GeoLog

Media

GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

Launching the new EGU Blogs!

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Screenshot of the new EGU Blogs webpage.

Welcome to the new home of the EGU Blogs! Today we are proudly launching a new webpage which now houses all the EGU blogs in one place. We have redesigned the website to give the blogs a more modern layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new blogs website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good on any device (smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops). In addition to the their new look, the Blogs have also been expanded to include news from some of the EGU scientific Divisions. In their new webpage you will continue to find your old favourites, including the Union’s official blog, GeoLog, as well as our established blog network.

As well as sharing information about the latest updates, events, and activities within the scientific Divisions of the EGU, the new Division blogs inform readers about the latest research being undertaken in each field. Currently six Divisions are represented in the EGU Blogs but expect more to join in the future. For now, look forward to reading about climate and cryospheric sciences, in addition to news from the Geodesy and Geomorphology Division. The former blog of the Seismology Division, Seismoblog, has been incorporated in to the Division Blogs. G-Soil, which previously had its home over with the network blogs is now known as Soil System Sciences Blog and now also forms part of the Division Blogs.

The network blogs put complex scientific research into context, sharing findings to a much wider audience. The research fields covered by the network bloggers span almost all aspects of the Earth Sciences from mineralogy, geochemistry, palaeontology, geoscience in global development, environmental geoscience, volcanology as well as atmospheric and Quaternary science.

From GeoLog you can continue to expect frequent information about the Union and its activities, particularly its General Assembly. The regular features include Imaggeo on Mondays, a weekly highlight of a photo from the EGU’s open-access image repository, Imaggeo; the Geosciences Column, which covers recent research in the Earth, planetary and space sciences, GeoTalk, a short Q&A with a geoscientist, and GeoEd, a series dedicated to education in the geosciences.

Despite extensive testing, as with any newly launched website, the new EGU Blogs page is bound to have some bugs and glitches. If you find any problems, please report them to the Science Communication Officer Laura Roberts. We thank  Robert Barsch for implementing the new website.

From paper to press release: making your research accessible to the wider public

During the General Assembly, EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira shared her science writing skills and media know-how in a workshop demonstrating how to write a  press release or post about the latest geoscience. Here are her take-home messages…

“When you communicate science, no one else is more important than your audience.” Bárbara opened with one of the most fundamental points of science writing – you have to keep your audience engaged, and pitch your explanation at the perfect level for your peers, the press or the general public, depending on who you’re shooting for. The other fundamental: “read the paper!” was quick to follow.

The abstract, introduction and conclusion tell you almost everything you need to know to share the science effectively, but important points can still be found in other parts of the paper. Read it thoroughly and unleash the highlights in your writing – explain what’s exciting about the research and why your audience would be interested in it.

Introduction to Science Communication: from paper to press release (or blog post). View the full presentation here. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The presentation. Click the image or follow this link to view the full presentation. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

If you have time, get in touch with the author. Not only can they check you’ve hit all the main points in your article, but they can also provide you with some juicy quotes to make the piece that much richer.

So how should you structure your post or press release to make sure you keep your readers engaged? Start with the main points – but don’t overstate the findings – and then move on to why the research is important and what the implications of the findings are. More detailed explanations follow. The example below sums up what you need to get across in the beginning of the text, particularly if you’re writing a press release (journalists are always busy so need the essential information at the start).

Before they even get there though, your reader has to be hooked by the title – make it snappy!

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

You’ve got the structure sorted, but what about content? Here are some of Bárbara’s top tips:

  • Assume your reader knows nothing about the research, but don’t assume they won’t understand it
  • Aim for one idea per sentence and one concept per paragraph to get your message across without overloading your audience with information
  • If you need to use jargon, explain what it means, and keep acronyms to the barest minimum
  • Use metaphors and everyday examples to share your message

Unlike this string of dos and don’ts, your article shouldn’t be a steam of facts. Create a story to guide the reader through the findings and, if you can, add a human element to the tale so readers can relate to it all that little bit better.

Once you’re done, fact-check, edit, proof and publish.

There are no hard and fast rules for science writing – this only a guide to get you going. If every science piece or release was written the same way, well, reading them would become a bit monotonous wouldn’t it? Break these rules, make your own, and keep writing until you find your own signature science communication style.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Resources:

GeoEd: New educational activities at the EGU!

In the past few months, the EGU worked particularly hard on its educational activities. The Committee on Education organised no less than three  GIFT workshops and, with the help of Jane Robb, who took part in EGU’s Educational Fellowship, the Union has expanded its education portfolio. Here Jane shares these new and exciting EGU educational initiatives, which range from action-packed online events to tools for teachers and summaries of scientific research made especially for school kids…

Planet Press

If you like engaging your kids with science through up-to-date news then this is the place for you! Inspired by UNAWE’s Space Scoop stories for kids, the EGU have developed Planet Press – engaging geoscience new stories for kids. Aimed primarily at 7-11 year olds, these are EGU press releases ‘translated’ into kids’ language, but they can also be useful if you want more digestible geoscience news. Each Planet Press is written in-house and reviewed by one of the Union’s scientist members, as well as an educator to ensure their science content is accurate and the writing is appropriate for the target age group. In addition, fun printable versions have been made for classroom use. So far, all Planet Presses are in English but, in the future, we hope to make them available in other European languages.

PP

Teacher’s Corner

There are many resources out there for teaching geoscience, but, with so many to choose from, sometimes it is difficult to find exactly what you need. Teacher’s Corner is a database of teaching resources spanning all geoscience subjects, specifically aimed at teachers. The database is searchable by age range, type of activity and subject area, making it easier for you to find teaching inspiration. Teacher’s Corner will also showcase some of the work that GIFT teachers have produced from Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshops and while engaging with real scientists. In addition, if you’re a GIFT teacher or have a great resource of your own, you can upload your teaching ideas and resources to Teacher’s Corner for other teachers to use and share.

I’m a Geoscientist – Get me out of here!

Some of you will have heard of I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here!, which runs in the UK and engages school children with scientists. The EGU has now developed their own version of this event in collaboration with the UK company Gallomanor, called I’m a Geoscientist – Get me out of here!. I’m a Geoscientist focuses on the geosciences, with scientists from across the EGU’s broad subject areas chatting online to 500 school students from across Europe and South Africa. Although registration to take part in our first June 2014 event has closed, you can still join in by visiting the I’m a Geoscientist website (imageoscientist.eu) and watching the event take place – live! There you will be able to see the questions students are asking the scientists and the scientists’ responses. If you’re a teacher, you can use this event to engage your own classes with science or just have a look at what goes on to see if you’d like to take part in a future event. If you’re a scientist, you can take this opportunity to practice engaging with the public about your research, see your research in new light, gain wider recognition for your work and fulfil the public engagement requirements of your funding proposal.

IAG

Geolocations Database

If you like taking your family or class on field trips to explain geological phenomena, or just like to get out in the wild, our Geolocations Database could be a great place to find out about some of the best locations near you. The database is designed for teachers or parents wanting to find exciting geological locations nearby, and is searchable by country, type of location and whether it is suitable (and safe) for children. In addition, you can also upload your own favourite geological locations to the database!

That’s all for now, but we’d like to keep these initiatives going strong in the future. We need help in writing Planet Press releases, ideas for Teacher’s Corner resources and sites for the Geolocations Database. We also hope to continue to run I’m a Geoscientist in the future, to help more school children chat directly to scientists about their research and provide scientists with the opportunity to practice communicating their work. If you would like to help with any of these initiatives then please get in touch with Bárbara Ferreira at media@egu.eu.

By Jane Robb, Project Assistant, University College London

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