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Google This: The Story of Science

Last year, Google, Inc., launched its Google Science Communication Fellows program, a collaborative training that brought together twenty-one climate change scientists to explore ways that Google’s technology might be used to better promote scientific investigation. UO biologist Brendan Bohannan (in photo below, analyzing soil samples in an Amazon pasture) was among this selective first class of Google Fellows.
A man surveying in field
This builds on Bohannan’s previous experience as a Leopold Fellow, another prestigious program that convenes top scientists to advance the state of science communications. But while the Google fellowship—and the direct interaction with Google staff members (or Googlers, as Bohannan calls them)—focuses on the ways in which Google’s computational analysis tools might further public understanding of climate change, the Leopold Fellowship is more of a hands-on training that helps scientists tell compelling stories to the media. Bohannan characterizes the Leopold work as “life changing.”
In this interview, Bohannan reflects on how these experiences have profoundly changed the way he teaches, conducts fieldwork and tells stories about his research on microorganisms and biodiversity.
Q: Why is it important for scientists to be better communicators?
A: Scientists, especially in the U.S., have an ethical responsibility to do a very good job of communicating science because most science is publicly funded. We owe it to the folks who are paying for this science to do a good job of communicating what we’re discovering. There’s also been a kind of antiscience backlash, especially around the science of global change—for instance, attempts by certain members of Congress to make certain scientific investments look silly. So we have the responsibility to do a better job of communicating what we do so the public can make up their minds in an informed way about whether that critique of science is valid or not.
Also, I think that we’re falling behind as a country in terms of our prowess in science and technology, and some of that is because it’s been hard to get young people to realize what a wonderful career science can be. That’s our fault, at least in part, as scientists. We don’t do a good job of communicating the excitement, the joy of discovery—all the things that sustain us and fulfill us as scientists. There’s a kind of urgency about this, as we’ve seen other societies do a much better job of recruiting new scientists.
Q: What are the challenges in telling science stories?
A: One of the big challenges is the way we approach storytelling about science. For scientists, there’s a big backstory that we have to give credit to and we do that by starting with all the people who have worked so hard to get science where it is today, the areas where we have great uncertainty and the areas where we have less uncertainty. We are trained to paint that picture to provide a context for the little piece that each of us is involved in. So we start really big. But if you’re a reporter, it must seem baffling. You want to know: “Where’s the story here? Why should I care? You’re telling this enormous historical tale about your science and you still haven’t talked about what you’re doing and why it’s important.”
Fundamentally, the motivations are just so different. As a reporter, you want to tell a compelling, factually accurate but interesting story. As a scientist, it’s important for us to give credit to those who preceded us and to do a responsible job of portraying the uncertainty around our science.
Q: Let’s talk about uncertainty. That’s a really interesting issue, because you can turn on the TV any day and you’ll hear a report about a scientific study and it sounds like “here’s the definitive thing on Vitamin E” and then something will come along that’s the definitive counter to that.
A: That’s right, and in that first pass, it looks like scientists either aren’t very good at what they do or they’re very wishy-washy, and either way you can’t trust them. That’s because the uncertainty underlying those discoveries is not being accurately portrayed. There’s no simple solution for that. I think both reporters and scientists just have to keep trying harder to communicate what that uncertainty is. You know, the public understands uncertainty. They make probabilistic decisions all the time about what’s more likely to happen than something else. I think that reporters are probably underestimating the sophistication of the average reader or viewer.
Q: So uncertainty in science is a given. You’re drawing conclusions that have a range of certainty and uncertainty.
A: Yes, because most important questions are about really complex things. Human health, for example, is a very complex situation. It’s virtually impossible to say with certainty the connection between a particular food and health. But you can make statistical associations that it’s likely that this food is good for you in this way or this food is bad for you in this way. But those are probabilistic arguments—you’re saying it’s more likely than not that this is true. Sometimes we can say we’re 80 percent sure, for instance, that there’s a connection between two things, or 50 percent or 90 percent. But those sorts of arguments tend to get lost when we tell stories about science.
The same is true with a complex subject like the Earth—like trying to understand the relationship between industrialization and the increase in CO2 and the connections to climate. The chain-of-causation argument is very well established, but each of those links is a probabilistic argument—that it’s more likely than not that there’s a relationship between industrialization and the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.
We make those “more likely than not” decisions all the time. That’s the way the world works. Like when we merge into traffic. Will we do better if we change lanes now than if we don’t? If there were more links like this to people’s everyday experience around probability I think we would do a better job of communicating science. In our education system, we don’t do a good job of teaching about probability early on. Kids grow up with stories that are very deterministic: you do something and you’re 100 percent certain what the outcome is going to be.
Q: What are the special challenges in communicating your particular field of science?
A: I study microorganisms, which are forms of life that we can’t see with the naked eye. In some ways, they are very different from the organisms we experience in our day-to-day lives, like plants and animals. We can’t see them and they’re weird, which means I have extraordinary challenges as I try to communicate about what I study. I remember one time when my son was very small, he was playing with one of his friends and I overheard them talking. His friend was telling him what his father did, and he asked my son what his father did for a living. And my son said, “Oh, my dad studies invisible things.” So I study invisible things.
Part of the challenge, then, is to make the invisible visible. And I do this in many different ways—I use metaphors; I have a whole bevy of plush microbes [gestures to a shelf filled with stuffed creatures] that I use to get people to relate to these tiny forms of life. I also talk about the consequences of all this unseen life—consequences that we also can’t see.
It’s challenging, too, because we used to think of this unseen world as a source of dangerous things that wanted to kill us. But it’s much more than that. It’s also a much larger source of things that are good for us. Also, they’re unavoidable—we can’t get rid of them no matter how much we clean our kitchen or how many antibiotics we take. So another part of the challenge of communicating my science is representing this real and significant shift in our perspective about this tiny world.
A man in outdoor clothing and hat
Q: Tell us about how this tiny world relates to the study of climate change.
A: One important way is the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Much of this is under the control of activities of these little tiny forms of life. One of the most potent greenhouse gases is methane, and methane comes from many sources, but ultimately the vast majority of methane is created by one group of tiny organisms called methanogens, or methane makers. We know very little about their biology, actually—they’re in a whole branch of life that we didn’t even know existed until thirty years ago or so.
Understanding the biology of these methanogens—what determines which ones live where, what determines when they make lots of methane and when they don’t—is really important. One thing that we’re studying—myself, Scott Bridgham (another UO biologist) and Qusheng Jin (a professor of geology here at the UO)— is what controls how much methane these little creatures make and whether there’s a relationship with temperature. As the world warms, if they produce more methane as soils warm, then methane builds up in the atmosphere, which in turn causes more warming, and so you can have what we call positive feedback.
We’ve been studying this in particular soils from places called peatlands, which are basically giant compost piles of decomposing plant materials that can be tens of meters deep, with lots of carbon that’s just waiting to be released as methane, which could really change our climate.
Q: So understanding the microorganisms will potentially help decrease the amount of methane?
A: Yes, learning more about methanogen biology will help us make better predictions about the outcomes of our activities. There are certain things that we have control over as humans that can reduce the amount of methane that these microbes make. Much of my work now is really about trying to understand how we as humans interact with this invisible world.
Another reason why microbes are important is because many of the solutions people have suggested–technological solutions for global change–hinge on microbial processes or microbes directly. People have suggested that we could scrub the atmosphere of CO2 by fixing it—which means sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into something else. Plants do this all the time: suck up CO2 and turn it into new plant material. But they don’t do that fast enough to make a big difference on the atmospheric levels of CO2, so people have suggested we could farm microbes that do the same thing in large systems. However, it’s not clear yet if that’s feasible.
Also, people are talking about using biofuels—biological alternatives to fossil fuels that reduce our impact on the CO2 levels in the atmosphere—with the most commercially feasible biofuels based on microbial physiology. This would involve growing algae in large quantities, for instance, and then turning that into fuel of various forms.
Besides studying methanogens, I’m also involved in a big project in the Amazon Rainforest where we’re trying to understand what happens when you turn a forest into a farm. We can see what it does to the plants, but what does it do to all the things below ground that are intimately involved in the Amazon’s role in exchanging gases with the atmosphere?
Q: And how do you go about doing that? What’s the process of determining the
A: The challenge is that we can’t take sample soil and look at it under a microscope and count the different kinds of microbes, because it’s impossible to tell them apart when looking at them in that way. So we instead look at their genes as sort of footprints to infer the presence of certain types of microbes. We’ll take a sample of soil, break up all the biological material in it and then distill out the genetic material from everything in the sample—microbes, plant roots, whatever else is present—then use tricks from biochemistry to look for the presence of certain sequences of DNA that are indicative of the presence of certain kinds of microbes.
It’s kind of like bird watching except we’re looking for certain gene sequences rather than certain colors of birds. But we end up with a list sort of like a bird watcher would have of all the types of microbes present in a given place. Then we can compare those lists from place to place.
From our list of microbes present in soil, we can ask: what do you lose when you convert a forest to a farm? Or we can ask the opposite question: what is promoted in a farm that you don’t find in a forest? And then we can ask: what are the likely consequences of these changes?
Q: What effect has your communication training had on your work as a scientist?
A: It’s had such a profound effect it’s hard for me to know where to begin. It’s affected the way I teach science, the way I communicate science more broadly and also how I practice science.
One of the main changes in my teaching is that I’m much more interested in the narrative. I value storytelling more as a teacher than I used to. I try to have an arc to my lectures so that they’re more like stories, where I introduce some ideas, we develop them and then come back around to them at the end. To do that sometimes means that I have to present less material, but I’m convinced that my students are retaining more when I present it in this narrative kind of format. The way humans learn is through storytelling. I used to think a story was something that’s been made up or where liberties have been taken with the facts, but that was a misunderstanding on my part. Storytelling is important.
The first lecture I give when I teach upperdivision ecology is to tell the story of a K–12 teacher in Minnesota who went on a field trip with her students to sample frogs—and the kids all found frogs with horrendous deformities. When I tell this story, I ask my students to imagine they’re the teacher and the kids are bringing back frog after frog—not just one or two—with extra limbs and missing eyes. I then ask, “what would you do next if you were this teacher?” In this way, I start to introduce them to the detective story around these frog deformities. The goal is to give them a feeling for how ecologists do their job and the complex web of interactions that ecologists have to untangle.
Even when I give scientific talks at meetings I try to tell a story. Rather than follow the convention of telling the big picture and then moving down to what I did, the most effective talks or lectures or teachings I give, start with some hook.
And when I actually do science—when I’m setting up an experiment or study—I’m now thinking about how I would communicate it. This is a delicate issue. I have to be very careful. I don’t want to anticipate what the story is, sort of write it in my head before I do it, because it’s so compelling to then find the story that you were looking for. I feel that my enemy, as a scientist, is self-deception—I have to constantly be a skeptic of my own thinking, as much as anyone else’s.
But I do think that constantly looking for the story in my work is really important, and that’s come from trying to be a better scientific communicator. The process of looking for where a story might be means I have to constantly hone the questions I’m asking.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: In the Amazon project, one of the initial questions we wanted to ask was, how does diversity change when you convert forest into a farm? We thought it should be obvious—you take this amazingly diverse rainforest and turn it into a cattle ranch, so we imagined the diversity should go down. That was the story in our mind; it was one of our hypotheses. But what we found, very strongly, was that when you turn a forest into a farm, the diversity goes up. And by this I mean that, if you count the number of types of microbes in the soil samples from forest and pasture, there are more types in the core from the pasture.
There are many responses you could have to that. You could have a dispassionate one: “Okay, I’ve disproven my hypothesis and I’m going to report that.” You could think about why this result might be. You could also consider how this changes the story you’re telling—in other words, what are the many different stories you could tell about this data? One story is that if all you care about is the diversity of microbes then you should be converting forest to farms even faster.
But this doesn’t capture the whole story of our research. It led a number of us to think in different ways about how we conceive of diversity and what that means. This is one aspect of diversity—how many types you find when you sample. But another aspect is how similar they are across space. And so we started to change our story to thinking: If we look at other aspects of diversity, is it the same? Which led us to then ask: If you compare any two cores from the pasture or the forest, on average do they share more or less of the types of the microbes present? And what we found was that in the forest, any two cores share fewer types than in the pasture. In other words each core is more different—more diverse—in the forest than in the pasture.
Q: So once you got your initial results where you had more diversity in the ranch samples—in the deforested part than in the forest itself—and thought about the narrative that would come out of that, this caused you to think about extending the research to this additional level of analysis.
A: Yes, exactly. We had a finding. You don’t need a story to interpret the finding. Diversity is higher. So we could have just reported that, linked it to what others have found in other sorts of environments and left it up to reporters to ask what the implications are.
But now I think about the story that reporters are likely to tell. And I believe that makes me a better scientist. It also makes me a more skeptical scientist.
In this case, a likely story from that original result was that we should be burning down the Amazon Rainforest. But this story was dissatisfying on some levels and it also didn’t capture completely what we felt was going on in the soils. So that led us to look for other stories that were honest portrayals of what we were doing. But it also made me wonder why some stories are satisfying and some stories are not. That led me to the whole area of the philosophy of science, and I went to a philosopher colleague on campus [Ted Toadvine] whom I’ve taught with.
I shared with Ted that many of us were uncomfortable about the result we got, and what did that mean? This is a touchy area. It’s also another area we do a bad job of communicating about science— that scientists are not robots. We have values, we have life experiences that lead us to make certain assumptions. We try to minimize the impact of that on our observations, but it’s still there. And so those values and assumptions came out when we were evaluating this story. Ted and I had a great time discussing what it was about it that was so dissatisfying and we really focused on the concept of diversity—how complicated it is and what a poor job it does of capturing all the things we value about something like a rainforest.
A professor and his students in a forest
Right: Bohannan and his research colleagues in the Amazon Rainforest.
Q: So in seeing that the possible story was “more deforestation is a good thing,” did you feel you had an ethical obligation, based on your values, to push that further, to see what else your results might mean?
A: That’s right. I think that’s perfectly accurate, and you can resolve that in different ways. I think the fear that people have is that when scientists run into those conflicts between our observations and our values, then we bury the science or we lie about it, and that’s part of the backlash against the science of climate change. The scientists I know don’t do this, and neither do I. I see that conflict as an area where it’s particularly important that I’m very careful and skeptical because this is sort of a dangerous place where the potential for self-deception is much higher. That’s why I talked to people like Ted, and made it really clear that I was feeling these conflicts. On one level it was disturbing but on another it was fascinating because it means I’m in an area where I have to be really careful about what I do. So that led us to think more clearly about the fact that what we saw was absolutely true for one component of diversity, but what if we looked at other things?
Q: And does that then extend the definition of diversity?
A: It does, for us. The way that it’s usually defined for the purposes of measuring it in the field is the first definition that we used: the number of types you find at a particular place. But there are many other ways you could think about diversity rather than just counting the number of types. And that pushed us to think about those other definitions.
In tropical forests, there’s all this diversity of plant life above ground and not very much going on below ground. Especially in the part of Brazil that we’re working in, all the soils are actually poor in nutrients—whatever nutrients end up in the soil are sucked up by the plants really quickly. So when you burn that forest down and plant grass, the African grasses they use have really big root systems relative to the plants that we see aboveground in the rainforest, so they take the carbon they suck out of the atmosphere and don’t turn it into big elaborate trees—they pump it all into roots. They’re actually fertilizing the soil, in a sense. And that’s part of the reason why we see, in any one place in the pasture, more types—because there’s just more food for them. But at the same time, by planting all the same species everywhere, this makes the kinds of food much more similar across the pastures. So across the whole Amazon region, we’re probably decreasing diversity by turning the forests into farms, because things become more and more alike.
All of this is related to asking the “why should I care?” question much more than I used to. Early in my career as a scientist, I didn’t ask that question very much. I was concerned it would interfere with my ability to be objective, to ask the right next question. But now I think about it all the time, and I think it comes out of this ethical obligation I feel now to do a good job of communicating what I’m doing as a scientist. I also push my students now to answer the “why should anyone care?” question—not just scientists, but the average person or student.
Q: Does asking that question shade your ability to be objective?
A: I don’t think it has. I’m proud of the fact that we’re generating information that will help solve problems that are really pressing for society. But what really motivates me, what makes me think about my science when I wake up in the morning, is just pursuing my curiosity. In that sense I feel more like an artist than an engineer. I have this desire to discover new things that keeps me going, and I don’t know where that’s going to take me.
Interview by Lisa Raleigh
Photos: Klaus Nüsslein

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