Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Abel Gustafson

Abel Gustafson

This week, we highlight the work of our newest Faculty Affiliate with the Center for Public Engagement with ScienceDr. Abel Gustafson, Assistant Professor in the UC Department of Communication.  

Dr. Gustafson studies public opinion and strategic communication in science and environmental issues. Using surveys and communication experiments, he assesses how various demographic and political groups think about and respond to these issues. For example, his research has identified how political polarization develops on environmental issues, and how the public reacts to portrayals of uncertainty in science.  His findings help develop more effective strategies for communicating science to the public  

Dr. Gustafson became interested in science and environmental communication as a graduate student. At the time, he was studying theories of persuasion and social influence. However, he wanted his research to make a positive impact on society. This led him to study persuasive communication related to climate change and other environmental issues. 

Dr. Gustafson has collaborated with a wide range of scholars (from political scientists to geographers and literary scholars) and a wide range of organizations (from nonprofit advocacy groups to media companies). A primary goal of his work is to help these different groups improve the way that they communicate about science issues to the public.

A key player in public science communication is the news media. In a forthcoming report, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues at Yale and George Mason Universities use public opinion data to show that many Americans want the news media to do more to address the issue of climate change. Dr. Gustafson says this study is particularly important, because many people get their information about science and environmental issues from the news. If news organizations are made aware that their audience wants more and better information about important issues like climate change, this may lead to increased news coverage, which can in turn have large impacts on public support for climate action.

Dr. Gustafson noted that the current COVID-19 pandemic is a fascinating example of the oftentimes fraught and polarized relationship between science and the public. Currently, opinions about the dangers of pandemic and participation in recommended preventative actions show a sharp divide along party lines. Dr. Gustafson noted that this is a clear example of the need for clear, effective science communication from trusted experts. In a study conducted earlier this spring, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues found that the CDC’s official recommendation to wear masks resulted in an immediate and dramatic increase in mask-wearing behavior.

You can read more about Dr. Gustafson’s publications and work here

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Nate Morehouse

This week, we want to highlight the work of one of the Center’s affiliates, Dr. Nate Morehouse

Dr. Morehouse leads a lab that studies insects and spiders. He has a special interest in how they see the world, and how their vision influences the choices they make. He was drawn to the University of Cincinnati because the school has a strong community working on the biology of vision, philosophy of perception, and other fields related to sight. He is currently part of an effort to create a central place for this community through the Institute for Research In Sensing (IRIS). Planning is ongoing, but programming is staged to begin by Spring 2021. 

Dr. Morehouse is partly interested in the vision of spiders and insects because of the diversity of ways that their eyes function. Vertebrates all have eyes similar to a camera; they have a single lens in front of a cavity above a sheet of cells that receives light. Arthropods have a wider diversity of types of eyes. In insects, the most common is the compound eye, which has thousands of individual flat lenses that are all sensitive to light. The information from these pieces together a clearer mosaic image. They also have a lens that gives them separate information about which way is up and helps them make quick decisions important to flight. Spiders are even more complex; they have 8 eyes. 6 of these evolved from compound eyes, derived from a common ancestor with insects. However, these have lost their ability to create a detailed image, likely because spiders lived underground for a large part of their evolutionary history. These eyes have a very low resolution and cannot see color, much like our peripheral vision. Their other eyes collect information for a more complex color image. They form at a different stage in the spider’s development, and even connect to a different part of their brains. This pair of eyes has a single lens, with a long cavity behind it, like a Galilean telescope. This is called a diverging lens, and magnifies anything they focus on. This means that despite having eyes that are only ½ mm wide, they can see patterns as well as an elephant can and can see better than most other animals their size. 

One of the overarching questions Dr. Morehouse and his lab are pursuing is “why?” Spiders have 3-color, vision like humans do, although the exact colors they see are different. Some can see even more than 3 colors. Their interactions, especially during mating, are very reliant on visual cues and color. However, it is unlikely that these displays evolved until after their vision did; after all, why show off if no one can see it? So why did they evolve such complicated vision in the first place? To help them hunt? To avoid something toxic? This research has taken them around the world. 

Ongoing research in the lab includes whether the male and female audacious jumping spiders see the world differently. Both sexes track each other’s movements closely during mating and develop in similar ways. One notable difference is that the females have an extra stage or two of development (instars) before maturity, which might allow their eyes to get bigger. There are some differences in the way genes linked to vision are expressed, but the physical effects of that expression are still being figured out. Dr. Morehouse also has students working on the evolution of illusions and how non-human animals discriminate faces. Such studies are possible with arthropods because the lab has technology that can track the movement of their eyes.  

Dr. Morehouse was inspired to study arthropods when he was three years old; he would go into his backyard and pick up bumblebees, get stung, and pick them back up. He tries to foster the curiosity of children through long term mentoring programs. He participates in the STEM Girls programs at the Cincinnati Museum Center, afterschool programs, and summer camps. Most recently, he ran a summer camp that allowed students to write their own superhero persona, including a disguise, personality, and power, that was inspired by the natural world. At the end of the week, he showed up in disguise as a supervillian with his own powers, and challenged them to defeat him with their own creativity.  

Dr. Morehouse continues to be excited about his field. It has incredible implications for technology; understanding how animals process information could inspire biomedical advances, the engineering of computers that can process information as quickly as arthropods, and programming for the decision making of autonomous cars. In his words, “the natural world has had millions of years to figure out the answers to questions that we are only beginning to ask.” But Dr. Morehouse’s main mission is more philosophical.  

“To be honest, those [questions] aren’t what motivate me. Its cool, but it doesn’t drive me. I would feel like my life had been wasted if I didn’t spend it in the pursuit of curiosity. …I actually think that to be curious is an essential part of what it means to be human. If we forget …it as a basic human pursuit, we’re lost. We should encourage healthy curiosity. In part, what I’m doing is art: I want to spark the curiosity of others. Have I changed how people view their world? Is there more magic to their backyard? If I can just move people’s feet from where they were before, that’s success.” 

To read more about on-going research in the Morehouse lab, click here.

When Science isn’t Simple

One of the earliest lessons we learn in our training as scientists is to accept the simplest explanation of evidence, rather than assuming a more complicated solution. We call this “Occam’s Razor,” and it is repeated in class after class.

But the world is complicated. What happens when our simple explanations don’t capture the entire picture? Dr. Angela Potochnik, Director of the Center for Public Engagement with Science, explores this complexity in her new article “Constructing an Ideal Reality.”

“Idealizations like these make it possible for scientists to focus in on one or a few factors in a sea of complexity in order to get a handle on how those factors are relevant and perhaps to use them as ‘levers’ for change. Where we go wrong—and “we” here includes many scientists, philosophers, policy-makers, and others—is in assuming that our simple explanations provide the full story. “

New Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Eduardo Martinez

This semester, we are excited to welcome Dr. Eduardo Martinez to the University of Cincinnati philosophy department and as an affiliate of the Center for Public Engagement with Science. Drawn to UC by the interdisciplinary philosophy community and by an interest in the current environment of the midwest, Dr. Martinez is a philosopher with an interest in democratic theory. 

Democratic theory is the way that philosophers evaluate institutions, elected officials, and the groups that influence them. It also models their decisions and actions. Dr. Martinez is particularly interested in understanding the influence of non-elected officials. Democratic theory research results in debates over how to better represent the population, assess the ideas of the public, and hold officials accountable. Early on, papers are aimed at other researchers. However, Dr. Martinez wants his research to influence how he communicates and teaches. He also encourages people to make themselves heard in ways beyond voting and surveys by joining advocacy groups and being active in their communities. For example, one ongoing discussion encompasses climate change; because it is slow, it might not be the drive behind the public’s vote. However, it is still important that it be acted on. 

One idea that democratic theory addresses is how government agencies writing policies interact with the public. When these agencies ask for public opinion, there is potential for the answers they receive to not lead to actions that the public wants. Partly, this might be the result of who answers the survey if only those who are passionate about a topic will respond. Additionally, the way that information is presented before a question is asked, and how the question is asked, may influence how people answer. They may also respond based on how they identify with a political party, religion, race, or other group. Dr. Martinez is currently working on co-authoring a paper that examines the role that such identities play. Although many theorists describe and model actions in simple or “ideal” situations, Dr. Martinez is more focused on more complicated scenarios. Work like his can be used in further discussions that lead to policy writing. 

Dr. Martinez was drawn to philosophy because it gave him the flexibility as a student to ask questions and do interdisciplinary research, combining empirical data and abstract ideas. During his time in graduate school, he coached an ethics bowl team at a local high school. He plans to pass his enthusiasm on to students at UC by teaching classes on civics. Civics classes, he said, need to communicate more than the basic process of bills becoming laws; he intends to teach classes that involve students discussing current events, as well as collecting information and taking action in their communities. He hopes to encourage students, who are also citizens, to actively work to solve problems around them, rather than merely regurgitating facts. He also hopes to communicate his work to his new community in Cincinnati in partnership with the Center for Public Engagement with Science, increasing people’s exposure to new groups and ideas. He is participating in the Center’s efforts to write a series of papers that is meant to give researchers guidance in science communication. He hopes to continue to work with scientists who are doing work related to current politics to promote communicating this work to the public.  

Crowley featured on video series “Science Around Cincy”

Science Around Cincy: Dr. Brooke Crowley – Chemistry Detective

Center Affiliate Brooke Crowley (Associate Professor of Geology and Anthropology) is featured in the latest video in Chris Anderson’s web series “Science Around Cincy.”

Check out all the videos about local scientists at sciaroundcincy.com (link). You can also access teacher resources and learn more about the project.