Curiosity, Storytelling Keys to Communicating Science, Hanson Says

Science communicator Joe Hanson believes in the power of storytelling to communicate research. And as the keynote speaker for this spring’s Graduate Student Assembly research symposium on March 27, he used stories to tell his audience what he meant.

Hanson cited climate change as one of the factors that motivate his work in science communication. Our first carbon dioxide warnings were sounded more than 160 years ago, he said, and 54 years ago President Johnson received an advisory report about the problem that used the words “could be deleterious”—a bit of an understatement, in Hanson’s view.

“It’s a difficult time to be in the truth business,” Hanson said.  A documentary about our flat Earth is very popular on Netflix right now, he pointed out, and we’ve got six states with serious measles outbreaks. Recently he saw a U.S. senator make a point using a picture of Ronald Reagan riding a velociraptor. Hanson joked about being less concerned about the juxtaposition of President Reagan and the velociraptor than he was about the fact that the velociraptor had no feathers, but his point was clear: we live in a society that plays fast and loose with scientific information.

What to do? Lecturing from podiums is not enough and not effective, Hanson said. And that’s the force behind his PBS digital series “Hot Mess,” which addresses climate change. He works under the hypothesis that people are essentially all the same: we’re all wondering what we’re doing in this universe, how we fit in, and what it all means. A recognition of that common denominator, Hanson said, informs his approach to communicating.

“I have a great job,” Hanson confided. “All I do is share why I get excited!”

One of the main sources of excitement for Hanson is discovery.

“I want my son to know how exciting it is not to know stuff– that’s where the rush is, to sit on the edge of what’s known and be comfortable there.”

About his work as a science communicator, Hanson said, “It’s not easy to learn to communicate effectively. These things take practice. But they are skills that anyone can learn.”

The tools that we need are tools that hit not just the head but the heart and the gut, Hanson indicated–and those tools are stories. “Stories are the most powerful tool that we have.”

Hanson provided his audience in the Graduate Life Center auditorium with a set of precepts that he finds useful in communicating science and illustrated each with a story. His stories included discovering how the color blue works, tracking monarch migration across the U.S. border into Mexico, and Thomas Jefferson’s inability to believe that species could go extinct.

Common to all the stories was a sense of curiosity. “Simply knowing things is not enough,” Hanson said. “Knowledge is an asset, but curiosity is a greater asset.”

His precepts:

  • If you want the full story, you need context.
  • Beauty is not diminished by understanding.
  • Consider how others see you. What signals are you giving off?
  • Even the smartest and most rational people can and will be wrong.
  • Life and the universe are not aligned to bring us meaning.
  • New voices will bring new answers.

“Increasing public understanding of science and technology is a principal goal” of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Hanson received a highly competitive AAAS mass media fellowship after completing his PhD in microbiology. For students interested in careers in science communication, Hanson had this advice: “follow” who you want to be like, mimic what they do, develop your own voice, and prepare to fail.

“I use my PhD all the time,” he said. “I was being trained to be comfortable being wrong.”

Hanson is the creator, writer, and host of the PBS Digital Studios series “It’s Okay to be Smart.” You can follow him on Twitter at @DrJoeHanson and find his “Hot Mess” and “It’s Okay to be Smart” videos on YouTube.

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