Mar 13

Science News and Fact-Checking

By Tanya Makarenko, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

Many of us rely on the internet for current news, and thankfully the internet provides just that and more. By more I mean information like bacon causes cancer, but wait it gets better because apparently bacon cures cancer too. How do you know which article is true or if either of them are? I am sure you do not have time to look through peer reviewed literature to make sure you are not killing yourself by eating bacon, or driving yourself to an early grave by not eating bacon. There is a way to save time from reading 10 pages of science and still know if the article is providing accurate information. By following the following pointers, you can rely that the information you are reading is credible.

  1. Does the article have an author? Who is the author?

Authors are listed in the beginning or the end of an article. If you don’t find an author, most likely this source is not credible. If there is an author listed, do some background research. If the name is hyperlinked, click on it, if not, Google the name. Try typing the author’s name into google scholar. Google scholar is a data base where you can find credible authors.

If you find the author, look at their credentials. Do they know what they are writing about? If they have little science background but are writing a paper on a complex study, be cautious, the author might not have realized they misinterpreted the information from the research articles. Is the author biased? We all know to be cautious of biased authors, but sometimes that can give you a different perspective on a subject.

  1. Who is the publisher?

The publisher is an organization/person that puts up the article into their journal/website. Find the publisher and what other articles are published by them. This will give you the level of expertise in the subject they are writing in. If they usually publish papers on entertainment and have one article on climate change, then do extra research to confirm the validity of their interpretations.

  1. What website are you on?

If you look at the URL of the website, you will determine the origin of the site. For example:

.gov – These sites are founded by the government and have accurate but not always detailed information.

.edu – These sites are founded by universities and schools and educational programs. The information can be used as a reference, but make       sure the findings are consistent with other schools to eliminate inaccurate data.

.com – These sites are founded by commercial organizations. It is best to be cautious of the information presented in these sites, but not            all .com websites are unreliable.

.org – These sites are founded by an organization, some of which have their own agenda.

  1. Is the article trying to sell you something?

As you are reading the article, take note of any product or service being advertised. The article may be trying to sell you something, be that a product, service, or idea, twisting the information they are presenting to make their product desirable/valuable. If this is the case, skip onto the next article.

  1. Do they cite their sources?

Some articles list their references at the end. References are the sources the author found their information from. Are there research articles backing up their ideas presented in the article? Some articles use hyperlinks, click on them. Hyperlinks are references incorporated into the article. If there are no citations/references, be cautious of the information presented in the article.

  1. Can you find the same information on different sites?

Is the information presented in the article consistent with other articles? For example, you were looking at a study conducted on bats, can you find another study that repeated this and reported the same results? Did you find other studies that agree with the information presented in that article and built off of it? If not, then you try another source.

These tips take time, but they do not take as long and are not as tiresome as reading a scientific study. After a few tries you will easily tell which articles are reliable and credible and not worry about the bizarre claims on bacon.

Mar 11

How hard is it to spot the truth?

By Andrea Lee, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

Many people I talk to are convinced that they are not only excellent judges of character but that they can easily spot the difference between fact and fiction, even on the internet.  When challenged, I hear many reasons as to why they have this particular talent but usually it has something to do with their intelligence, education or intuitive grasp on logic.  But, if this were actually the case, how can I know so many people on opposite ends of every ideological spectrum, all claiming these skills?  Well, I decided to put them to the test and find out which of my friends I should be listening to after all.  I gave the following 5 statements to my friends and asked them to tell me which one is false to demonstrate their power.  Care to give it a shot?

  1. There is no gravity in space
  2. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb
  3. Columbus proved the world was round and not flat
  4. Humans are descended from chimpanzees
  5. Vaccines cause autism

Easiest test ever, right?  I knew it wouldn’t be a problem for you.  It’s obvious that all of the answers are false.  Yes, you read that correctly, all of the statements above are false.  I know it might not seem possible that all of these statements are false but I assure you they are and they are prime examples of why we need to be skeptical of everything we hear and especially everything we see on the internet.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s check facts!

The first thing to remember when checking facts, especially in the age of the internet, is that just because something is written down, does not make it true. is not necessarily a trustworthy source for information about physics in space.  However, who has put many astronauts in space will be the first to tell you that gravity is everywhere.  Reputation and history can be very important when trying to decide which of two mutually exclusive statements are true.

I can hear it now, “everyone knows Edison invented the lightbulb!”…    The truth is that Edison does deserve a lot of credit for the success of the commercial light bulb but not for the invention itself.  So how do we know for sure?  The best source to check is a primary source if you can; first hand facts are always better than hearing through the grapevine, right?  For inventions, a good primary source would be the patent office where we can find Edison’s first patent application for “Improvement In Electric Lights” he didn’t make the lightbulb, he made it better.

At this point, I’m guessing that you’re saying something along the lines of “OK, I believe you, I’ll google #3, find a source with a good history and reputation and to make sure you’re right but we both know vaccines don’t cause autism however we are descended from chimps!”  Well, no, we aren’t but the same reason you might believe that is the same reason many people falsely believe that vaccines cause autism.  People don’t check their facts!  We are related to chimpanzees but we did not evolve from them.  Trust me…  Still don’t believe me?  Good, go check and come back!

Fact checking is hard.  We are conditioned from a young age to believe what we read.  Teachers tell us, the answer is in the book.  But now we live in a world were anyone with any background can make outrageous claims unchecked and broadcast them to the world.   The first thing we need to remember is to be skeptical, everything is simply a claim unless there is evidence to back it up (don’t believe everything you read!).  The second thing to remember is to take time to find a source on a claim before you spread the claim as though it were fact.  You would be surprised how often an untested hypothesis turns into a scientific fact the spreads like wildfire from a simple misunderstanding or worst case scenario, intentional fraud.  Finally, judge the credibility of your sources.  You may find 100 sources for and 100 sources against on any particular topic but by looking at track records on previous claims and potential motivations for their current claims, one can usually determine who is backed by fact and who is backed by junk science or financial motivation.  On a final note, be wary of any claim that attempts to make bold, provocative or claims designed to appeal to your emotions.  Emotions override logic and only those who have no logic or fact to stand on tend to use them.

Mar 09

Clarity and vividness in scientific journalism

By Bradley Dowling, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

Alan Alda, From:

Alan Alda, From:

I vividly remember summer evenings when I was little, when my dad and I would hang around the living room and watch TV after dinner. Most of the time, we’d sit and watch Jeopardy or catch a Seattle Mariners game (this was back when they were worth watching). But on Tuesday nights at 7pm, my dad would switch the channel to PBS and I’d hear the familiar jingle of Scientific American Frontiers. For the next half-hour, host Alan Alda would take my dad and I on journeys through the Amazon rainforest, the human brain, and the even the darkest and most distant parts of the Universe. I was only in elementary school, so I had next to no knowledge on the subjects that Mr. Alda presented, but that didn’t matter. Scientific American Frontiers was more a show about scientists conducting their research, rather than a show describing concepts and explained findings. I got to meet real scientists, and see how they worked! I got to witness the humor and conversations between Mr. Alda and these researchers. And most of all, I got to see their enthusiasm for what they did.

Scientific American Frontiers is no longer aired, but Alan Alda has continued to push for better science communication and scientific journalism. Today, he is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communication Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The Alda Center’s mission is to improve scientific communication between scientists and the public. This can often be difficult for scientists who feel like they need to describe every detail of a complex subject. “What we try to teach is, first of all, not dumbing down the science,” says Alda. “Science is exciting and it doesn’t need to be dumbed down. What we really look for is clarity and vividness. And to be vivid, to me, is to show us how it affects our daily lives, and what the stories are that led to these discoveries.”

Most readers won’t understand—or care—about the minute and utterly complicated details of the research, but everyone can connect to a story. For instance, when Dr. David Muller of Cornell University became the first to create a sheet of glass one atom thick, it was the fact that it was made by accident that caught the attention of international news sites. In a way, the science was able to ‘piggy-back’ the story of accidental discovery, and subsequently reached a much larger audience than it ever could have before.

In the end, a journalist’s goal is to reach the largest audience possible. When it comes to reporting on science, it should be clear and concise. It should quickly get to the point for how the research will affect the reader’s daily lives. Think about telling a story if the science appears too complicated! Above all, don’t dumb it down. Alan Alda is right. Science is exciting. It’s only the way you talk or write about it that can be boring.

Mar 06

Science communication is integral to science activism

By Megan Slaker

Edited by Alexandria Camino


Science is at the core of a number of important policy decisions being made and discussed. Science communication is critical for raising concerns and making impactful (and beneficial) policy. While it is easy for us as scientists to be frustrated with what is occurring in politics, it is imperative that we use our voices and knowledge to stand up for the policy issues we deem as essential.  How can you participate? Continue reading…

The March for Science

The March for Science is a movement that is sweeping across the US and other countries as a way to connect scientists and those who view science critical to the success of the country. The organizers view the marches as “a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community.” The marches take place April 22, 2017 in most major cities across the US. For help finding the city closest to you that will have a march, visit the March for Science website.

Reach Out to Local and State Officials

Contact your state senators, representatives, local mayors, governors, and other elected officials. Let them know that funding science is important to you. Let them know what specific issues are important to you. Let them know how your work is changing the world and is integral to the success and development of the country/state/city.


Communicatalyst wants to help you practice your science communication during Brain Awareness Week! Send a 500 word or fewer post on the impact and importance of your work to Alli or Megan by March 9th! 

Practice your science communication! Speaking to people that understand scientific principles is very different than speaking to people with no background in science. Speaking to your lab mates is very different than speaking to your grandma (who I am assuming doesn’t have a background in science). Writing a technical or review paper for publication is very different than writing a press release or blog to be read or heard by non-scientists. The people in the latter half of each of those statements are no less important than the people in the first half – it is your job as a skillful and successful science communicator to be able to reach them.  Therefore, practice, practice, practice. Make this an integral part of your training.




Unfortunately, even with these suggestions, some individuals will not change their view on science and science policy. It is not your responsibility to change their minds. It is not your responsibility to single-handedly convince your community, city, state, or country to become science enthusiasts. It is, however, your responsibility to be respectful of the views and beliefs of others – regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

Within science there are disagreements between major players in a given field – this has been true throughout history. In my field of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal believed the brain was made up of many individual cells, while Camillo Golgi believed the brain was made up of a continuous tissue. There was a fierce rivalry between the two and the advancement of science suffered because of this! Since Cajal was later found to be correct, many of Golgi’s other discoveries were discarded and neglected for years.

As scientists and science communicators, we should be sharing our work and the importance of it with everyone! If you can attend a March for Science – go! If you can or can’t, contact your elected officials to let them know that science and science policy is important to you. You could run for an elected office or participate in AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. Daily, practice your communication skills with the scientific community and lay audiences! Explore Communicatalyst posts for tips on how to reduce jargon and speak simply. You are an integral piece in the science policy puzzle!

Mar 01

We need your help for Brain Awareness Week!

BMetacognitionrain Awareness Week is in less than two weeks! A week to celebrate the brain, organized by Society for Neuroscience and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Some institutions celebrate by bringing in K-12 students to learn about the brain, first-hand from brain researchers. Others celebrate the week with exhibits and lectures on the brain. It is all about engaging and connecting with the community on the importance of brain knowledge and research.  Here at Communicatalyst, we need your help to celebrate science communication about the brain during Brain Awareness Week!

Part of effective science communication is practice! What better time to practice than during Brain Awareness week? From March 13th-17th, we will feature posts written by science communicators (that’s you) on topics relating to the brain. These topics can be anything that is of interest to you– plasticity, memory, hearing, vision, movement, addiction, decision-making, etc. If this sounds like something you want practice with or enjoy doing – reach out to us! You can be a PI, post-doc, graduate student, undergraduate student, high school student, science enthusiast – we want to hear from you!


By Thursday March 9th, email/tweet (direct message -@Neuro_Meg or @allison_coffin) us a short, 500 word or fewer piece on the importance and significance of your research or brain topic of interest. This should be written for a broad, non-scientific audience. We’ll read over your piece, do some basic editing, and let you see the final product before it goes live on Communicatalyst. If we get more than 5 pieces, we’ll feature more pieces each day or continuing to post until we feature all of them!

Feb 08

How to Prepare for an Elevator Speech

By Erin Cooper, Washington State University Vancouver Neuroscience student



You dodge behind a corner and peek around it, keeping your gaze on your target. He has got away from you twice today. You see your chance to make your move towards him and dart out, yet try to remain cool in appearance. Then all of a sudden you are stopped by someone who asks, “Do you know where the bathroom is?” What? Bathroom? You were so focused but the interference has shaken you and now you don’t see your target.

“It’s over there” you say, not really knowing where the bathroom is and side step, hurriedly walking to where you just saw him. Bam! Now he is in front of you and you lock eyes. He stares at you with a suggestion of introduction on his face. This is it, the moment that all of your stalking has led you to. You hear Eminem in your head rapping out lyrics to “Lose Yourself,” the bass line is your heartbeat. You stick out your hand and introduce yourself to the person that might change your life. This is your moment of opportunity and you better own it.

Graduate school interviews, networking, and socializing at conventions are moments of brief introduction, often referred as elevator speeches, which are only a couple of minutes long. When giving this speech, you must be prepared in order to sell yourself or your cause to someone that might influence it. You want to make sure every word that comes out of your mouth is precise and accurately conveys what you want to get across. You might also be literally standing in an elevator next to an unknown person who asks, “What do you do?” This person could be someone you never see again or someone that becomes a pivotal person in your life story. Having a ready-made reply in any case is a good idea.

What makes an elevator speech great is how well it is remembered, not by you, but the person you are communicating with; you want the person to become curious as to who you are so questions will form in their head from genuine interest. Of course embarrassing moments are memorable and not necessarily good for your cause. You want the person to become engaged in who you are and what you do.



Tips and questions to answer when formatting your speech:

  1. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid. Think bullet points and highlights; minimum explaining (this might help them form questions).
  2. No jargon (unless the person is familiar with terminology)
  3. Know your audience (Same career? What are they passionate about?)
  4. What is it you are passionate about? Why?
  5. What is your end game, what do you want to communicate? Save the world? Cure a disease? Change a single life? How does this apply to the listener?
  6. Be entertaining with your story, not by telling jokes. Your sense of humor might be unique to you and your friends.
  7. Be relevant. Tangents don’t help and are distracting. While the Shark Rumba cat is adorable, what does it add to your selling point?
  8. Practice! Do you think Andre Agassi became number 1 in his sport without practice? NO!

There plenty of good video tutorials out there to watch and get ideas about how to shape your elevator speech, but I personally like this video. The creator goes into body language as well as format and key points to include. This is another video that will help you understand how to explain who you are and what you do in just a few minutes to a complete stranger.

Remember to practice! You may want to run your elevator speech by a friend, but what is better than the real stress of talking to a stranger? Next time you are in a grocery line, give your pitch under pressure. If you completely biff it, no worries!


Feb 07

Why the debate on Autism and Vaccines remains a Controversy…

By Laura Kays, Washington State University Vancouver Neuroscience student

Vaccine Controversy Word Cloud

Vaccine Controversy Word Cloud

A famous study by Andrew Wakefield sparked the debate regarding autism and vaccines between researchers and parents of autistic children. The study investigated an association between the onset of behavioral symptoms reported by parents and administration of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The study purported a link between chronic enterocolitis and the onset of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) following the MMR vaccine. This studied, now retracted, is what sparked many parents to stop vaccinating their children. Several studies have been done since then to evaluate the occurrence of ASD. A study designed by Anjali Jane MD, Jaclyn Marshall MS, and Ami Buikema MPH showed that no association was seen between the MMR vaccine and onset of ASD even in children with increased risk of developing ASD. Other studies showed similar results including the following study, “No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study.” This studied was unique in that it looked at the occurrence of ASD associated with the MMR vaccine in a Japanese population as well as the occurrence of ASD after the withdrawal of the MMR vaccine. The study showed that after the withdrawal of the vaccine the occurrence of ASD did not decline. A new interest that sparked among parents against vaccinations, argued that it is not the MMR vaccine itself that can lead to autism but that a preservative, known as thimerosal that is added to vaccinations.  One particular study looked at the safety of thimerosal in vaccinations among infants and found that there was no clear association between thimerosal in vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders. Interestingly, the CDC states that thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, but was never in the MMR vaccine, the original vaccine of concern in this controversy. Many parents that argue that vaccinations are bad are now concerned about the number of vaccinations that children receive while they are so young. Their concern is so great that in towns such as Ashland, OR, a third of the population does not vaccinate their children. A documentary, The Vaccine War, goes into detail on how these parents risk the possibility of an epidemic breaking out in order to spare their children from vaccinations for diseases that haven’t been seen in years. On the contrary, it is the success of vaccinations that is keeping these diseases from being prevalent in the United States.

This controversy will continue for as long as the argument against vaccinations continues to change.


Feb 04

Hash Tags & Retweets: How Social Media Impacts the Vaccine-Autism Controversy

By Imee Williams, Washington State University Vancouver Neuroscience student

Vaccines continue to be a controversial public health issue. There have been numerous studies that have supported no causation between vaccines and autism (i.e. Honda et al., Jain et al., and Verstraeten et al.), yet many individuals and families continue to question the safety of vaccines. Why is that? Scientific illiteracy may be a factor, but where we receive our science and health information from is also critical. Not everyone has access to medical journals or academic literature, so we rely on media sources.



Hate it or love it, social media has become the center of our lives. We no longer need to wait for the newspaper to be delivered or watch the nightly news to know what is happening in our community or around the world. We are always up-to-date with current events thanks to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and now, Snapchat. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to receiving our news source via social media. Social media has helped agencies and experts promote and spread important information and data in a timely fashion. However, social media has also allowed non-experts to share misinformation and influence the public opinion of events.

Anti-vaccine activists rely on social media more than ever. Twitter hashtags have become a powerful tool for them to use: #antivax #antivaccine #cdcwhistleblower are just a few examples. Within these hashtags you can find hundreds of organized groups and thousands of users and followers consisting of mostly politicians, celebrities, parents, and so called “health experts”.

In the study conducted by Dixon et al., they evaluated different reporting styles regarding vaccines and autism issues. A journalist may use a style of reporting which they called “falsely balanced reporting” that presents all sides of an issue. This reporting style is beneficial for the reader when evaluating the pros and cons of the issue. However, it can be misleading in the sense that it gives the supporting and opposing views equal weight. They concluded that our attitude towards an issue (i.e. vaccine-autism controversy) is heavily influenced on how a news source reports and interprets the information to the public. Also, this falsely balanced reporting style increased the readers’ uncertainty of vaccine safety and decreased their intention to vaccinate their children in the future.

As scientists and healthcare professionals, we must not turn away from social media, but instead utilize it to prevent the harmful effects of non-evidence based science.

Jan 30

Feed Back to Head Forward

Written by Megan Slaker
Edits by Alexandria Camino

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” –Bill Gates

Feedback is necessary for improvement on any task, whether learning a new skill, clarifying our understandings of a concept, or presenting a talk. Think of a task you do regularly. Feedback will probably help you improve performance on that task. However, not all feedback yields positive results. The ability to provide constructive feedback demands practice, just like any other new skill. I’ll briefly discuss what feedback should generally address, how it should be delivered, and provide a few tips for giving valuable feedback.

TIFirst, effective feedback should address three main questions: 1) Where am I going? 2) How am I going? 3) Where to next? (The Power of Feedback by Hattie and Timperley, 2007). “Where am I going” addresses the goals or objective of the task being evaluated. The goals can be explicitly stated (i.e. a 3-minute thesis competition) or inferred (i.e. a talk at a conference). “How am I going” asks what progress is being made towards the goal. This could include what progress is beneficial or done well and also to critically evaluate what could make it better. “Where to next” provides information on what activities can be done to make additional progress. These should be specific and tangible.

Effect feedback should address:

 Goal → Current Progress → New Progress

Next, as an evaluator, it is up to you to decide what you will evaluate (content, delivery, process, etc.). However, your evaluation should always be clear, concise, and specific. Make sure you pay close attention to the execution of the task you will provide feedback for – if you don’t, how will you know what to comment on and how to help the person improve? Occasionally, there will be more items to be critiqued than not – you don’t need to share everything. Let’s repeat that: you don’t need to share everything. Choose one or two areas that could be improved, offer specific feedback and suggestions to improve upon those areas, and then meet to go over progress again at a later date.

“Feedback, when given well, should not alienate the receiver of the feedback, but should motivate them to perform better.” – Paulo Coelho

Providing critical fTI2eedback can be a challenge when we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings or feel like we are attacking them – the best way to avoid this and still provide critical and effective feedback is to be sincere. As an evaluator, you are speaking for yourself, providing your opinion to help their success. It should be your goal to provide the feedback that will help the other person succeed and deliver it in a way that is encouraging, motivating, and full of d irection and advice. Feedback should be given to help the other person improve and to motivate them to want to improve.

Effective feedback should be:

Clear – Concise – Specific

Finally, a few tips for providing feedback.

1) Critically think about how to help the other person improve
2) Carefully listen to what the other person says and how they met their goal(s)
3) Listen to the feedback that you receive and try to apply it (when applicable)
4) Use words that describe your own reactions to to the task/person you are evaluating
5) Avoid judgment words/statements (i.e. always, never, etc).
6) Use an outline to frame for your feedback so the receiver can focus on the content
7) Practice providing feedback (try with youtube videos)



Share your own tips for providing feedback in the comments or through social media!

Jan 30

The Whole Universe is Diverse

By Megan Slaker; Edited by Alexandria Camino


Nine years ago, a group of friends and I watched the first episode of the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. We enjoyed the quirky humor of four socially-awkward scientists as they learned to interact with the world. Every week, we bonded over an understanding of the characters. The show continued to add interpretations of scientists, across fields of discipline and gender. However, one element that has mostly remained constant is the theme: science vs. the general public. The scientists in the show are super-smart, nerdy, and have difficulty fitting into the non-scientific world (either by lack of social awareness or inappropriate behaviors). This portrayal of scientists is hindering the relationship between science and society and needs attention from everyone to change.

This display of scientists and science hinders interactions between science and society. There is already a clear divide between the general public and the scientists – one group is in the world and the other is holed up in a laboratory. It creates an illusion that science (and therefore scientists) only happen in a lab, with highly controlled environments that do not relate to normal life. We do science in school, but it has no impact in the real world. Students learn scientific concepts that are regurgitated on exams and forgotten quickly – which may reflect the deficient general knowledge of scientific terms and concepts ( – some of these concepts directly influence public policy (vaccines, GMOs, climate change)). Could this misconception be due in part to public perception of science and those that work in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields?

Shows like The Big Bang Theory have an opportunity to showcase the diversity and accessibility of science, beginning with what scientists are really like (see “This is what a scientist looks like” Tumblr). The group of friends that I began watching the show with are all in STEM fields: a food scientist, an engineer, a medical student, and a statistical analyst. But their field does not define them. They run marathons, are wives/mothers, husbands/fathers, political activists. They have close relationships with their friends and families. They play and watch sports. They ride motorcycles, play multiple instruments, and go out dancing. They are normal people.

It is imperative that shows like The Big Bang Theory illustrate the diversity and accessibility of science and tackle issues important to both scientists and the general public – job security, work/life balance. However, while these issues can be addressed on the show, the primary goal of the show is to entertain – it is our job (as scientists and community members) to work on closing the gap between science and the general public. It is essential that we as a field and members of society engage our local communities in conversations about scientific advances and inquiry.



 So what can we do?

Talk with family members.

Explain what you do to your parents, spouses, siblings – help them understand.

Plan (or attend) science talks at local museums, schools, or pubs.

Engage and encourage your fellow scientists to share their work.


Share your thoughts and ideas for engaging local communities in the comment section!

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