Where do you get scientific information that you trust?
Who defines scientific consensus? How do you pick out consensus from misinformation? Where does the line blur between information versus advocacy — for scientists and journalists alike?
Deep questions like this are best asked over beer — and so we did — last night at Ramen House RaiJin with an intellectual tangle of journalists, writers, scientists, and policy leaders.
On Friday, September 23rd, the CapSciComm Board of Officers organized a conversation salon dinner hosted as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists 2016 Annual Conference being held this week in Sacramento.
Having a major journalism conference in our city is a rare opportunity — and the anticipation was infectious. The SEJ Board made multiple visits to the Capital Region over the past few years, each teasing at the potential to showcase our dynamic community of food, environment, energy, and research players.
One SEJ conference tradition is its “beat dinners” night, in which attendees split off into dinner outings grouped by conversation themes. The 2016 offering included topics such as the “Sustainable Sushi” seafood dinner hosted at Mikuni Midtown, or “The Hands That Feed Us” farmworker justice dinner organized by Comstock’s at St. John’s Lutheran Church. The headliner event was held at Mulvaney’s B&L, where Chef Patrick Mulvaney put Sacramento’s best farm-to-fork foot forward welcoming this audience of national environmental journalists.
For our part, we wanted to showcase Sacramento’s role as the policymaking brain of California. The CapSciComm Board teamed up with colleagues Amy Quinton of Capital Public Radio and Sarah Brady of the CCST Science Fellows Alumni Association to organize a conversation dinner that would explore the themes of science, policy, and the media. On the culinary side, we also wanted to give a nod to Sacramento’s history as a multicultural community, with particularly deep roots in Asian-American heritage.
We had a bit of fun with the copywriting — after all, we had to stand out in front of 300-plus conference goers all with abnormally heightened sense of word choice and composition. Our eventual pitch read so:
“Blurred Lines: Science, Policy, and Misinformation”
Increasingly, scientists are being encouraged to work with legislators to communicate the policy implications of their research. But does this blur the lines between information versus advocacy — and who can journalists, scientists, and policymakers trust to pick out scientific consensus from the soup of misinformation these days? We’ll tug at these noodles of thought over savory Japanese appetizers, traditional ramen soups, and sake selections at this beat dinner — a nod to Sacramento’s rich Asian American history and State Legislature role.
The response was telling. Our dinner sign-up sheet at #SEJ2016 was overflowing into a wait list mere hours into the first day of registration. The beat dinner director asked if we could open up more seats.
In the end, we sat nearly 30 folks down to ramen, rice bowls, and beer in Midtown Sacramento. Our SEJ member guests comprised of journalists and writers hailing from as near as Nevada City to as far as Alaska, Pennsylvania, Canada, and India. Our local delegation comprised of our friends from the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship, the CapSciComm Board Officers, and select members of our CapSciComm community.
The discussions drew out dazzling insights and seeded new connections. We can’t quite replicate the buzz of everyone’s conversations on paper, but as a parting prompt, we did ask each guest to write down what they thought was a cool takeaway from their evening. Something that stood out in their reflections.
Here they are, presented without comment.
Once again, we are grateful to Dale Willman of the SEJ conference committee for awarding us a beat dinner offering. We thank Amy Quinton, Becky Oskin, and Amber Mace for being such wonderfully deft dinner moderators, and to Amy, Becky, and Candace Spier Bever for refining our conversation prompts. Bringing our CapSciComm community together with the Society of Environmental Journalists has been a fabulous experience this week — and we are proud to have been of service.
— Ben Young Landis
**Edited for clarity and emphasis added; any handwriting translation errors are entirely my own.
“[That] science nerds disagree with each other as much as policy nerds disagree with each other!”
“That journalists are very skeptical of science from NGO’s.”
“[That someone] said ‘scientists have a responsibility to communicate to the public in language they can understand.'”
“[That] citing Nobel Laureates can be meaningless and misleading.”
“[Someone’s] profound observation that ‘policymakers listen to the science they want to hear.'”
“The idea of getting a sense for scientific consensus from social media [was intriguing].”
“Learning that Twitter and other forms of social media can be effective ways to find reliable, accurate scientific information.”
“I appreciated the impromptu (and enthusiastic) tour of a few blocks of Sacramento.”
“I liked hearing about the complexities involved in turning more nebulous concepts in environmental science and journalism (wherever there is still room for ambiguity) into concrete dollars and dimes in government policy. It’s an interesting juggling act which is easy to critique, so I’m glad I was made to think about the challenge.”
“I learned that excellent okonomiyaki can be found outside of Kansai! And that California’s Legislature takes its science to heart. Very glad to hear about the Science Fellows.”
“Learning about the CCST program, and wishing it could be implemented more widely in other states.”
“I was impressed by the number of [California] state employees with serious responsibility who took time to engage in dialog with us.”
“Camel spiders are the assholes of the insect [sic] world.”
“I enjoyed hearing the perspectives based off of where people were from. We all traveled so far to be here. It was great seeing how issues were/are nationally and [internationally].”
“Loved the diverse perspectives, especially as it related to the interplay of science media and its role in consensus. Also great to meet great group of new people.”
“My favorite thing about this dinner was getting to speak across differences, [which] sometimes we are forced to gloss over in our day-to-day work, yet often accumulate into signs of misunderstanding and peculiar resentment. I was happy to learn about my scientific and journalistic colleagues’ anxieties, and have a safe space to hash them out.”
“We often speak of the differences and constraints that divide scientists and journalists. Tonight, we identified many similarities! Intellectual curiosity — skepticism — triangulation and verifying sources. Very illuminating!”
“The issues are the same everywhere, fundamentally. It is up to us to work together to make change occur.”
“[Someone said] ‘being a scientist — someone who spends his or her life indulging in their curiosity in the mysteries of the universe — is a privilege.’ One could say the same for those who get to write about science, and those who practice it.”