In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s put away our fight metaphors

Lately, as I’ve been scrolling through my Twitter newsfeed, I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of metaphorical fighting going on in my tiny corner of the Internet. Of course the literal fighting is incredibly upsetting, particularly the recent rise in hate crimes permeating the U.S. and garnering media attention, but the figurative fighting is also jarring. If you go to your Facebook, Twitter, or social media feed of your choice, and search for the word fight, I feel pretty confident that you’ll come up with results, and that they won’t be about boxing matches or conflict in the Middle East.

A lot of these fight metaphors arise from positive intentions, encouragements to fight hatred and to fight for progress.

Barackobama.com says that “We’ve always known progress is hard, but that it’s worth fighting for — and now, more than ever, we’ve got to get fired up for the work ahead.”

A piece in the Huffington Post talks about how we can fight the “Trump Effect” (defined as the fear and anxiety that many children feel as a result of Trump’s rhetoric against different groups) in youth sports.

STAT reports on Choosing Scientific Sides in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s: Here it seems that the fight is both between scientists in favor of two competing hypotheses, as well as the general fight against the disease. (Some side speculation: since we talk about the immune system as defending the body and viruses as invading, I suspect that our tendency to talk about fighting diseases — from depression, to cancer, to obesity, and apparently Alzheimer’s — might originate from the immune system mental model, and has now generalized to diseases from which recovery doesn’t involve the immune system).

Many people are calling for recounts of votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, based on suspicion that the results may have been interfered with by foreign powers. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been urged to join the fight in demanding a recount, the Guardian reports.

It gets particularly meta when articles talk about fighting the fighting: George Soros is donating $10 million to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, Time reports.

The phrase fighting fire with fire feels particularly apt right now: there’s too much fighting, so let’s stop the fighting with a different kind of fighting.

These articles are a tiny subset of the many fight-encouraging articles that have cropped up in my news feeds. In fact, they’re just the ones I noticed over breakfast in one day (I eat slowly, but not that slowly). I didn’t even have to go looking for these metaphorical fights.

Are all these fight metaphors influencing our behavior?

It’s hard to know if fight metaphors are empowering people to take more action for good, doing things like standing up for “what’s right” and shutting down acts of hatred. It’s also hard to know if the metaphors are encouraging people to engage in violence and unnecessary confrontation. But there’s been an alarming amount of violence recently, and every instance adds more fire to everyone’s fires — which might make them more likely to drop even more fight metaphors. I accidentally stumbled upon an appropriate Vox article that shares advice for arguing better, acknowledging that Thanksgiving can give rise to arguments, so here’s how you can equip yourself to win them.

It seems to me we have a national case of fighting on the brain.

Of course I am speculating, providing cherry-picked anecdotal evidence from a sample size of one (myself). And of course, confrontation can be necessary, and it can be effective. I’m not advocating for abolishing fight metaphors. They might empower some people, but they also might encourage others to be violent. The context in which they’re used, the frame of mind a person is in, the prior experiences that person has had… these all matter when metaphors shape the way we think.

I hope on this Thanksgiving Day, and as we head into a holiday season, and soon begin a New Year, under leadership of a new U.S. President, that we think twice when using fight metaphors. They’re powerful things, and they should be used responsibly.

A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point. 

This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.

Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.

Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.

Lessons Learned

Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.

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Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.

Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).

Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.

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The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.

As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.

You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.

Language Shapes Thought about Time

As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.

In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.

Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)

Back to Arrival

The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.

 

You can also find this post published on moviepilot.com.

More Information

Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.

Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cog.2012.23.issue-4/cog-2012-0020/cog-2012-0020.xml

Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01105.x

Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01193.x

Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0068-y

Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.

Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.

 

Beef or Cow, Pig or Pork? Why it matters

This weekend, I went to Wurstfest, a celebration of German music, crafts, and heritage, but mostly of beer and meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat too much meat, mostly because I don’t care for it too much and know that too much of it isn’t good for me. Until recently, I stuck eating things with two legs (chicken, turkey) or no legs (fish), but not four legs (no cow or pig). I’d tell people the leg rule when they wanted to know what I do and don’t eat, and had thought of it as an efficient way of communicating. But maybe it was more than that.

A new paper in the journal Appetite (the paper is behind a paywall, but this good summary is not) shows that our behaviors around meat shape the way we think of it, and in turn shape our willingness to eat it.

  1. Presentation: When meat resembles the animal it originated as (or is shown with an image of the animal it originated as), we view it with more empathy than if it bears less resemblance. The researchers found this with chicken in various stages of processing, a pork roast with its head either on or off, and an advertisement for lamb chops that was either accompanied by an image of a living lamb or not.

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    More Empathy                                                                          Less Empathy

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  2. Language about the process of slaughtering animals. Participants read about the mass slaughtering of cows, which was presented either with the word slaughtered, killed, or harvested. Reading about slaughtered and killed cows led people to have more empathy toward the animals than the tamer, more distant verb harvested did.
  3. Language about the food itself. Some people read a menu that listed its items under the categories of pork and beef and others read one that referred to these same foods under the categories of pig and cow. People whose options were referred to by the actual animal names showed more empathy and disgust towards the foods, as well as a decreased willingness to eat meat and a greater willingness to opt for a vegetarian food. Other work has called the practice of using words like pork when we’re really talking about a pig linguistic camouflaging, a way of concealing what something is by using a certain name (not much different from the consequences of euphemism more generally)
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Across all of the studies, the researchers found that the effects were driven how much people dissociated themselves with the foods. In cases where they showed less empathy and disgust and were more willing to eat meat, they had greater mental distance between themselves and the potential foods than cases where they were more empathic. In other words, seeing an entire pig carcass with its head on made people feel closer to the animal, which led to feelings of empathy. The beheaded carcass, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so close, so people felt less empathic.

The language studies intrigue me the most, but I’m also considering that it’s not just that certain words encourage us to dissociate and mentally distance ourselves from food more than others driving differences in empathy and willingness to eat meat. Slaughtering and killing, for instance, have only one definition. The definition insinuated, especially in the case of slaughter, that violence was probably involved. Harvesting is not a synonym for these words. You can harvest crops, which means to remove them from their tree or vine as they are intended to be removed. It’s not violent, and few people would call it cruel. It’s also not a common way of talking about killing animals (my Google Ngram search confirmed this intuition).

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The participants who encountered the phrase harvest cows were not only encountering a phrase that actually has meanings beyond the meaning in context (as opposed to the alternative conditions), but they were also encountering a less common one, which can be a partial explanation for why their responses looked different than responses from the other conditions.

The menu that labeled items as either pig/cow or pork/beef is similar. English convention is that foods and living animals are referred to by different names. When convention is broken, people will pause a little longer to consider what they’re reading. While the findings that people responded differently to these two menu conditions (and to slaughter/kill vs. harvest) are numerically true, we should also consider that familiarity with different words and practices will also shape our thoughts and behaviors.

One neat thing I discovered is that there are languages that don’t use different terms for the living animals and food animals, like German. Does the habitual use of using food-only animal terms like beef actually encourage us to systematically think of meat differently than the habitual use of animal terms for food and living creatures? Based on the amount of meat I saw at Wurstfest this weekend, I’d guess no, but it’s still a possibility.

Are your ideas seeds or lightbulbs?

When someone has a great idea or invention, we commonly talk about that idea metaphorically: a light bulb suddenly turned on and the idea struck him, or she nurtured the idea from a seed that grew to bear fruit. The idea’s merit or the merit of the person who came up with it shouldn’t depend on how we metaphorically talk about its emergence, but new research by Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero suggests that the metaphor matters.

Participants in the first experiment read about Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the modern computer. For some of them, the passage described that Turing had a bright idea that struck him like a light bulb that had suddenly turned on. For others, the passage said that Turing had the seed of an idea that took root like a growing seed that had finally borne fruit. A third group read about Turing’s invention without either metaphor. All participants then answered questions probing how exceptional they believed Turing’s idea to be. People who read about Turing’s light bulb idea believed his invention to be more exceptional than those who read about his seed idea. People who hadn’t read either metaphor rated the idea’s exceptionality in between the seed- and light bulb-readers (though technically their ratings weren’t significantly higher than ratings following seed metaphors or lower than those following lightbulb metaphors). These results suggest that we seem to believe ideas are more exceptional if they’re described with lightbulb metaphors than seed metaphors.

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In the next experiment, the researchers wanted to know if the metaphors could affect more than our perceptions of ideas and extend to our perceptions of the person who had the idea. Participants again read either about ideas as lightbulbs, as seeds, or without a metaphor, and then had to consider the average man and woman. The researchers asked: Do you think men or women are better at coming up with creative ideas? People who had been exposed to the seed metaphor were more likely to indicate that women were more creative than people who read the lightbulb metaphor, suggesting that when people are thinking of good ideas as things that are cultivated and grown from hard work, women seem more capable of having them.

They further probed this question of whether metaphor affects our perception of innovators in a final experiment. In addition to reading a passage that couched an invention (spread-spectrum technology in radio communication) with either the seed, lightbulb, or no metaphor, people read about either a female (Hedy Lamarr) or a male (George Antheil) inventor. Finally, people judged the exceptionality of the inventor. Here are their results:

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The data show us that when the male was the inventor people were considering, people who thought about his idea as a seed actually felt he was less exceptional than those who thought about his idea as a lightbulb or who weren’t encouraged to think about his invention metaphorically. Considerations of the female inventor took the opposite form: those who had been thinking about her innovation as a seed found her to be more exceptional than those who thought of the innovation as a lightbulb. This experiment suggests that we hold beliefs that men who are geniuses experience sudden insights, while women must work long and hard to achieve the same exceptionality.

Work in educational psychology suggests that it is more beneficial to encourage kids to have growth mindsets than fixed mindsets. In other words, they should be taught that their abilities are not immutable. They can get better at things by hard work and practice. They’re taught to have a seed mindset instead of a lightbulb view – ideas don’t just come, we earn them. It might be tough to teach kids to believe in growth mindsets if we also hold the beliefs these studies show, if we believe that women are more likely to achieve success by nurturing their seed ideas and men are more likely to do so with the flash of a bulb.

But boys are not doomed to fixed mindsets! Perhaps we could stop posting pictures of light bulbs all over elementary school classrooms as a source of inspiration and replace them with images of plants. And when kids are encouraged to buy into growth mindsets, we can share these powerful metaphors with them and remind them that men and women can both grow great things from seeds. It’s a start at least.

WOOPing for my dissertation proposal

I’m going to advance to candidacy this week, which means I will propose my dissertation to my committee of five faculty members. I’ve already submitted a written proposal, but at the end of the week I’ll give a talk about my plans for about 45 minutes or an hour. I know all five of my committee members, and they all have a rough idea of the work I’m proposing. If they agree that my work is sufficient, I will be a PhD candidate, one step away from having a PhD (the size of that step varies though, so don’t be fooled). I’m not expecting intimidating interrogating or yelling or finger pointing, but it’s an event I’ve prepared thoroughly for, and things that require deep preparation are usually also at least a little anxiety-provoking. Normally when I have  events like this one, I picture myself excelling – if I tell myself that I can give a good talk, I will!

On my bus ride home one day recently, I was listening to The Hidden Brain podcast, and heard an episode called WOOP, There It Is. The psychologist being interviewed, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Oettingen’s main point was that positive thinking can backfire. What’s positive thinking? She gave an example (both in the podcast and in this article she wrote for aeon) of an experiment she actually ran. College students came to her lab and imagined that they saw their current crush at a party. The researchers asked the students to fill in the rest of the scenario: what happened at this imaginary party after you saw your crush? Some students gave very positive endings to the story, imagining the start of a wonderful relationship, while others gave less romantic endings, for example that the crush started talking to someone else. Five months later, the people who had given the less positive responses were actually more likely to have attempted to strike up a relationship with their crush than the uber-positive dreamers.

Across a range of studies with diverse participants, Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who think more positively about achieving their goals are actually less likely to achieve those goals than those who think less positively (more realistically?). These findings hold for professional, health, academic, and relational goals (detailed examples can be found on this site, WOOP my life).

Why is positive thinking so bad? Oettingen claims that it relaxes us and tricks our brain into thinking we’ve achieved our goal. This decreases our likelihood of actually acting on those goals. This relaxation is evident physiologically, she notes:

After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. (via aeon)

Without digging extensively into her papers, I’m not sure that I buy her claim here about the “mechanism” – that lower blood pressure is a sign that thinking positively calms us too much and makes us think at some level we’ve achieved the thing we wanted to and now are less likely to act on it. I’m skeptical, but I do believe her claim that there’s a way to evade dooming yourself by positive thinking.

Oettingen notes that if people engage in a process that she and her team call WOOP, they’ll actually fare better on a range of health, interpersonal, and academic measures than people who don’t WOOP it up. Here’s an example of how I might engage in WOOP for my upcoming talk:

  • Wish: I hope that I will present my work to my dissertation committee clearly.
  • Outcome: I imagine myself focused but relaxed enough that my words flow, confident with my material but not over-practiced; my committee is clearly engaged in the presentation I’m delivering
  • Obstacle: Someone may ask me a question I don’t know how to respond to.
  • Plan: If someone asks me something that stumps me, I can do any or all of these things: ask them to rephrase it; take a second, a swig of water, a deep breath, and give it my best shot; or simply say, “That’s a really great question that I’ll have to find out.”
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My plan.

The researchers have tested WOOP against similar exercises, like stating your intentions to do something positive (for example, I intend to be calm, focused, and avoid getting flustered when I give the talk), and in contexts as different as low-income mothers’ likelihood of attending a vocational program and stroke patients losing weight, WOOP produces the best outcomes.

 

So throughout this week I’ll be running a mini-experiment on myself, WOOPing about my advancement as often as possible, and hoping at the end of the week I’ll have one more piece of positive evidence in favor of WOOP.

Words matter in the Presidential Debate

If there’s one thing this Presidential race and debate have reminded me of, it’s that everything is subjective. A few thoughts on the content of the first 2016 Presidential debate from a linguistically-inclined cognitive scientist:

  • America is a piggy bank

    You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They are devaluing their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them and we have a very good fight and we have a winning fight because they are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China and many other countries are doing the same thing. -Donald Trump

    If the US is truly a piggy bank, then China may have to smash us to pieces to get their money out. We should watch out.

  • Trump and Clinton argue over Trump’s statement that: You [Clinton] have regulations on top of regulations and new companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business and you want to increase the regulations and make them even worse.

    Clinton: I kind of assumed there would be a lot of these charges and claims and so –Trump: Facts.

    What you call a thing matters. Both candidates agree on that.

  • There’s been some innovative language use from both Clinton and Trump.

    Clinton defines her phrase “Trumped up trickle down”:

    And the kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle down economics. It would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percents of the people in this country that we’ve ever had. I call it trumped up trickle down because that’s exactly what it would be.

    Trump’s new word, bragadocious, needs no formal definition:

    I have a great company and I have tremendous income. I say that not in a bragadocious way but it’s time that this country has somebody running the country who has an idea about money.

  • Oh! Hillary just wrote my conclusion for me: “Words matter, my friends, and if you are running to be President or you are President of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.”

Recap of ComSciCon-San Diego

This week, ComSciCon – a science communication workshop by grad students for grad students – came to San Diego. Over two days, we enjoyed thought-provoking panels and talks on science communication, touching on topics like: how do we convey the uncertainty in science without teaching the public to be skeptical of researchers? What do we make of the current “edu-tainment” movement? And what is the role of social media in science communication? Attendees also worked with each other and with invited experts to hone their own work, whether abstracts for an academic paper, or a blog post. We ate, we talked, we admired the ocean from the 15th floor, and, luckily, we tweeted. Here’s a collection of some of the tweets that capture the energy from the workshop and highlight many of the impactful moments of ComSciCon-SD.

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