Guest Column
I’m a science storyteller. Before COVID misinformation, I used to know why. | Column
We need something to slap us out of this fog of navel-gazing and back into action fueled by shared understanding.
Kristen M. Kusek is the Director of Strategic Science Communications at the USF College of Marine Science (Class of 1998) on the St. Petersburg campus.
Kristen M. Kusek is the Director of Strategic Science Communications at the USF College of Marine Science (Class of 1998) on the St. Petersburg campus. [ Provided ]
Published Sept. 9, 2021

Sending an elbow bump to my fellow science communicators, science journalists and STEM educators. It’s a tough time for people who care about the public’s understanding of science. Some of us are not okay.

I’ve worked within the “sci comm” landscape for nearly a quarter of a century. I knew in my gut early in my grad school career in marine science that I wasn’t meant to do science; I was meant to help people understand it. That’s why I tacked on an additional master’s in communication.

My career has been motivated through its ups (diving to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, climbing up the world’s northernmost volcano, tracking leopards in South Africa) and its downs (egos, inequities, budgets with too few zeros) by a quote from The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”

No matter the title I held, I knew my “why”: I care a whole awful lot about people, the planet and science — and telling their stories was my way to make a difference. We are a story-telling species. It’s how we understand the world.

And stories about science? I mean, science! Artificial Intelligence software that identifies fish in the Gulf of Mexico the way facial recognition software spots people. DNA technology that could eradicate malaria. Robo-bees that may resuscitate plant pollination. Horseshoe crab blood that detects toxic contamination in vaccines and medical devices. The fact that the bacteria that causes tuberculosis is being used to treat my mom’s bladder cancer. And it’s working.

Science that makes a difference. Stories that change the world.

Right now, I’m about as lost as the Lorax in the Mariana Trench, the weight of seven miles of seawater on my shoulders and my profession.

Moms and Dads holding signs that say “Oxygen, not masks,” as if it’s an either/or proposition. The deep-fake social media video of a microchip inside the vaccine. (Why would anyone do this?) My colleague’s hairdresser who believes that once a certain number of people are vaccinated, they will turn into zombies. (That episode put a damper on her kids’ back-to-school haircut outing.) People taking a de-worming medicine at doses meant for horses and cows, instead of the FDA-approved vaccine. How did that even become a thing? The pitting of individual “rights” over the collective safety of humankind.

We believed in science when it took us to the Moon and Mars. But lately, too many of us have lost that faith. And ended up …somewhere else.

Thanks to social media and other abundant sources of disinformation, we suddenly live on a titanic iceberg of noisy, fractured discourse and the almighty sword of my trade — the story — feels about as effective as a toothpick in chipping away at it.

Communication 101 tells us to know our audience and meet people where they are as we craft our stories. I’m now lost on both fronts. How do people manage to be so ill-informed in 2021, when more information is more readily available to more people than ever before in history? And then, how did too many become so titanium-ass-clenched-stubborn about their views, contrary to all reasonable evidence?

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Pre-pandemic, reports by the Pew Research Center confirmed that across the globe people basically trusted science and scientists. How did millions of people simply stop believing in scientific expertise and/or start to believe their opinion is as valid as someone who has spent a career practicing medicine?

The pandemic didn’t cause the lack of understanding or the anti-science agendas out there. But it sure spewed a hot mess of them in the fashion of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

And it’s not just the pandemic. The latest climate report sounds a five-alarm fire on the planet. It’s a serious call to do something. Together. Now. Everyone saw that Hurricane Ida strengthened from a Cat 1 to 4 within hours, right? And the fires out west that seem to claim whole communities every single month?

On the good days, I cling to hope in digital citizenship initiatives that teach students how to read the news critically and to seek out credible sources of information. I’m intrigued by emerging visualization tools that may help key messages “stick” better than they do in the format of traditional news coverage. I like “solutions journalism” — stories that go beyond delivering the bad news and suggest actions in response. I am motivated by graduate students who commit themselves to improving their communication skills early on in their science careers, and citizens scientists who spend their vacations advancing conservation efforts. I am thrilled to see studies addressing our need to better understand how and where people consume science news, and those seeking more participatory models for science engagement.

And I did feel a pep in my step recently after we ran a camp about coastal and human resiliency for underserved youth in St. Petersburg.

I’ve never seen such awesome energy around cleaning up trash. (We did it in the style of a competition) The kids lit up when they saw life twirling around in the seawater under the microscope. They genuinely wanted to know who those critters were (Copepods! Diatoms! Crab larvae!). They also had some innovative ideas around coastal stewardship, like designing a “slap lab” that would instantly reprimand anyone who throws trash in the ocean.

Mildly concerning idea? Maybe.

But we sure need something to slap us out of this fog of navel-gazing darkness and back into action fueled by shared understanding.

Kristen M. Kusek is the director of Strategic Science Communications at the USF College of Marine Science (Class of 1998) on the St. Petersburg campus, where she also leads a new youth engagement program called Guardians of the Gulf. She was previously Chief Communications & Development Officer at Earthwatch Institute in Boston.