An SMU alumnus’ perspective on writing about science

The edges of the audiences’ lips curved upwards into cheeky grins as SMU alumnus Stephen Ornes said the first name he had chosen for his lecture on science writing: “Liars, Deniers, Doubters and evidence, where do we go from here?”

The physics and english degree-holder changed the name of his April 7 lecture to “Real and Imaginary Hazards in Writing about Science.” The lecture, which was held at 5:30 p.m. in the Fondren Science Building, highlighted the problems and solutions in the ongoing efforts to inform the public about scientific findings and their implications.

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Stephen Ornes spoke about the real problems in writing about science. Photo credit: Gianni Windahl

Ornes said the first problem is that science literacy is low, according to a poll by the National Science Foundation. When asked if the earth goes around the sun or the sun goes around the earth, 74 percent of the over 1,000 people sampled gave the correct answer.

“That seems like a good percent, until you do the math and find that one in four people you meet thinks the sun revolves around us,” said Ornes.

He added that Americans need to be scientifically literate to make decisions about things like climate change and health care, and to recognize bad information in articles.

Another problem he identified and supported with psychological studies is that people hold fast to their beliefs and will not likely be changed by facts. People also create their own information bubbles, choosing to keep others close who share their beliefs and read news that supports their ideas.

“So then how do we continue this conversation when people can’t be hit over the head with facts?” said Ornes.

His first tip is to learn the scientific process and understand the way information is funneled into a published paper through peer review and publishing standards.

He added that science communicators and the public alike should be critical of stories. If the reader does not have a background in science, he or she should look for comments from outside sources.

“The outside source is what separates science from promotional material…writers should not be cheerleaders,” said Ornes.

The key to communicating with those who do not accept the facts or studies you present is to connect through stories and identify what you have in common.

Ornes gave the example of a woman he had a conversation with who was against child vaccinations. He added that they first had to find common ground, that they are both parents and care about the safety of their children. Then he was able to expand the conversation and expose her to a book titled, “On Immunity” that analyzes scientific research and different viewpoints on vaccinations.

The lecture concluded with applause, and sparked conversation between two students sitting in the back row of room 133.

Alec Petsche, a junior double majoring in film and English, said that he liked the question and answer portion after the lecture because it allowed him to ask Ornes about his view on the role of scientific accuracy in films.

Katriana Simmon, a junior majoring in biochemistry, said that she enjoyed learning how to speak to others about scientific research.

“Being someone who’s done science, it’s hard for me to explain it to other people,” said Simmon. “I liked learning how to combat people who come from different views. That’s what made me stay.”

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