SciComm: No One Expects the Game of Twenty Questions!


Photo: Cait Rottler

Hi, I’m Cait Rottler, scientist and asker-of-(too)-many-questions. I like to know as much as I can about as many things as I can, because the more you know, the less likely you’ll get stuck in a position where you know nothing. Right now, my official title is a Research Ecologist working as the Southern Plains Climate Hub Fellow in El Reno, OK. The 10 Climate Hubs across the US are a program within the USDA whose mission is partly to enable climate-smart decision making by connecting agricultural producers with the latest climate change research in a usable form. I completed my PhD at the University of Wyoming about a year ago in Ecology. My dissertation was about wellpads— 40m diameter bare patches of ground where oil drills once stood–  and, sandwiched between a chapter on plant communities and a chapter on green biomass, was a chapter on soil carbon and nitrogen. That chapter prepared me well for my current research, which centers entirely on soil; specifically, how soil health management practices affect soil health across the Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas region. I’m working with landowners at 12 locations to identify and sample actual, working fields to use in my current study. As part of my position, I also help with outreach and stakeholder engagement. This means I get to talk to a lot of people—scientists, landowners, agricutural producers, the occasional politician, you name it—about climate change and agriculture.

Given these diverse interactions, on any given day, I’m likely to find myself in a situation of discussing a thorny topic in this part of the country – climate change. As a result, I have a lot of experience trying to make these interactions as positive as possible.  

Scientists do not always endear themselves to the general public. In our excitement to talk about what we love, we’re frequently mistaken for “know-it-alls”. Some scientists find it too difficult to use non-technical language. Many of us just aren’t comfortable explaining ourselves in anything but Scientificese because we don’t know how far to go in making it understandable to others. This discomfort is perfectly understandable, but I think it’s also indicative of the major challenge in talking to non-scientists: we don’t always know our audiences well enough.

wanted, in writing this, to have some sort of grand and sweeping advice, or to relate a story of a “Eureka!” moment where suddenly I understood. Instead, I have one really simple, annoyingly vague piece of advice.

Ask questions. Real, genuine questions– start a conversation, and listen.

Thinking back through all my interactions with ag producers as part of my current position, all the classes I took and taught as a grad student, and all the random people I’ve talked to about science, there’s only one thing they’ve all had in common—I ask a lot of questions. When I talk with producers, I want to know how farming works, how they decide what seeds to plant, or why the fields have weird ridges (terraces, by the way, for controlling erosion). I have to understand the landscapes where I’m working and how people fit into them; how they affect them, and how they’re affected by them. To the occasional frustration of those around me, I need to find motivation for what I’m doing—luckily, that’s generally easy because, as I mentioned, I really like understanding things in depth. Questions are how I get there. And, more apropos of science communication, questions also help build trust, respect, and understanding between myself and my audience. Communicating science is a mutually beneficial exercise: I get the chance to practice making sense, someone else has a positive interaction with a scientist (which is really important these days), and we both learn something. 

Sampling soil on a farm in Hutchinson, KA. I’ve found field work to be one of the best opportunities for conversation, and for me to learn about the place where I’m doing my research. Photo: C. Rottler

True story: You can imagine my surprise when a landowner whose field we’d been sampling asked, after about an hour of conversation, why scientists are sure climate change is predominately human-caused. He’d read a book by a scientist that said it could just as easily be any number of other things. I often suspect that anyone asking me this is actually waiting for an opportunity to tell me why I’m wrong. But regardless, I do my best to treat it like an honest question. I paused in trying to drive the soil corer into the ground and told the producer, “I’m used to explaining this in Scientificese, so if I start doing that, please tell me so I can stop.” And then I spent the next half-hour explaining to this producer between soil samples the quick and dirty version of climate modeling: how they’re built and tested and validated, and what we can use them for. I explained that we can change what goes into the models to see what the effects will be; that one application of these tools is to test all of those other possible causes and comparing the results to actual historical data. I told him that it was only when the mix of causes included human CO2 emissions that the model results reflect what is actually happening. I was, in fact, thinking of this graph in my head,

Of course, I can’t guarantee that I changed his mind from that single conversation, but I was able to explain something to him that no one had before (hopefully in an approachable way), and he felt comfortable asking questions. I don’t think it would have been as good a conversation as it was if we hadn’t both taken the time to get to know our audiences (each other)—and that was the most important lesson to me.

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