Storytelling and Science Communication

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  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life.  We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.

Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the  ‘neuroscience of the narrative’.  According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust.  Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin. The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy.  Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.

Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era

While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:            

postliterate

“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds.  The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.

goldfish

The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding  text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.

The storytelling device and science communication

How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet.  We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media.  Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange.  This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself.  Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.

selfiessoundbytes

For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.

Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably.  Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…”  “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)

As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course.  How the story is told matters a great deal as well.  Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.

metaphor

Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character.  The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.

Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?

[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]

Select References/Resources:

Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

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Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.

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Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.

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‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

 

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

The Closer You Get… the fear and disgust response

As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.

A personal anecdote

I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years (29 years ago today, actually) and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.

Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo.  In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.

The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety.  Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out.  For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.

The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined

Fear drivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. (This latter category of fears is way more subjective. And some of these fears may be tied to phobias that, if prove to be personally and socially debilitating, may require treatment).

Disgust is slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. It is the ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona.  That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too.  For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).

Cami's Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Cami’s Quadrants of Fear and Disgust

Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media.  For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our  food choices.  In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.

Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs.  Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks  and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”.  There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).

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The closer you get…

There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.

My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)

My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something.  Each emotion can lead us down a different response path.  While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius –

Select References:

Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.

Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.

New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.

Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.

Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.

Self-doubt and the fine art of solution aversion: my story

I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.

In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy.  My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).

Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”

I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year.  The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.

just not going letter

Change is hard.  Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)


denysolutions

The human is my favourite mammal. :)  As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):

“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”  

– David Ropeik –

What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are.  Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.

solution aversion cartoon

Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.

There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University.  With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.

Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.

It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.

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Me and the kids and Rocky (circa ~ 1996)

Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity.  It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.

The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride.  Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.

References:

  • Campbell, T.H. and Aaron C. Kay. (2014). “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 107, No. 5. 809-824.
  • Kahan, Dan. (2012). “Why we are poles apart on climate change.” Volume 488. August 16.
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public InterestDecember 2012  13 no. 3106-131. Available online at: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/13/3/106.full.pdf+html?ijkey=FNCpLYuivUOHE&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi

Confessions of a pastry-phobe – or ‘science made me do it’

I have had an inordinate fear of three things in my life: spiders, math and pastry.  I don’t think that my fear of spiders is ever going to mend itself. I have come to terms with that. But I have faced my other two phobias in one way or another.

My fear of math was effectively conquered through hours and hours of lectures, readings, numerous calculations and essay-writing on economics and statistics during my time in grad school (admittedly, though, my legs still weaken a little when I come across anything related to calculus formulas or theorems). As for pastry, that’s a different story. There was never a fear in the eating of it. But there was most certainly fear in the making of it. And I tackled that over the holidays.

The back story: I come from a line of what I refer to as kitchen and culinary “masters.” My late maternal grandmother was a legend. Rumour has it that she fed 40 B.C. loggers three square meals a day for a week in the 1930’s with only a few pounds of potatoes and a couple of onions. Her buns and bread were famous in the small Saskatchewan community she eventually settled in. I’m pretty certain that if they were both still alive, my grandma and mom could single-handedly bake, preserve, cook and crochet their way out of any given situation. If wars were won on the palate and world peace could be gained by merely passing the plate, these women would be United Nations ambassadors.

When it comes to kitchen aptitude, I never seemed to measure up. The excuse that I often use is that I just didn’t inherit those skill-bearing genes. ;o)  The reality is that I just didn’t pay enough attention when these great ladies were around to teach me. My bad.

During the holidays, a Washington Post article popped up on my Facebook feed. The title really piqued my interest: The scientific season you should put booze into your pies.  It had a link to the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Food and Science blog where the good scientists there explain the science behind dough:

“Gluten develops when two wheat proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin, are mixed with water. Because parts of these proteins do not like to interact with water, the proteins begin to stick to each other much in the same way oil droplets come together when suspended in water. As a flour-water dough is mixed, the glutenin and gliadin molecules interact to form an extensive elastic network.” – UCLA Food and Science Blog

Why ‘booze’? Adding alcohol to your dough restricts gluten formation so that the wheat proteins can’t stick to each other and form those springy networks mentioned above. According to science, this makes for a more tender and flaky pie crust.

So, I guess you could say that the science made me do it. Armed with grandma’s decades-old wooden rolling pin and the UCLA recipe for an alcohol-based pie crust, I dove in! I was a kitchen warrior prepared to take on my fears and the peculiarities of pastry!

IMG_1265The making of the pastry was pretty straightforward. The rolling of it, less so.

According to The Joy of Cooking‘s guidelines Let them eat pie: rolling pastry dough, “You must approach the pastry dough with confidence… pie dough can sense fear.”

Oh, great. I hadn’t perspired this much since I defended my doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, I ‘owned’ the fear and kept going. (It’s a good thing that I wore my Batman t-shirt. I like to think that it helped.)

“You must move the dough rather than letting the dough move you.” I’m not really sure what that meant but it sounded perfectly quotable while ever-so-slightly philosophical. I embraced its abstractness, and tried to be inspired rather than intimidated. How hard could it be? After all, I was the one with the rolling pin (and an experienced rolling pin at that, even if I wasn’t).

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And voilà … a pretty decent looking pie crust.

I really felt as if I had tackled the most difficult part of the project at this point.  The rest, as they say, is just ‘icing.”

Or filling, actually.

Mom’s rhubarb pies were always a family favorite. So, the hubby was a bit miffed when I chose to make pecan pie instead. I recall mom making a bourbon pecan pie years ago and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, that recipe was tucked away between the pages of grandma’s first edition of The Joy of Cooking cookbook. That, along with with hundreds of other family recipes and cookbooks, was shut up tight in storage.  Sigh. I had to find another recipe. Enter Google. I came across this one:

Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie

Ingredients: sugar, butter, eggs, dark corn syrup, maple syrup, bourbon (or dark rum), vanilla extract, pecan halves, cream.

Recipe and directions can be found here.

pie2

Success! I conquered a fear and treated my family to a tasty dessert! I’m pretty sure that my mom and grandma would be proud.

As a young, working single mom (before I was in graduate school) I would spend my spare time crocheting, crafting, cross-stitching or drawing, painting and writing poetry. Over the years since, I have dedicated more time towards work and scholarly writing. That’s creative too, but in a different way. But I want to change things up. I want to explore those old creative outlets and maybe experiment with some new ones. I have dubbed 2015 as my Year of Living Creatively. I plan to do lots of creative things this year; maybe some things that scare me just a little. And 2015 started out with pastry and pie!

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“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”
― David Mamet

Communicating the Science of Agriculture

In October of 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the podium with Dr. Kevin Folta and Ms. Michele Payn-Knoper as we tackled the very complex (yet fascinating) issue of ag science communication.

It was an unusually chilly day, the frost clung heavily to the evergreens and an eery fog hung over the South Saskatchewan River. But nothing but warmth and the prospect of good discussion greeted us when we arrived at Riverside Golf and Country Club for the day’s events.

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There were 40+ people in attendance: farmers, scientists, policy makers and academics. It was a great day and much of what was discussed is summarized in interviews with Kevin, Michele and me that are currently up on the Genome Prairie website.

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Kevin Folta presents to the crowd gathered at Riverside Golf and Country Club

Kevin and me.

Kevin and me.

Guess what? It turns out that the event in 2013 was an inaugural one.  The Communicating the Science of Agriculture 2014 workshop will be held this year on October 9, 2014 at the Willows Golf and Country Club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  Our guest is Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, science communicator and author of the blog Applied Mythology.  Register before October 1st to ensure your spot in the workshop!

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“Keep looking up! I learn from the past, dream about the future and look up. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to end a healthy day.” – Rachel Boston

The full farm and food immersion experience at #CanolaConnect!

Canola Connect Camp "swag"

Canola Connect Camp “swag”

I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!

Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices.  This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.

DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?

“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”  

These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:

With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”

So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.

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Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:

“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor).  That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage

(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)

amount of product

DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)

Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day.  Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision.  Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop gePAUL ORSAK2netics and the climate.

“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return.  Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile.  For other crops, disease control became as issue.  Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”

Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops.  This tips production in their favour.

And how about those GMOs, Paul?

“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end.  Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.” 

[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]

Itorsak quote 2‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming.  Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION – in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.

It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!

So much to write about and so little time! ;o)

Thanks to the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and the team of Ellen, Jenn, Lori, Simone and Johanne for your roles in making this Camp possible!

Lori Dyck has compiled pictures and tweets into a Storify story of our Canola Connect Camp adventure here! More pictures have been posted by Jenn Dyck here!

Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources: