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I did a Nerd Nite…and it was fun.

June 1, 2017

I recently did a Nerd Nite presentation here in Kansas City. I had been meaning to attend Nerd Nite KC for a while but could never make it. It conflicts with my Wednesday night bicycling group and so I have always prioritized exercise over drinking and listening to people talk. And then the climate toward science in the United States shifted and I thought to myself that it is important, as a scientist, to work on communicating to non-scientists.

In case you are not aware of what a Nerd Nite is, Nerd Nite is an evening of science-y sorts of talks, usually at a local watering hole. The talks are oriented towards the general public and can cover a wide range of topics. The first Nerd Nite was in Boston and has now spread to over 90 communities around the world.

I chose the topic of innumeracy for my talk. I arrived about 15 minutes before the event was to start and, what I did not realize, was that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was speaking at the same time at the Midland Theater. So, the audience was pretty light and the organizer (thanks to Matthew Long-Middleton for being the organizer of this event in Kansas City) was not there yet. So, I ordered a beer and chatted with my partner, the bartender and a guy at the bar. The organizer arrived and told me that things would be starting later than planned and that there were two presenters and the other guy wanted to go first. I drank my beer (KC Bier Dunkel) and waited, chatting about this and that. By the time the first presenter began (talking about the process of kidney donation, a first person account from the perspective of the donor), I was onto my second beer. He finished and I had a sliver of beer left and a slight buzz going because I had not had dinner yet. In reality, it loosened me up and I was still capable of running the numbers that were in the presentation.

The topic was Innumeracy. So there were a lot of numbers. I began with requesting definitions of numeracy from the audience. I think asking for crowd feedback at the beginning was a good move for the presentation. I then moved to trying to convince the audience that, whenever they are confronted with a number in their everyday lives, they are probably being asked to make a value judgement about that number. I used a speed limit sign as the illustration which I think was surprising for the audience but, when you see a speed limit sign, you have to make a whole series of judgements about that number. Will I adhere to it or not? If not, how far over the speed limit am I wiling to drive and what is my decision-making process by which I decide that value?

Aluminum-Speed-Limit-Sign-K-2073I then attempted to make the point that we should care about the lack of numeracy in our current society. The point about the importance of innumeracy was driven home by  a series of examples that I found especially funny. So did the audience and I had to slow down that section to wait for people to stop laughing. The examples were things like incorrect calculated tip suggestions and terrible signs advertising “sales”, etc., in stores.

I then moved on to a more complicated example regarding how to put big numbers in perspective using a claim made by Michael Pollan in The Omnivores Dilemma about the number of cattle (30,000) housed at Poky Feeders, a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) located north of Garden City. How does one come to the conclusion as to whether that is a number of cattle I can feel good, neutral or bad, about. I walked the audience through a common scientific tool for putting that big number into context (factor label method) that then allowed them to assess how many people that would be in a house. I talked about the Mother of All Bombs graphic that appeared in USA Today drawing a false equivalency between that bomb and the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (corrected the next day).atomic bomb

I then talked about the claims that the current president made during the presidential campaign about “increasing” murder rates in the 50 largest cities. These examples drove home how numeracy can help and how innumeracy hinders us in understanding the world around us. I finished with some examples of things we can do on a daily basis to help become more numerate.

When I was finished, I got a lot of good questions, both from the organizer and from the audience. It was fun and I think I did a pretty good job and think I would probably do something like this, on a different topic, again some day. Some things that I learned in the process of doing this.

  1. If you are talking about something you are less familiar with, give yourself some lead time to work through the presentation. Numeracy is something I think about a lot but normally talk about in my science courses and not trying to explain it to non-scientists. So it took a while to wrap my head around how to approach it.
  2. Be funny. But not too funny? Hard to ascertain how humor will go over before you actually present it but humor does have the effect of slowing down the presentation if it works, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
  3. Have only one beer before the presentation. At the Nerd Nite KC event, presenters are afforded two free beers. Have one before and one after.
  4. Practice your talk just like you would for any other presentation you would make.
  5. Be open to questions from the audience; be conversational. The audience members are genuinely there to learn and enjoy themselves and you are part of the entertainment, but you are also “the expert”. Stop and think about answers before they come out of your mouth, acknowledge when you don’t know something, and be honest with people (good advice to any question/answer portion of any presentation you make).
  6. Just do it. It was fun. And, if you are an expert on something, the process of thinking about your area of expertise is useful for you as an expert and your expertise is useful to others, so it would be nice to get it out there.

If you have done something like this, share your experiences in the comments section. I would be interested in hearing about what you did and how it went over.

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