Posts Tagged ‘information’

Science and information revisited

There haven’t been enough (climate) science around here for a while now. We’ll have to do something about that…

Communication have been something that really caught my interest when I started working for Commute Greener!. I have argued for better scientific communication several times here on the blog, as well as at Gothenburg University (where I still study). Since communication is much about giving easy access and making information understandable  it is something really important, yet seems to be forgotten by the scientific community. Or at least by many of the participants in the community, there are of course outliers. There always are.

Science is guided by very strict rules. “Climate gate” was a kick in the groin for the trust of scientists. The risk increase that nobody believed in them anymore. Lots of deniers still roam around websites, posting links to various denial papers, mine papers for quotes to use and so on. But believe it or not, scientists like to play by the very strict rules set up for them. That is really good.

Let’s take an example. I don’t know if you read lots of scientific papers in whole. Let’s assume you haven’t. What you will see first is that the language is the same in almost every paper you pick up. Academic English may have overly complicated sentences everywhere. Unless you are very familiar with the field this may feel odd and is part of a dilemma for specific science and broader audiences. Not only does a text have a specific audience, there may be pictures that don’t mean squat to you but that others can read like a full length novel. The next thing is that it follows a pattern; intro/background, method, results, discussion, conclusion. Thanks to this pattern you know what you will find. Once you are into the style and lingo, it is quite easy to know what to search for. For conclusions, go to that part. Interested in how the experiment was done? Go to method etc. Nice and easy. For those who know this.

But when it comes to communicating these findings, everything seems to stop. Few are those who seem to be willing to take chances with the ways to communicate more widely. Pamphlets, maybe an article in a popular science paper or even a newspaper if the finding is big enough. Review articles and student literature. Sometimes even a 3 minutes report on TV. This should in my opinion be the most important part of science, communicating it to the masses. I get that it is difficult, but it should be doable.

I am by no means an expert at environmental communication, but I think part of the problem is the fact that reporting science without “dumbing it down” for the masses takes time to learn. Time “better spent” on more research. I think it is a matter off saying “let’s skip the numbers, what have we really found out”. Humans are emotional beings. Why not use that? Show us how this is relevant to us. This is part of the reason I like Commute Greener! as a tool. It takes the complexities of everyday transportation into a movement that make lots of people actually change behaviors by setting a target, seeing the progress and sharing experiences. Instead of getting stuck and thereby risking that people see everything as too difficult or even totally missing the problem it is possible to encourage positive actions. Part of this is to share communication in a a number of ways. You see your emissions, and how you can affect them. It gives CO2 a face in fuel cost savings, a Health Index, a tree saving effect etc. Something that most of us can relate too. Suddenly something difficult become more simple. Do you really need all the knowledge of light spectra’s, wave lengths of the atoms, the complex wind and sea models and all the juicy science stuff to see how this relate to you and how you can affect it?

The point I am trying to make is that maybe it is worth taking the time to share the science through broader communication, make it emotional, simplify and even forget the statistics for a while. To simply focus on HOW the data should be presented as much as what it means. Randy Olson, a marine biologist turned film maker summarized what I am trying to say at his blog last week.

I think we’ll leave it at that. Have a nice easter everyone, and remember to Commute Greener!

Fredrik

btw, why not pipe in at facebook and give us a like! or try our Facebook app when you are at it.

 

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Rapping for public transportation!

There are many ways to promote public transportation. Information, campaigns, free tickets, rapping lego men… wait what?

It’s true. While strolling through my rss feed I found a rather funny article at Green Growth Cascadia. It is a site dedicated to greener transportation, with tips, interesting news and discussions. The blog article wasn’t that long, but it had an interesting video in it.

Apparently, Detroit is upgrading its rapid transit system, and this video had a nice song, explaining why running trains down the middle of a boulevard is the safest and best alternative for the new light rail. Now, I am not very well read on the project, so I don’t know anything about the situation, but this “debate song” is really spot on.

This is how campaigns and information about projects should be brought across. It would have been even better if Detroit city had done something similar, but this sure is how information should be presented. Well, maybe not with rapping toys, but in a fun, innovative and interesting way. I don’t like rap, but even I think this video is catchy. It sure beats the old “paper slip in the mailbox” thing most information campaigns use. At least those for public transportation. They could be a lot more interesting and would probably attract much more attention with something like this.

Now granted, campaigns for public transportation can be successful without rapping plastics. The great commuter experiment run in the west of Sweden made 28 000 car commuters to try a mass transit commute, and some 8000 of those have continued after the experiment was finished. To put that in relatedly numbers; 28 000 is like one of our towns… 8000 is like one of the smaller Swedish community/cities. That is a really good outcome. The message was out everywhere, on buses, on posters, in the news… you couldn’t get away from it. But I wonder if something like this on the frontpage of the transit company’s webpage wouldn’t have caught even more attention. And attention is one of the keys to get a campaign running.

Speaking of campaigns, if you are a student or work at Lindholmen, Gothenburg, check out the LSP Campaign we and a bunch of companies are running for greener commute habits. (Sorry English speakers, info just in Swedish). Join in and Commute Greener!

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Fredrik

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TravelGreener

In Friday’s blog entry about ISET, a central piece was the question of  how do we use IT solutions to make a everyday travel more sustainable. Information on where the bus is, when it will arrive and which other options there are may very well become more and more important for the commuter in the future, and may be important to convince avid drivers to look towards other options. Well, I have a treat in store;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnT-HxQ0nEA

Cool, don’t you think? While this is a demonstrator (at least to my knowledge) it certainly paints a pretty picture. Easy to access information about travel routes and several modes of transportation with estimated times and environmental impact. Not only that, being able to hook up with friends on the way is a nice feature as well. Then add in the Commute Greener! features that is already a reality, with measured footprint, Zero Emission Miles, public transportation distance and ridesharing as well as the Health Index to become wider used with the next release, and we are looking at a lot of useful information and attractive action.

A green commute should be as easy as getting in the car is. Whether it is car-pooling, biking, using mass transit or walking, there are possible solutions to make it easier. Wouldn’t having access to all this make it easier to see the possibilities? If nothing else you would be able to see that another route is possible, or that another mode of transportation is available if the bus is late or the car has broken down. While that doesn’t happen often, it always turns the atmosphere frosty. Having more information makes it easier to get around obstacles like that.

It wouldn’t be THE solution to bring everyone to a greener commute of course. Habits can be hard to break and all the information in the world can’t change that. It may be compared to that we still have a tobacco widely sold and that fast food is a bit too easy to over consume. But even if one don’t believe in the ongoing changes in the climate and peak oil, we all live in the reality of rising fuel prices and increasing traffic congestion, and more and more people will eventually have to look towards alternative options. IT solutions and innovation in this area could very well help change the way we travel.

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Fredrik

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Why is it so difficult to explain (environmental) science in an easy way?

The scientific world is a strange one. It has its own language (several in fact), a lively debate can rise from a new paper getting printed just to die out or lead to a number of similar studies aimed at testing if what was said was true. As a scientist, you are always on the ropes, someone in that private little world will always disagree with your methods, finds, conclusions or basic hypothesis. It is really a dramatic scene, if not a glamorous one. Taking down equipment in the rain and mud, taking water samples in the middle of winter and so on is NOT glamorous. I’m not a scientist, and thank the heaven for that.

That small world does prove to be a problem though. At least at times. Have you seen a scientist try to get his message across to a reporter or journalist? It is not an easy task. I have written about science and information before (1,2,3,4) and while I haven’t studied the subject of communication of scientific findings, I have spent 4,5 years  in the University world. And I am in good company. Nowhere in my education were we thought how to relay information to the masses. Or even how to talk to “normal” people about the environment. That is something you got to learn for yourselves today.

I came across this article from the climateprogress.org today. I found it very interesting. It is about a seminar on the subject of how to properly relay scientific information to the public. I don’t know about you, but I found it interesting.

It should be easy to tell people about new findings. Climate Change/Global Warming/Armageddon/whatever you call it shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. Adapting to the audience should be the natural thing to do when presenting. That in itself is an art which require training. But if done correctly and if the “story” is told with pride and passion, people will have an easier time getting it.

Funny enough, this is something the commercial world has gotten a long time ago. You can’t sell a product if it isn’t at least moderately user friendly. As soon as it get to complex people will stop using it. User friendliness is vital for the acceptance of the message/product. One example is our baseline wizard which was made to make setting up Commute Greener! easier for our users. How come user friendliness isn’t an issue in the scientific community?

I believe (and this is a personal opinion) that part of the problem is the language. It is very easy to fall into jargon, especially when nervous. Another part of the problem is that science in many cases is adapted towards an audience with education in the subject. Cancun nearly failed, just like Copenhagen, because economy and politics were the language of the negotiators. Science need to step out from that bauble it is hiding in and start showing of in an easy to understand manner. Visualization, connection, that kind of things.

To round up this rant, let’s just say that if science was easier to understand and spoke the common mans language, we would probably have fewer misunderstandings over methods and linguistic turns. Al Gore did something right with that oh so famous powerpoint presentation; he spoke the language of the people. And look were that got us. The wow factor was enormous. People got interested in the environment. And remembered. That is what we need, but with real scientists and new fresh data. Perhaps an utopia, but a nice one to dream about.

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Fredrik

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Habits are hard to break

A bad habit can be really bad to get rid of. Have you ever tried dieting? Most manages  a week, then spend some quality time with the old pals soda and crisps… It’s the same with transportation habits. Driving is convenient and easy; the car stands ready on the driveway whenever you want to go. So how to break that old habit? And how to make more people take the bus instead?

Two very interesting articles discussing human habits and how to change them has come up on Grist.org recently. They paint a picture of how there are ways to change peoples behavior on a large scale. Doing so will require new methods though.

It is easy to agree with much of what is written in these texts. There is an overestimation of technology, to make one example. While new and greener technology s an important part of the environmental struggle, human habits play a far greater role.   We will never be able to completely conquer climate change without addressing the habits that builds our way of life.  Like the good old habit of driving alone to work.

So how can you change the habits of thousands towards greener lives? No Idea.  But more information and more technology may not be the way to go. After a while it gets really difficult to follow everything and you start to loose track in the flood of new warnings and pointers. The politicians jobs are not easy with all the rapports, polls and so on must make them blind after a while.

So, with that in mind, is telling people how much eco-friendlier the bus is going to make them try? A few maybe, but not many. Most will still drive. Is handing out free bus tickets a better way to go about the problem? Or is showing them, in numbers calculated from their own journey the only way? Of course not. But going by bus will have to become more convenient then driving, as well as being more engaging and giving a nice feeling of accomplishment. Not an easy task, right?

To summarize my ramblings you could say that we need to find new ways to engage people in environmentally friendly activities. We can’t outbuild environmental problems, but need to attack them at the source, human habits.  All our small choices are influenced by habits, from what to cook for dinner to were we live and how we commute to if we are interested in the environment or not. On a global and national level economical actions, like cap and trade or tax on gasoline, are important for giving incitement to change. But on the individual and group level, changing habits must be fun, engaging, interesting and rewarding. Otherwise we are back in the sofa at the end of the week, with our cola and snacks. Or back on the highway, sitting alone in the car while the line of lonely car commuters slowly moves forward.

Fredrik

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30 ways in 30 days

Visualization and engagement are two very important issues in the climate struggle. After all, if you are unable to see the problem you won’t understand WHY you need to change your way of life. Preachy and doomy messages from the media doesn’t help either even if that kind of messaging have a purpose too. Company/community/regional commitments and campaigns that engage and make the change fun may well have a better effect. It is time to try a new approach anyways. 

UNEP has a really interesting thing going during the countdown for COP 16; “30 ways in 30 days to combat climate change”. A quite simple yet very interesting initiative. Well, not simple. Some really huge initiatives like loan programs for solar energy in Indian villages has been presented thus far, which is great. Burning wood or manure to boil water is not very efficient and definitely not good for the women who cook over the fires/ovens. Not only that, that kind of cooking results in some nasty emissions of CO2, particles etc.

But it seems like more local and individual ways will be presented as well. This is exactly what will be needed if we want to change the tone of the climate debate. Climate change is not just a huge unsolvable doom clock ticking down to the end of our world. It is a serious problem, but every small step helps in brining it down. You and me can help do something against this. It is just a matter of commitment. And then we are left were we started.

What makes these case studies so great is that they show that all kinds of initiatives matter a great deal. From the large scale solar energy programs in India to the green passport campaign (second case study) its all important. You simply must applaud the UNEP for this campaign.

When talking about greener holidays, we should all think one more time when ordering our charter plane ticket to (insert destination of your choice here). Isn’t there other options available, closer to home? You could save a lot of money and reduce your personal CO2 footprint by looking for other options, or simply skipping that second holiday journey that have become popular in some places.

By the way, let’s finish by promoting our facebook app. It lets you update your status from Commute Greener!, and you can show your progress on your wall. Pretty neat way of showing how easy you can do your part in the climate struggle as well!

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Fredrik

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Information, part two

You know what, lets continue on yesterdays topic… Bad communications about scientific results and conclusions.

A study at Yale shows that many americans don’t get climate change. While over 60 % believe that it is happening, many apparently think baning areosols and toxic waste, and stop “punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets” would stop it.

This has nothing to do with being stupid. It can be due to poor communications and lack of interest from many people. Many newspapers and television are bad at reporting scientific finds. Politicians have their own agendas, and some politicians have close ties to the industry, be it fossil fuel, steel or something else, they won’t make a clear stand for climate change. We have already seen that.

Whose responsibility is it to explain and simplify the complex scientific results so you and I can read it. I will admit, I have a masters decree in environmental science, but can still have problem following the models. And if I, with a specialised education in the issue don’t get it all, how much do the people without such education really get? (Did I sound arrogant there? If so, that is not my intention at all). In my opinion, it is the government in conjunction with the scientists themselves that should have that responsibility. But I am used to a different political system then the North American.

In Sweden, our version of the EPA have that responsibility, along with the county and city officials. And it works quite ok, if you are interested there are vast amount of stuff to read on their home pages. But here, there is no political debate about weather climate change exist or not.

We also see scientists on the news when something big has happened. Take the toxic clay in eastern Europe. There were experts on the news talking about that and explaining the possible effects. Of course, the environmental  news are still not all that common. But it shows up now and then.

I can understand that Climate change, carbon dioxide, weather patterns and effects that you don’t see for yourself, added to the fact that experts seems to argue with each others, can be confusing.  But they are not arguing about weather global warming exist or not, but tiny differences in point of view. Something IPCC more or less said, but then got shot down for in the Climategate “scandal”… What we need is less of those arguments and more scientists that bother to get down to us mortals levels and simply explain what is happening, in simple words.

By the way, have you noticed that many of the “scientists” that argue AGAINST climate change and CO2 s effects on the climate aren’t climate scientists. They are doctors, physics, economists and so on. The quotation marks between scientists is there as I was asked to sign up on such a list…  A Bachelor decree was the minimum you needed to sign the list  and you are no scientist with just that…

Well, that’s it for today. Have a nice weekend everybody, and be sure to give us a like on facebook! and to try our new version of Commute Greener!

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Science and communication

OK, I’m annoyed today. Really annoyed. And I am going to discuss science today.

While taking a stroll through my RSS feeds, I found an article/blog post on NY times dot earth. Big news, humans have altered the nitrogen cycle!

How is this news? Granted, the blog post builds on a fairly new report, but that humans have altered the nitrogen cycle (or just about any of the natural cycles) is old news. The scientific world has known that for a long time. Farming and cattle, with fertilizers and other additives has been in use for half a century. Farming haven’t been “natural” since the agricultural revolution during the 50s. And all traffic and transportations reduce large amounts of NOx as well (N=nitrogen O=oxygen, the x=one or 2 oxygen atoms. There, now you got  some light chemistry as well :p).

But a quote from the blog post, which consists of a Q&A from the scientist, is what irks me;

Q.

Why has the human impact on the nitrogen cycle gotten less attention than our influence on carbon (or mercury, for that matter)?

A.

It’s mostly because scientists are focused on their little world….

Then a longer and really good explanation follows, but that quote captures the scientific world, and why better communication from the universities are needed. It is no wonder that climate deniers are running rampart and arguing that consensus is lost when the scientists are only interested in their little part, and thereby only communicating that. It will then seem VERY disconnected from another scientists results. This is fairly clear inside the scientific world, were you read many different articles a day, but the public will just get confused.

I have often heard that scientists don’t think that they should be the communicators. Media, journalists, politicians and governmental instances should have that responsibility. And I can understand why they want that. Butt he message get distorted and we get all kinds of “alarms” or poorly thought out political programs. And the other instances ALWAYS have an agenda of their own. The AB32, Prop 23 or cap and trade debates are proof of that.

My point is that things like this should be commonly known. Science, Nature, Journal of Cleaner Production, Ecotoxicology and such magazines are not enough to make scientific results available to the common man. Reading such magazines require some kind of higher education to interpret the heavy and difficult language. All kinds of possibilities exists alongside with great interest from the public for easily available scientific information. So why is it so scarce?

I should add that I generalize a lot now. There are scientists and universities that are great at delivering their results to the public. But they are few and far in between.

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