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The Cultural Side of Science Communication

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 09-30-2014

Do we think of nature as something that we enjoy when we visit a national park and something we need to “preserve?” Or do we think of ourselves as a part of nature? A bird’s nest is a part of nature, but what about a house?

The answers to these questions reflect different cultural orientations. They are also reflected in our actions, our speech and in cultural artifacts.

A new Northwestern University study, in partnership with the University of Washington, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, focuses on science communication and how that discipline necessarily involves language and other media-related artifacts such as illustrations. The challenge is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in a way that avoids cultural polarization, say the authors.

“We suggest that trying to present science in a culturally neutral way is like trying to paint a picture without taking a perspective,” said Douglas Medin, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern.

This research builds on the broader research on cultural differences in the understanding of and engagement with science.

“We argue that science communication — for example, words, photographs and illustrations — necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators,” write the authors.

“These cultural artifacts both reflect and reinforce ways of seeing the world and are correlated with cultural differences in ways of thinking about nature. Therefore, science communication must pay attention to culture and the corresponding different ways of looking at the world.”

Medin said their previous work reveals that Native Americans traditionally see themselves as a part of nature and tend to focus on ecological relationships. In contrast, European-Americans tend to see humans as apart from nature and focus more on taxonomic relationships.

“We show that these cultural differences are also reflected in media, such as children’s picture books,” said Medin, who co-authored the study with Megan Bang of the University of Washington. “Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up, and the text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships that are present compared with popular children’s books not done by Native Americans.

“The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations,” he said.

The authors went to Google images and entered “ecosystems,” and 98 percent of the images did not have humans present. A fair number of the remaining 2 percent had children outside the ecosystem, observing it through a magnifying glass and saying, “I spy an ecosystem.”

“These results suggest that formal and informal science communications are not culturally neutral but rather embody particular cultural assumptions that exclude people from nature,” Medin said.

Medin and his research team have developed a series of “urban ecology” programs at the American Indian Center of Chicago, and these programs suggest that children can learn about the rest of nature in urban settings and come to see humans as active players in the world ecosystems.

Thanks to Northwestern University for contributing this story.

More Deadly Biohazards Found at the NIH!

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 09-10-2014

So what can you get while working at the NIH? In the past we told you about your risk of exposure to Anthrax, Smallpox, and the Avian Flu Virus. Well, now you can add ricin and Burkholderia pseudomallei, two well-recognized biological weapons, to your shopping list!

The Washington Post is reporting that during a beefed up safety inspection, NIH employees unexpectedly found these and several other deadly biological agents improperly stored among old and long-forgotten stockpiles, some dating back over 60 years.

I must admit that, unfortunately, I have found the news much less shocking this time around than in the past. In fact, I believe that I have now gone through several of the classical stages of grief:

  • Denial (it can’t be that the most respected scientific agency in the United States would irresponsibly allow the dangerous transfer of Anthrax to a low level bio-hazard lab)
  • Anger (what the heck is wrong with the scientist that left Smallpox at the back of the freezer?
  • Depression (we are all going to die from the Avian Flu virus)
  • Acceptance (ricin, staphylococcal enterotoxin, Melioidosis…these are just some of the things you should expect to find at an unsecured government research facility)

There really isn’t much more to say. I applaud the fact that the NIH are trying to introduce measure to more strictly control these substances, but I am not sure that the system will ever be 100% foolproof. There are probably tens, if not hundreds, of dangerous materials floating around labs all over the US, (not to mention the rest of the world). Is this a reason to be scared? I think so. What about you?

Why We Should Trust Scientists

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 09-09-2014

How to Succeed in Science?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-29-2014

Want to know how to be a successful scientist? Watch and learn!

When JIF Becomes a Dirty Word

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-28-2014

It’s not that we are obsessed with the Journal Impact Factor, (OK so we’ve written about it at least 7 times on this blog), however, we do feel that it plays an important role in the life of budding scientists and we strongly identify with DORA’s call to abandon its use in evaluating scientific merit.

You can read more about our opinion on the JIF factor in the links provided below. The intention of this post, however, is to draw attention to DORA’s call for research scientists to provide examples of JIF-less metrics and methods that can be used in lieu of the JIF as a metric for scientific accomplishment.

Some examples include:

  • The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s recruiting policy which encourages candidates to discuss their most significant scientific accomplishment without referring to their JIF ranking
  • Germany’s Max Planck Society is asking its recruits to provide full copies of the three papers which they consider to be their best ones-independent of their JIF ranking
  • The American Society for Cell Biology has moved away from the JIF and now evaluates candidates for the prestigious ASCB Kaluza Prizes based-upon the significance of discoveries they have made

To learn more about DORA’s call to abandon reliance on Journal Impact factors (JIFs) and adopt more enlightened approaches visit the DORA website.

For more information see:
Exploring scientific productivity
The Ugly Side of the Journal Impact Factor
Don’t Judge Me-I’m a Scientist
A Journal Impact Factor Scandal
Nobel Prize Winners Address Brutal Cuts in Federal Funding
The Journal Impact Factor and the Lazy Scientist
A YouTube Rebellion to the Journal Impact Factor