change. Unfortunately, this etymology has encouraged puns based on ‘calculus rocks!’ and similar, which would not be funny even if under the influence of nitrous oxide.

Stones formed in various bodily organs are dubbed calculi, such as renal calculi and gallbladder calculi. Incidentally, urinating out a kidney stone is said to be the most painful thing a human can experience, including childbirth (this is based on a sample population of kidney-stone suffering mothers I have surveyed over the years).

Other stone-based etymologies pepper the human body. One of the skeleton’s densest bones is a rock-hard wedge of skull housing the middle and inner ear. It is named the petrous bone, from the Greek ‘petra’ meaning ‘rock’. Petroleum is thus ‘rock oil’ while to be petrified is to be turned to stone.

In a move of breathtaking unimaginativeness, Swedish chemist Arfvedson named a new element isolated from stone ‘lithium’, from another Greek word for stone: ‘lithos’. Earth’s uppermost mantle and stony crust is named the lithosphere. Printing using inscribed metal plates is still called lithography (‘stone drawing’), harking back to its origins of using stone slabs. The inner ear, behind its stony petrous bone, houses tiny calcium carbonate otoliths (‘ear stones’) to whose rattling you owe your sense of gravity and acceleration in space.

Finally, our English word ‘stone’ derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘stainaz’. Germans morphed it to ‘Stein’, nowadays the common abbreviation of ‘Steinkrug’ (stone jug) for a drinking vessel. Before glass, steins were commonly made of stone or some sort of rock-based ceramic, hence the stony etymology. Albert Einstein’s surname, then, was literally ‘one stone’. This no doubt earned him some hefty schoolyard bullying. Let’s hope he wasn’t sporting a ‘calculus rocks!’ badge too.

 

Calculi being used to calculate on a counting board. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Rechentisch.png)

 

 

A gallbladder filled with gallstones. Ironically, in a kidney dish. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallstone#/media/File:Gallstones.JPG)

Writing with style

To communicate clearly and well, writing should be grammatical and consistent. Sloppy writing makes an audience work harder to understand the message; it is also likely to make them wonder whether the author should be relied upon in the first place.

No matter what your topic – from astronomy to zirconium – following writing conventions will help your communication.

Thankfully, the kind folk at Biotext (http://www.biotext.com.au ), a leading Australian science communication company, have devoted countless hours to compiling the Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS). They describe it as a ‘key resource for the Australian scientific and communications community. It brings together a wealth of information on scientific writing, style and design, to support the presentation of clear and correct scientific communication.’

So here are AMOSS’s answers to 10 style and grammar questions frequently asked by writers.

  1. Ten or 10?

‘Use numerals (digits) to express all quantities – whether small or large – in running text.’

  1. Fertilize or fertilise, etc.?
    ‘In Australia, we use ise and yse endings, not ize or –yze’.
  1. Should I put a space between the number and the unit?
    ‘Separate an alphabetic symbol from a number with a space. A nonalphabetic symbol is usually closed up to the number.’ So, you write 4 g and 28 mm, but 25% and refer to an angle of 45°. You also write ‘25 °C’.
  1. ‘sulfur or sulphur?
    ‘The element name is sulfur (lower case, except when starting a sentence).’ Compounds of sulfur, such as sulfuric acid, take the ‘f’.
  1. How do I describe the time?
    12:01 pm, for example
  1. What about year spans?
    ‘1998–99, not 1998/99’
  1. e.g. or eg?
    ‘eg’, and thus ‘ie’ and ‘etc’
  1. When do I use a semi-colon?
    ‘To link two closely related clauses that could otherwise be separate sentences. We submitted the paper to Virology; this was more appropriate for the topic than Cell.’
  1. Single or double quotation marks?
    Single, ‘smart’ quotation marks (‘ ’) are used.
  1. Do I use a semi-colon to end each bullet point in a list that starts with a sentence?
    ‘Use lower case for the first word and punctuate only with a full stop at the end of the list.’

What are your style and grammar questions?

 

On erosion, explosions and gopher waffles

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger

Plurals need not end in ‘s’ as all schoolchildren with teeth (to cite two examples) know. What’s more, plenty of singular nouns are divisible: try replacing ‘freedom’ in the following quote by Ronald Reagan’s quote with ‘lemon tart’:

‘Freedom is indivisible – there is no “s” on the end of it. You can erode freedom, diminish it, but you cannot divide it and choose to keep “some freedoms” while giving up others.’

The sentiment behind Ronald Reagan’s speech perhaps excuses its non sequitur basis. Yet in an Administration where the Chief of Staff’s name – Donald Reagan – differed from the President’s by one letter, grammatical precision was surely more important than usual.

According to Reagan, freedom, like embankments, can be eroded. Erosion is the transportation of sand, soil or rock between locations due to surface processes. The Colorado River boasts the Grand Canyon for its eroding efforts. Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos wobble skywards thanks to wind stripping sandstone off a sturdy limestone skeleton. More abstractly, erosion can describe the undermining of any institution by insidious forces, such as the erosion of accurate grammar by politicians using flowery prose.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1612 medical text as erosion’s debut: ‘This infirmitie proceedeth from gnawing and eroding humours’. It is unclear exactly what ‘infirmity’ is under discussion, though syphilis is always a safe bet for any historical deforming illness. ‘Erosion’ stems from the Latin ‘erodere’ meaning ‘to gnaw away, consume’. Divide the word further (a possibility, lo and behold, despite the word not ending in ‘s’) and the etymological roots are revealed: ‘ex-‘ means ‘away’; ‘rodere’ means ‘to gnaw’.

Rodents – gnawing mammals like mice and gophers with continuously growing teeth – are thusly dubbed from the same Latin origin. Gophers’ waffle-shaped burrows earned them their name from the French for waffle: ‘une gaufre’. Confusingly, the masculine form ‘un gaufre’ means ‘gopher’ in French. If ordering a gaufre fresh off the griddle iron, be sure to clarify with le garçon to avoid a disappointing meal of fried batter instead of juicy gopher meat. Or vice versa.

‘Ex-‘ as a suffix meaning ‘away’ or ‘out’ is rife in scientific parlance. Exothermic reactions are characterised by taking away heat. An exothermic reaction gone awry may involve an explosion – from the Latin ‘explaudere’ meaning to ‘drive off by clapping’. Rowdy Roman audiences would scornfully ‘out clap’ weak actors. Indeed, the actor would ‘go off with a bang’. From that Latin ‘plaudere’ we get our words ‘applaud’ and ‘plaudit’. A reasonable hypothesis may be considered ‘plausible’, literally meaning ‘acceptable, worthy of applause’.

Intensive agricultural practices have sparked an explosion of erosion. Over-grazed land stripped of soil-anchoring trees is a prime erosion target. Now exposed, quality topsoil is whisked away to leave salty, low-nutrient soil. Mulching, encouraging vegetation and reducing runoff with water tanks are all plausible solutions to combat erosion.

As a B-Grade actor in ‘King’s Row’, Reagan quipped: ‘Alright. I know. I’m always wrong. I always have been, ever since I can remember’. He may have been wrong about plurals, but he was right about the dangers of erosion.