Epidemiology and social media: conference fail

I have written and deleted this post. Twice. But damn it, it needs to be said.

I'm here in charming Montreal for the North American Congress of Epidemiology. It's a good-sized meeting, as far as epi meetings go. The site notes that it's a joint effort between four major Epi organizations: The American College of Epidemiology (ACE); The Society for Epidemiologic Research; the Epi section of the American Public Health Association, and The Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Collectively, those associations represent a lot of epidemiologists.

The conference started off well. The first night kicked off with a movie about bioterrorism preparedness followed by a panel discussion. Great--movies! Engaging public in novel ways! Love.

On to Wednesday, when the first real sessions begin. The opening plenary discussed Science, skepticism, and society. Great again--this is a perfect warm-up. Later that afternoon, there was another session titled "Communicating Epidemiology: The Changing Landscape". I was happily surprised when the room for this was pretty packed, as these types of meetings tend to be heavy on chronic disease epi and epidemiology methods. However, I was disappointed with the content. While the first talk was to give "a snapshot of how premier science journals experiment with features that blur old distinctions: blogs, data repositories, standard-setting, and advance online publications," almost none of that was discussed--instead, it focused on how Nature Genetics was doing...something....about datasets. (Unfortunately I don't have great notes and was at this point still trying to get the wifi to work; more on that later). Either way, it wasn't anything as advertised in the description I quoted above, and it discussed *only* Nature Genetics--surely there are more "premier science journals" than just NG? (Why only NG discussed? The talk was by Myles Axton, who is the Editor).

Next on tap was Jennifer Loukissas, communications manager at the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, to discuss "When epidemiologists talk to press and public." However, there really wasn't any "public" involved--it was a media training session. Period. Use soundbites, stay on target, think about your message, control the interview, call the journalist back in 5 minutes if you need to collect yourself, etc. Good stuff for scientists to know, to be sure, but isn't there a world out there beyond talking to journalists? More on that later as well.

The third talk was Jonathan Samet of USC, on "Communicating around conflict." He's recently worked on the WHO cell phone-and-cancer opinion that was released earlier this month, and essentially extended what Loukissas began as far as what to and not to say to interviewers, particularly in controverisal areas.

This was not exactly my idea of science communication in 2011, especially since everyone agreed at the beginning of the session that scientists were terrible communicators, our messages frequently ended up getting distorted, all the typical canards. Merely telling scientists to stop being so jargon-y and prepare soundbites--while necessary--isn't going to solve these problems.

During the (very brief) Q&A, I asked about scientists directly communicating with the public--via their websites, blogs, web video, etc., to get their own message out there and not have to worry about journalists messing it up. Loukissas was the main one to answer the question, saying--incredibly--she hadn't thought about that.

It was all I could do to keep myself from saying "d'oh!," complete with facepalm.

The reality is that scientists don't have to be passive any longer, relying only on reporters to translate their work for them in order to send it along to the public. We should have our soundbites, but realize that we can go beyond our manuscripts (I've had ones recently trimmed down to 1200 or even 800(!) words). We can write about the research if it's behind a paywall. We can write about the realities of doing our work as a jumping-off point after a journalist covers your research, and go beyond the dry data that goes into the paper. We can go beyond the press release and talk about what may be interesting to us about our findings, but maybe aren't the "meat" of the publication, or are secondary to the "main point" that you've worked on for your soundbites and want to emphasize to interested journalists. We can elaborate on interesting research done by others, to discuss subtleties that you can't fit into a 20-minute interview.

And more.

Communication-wise, this meeting has unfortunately been a bit of a letdown. The science is interesting and there have been some great speakers, but I haven't been able to share much of that because wifi wasn't arranged for in the conference rooms. I have internet in my room ($14.95/day, of course), but the password from my hotel room isn't valid downstairs (something it took me almost a day and a half to find out, after getting the run-around from various people), and the organizers either didn't care, didn't think, or couldn't afford to allow attendees to use the wifi network in the hotel conference rooms. So while I was able to take conference notes from the American Society for Microbiology meeting right on Twitter and share them with everyone via the conference hashtag, not so for this meeting. (ASM even had their own mobile app for smartphones).

The thing is, *epidemiologists need to be plugged into these kinds of things.* So many of the studies reported in the media have to do with epidemiological topics--cell phones and cancer, vaccines and autism, "chronic" lyme, does the internet really give you "popcorn brain", just to take one current story from CNN. We can't sit in our towers and just wait for a journalist to call us about those studies anymore--and why should we?

Last year, Craig McClain wrote about why scientists need to use Twitter. That post, while good, focuses mainly on the benefit to the scientist (though he does note that the public can also find information there). We need more of this. We need good, reliable information to be out there on the internet, freely available--and if that's not possible in your academic publishing model, it's still possible with a blog, or YouTube video, or basic website that you keep updated with recent news. Epidemiologists are certainly using social media and Google to explore disease; why not give back by wading out there and actually taking part in the conversation?


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Great article,I could not agree more with you. Scientists MUST connect to the public and the public needs them so very much!!I do some work in HealthCare and I am trying to communicate this same vision, but there is so much resistance.May I please ask your opinion?Why do you think this happens, is it an old-school generation matter, not an easy adopter of IT advancements?Is it maybe the nature of Scientists, not wanting to be too social :o))
How can we help/support Health&Science to make this step?
Thanks and all the best!

Good blog, I must agree face...hand.... engage. As a layman with a love of science I find more and more I'm only reading Scientist blog post and science based forums to find out what is going on. Most media have journalist who get the science story when they have pissed the editor off . They or their editor messes up the story so badly that you wonder what on earth the general public think.
Keep Blogging Tara.

Atta girl! Stop deleting posts before sending. They are always the ones you wished you had sent.

The Internet has changed the world.

In Britain, our vetocracy sought to manipulate it to swamp us with disinformation about constant epidemics of animal disease and more recently zoonotic disease.

They had used their massive advertising spend to influence the regular media and their control of government bodies gave them plenty of media releases that were certain of publication.

They thought they could take over the Internet, lost control and now hide themselves behind passwords, silenet and stunned.

Good scientists explaining the truth as they see it have no reason to hide and every reason to speak their minds in a new and very different world.

New threats need new people.

It's so frustrating that there's tension between scientists and journalists, and it's also frustrating that there's tension between scientists and agencies who ought to be supporting personal outreach like blogs and such.

That discussion seems to have served none of us, nor the public.

#FAIL is right.

This is one of those weird contradictory responses where I'm both surprised, and yet somehow not surprised, at the same time.

Maybe bloggers have to take over scientific societies. Become program officers and presidents.

At the risk of being self-promotional, Ted Winstead of the NCI Cancer Bulletin just had a nice article on the value of Twitter for scientific conferences after the AACR meeting:


I would argue that epidemiologists need to be more active in social media than many of us cancer researchers. Your work is far more often ballyhooed in the lay press and the nuances are often either difficult to understand or misinterpreted. Engaging as you do can do wonders for the public understanding of science.

And yes, I hate not only the high internet fees of hotel rooms but also the non-transferability of the fee to the main lobby area. I'd have thought the Canadians would be more civilized than us.

I read your post with great interest. I am the Secretary-Treasurer of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, one of the four sponsors of the Montreal meeting. I will circulate your comments to our board. I have to take the blame for the lack of Wi-Fi since I arranged the hotel. I will start Monday to ensure that future SER meetings have wi-fi capabilities for all participants.

By Joseph Lyon (not verified) on 25 Jun 2011 #permalink

Joseph, that would be wonderful, thanks. I know price was probably a factor, but you can see how far this post has spread--and I wish some of the other discussion from the conference could have as well. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.

David, thanks for that link--great article!

I read a little of your article, but could not understand any of it. My best take is you're not happy about the way the epidemologist messages are being broadcast. Whatever. Don't get discouraged. With drop-dead gorgeous scientists like you promoting the cause you'll get whatever you want.

And nobody had a cell phone with wireless AP functionality?
That sounds like epidemiologists aren't very tech savvy :)

Are we to throw over the traces of peer review? Even with peer review, which I agree has too much bias against new information, journal papers are rife with errors. If we aren't able to screen out errors, how do we expect the public to know what information is valid.

During my post-doc, a Colorado group came to Columbia to announce their discovery of 'the gene' for intelligence. I was a doubter: intelligence is far too complex to be determined by a gene. I tracked the stats in their presentation -- at some point they had swapped their error calculation into their main effect. None of their staff, nor any of the statisticians in the presentation caught their error. I had to step-by-step show them were their error occurred -- embarrassing for all of us. Their New York Times press conference was cancelled, and their Nobel still resides in Stokholm. This was in the mid-nineties, had we had twitter then, their error would have been released to the public before I could show anyone their error.

The public is swamped with information, inadvertent misinformation, and corporate-sponsored misinformation. Most cannot detail truth from non-truth. I barely can, if I put effort into an issue. I use social media to find out what other scientists outside my field are searching for and discovering, not to add to my knowledge-base.

A direct link between the public and scientists will take us off track (e.g. inoculation fears), and take away precious time to work on our priorities.

We need to work with journalists to help them select information to communicate to the public. Part of that effort is for us to write articles for publication in the general media. And we need to improve how we write journal articles. Robert Sommer at Davis wrote, in American Psychologist several years back, an excellent paper on how to write to our two audiences: scientists and the public.

And group of epis must become communication specialists, and reach out past the current media to establish direct links with the public using effective persuasion techniques. Case in point: we still have a positive correlation between obesity research funding and obesity rates.

But twittering with our fan group? I don't think so.

By Cathie M. Currie (not verified) on 26 Jun 2011 #permalink

And nobody had a cell phone with wireless AP functionality?
That sounds like epidemiologists aren't very tech savvy :)

I went through $50 in extra data charges just dealing with email. Many of us were international attendees with the same issue--I wasn't going to pay triple or quadruple that to keep updating Twitter. Plus, I really hate typing on my phone.

Cathie, peer review goes well beyond pre-publication. Look at the recent controversies over XMRV and chronic fatigue or "arsenic life"--scientists talking via blogs and twitter has played a big role in calling for new studies and quickly pointing out flaws in that research. Did journalists stop any of that from reaching the public? Some did, but others, certainly not--if anything, many helped to hype both findings. I think it's helpful to see how the scientific process works.

Slightly tangential, but wouldn't it stand to reason that "normal" life would be a great time for the epi community to get fully plugged in and media-savvy, so that when SARS-II, the next flu pandemic, etc. happens the systems are fully optimized? Obviously the CDC has an entire media relations department, but how many "lower" layers of the system have that expertise?

>I really hate typing on my phone.
No, you can turn your phone into a wireless access point so you (and anybody else you let in) can use this wireless network to access the Internet via your phone. It's a standard feature in Android 2.2.
Of course you want an unlimited data contract for that.

Yeah, I used that at ASM last month when the wireless was spotty in a few of the rooms--but again, $$$$ for international use.

Andrew--I would agree, but probably preaching to the choir here.

I'm a freelance writer/reporter and a huge fan of DIY media (and a not-so-big fan of corporate media). It's essential to know how to amplify your own voices, and now it's easier than ever to learn and do.

Here you are doing amazing work for the public interest but if it goes unheard because you failed to put it out there, that's a terrible shame.

The U.S.'s weak and broken media, education & health care systems are barriers to smart, busy citizens getting your work. You must get creative & get noticed via non-traditional outlets. (I love that site Robin Marwick shared above: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/margin-notes/australian-researchers-byp…)

By the way, most of the journalists I know don't even make the time to blog or use Twitter. If being plugged into new media is not among their company's priorities, they most likely aren't ahead of the curve themselves.

Also, consider hiring from the plethora of newly graduated & seasoned out-of-work journalists out there to do this legwork for you. I worked as an RA for a year at my local university, not only doing the typical database entry and coding, but also producing You Tube videos and other media documenting my researcher's work.

I have had several discussions about science communication, mostly in reference to journalism and pedagogy, only to be told by some working scientists that they are too busy doing research and trying to get grants to worry about communicating with or educating the public.

Well who is your research and your contributions to the knowledge base meant to benefit then? Only other scientists?

Basically as a layperson who likes to get correct facts with her science news, and a parent who hopes her child receives a quality science education, I felt very dismissed.

I mean WTF?
During the (very brief) Q&A, I asked about scientists directly communicating with the public--via their websites, blogs, web video, etc., to get their own message out there and not have to worry about journalists messing it up. Loukissas was the main one to answer the question, saying--incredibly--she hadn't thought about that.

Yeah, I don't get it either. On the one hand, I obviously sympathize as I'm busy working on grants and research as well, but I don't see any excuse for not taking a bit of time to discuss the research beyond journal articles and professional conferences. I think too many are still stuck in the old-school "everything needs to be filtered through a reporter" model, so if they're not approached for an interview, it simply doesn't get discussed.

Great post, I agree completely. Media coverage of science is so utterly uninformative it's shocking, and science blogging is one way to get more information out there. I'm in two minds as to whether the media is actually more of a help or a hindrance to science communication

By Mutant Dragon (not verified) on 10 Jul 2011 #permalink