Every scientist I work with spends most of the day communicating, whether that’s preparing grants, manuscripts, theses, outreach talks, emails to colleagues/students… the list goes on. However, most of these outlets share fairly strict formatting rules. Grants comes with pages of guidelines. Talks have defined who I am, what I did, found, next, thank you slide. While this sterile approach is arguably fundamental to science’s critical tenant of replication, it makes for terrible communication.
Many friendships in the 90s were built or lost over who got to select their Mario Kart character first because character selection largely determined whether or not you would win. SNES Mario Kart designers tried to correct this by crafting tracks that favored one character over others, guaranteeing a win on at least one race. Bowser’s fast top speed and drifting skills made them the best suited character for Bowser Castle’s sharp turns and straightaways. The icy pools of Vanilla Lake smiled upon Koopa Troopa and Toad’s tight handling and minimal drift, but that was arguably the only track they could dominate.
Now imagine another version of Mario Kart, but instead of a variety of different tracks that celebrate different strengths, every track was built by Mario. With Mario as an architect, it’s highly likely that every track would favor his particular set of (minimal) strengths. This would give the non-Mario players an unintended disadvantage since they would never get a chance to excel with their diverse skills, and the majority of races would consequently be won by Marios. In many places, this is the current state of academia.
Can you remember how young you were when you were first taught stop, drop, and roll? How about turn around, don’t drown? Slogans are abridged stories that fulfill our human need to convey information quickly and memorably. Their uses range from social connection, cooperation, and informing cohorts of risk. Sayings like the above are effective because of these three main achievements:
They are memorable.
They incorporate knowledge with action.
And by fearlessly acknowledging rare, potentially fatal, risks – they create a constructive dialogue.
Imagine a world without stop, drop and roll where children are simply taught that there is an incredibly rare risk that they could catch fire, and that’s it. While the statistic may be true, just providing the information would result in a classroom full of hysterical first-graders. A great slogan captured and presents the risk fearlessly.
Put another way, slogans are science communication wins. So let’s get together and apply this human craft of slogan creation to another incredibly rare risk: shark encounters! Your risk of encountering a shark is extremely low–a statistic that is repeated ad nauseam. But just like our classroom of traumatized first-graders, stats alone aren’t always enough. Enter the #SharkSafetySlogan challenge!
Join us on twitter at #SharkSafetySlogan to crowd-source a memorable slogan. Shark experts and organizations from across the globe will be sharing sharky information to help you on your scicomm quest. Anyone who visits a beach is encouraged to participate!
Remember, keep it memorable, brief, and incorporate shark smarts with actions. An example could be:
Seals? Seabirds?! See ya!
The above slogan is brief, memorable, and incorporates the knowledge that an abundance of seals and seabirds is a strong indication that sharks are present, and you’re better off not swimming juuuust yet.
Come join us at #SharkSafetySlogan and see if your slogan ends up with the most likes and retweets! I’ll be leading the charge at @ScienceRhapsody. See you on the interwebs!
I have had the pleasure of working communications roles in several industries over the years. During this time, I’ve seen the rise of a dubious campaign metric commonly referred to as “Stop the Scroll” (or “Swipe”). This metric has conscientious roots. Online communications strategists have less than a second to grab a potential donor, stakeholder, or client’s attention. Good strategists have read Craig McClain’s paper, as a great visual will make your thumb quiver before scrolling on to a video of dogs doing literally anything. In this light, stop the scroll seems like a pretty good metric for individual post efficacy. Time is the currency of experience, after all.
Can we count the seconds people spend learning untrue facts as progress towards our campaign? Or change the campaign goals to justify a resource-heavy shit post?
There is controversy whenever a human creates a close
interaction with a wild animal. Those arguing
in favour of the human’s behavior inevitably settle on the argument that if the
animal didn’t like it, the animal would have bit them or exhibited some sudden reaction
to the human. People who propose this argument
have a very limited understanding of animal behavior.
Real talk, I used to believe this totally incorrect argument, and I will never forget the day that changed my perspective forever. I was a budding zoologist working on a remote island with a group of scientists that were ringing cormorants. The cormorants squawked for awhile, but then got “used” to our presence and calmed down. I was reassured that we weren’t causing them any distress as we worked nearby, otherwise I expected that they would have shown it by either continuing to squawk or simply fly away. Then, I noticed a few dead cormorants near where we worked. I thought that they must have died before we arrived. However, the senior researcher explained that they had been alive moments before but most likely died due to the stress of our presence. That was an extremely powerful lesson in my young career and it challenged what I thought I “understood” about human interactions with animals. Keep in mind, I was known for being an animal whisperer of sorts in my youth (see below) and truly believed that my special calm and confident nature could be detected by animals, and that they would accept my presence more readily than those who didn’t have my nature. That FernGully perspective is wrong and egocentric. There are few scenarios where our presence isn’t horribly stressful and disruptive to wild animals.
Large predators are no exception. They are just as vulnerable to our stress as cormorants and just as unlikely to express it externally, because the cost of those behaviors is expensive. Predators have severe energetic constraints and are constantly calculating whether their actions are worth sacrificing energy for, this is a cost/benefit analysis. We do similar analyses all the time. For example, I have a Trader Joe’s that is ~30 minutes from my home. The food there is delicious and less expensive than my local grocery store. However, I don’t go to The Joe every time I am hungry. Even though I would save money on discount blue cheese dip there, I would spend more money in fuel for my car – meaning the entire trip would cost me more in the long run. The costs of this behavior is too high and not worth it.
White sharks are especially discerning since they can burn a lot of energy quickly and are unlikely to encounter large meals in the open ocean to refuel. So they make conservative decisions that prioritize maintaining energy stores (especially during gestation when a large portion of their energy budget is developing shark embryos). In the recent case of large white sharks scavenging from a sperm whale in Hawaii, there were several divers in the water creating close interactions with the sharks for social media purposes. Controversy ensued and the idea that the white sharks must have “enjoyed” these interactions otherwise they would have swam away or bit the divers has been presented. But it is not supported. First, white sharks full of whale blubber are experiencing some pretty hardcore torpor. Also, blubber is very positivity buoyant, meaning a stomach full of blubber is essentially the same as if we ate a ton of foam and then tried to swim about. White sharks at whale carcasses are typically slow-moving with low aggression, even towards each other. It’s not that whale blubber makes them “happy,” it’s that being aggressive and swimming fast when there are going to be many other white sharks around AND you’re going to have a stomach full of floaty blubber is energetically expensive and the costs of these behaviors are too high.
Does that mean diving with full-bellied white sharks is safe? Absolutely not – for them or for you. It doesn’t matter how well you think you “know” a predator – species or individual – they are still dangerous. We all know the list of fatal tragedies that start off with well-known humans believing that they have enough experience to take big risks, and each of those fatalities ends with the animal suffering, too. For the sharks, disrupting a rare feeding event has long-term implications. The stress caused – whether they exhibit that stress externally or not – is burning their limited energy, forcing them to recalculate their future behaviours until (if?) they encounter the next windfall. Also – although currently undocumented – it’s a common thought amongst shark researchers that mating could occur at large feeding events like whale carcasses since it’s provides male sharks an opportunity to take advantage of the large female’s torpor to attempt mating approaches (I personally believe the same is true at seal colonies). Boats and divers disrupt these behaviours.
I don’t bite every person that causes me stress. I don’t full-sprint away from every situation that causes me stress. That doesn’t mean that I am not experiencing stress that impacts my behavior and health. The same is true for every one of these close animal interactions created by humans. It’s alarming to me when those humans say that they are somehow especially qualified, and that their experience alone creates these “safe” encounters. It’s not. You’re benefiting from the cost a large predator doesn’t want to incur by demonstrating its stress to you – but as we’ve unfortunately seen several times, when the scales are finally tipped, unnecessary tragedies do occur.
Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly. It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in. This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.
What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize? Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date. Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.
Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold. It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities. Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.
Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in. This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation. In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority. Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women? Intelligence(unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate). YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.
Many aspects of science-ing are not explicitly taught, and scientists become accustomed to mastering the deep end. While this tactic can make you stronger, there are situations where the deep end is a vulnerable place where nasty critters are very happy to take advantage.
One such area? How to handle being contacted by “producers.” In my experience, for every 1 exceptional producer you speak with, you will be contacted by at least 4 scammers. Scam producers will particularly target naïve early-career scientists, just like white sharks and seal pups. In light of this week, I’ve put together a guide to aid YOY scientists rising in the ranks of popularity and make the deep end a little safer. Here are 13 ways to spot scam shark documentary producers, with a few 🚩🚩:
Overall job satisfaction in academia has been steadily declining for many independent reasons I won’t get into here (see Nature 1 and 2). However, we do need to accept some ownership for this dissatisfaction. Our expectations and goal posts are understandable set very high. Indeed for many of us, our impossible standards and stubborn determination are the only reasons we got this far, so it can be painful – nigh impossible – for those who are hardwired to overachieve to step back and be happy with the big picture. We need to, because the stakes are as high as health, sanity, and relationships.
This inspired me to develop a new set of milestones to measure our academic careers by. Not only for our sanity, but especially for those younger scientists and students still fighting their way up the ladder.
Here are 12 new milestones of achievement I recommend we measure our career success by: Read More
If you plan to give up one thing in 2017, make it the social media trap that so many NPOs/NGOs/individuals have fallen into. We need more organizations and individuals talking about what they are doing in the real world and less that just talk. We going to need that now more than ever.