Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Communicating Science

Most of you won't be interested in the sessions I've been attending at Experimenatl Biology 2012. They're mostly about science education.

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.


  1. Instead of a reporter on the 'science' beat at Hufpo, why not have, as a guest speaker, oh, I don't know, Larry Moran!
    It seems like the only consistently good science reporting out there is done when scientists start up a blog to talk about their research. Maybe that's just the way it has to go, in a way, scientists can't really complain about the bad job journalists are doing, because the journalists are doing the scientists job for them.

  2. Apparently they only way we can communicate science is to convince the general public that there's something in it for them.

    Hell, yes. As it should be. The general public is paying for it all and wants to spend wisely.

    And no, we won't let you review our work before it's published

    An easy solution: refuse an interview if the condition of preview cannot be met.

    1. Let's assume, for the moment that all science is paid for by the general public. (We know that's not true because a lot of science is supported by the private sector and various foundations.)

      The question before us is why should governments support science? I think it's because knowledge is valuable and it's better to be knowledgeable than ignorant. That's why I'm quite happy if my tax dollars go to support research on ancient Greek history, archeology, theories of music, plate tectonics, and gamma ray bursts.

      None of these things are going to cure cancer or lead to a faster iPad but I still want the public to appreciate why they are valuable things to support.

      The science writers were telling us that the general public has a misconception about supporting research. They often think that that only reason for spending tax dollars on basic research is because it will lead to an improvement in their lives and stimulate "innovation" (i.e. patents and profit).

      The science writers want us to cater to that misconception because that's how they (science writers) make money. Scientists would like to correct—or at least challenge—that misconception by telling the general public about cool things in biology that have no applications (like evolution).

      This sets up a conflict between the goals of basic scientists and science writers. I've been to several meetings with science writers and my general impression is that many of them actually believe in the same myths as the general public. That's why they often say that effective science communication requires telling people what they want to hear.

      If you look at the Huffington Post you can see that there are some articles about real science that don't even mention applications. Those article are written by scientists, not by science jounralists.

  3. These discussions seem to always get back to the same points ...

    Scientist: How a we improve science journalism?

    Journalist: Less science! More sensation!

    Scientist: We were asking for improvements ...

  4. Just curious but was Prof. Moran's favorite science writer Chris Mooney present? End snark.

    1. No, but that's an excellent example of what I'm talking about. I'm not convinced that science journalists know more about how to effectively communicate science than scientists themselves.

  5. "Most of you won't be interested in the sessions I've been attending . . .They're mostly about science education."

    I'm interested because I'm interested in education. Even though my main area of interest is literature, that doesn't mean I'm not interested in science. However, bad journalism affects everyone; journalists who do not communicate effectively do a disservice to all areas of education, not just science. education.

  6. I would be very interested to hear more about your impressions from the science education part of the conference. I've been stalking your blog for awhile now, and though I enjoy all of it, it's the education (especially biochemistry) that I take away most from. Thanks, Caroline.

  7. That prompted a comment from Paul Berg who says that self-promotion is not dignified

    Easy for a Nobel laureate to say. Many of us working scientists actually do have to promote ourselves.

    1. Berg's comment was in response to a request from Cara Santa Maria who wants to make more videos about scientists. She thinks the general public wants to hear about their personal lives, family, hobbies etc. She wants to make science more "human" because that will attract people to science.

      Nobody is saying that you can't be proud of the work you did. It's only self promotion when your personality becomes more important than the science. Think Craig Venter or Felice Wolfe-Simon.

    2. But Prof. Moran, Abbie Smith over at the ERV blog thinks that Craig Venter is the cat's meow and that his human genome rival, Francis Collins, is a bum.

    3. And your point is?

      Just because you seek publicity and promote yourself doesn't mean you do bad science.

  8. cool things in biology that have no applications (like evolution)

    Got to be tongue-in-cheek, right? Been reading some fascinating stuff on cancer and the ability of cancers to evolve as being a prime reason various therapies haven't been able to make more of a dent.

    If you mean knowledge of subjects like evolution has got inestimable intrinsic value beyond any practical measures of "How can this help us in our daily lives?", yep, I agree with you.

    Another nice side benefit is that learning of the proper sort helps get people thinking.

    Think Craig Venter or Felice Wolfe-Simon.

    I think this is "inside baseball." As a member of the general public, Venter only impinges on my radar through the ordinary news channels as someone relatively well-known working on that fascinating genetics stuff. Overall I'd say his relative fame has a positive effect on public mindshare about interesting topics. I freely admit I have no idea who Felice Wolfe-Simon is.

    1. Cancer cells do not evolve [What Is Evolution] but I take your point.

      I was referring to the fact that 99.99% of the scientific literature on evolution has no direct relationship to the well-being of humans or the development of any technology that's going to make lots of money.

    2. How is the mutation of cancer cells and their subsequent resistance to therapy different from the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria ?

      Is it valid to assume that a single host is a "population" from the point of view of a cancer cell ?

      And in the case of Tasmanian Devils, Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is an aggressive non-viral transmissible parasitic cancer so the population is potentially more than a single body.

  9. hi thanks for provide the Microscopes information.

  10. Hi,

    I met you after the talk too. I am another one of the 'official bloggers' for the conference. I am a PhD student from the UK and I also blog and edit a science magazine for my university. I think one of the main points that came out of this session was that Paul Berg believed that scientists should not be interacting on social media, twitter and blogging being the prime examples, as they are all forms of self-promotion. I summarised the session here, http://ausm.org.uk/eb2012-blog/effectively-communicating-your-science/ for those that are interested in reading more.

    It was also clear that the science journalists are using social media to find their stories, so the presence of scientists on those networks is vital. Being present allows scientists to take part in the conversations, and share their views with the public and science journalists.

    I, I must admit have had mixed success when talking to journalists about stories I felt were misleading. However, times are changing and the more scientists take part in the conversation and question when things are incorrect can only help the situation.