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New faculty profile: Sedona Chinn explores how uncertainty affects people’s attitudes toward science

Sedona Chinn joined the UW–Madison faculty in August 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I am from San Marcos, CA, in San Diego County. I spent my high school and college years in New Hampshire.

What is your educational/professional background (including your previous position)?
I received my B.A. from Saint Anselm College in international relations and recently finished my Ph.D. in communication and media from the University of Michigan.

How did you get into your field of research?
I was passionate about environmental issues as a student, and assumed that a lack of public support for environmental policies was due to distance from environmental impacts. After graduating, I moved to Beijing, China, where environmental impacts were easy to see. I would wake up one morning and see buildings out my window—the next morning I would see only smog. My friends told me that they moved to Beijing knowing it would shave five years off their lives. I began to explore how people think about environmental issues, which snowballed into a broader interest in public debates about science.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My research investigates when and why people question science. I focus on how scientific uncertainties and debates are covered in news and social media and how disagreement and denial messages affect science attitudes including trust in experts. In recent work, I have used novel measurement to differentiate between science knowledge, ignorance, misinformation, and rejection. I also used computational tools to measure politicization and polarization in climate change and COVID-19 news coverage. My current work examines how social media platforms shape the content of science information and users’ trust in science, as well as exploring how to use text-as-data computational approaches to identify science denial in different issue contexts.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
I was excited to join a department of excellent scholars working in the field of science communication. The focus on interdisciplinary work, on working across fields to do impactful work, was a real draw. On top of that, the climate is friendly, welcoming, and collaborative.

What was your first visit to campus like?
The fall weather was crisp and beautiful, and I got views of the lake just up the hill from my department.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Everyone is prone to biased thinking, it isn’t just the fault of social media or conspiracy theorists.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I share my research on Twitter (@OMGBEARSS). Given that a good deal of my research is about how science can be misconstrued on the internet, it is both exciting and terrifying.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
It is increasingly apparent that the science debates we see in media can have tangible and immediate effects on individuals’ attitudes and behaviors in ways that impact the health of our communities. In addition to documenting ways in which media negatively affects science attitudes, I look forward to exploring how to curtail the spread of misinformation online and promote engagement with STEM fields via social media.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Early newspaper coverage of COVID-19 was as politicized and polarized as news coverage of climate change, which is widely considered to be one of the most politically polarized issues in the U.S. (published earlier this month in Science Communication!).

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Literally anything involving plants or animals, also drawing.