Tuesday, April 24, 2012
However, there was one session yesterday that attracted some attention and generated a lot of discussion afterward, and in the evening over a few beers. The contributions from the two science journalists were quite predicable. Basically they want scientists to help them do their jobs. They want us to feed them good stories but only if they can be spun as ways of helping their readers. Apparently they only way we can communicate science is to convince the general public that there's something in it for them.
Cara Santa Maria writes for the Huffington Post. Many of her stories involve videos and she wants science stories to be more personal. She says that scientists should not be reluctant to talk about themselves because that what the public wants to hear. That prompted a comment from Paul Berg who says that self-promotion is not dignified and he is opposed to Cara's objective.
Berg also criticized NPR for misquoting all the scientist they interviewed on a recent show about H1N1. Apparently, Berg was interviewed at some length but the bits that were included in the radio broadcast were not representative of his view. Joe Palca of NPR defended science journalism in the standard way. (We're sorry. We're very busy doing multiple stories on short deadlines. And no, we won't let you review our work before it's published.)
I'm a bit tired of going to these meetings and being lectured by science journalists on how to effectively communicate science. It would be one thing if their profession was doing an outstanding job—in that case their advice would be meaningful. But science journalists are not remarkably good at communicating science correctly. So why should we listen to them?
I was reminded of this this morning when I picked up my copy of USA Today from the floor outside my hotel room door. There on the front page was a story about telomeres: Violence ages children's DNA, shortens their chromosomes. I doubt very much whether this study will ever be reproduced. It's almost certainly wrong, in my opinion, or, at the very least, highly misleading. There wasn't even a hint of skepticism in the article. The work was presented as fact.
I will start to be impressed with science journalist when they recognize that this is bad science writing and when they start to do something to police their own profession. When they show me that they (i.e the profession) can distinguish between good science communication and bad science communication then, and only then, can they lecture me on how to effectively communicate my science.
We had a good time debating these issues in the evening. I got to meet scicurious who blogs at Scicurious/Neurotic Physiology. She is, to put it mildly, a force of nature. One of those people who always seems too busy to have a serious conversation. While I was talking to her, she was constantly looking around to see whether she was missing something more exciting elsewhere. Scicurious claims to be the "Official Blogger" of Experimental Biology 2012 because the organizers give her permission to blog about the meeting. (I did not ask for permission, in case anyone is interested.)
I also met Brian Switek of LAELAPS for the very first time. He is actually smarter and even more knowledgeable than his blog suggests. It was delightful talking to him.