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Science Communication: Consider the Source

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Previously Published in 2017

 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION -- We've all seen health products, mental health products, or other services claim that what they're doing is backed by real science.  Whether they're making wild claims about how much weight you're going to lose, or saying how much better they're going to make your life in general, they often times say that they're backed up by science.  Even dating websites claim they have science behind them.

 

These claims may do one of two things to you:

1) They may make you more skeptical about the product or service.

2) They may make you trust the product or service more than you might have originally.

 

Obviously, for the company trying to take your money, the latter option is more ideal.  But the average consumer needs to be more skeptical.  Just because some science is behind a product, that doesn't necessarily mean it's trustworthy.  You have to consider the source.  How do you go about considering the source of a scientific study, though?  How do you know what to look for?

 

Considering the Source: Where Did the Study Come From?

 

In 2017, Vox Media produced an article showing how companies like OceanSpray got away with saying that their cranberry juice could reduce urinary tract infections by 40%.  However, that study that OceanSpray boasted was co-funded by the company themselves.  On top of that, the study was co-authored by OceanSpray.  And the study and similar ones like it have had a lot of people fooled.  Doctors have gone as far as to suggest to their patients that they drink cranberry juice when suffering from an UTI.  The author of this article knows this from personal experience.

 

It wasn't as though the study was completely lying, either, which helped boost their supposed credibility.  Cranberries do have compounds that fight off bacteria, but you'd have to drink a LOT of cranberry juice to see any kind of result whatsoever. "People would have to continuously drink the juice twice a day in serving of 150 mL for an indefinite period of time."

 

When looking at a study, was it funded by the company promoting the product?  Was it authored by the company promoting the product?  Is the study helping promote the product at all?  All of these things should raise red flags when looking at a study.

 

Considering the Source: Is a Celebrity Talking About it?

 

The average person take celebrity opinions far too seriously.  Let's just admit that right off the bat.  This can be a huge problem, unfortunately.  It's lead to countless people attempting detox teas because Kylie Jenner posted them on instagram (and got massively paid to do it, too). Detox teas have unwanted side effects, and will mostly help you lose water weight more than anything else as they are a diuretic.  They're not the miracle weight loss product that celebrities and instagram influencers claim they are.

 

And the Kardashian-Jenner family aren't the only ones at fault here.  People like Gwyneth Paltrow have made a business surrounding products that supposedly have science backings.  However, Paltrow's website GOOP is being investigated for at least 51 deceptive health claims.  These claims hurt people on the regular, because if their favorite celebrity is doing it -- they should too!  It means it must work!  In reality, we have to remember that these people are not scientists and are getting paid to promote these products.

 

Considering the Source: Did you Find it on Social Media?

 

Social media is similar to the aforementioned celebrity point.  They may not be getting paid to promote these tweets, but they are getting the instant gratification of likes and retweets.  This was a an issue to Megan Lynch, a student of Economic Botany herself.  When I asked about what other ways we need to consider the source of scientific claims, she said she watched a lot of scientists retweet "spammy" tweets without questioning the fact that these tweets didn't have a source associated with them.  We're all susceptible to this kind of behavior, too, so we have to be aware of that and realize what we're doing before we do it.

 

Considering the Material: Peer Reviewed Articles

 

It's not just the sources of articles and "facts" we need to be wary of.  Even the articles we find we can trust the sources from have faults, flaws, and can be misleading.

 

Dr. Emma Yhnell brought this up to me when asked, saying "articles are often changed depending on reviewer comments".   And it's true.  On top of this, peer reviewed articles have other flaws such as the competition factor.  "Academic competition for funding, positions, publication space and credits has increased along with the growth of the number of researchers," Says a New Republic article written by Stefano Belietti.  "Science is a winner-take-all enterprise, where whoever makes the decisive discovery first gets all the fame and credit, whereas all the remaining researchers are forgotten. The competition can be fierce and the stakes high. In such a competitive environment, experiencing an erroneous rejection, or simply a delayed publication, might have huge costs to bear."

 

Because of the competition of science just to get into a journal, let alone have your study make it big, this can cause biases to be formed that could negatively effect the article.  Science should be neutral and unbiased, but it's not infallible by any means.

 

Considering the Material:  What was the Sample Size?

 

Is the article hiding important information from you?  Seeing how large the sample size was and how the variables were controlled is extremely important.  And a lot of times, the sample sizes to articles are small.  They're small enough that they can't really say for sure that the conclusions they came can be considered a scientific fact now.  But often times, despite this, that's how the conclusions from the research comes off, especially when being reported on by the mainstream media.  If the study doesn't even tell you how big a sample size was, or hides from you how the variables were controlled, that should be a warning sign for you to be more skeptical towards the study.

 

Science needs skepticism.  Without it, there would be no science at all really.  Without questioning things, finding sources, and doing your own research, you're blindly trusting in fallible humans.  And the bottom line is that we will realize that we made mistakes in our research, or made mistakes in promoting that research.  However, the more aware of it we are, and the more cautious we make ourselves, the more we can avoid promoting pseudoscience and faulty science as absolute fact.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


 

Help Us Donate to the Mars Generation!

 
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Last year, we did our best to help donate to the Mars Generation and to help them reach their goal of $20,000!  We were able to help them, and we raised almost $150 for them. 

 

This year, we want to raise 8x that.

 

 
 

The Mars Generation is a non-profit that helps kids get excited about STEM.  Started by Abigail Harrison, or as many know her, Astronaut Abby, in 2015, The Mars Generation has been helping children get into Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math ever since.  

 

This year, it's their 3rd Annual #TrainLikeaMartian challenge.  The challenge 'is a week of fun activities that brings awareness to the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education, space exploration, and physical fitness to students and adults around the world' according to their website.

 

Last year, FemSTEM got involved, and we want to get involved again.

 

We did some of the challenges ourselves, as well as started a fundraising page to help raise them up to their goal!

 

Here is our current fundraising page to help them out this year!

 

If you donate, all of the money goes directly to the Mars Generation -- we don't see any of it.  This is not sponsored by them in any way, shape or form, it's just a fun way to help our fellow STEM-lovers help others!

 

And -- if you donate $25 or more, you get entered into their daily prize drawings as well as their grand prize drawings.  You can learn more information about their prizes here.  On top of that, you'll get a handwritten thank you card from us no matter how much you donate (as long as you donate through our fundraiser here).  

 

What are you waiting for!!

 

DONATE NOW

 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.



A Thank You to Melissa C Marquez

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An Open Letter to Melissa C. Márquez,

 

It was February of last year when you approached me about writing #STEMSaturdays. Ever since then, I haven't been able to thank you enough.  I remember distinctly holding myself back from emailing you back right away -- my excitement easily gets the best of me and I didn't want to seem too eager.

 

At that point, my website had been around for a little over a month.  I had been let go from one writing job, was getting ready to quit another because of the bad working conditions, and found myself jobless and just trying to see if I could make my website go anywhere.  Part of me was excited, part of me was heartbroken.  I'm not convinced, at all, that I would have the traction that I have had on this website without your help.  You have helped this site gain thousands of views, you have started great conversations on Twitter, and you have supported me through this rollercoaster.

 

Honestly, the best part is that you and I will be continuing to work together throughout this year -- and hopefully continuing on to the future.

 
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You didn't have to contact me, or put all of the effort that you did into the articles you wrote for this site.  My goodness, you had (and still have) so much going on in your professional and personal life.  You had an amazing TEDX Talk to write, rehearse, and travel for.  That's a much bigger stage for you than anything I've been able to provide since this site, as of January 16th, will only be a year old.  An infant.  Yet, you still put a ton of effort into your writings for FemSTEM, and it shows.  I know everyone who reads your articles can agree with me there.  There's so much to them; so much wonderful advice and heartwarming notes of inspiration.  A great reminder that if you put your mind to it, you can do it.  A reminder that your obstacles are there, but you can overcome them, or at least work around them.  A great reminder than your mental health has to be a priority, and that we don't talk about that in academia as much as we ought to.

 

I've taken your advice for myself, particularly along the lines of networking.  It's helped me out tremendously.  I have business cards, and brochures, and I've been invited to events in order to network further.  Your advice, that you didn't write for me, but for the audience, has been invaluable.  I just hope others have taken steps towards your advice, as well.  In fact, I'm confident that they have.

 

You are, and always will be, a huge asset to me and to FemSTEM, as well as the female science community.  I plan to continue to support you, as you have done an amazing amount for me.  I will never be able to thank you enough.

 

I still want to try, though.

 

Thank you for being such a huge part of FemSTEM's identity.
Thank you so much for being so supportive.
Thank you for all the advice.
And thank you for everything else.

 

-- Mariah Loeber
Founder of FemSTEM.com
And always in debt to you.

 

VISIT MELISSA'S TWITTER HERE

 

The Relationship Between #SciComm and #SciArt

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Originally published May 2017

Sarah E. Kucharski, the Communications Lead at Biotech Partners, took over the @iamscicomm twitter on May 11.  Much of the discussion she had with the 9K followers on that twitter had to do with the relationship between science communication and science art.

 

What is Science Communication and Science Art?

 

Generally speaking, science communication is the communication between scientists and the public. Between the experts and the non-experts.  It’s also been called “outreach” or “popularization”, and has become somewhat of its own professional field within the science community.

 

Science communication can take many forms.  Journalism, science exhibitions, talks in front of audiences, storytelling, and more.  Science communication is what FemSTEM does every single time we upload an article.

 

However, as many scientists have realized, not every scientist can or should attempt to communicate sciences to the public. In a tweet from the twitter account @biotweeps, our guest writer, Melissa Marquez, expressed this point when she took over that twitter for the week.

 

"I DO think that scientists should partner with those already doing #scicomm to #sciengage with public." — Biotweeps - Melissa (@biotweeps) 

 

Science art is what it sounds like — the blending together of science and artwork.  Science art can take the forms of infographics, big pieces of artwork that convey a message, or something like a necklace even that has an atom pendant.

 

Where's the relation?

 

This was exactly the question that Sarah Kucharski had posed.  “Is #scicomm #sciart, and is #sciart #scicomm?” she asked twitter that night.

 

“I would say that the #scicomm, #sciart is like a highly overlapping Venn diagram,” Said biology undergraduate and science artist herself, Hannah Brazeau during the week she ran the twitter account @iamsciart.  “But they can be separated in some limited cases.  [For example]: a botanical illustration [without] accompanying information.  If [the] audience just sees something pretty, it’s #sciart, but not #scicomm.”

 

There were agreements with this statement, as user Peggy Muddles said that her science art pendants weren’t considered to be a form of good science communication.

 

But when science art and science communication do blend well together, they become imperative. 

 

Hannah argued that science communication couldn’t even exist without science art.  “Science Communication without infographics?”  She pondered.  “Oh my.”

 

Conservation Geographer and Photographer, Alena Ebeling-Schuld, seemed to agree.  “A lot of people learn visually and can understand [a] concept much better when presented in this form,”  She tweeted out.  “Plus,”  She continued.  “In a social media age, #sciart attracts viewers’ attention through colour and beauty. It connects people with the message!”

 

That being said …artists often times don’t get paid very much for their work.

 

Though science art is needed when it comes to science communication, the piece of the puzzle that’s missing is realizing how much work an artists really brings to their pieces.

 

When Sarah asked: “Regardless of [your] profession or field, do you earn a living on your passion? Or do you work to support your passion?”  the idea of making a living from science art made Moiety chuckle.

 

“Earn a living from #sciart?”  Hannah asked.  “Hold on, I need to stop laughing first.”

 

She went on to say that she has a day job, and thankfully, she does make enough money from science art each month to over at least one bill.  However, this is certainly not the case for every artist.

 

When I spoke to Hannah directly that day, she noted that there was a high expectation of free art in the science communication community.  “The expectation of free art is sadly quite common in scicomm.”

 

Taking for granted the use of artwork when it comes to science communication is something that needs to be addressed.  We’re lucky enough to have scientific artwork presented with the communication with science in just about everything.  Whether that’s beautiful photos taken next to National Geographic articles, or hand-painted or drawn works of skeletons or bugs (like Glendon Mellow’s wonderful works), or digitally created infographics that draw a point home.

 

We need to realize, as a community, how important science art is to science communication, and not take artists for granted.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.

 

Does Climate Change Contribute to Depression, PTSD, and other Mental Health Problems?

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Originally Posted April 4th, 2017

 

The American Psychological Association recently came out with a study suggesting that climate change is bad for our mental wellbeing, and can aid in developing mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD.

 

The study was paired with ecoamerica.org, a company that “builds institutional leadership, public support, and political will for climate solutions in the United States”, as well as with Climate for Health, a “national initiative led by a diverse network of health leaders from across the health sector representing key health care, public health, clinical, and medical institutions and associations”.

 

This isn’t the first time this thought has been addressed, and it won’t be the last time.  “The mental health effects of climate change are gaining public attention,” says the study (page 21). “A 2016 government report (U.S. Global Change Research Program) reviewed a large body of research to summarize the current state of knowledge.”

 

This particular study separates the effects of climate change on mental health into two categories: acute impacts and chronic impacts.

 

The acute impacts are “immediate and severe psychological trauma,” according to the study.  These would be things like how a climate change-induced disaster may immediately create a toll for those who got hurt because of the impacts, who’s loved ones or loved pets got harmed as a result, or even property damage.

 

Because of these immediate impacts, though “for most people, acute symptoms of trauma and shock are reduced after conditions of security have been restored,” illnesses such as PTSD and depression can develop.  For instance, according to the study, one in six people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina (2005) have met the criteria needed to be diagnosed with PTSD.

 

The chronic impacts are sustained impacts such as the relationship between heat and aggression.  “Lab-based experiments and eld-based surveys have demonstrated a causal relationship between heat and aggression,” says the study. “In other words, as the temperature goes up, so does aggression.”

 

The rising heat has also been thought to deteriorate social communities.  Because being outside is uncomfortable in hot, sticky weather, people are more likely to stay indoors to be cool.  The more this happens, the more anti-social the human race as a whole can become.  A lack of social interaction has been shown to contribute to depression.

 

Are There Solutions?

 

Short of just solving negative climate change as a whole, there are some things that can be done.

 

The study suggests that mental health professionals become literate as to what’s going on with climate to better understand the impact it may have on their clients.  Individuals who are not mental health professionals are encouraged to have a safety plan for if and when a major weather disaster happens, and to learn “resilience interventions” (pages 53-55) to help themselves out as much as they possibly can.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.