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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Communicating Science to Society

I attended a workshop on Communicating Science to Society at Evolution Ottawa 2012. The workshop was hosted by two science writers, Peter Calamai and Richard Webster and there were about one hundred people at the session.

The goal was ...
Whether you need to learn the basics or fine tune the dark art of science communication, this half day workshop is for you. Come for insider advice from a group of North America’s top science communicators. The session will open with evolutionary ecologist Tom Sherratt talking about his experience with the media and why he does it. The panellists will introduce an area of journalism and discuss their experiences with interviewing researchers. Then the panel discussion will expand on some of the challenges scientists face and the practical communication solutions. Finally a break-out session will allow for an interactive round table letting participants choose a topic of particular interest (how to give an interview, how to pitch a science book to a publisher, 101 for scientists using social media). The workshop will conclude with a networking session between fellow science communicators and the panellists. By the end, delegates can expect to have built a strategy as to how to effectively approach and handle different media opportunities (such as TV, radio, print & social media) and also leave with a handout of useful tips.
The panelists were ....
  • Carl Zimmer (NYT columnist & author of A Planet of Viruses and many other best sellers)
  • Penny Park ( Producer of CBC’s Quirks & Quarks and Discovery Channel’s The Daily Planet. Now Executive Director of the Science Media Centre of Canada)
  • Elizabeth Howell Ottawa Business Journal, freelance science journalist and social media expert
  • Tim Lougheed Freelance science journalist
I've been to half a dozen of these meetings at various conferences. The main theme is always the same. It consists of a bunch of science journalists telling scientists how we should help them (the journalists) make a living at science writing. We are told repeatedly that they have deadlines and editors and that they have to write about science in a way that appeals to the general public. We are told that if we want our research to be publicized then it has to to be cool and sexy and if it isn't then the science writers will help us "frame" it in a way that appeals to the public.

At this meeting, the emphasis was all about deadlines and writing about the latest papers from your labs. The science writers thought that we all wanted to get our latest hot results on the front pages of the newspapers. That's just not true. It's not what science is all about and it's not what we need in order to increase public awareness of science. (To his credit, Carl Zimmer seems to understand this better than other science journalists.)

What we need is not more splash about the latest Nature paper on the evolution of mimicry in insects. What we need is more articles on what evolution is and why it's so important. If science writers were really in the business of communicating science to the public then that's what they would be writing about. That, and topics like; what is DNA, how do genes work, what's in your genome, what causes speciation, why bacteria are important etc. etc.

The public needs to know the basics and they need to appreciate excitement of understanding what life is all about. They need Biology 101, not some senior level course that focuses on the latest research. That kind of science writing doesn't have to be done in a hurry before the embargo expires and it would be a much more useful way of communicating science to society.

Just once, I'd like to attend a meeting like this where the science journalists admit that they have been remarkably unsuccessful at educating the general public about science. Instead of telling us how to fit into the current failed system, I'd like them to ask us how they can change the way they write about science in order to advance science literacy.

I don't think that's ever going to happen. As a general rule, science writers seem to think that they are the experts on communicating science to the general public and all they need to do is teach us scientists how to work the system and tell people what they want to hear. It never occurs to them that the system is broken and that's why we have a scientifically illiterate society.


Sandra said...

So, as someone who has aspirations to communicate basic science to "the man on the street", can you point me towards any good examples of such work? I'm thinking in terms of writing short pieces which explain the relevance of scientific concepts to everyday life and in the process teach basic science, eg explaining why doctors recommend finishing a course of antibiotics and introducing some evolution basics. The audience I have in mind is not the sort of people who would pick up a popular science book or magazine but the rest of the population who don't seem to understand how science makes a difference to them. I am increasingly concerned about the technologically dependent world we live in and the seemingly growing ignorance of the science which makes it all possible, not to mention the increasing lack of critical thinking skills.

Joe Felsenstein said...

"Evolution Ottawa 2021"? Wow. I'm now attending a different meeting, Evolution2012, which is in Ottawa, but apparently is nine years behind the curve.

SLC said...

I assume that Prof. Moran's favorite science writer, Chris Mooney, was not present. End snark.

anthrosciguy said...

I don't think the biggest problem with science writing is either the scientists or the writer. It's the editors/publishers and their insistance on writing style and on subjects in a BS way they think is "sexy" and interesting, and on incredibly unrealistic deadlines giving too little time to understand a subject and write it up properly, and too little space in which to do it.

This has warped how scientists and their PR departments (I've seen the process firsthand) present their work as well as what work they present, and it has warped how science writers are allowed to do their job.

Macrobe said...

In agreement with Moran's summary. Although, 'anthrosciguy' also raised a valid point in the role of publishers. Regardless, those trends permeate throughout the entire publishing industry. In the scientific area, the one lone publication with public access is 'New Scientist'. Like many British rags, their accompanying sense of humor is appealing to readers, especially in the dry spoon-fed arena of US science publishing. The bottom line is marketing: feed the readers what they want (although, even that is seldom accomplished well).

Regardless, most academics don't know how to write for the mainstream public, and their institutions are always stepping on their toes. "Write between the lines like a good boy." If enough scientists are fed up, start a new publication; edited and published by scientists. Or tap into the blogosphere.

Larry Moran said...

... can you point me towards any good examples of such work?

I'm a big fan of Carl Zimmer. Read any of his articles in the New York Times, for example, Tree of Life Project Aims for Every Twig and Leaf.

These are not articles that focus entirely on the latest publication in some prestigious science journal. Carl makes a real effort to communicate how science actually works and he doesn't try to find a sexy hook to draw in an audience. It's straight science. In most cases, he approaches a scientist, not vice verse.

His books are the same, check out A Planet of Viruses.

I'm thinking in terms of writing short pieces which explain the relevance of scientific concepts to everyday life.

My goal is very different. I would like to convince people the knowledge for its own sake is worthwhile whether or not it's "relevant." We don't seem to have a problem with this concept when writing about astronomy or cosmology so why should we behave any differently when we write about biology?

Surely it's interesting to learn about photosynthesis or evolution even if it isn't directly relevant? What really is important and relevant is to learn how to think like a scientist.

BTW, Carl told me tonight that I may have made an incorrect assumption in my post. I assumed that all science writers are interested in teaching the general public about science. Carl points out that "communicating science to society" isn't the same as teaching. Maybe there are science writers who motives don't include improving science literacy.

I never thought of that.

Larry Moran said...

I fixed the typo.

Larry Moran said...

No, but he's been at several other sessions I have attended.

Joe Felsenstein said...

At dinner I sat next to Larry and he said he had fixed the typo. I joked that now that would now make me look like some kind of idiot and/or liar for claiming he had written 2021. And that he could now moderate the thread and prevent me from clearing up why I said that. I see that he did good.

TheBrummell said...

I don't think the biggest problem with science writing is either the scientists or the writer. It's the editors/publishers and their insistance on writing style and on subjects in a BS way they think is "sexy" and interesting, and on incredibly unrealistic deadlines giving too little time to understand a subject and write it up properly, and too little space in which to do it.

I've heard this repeatedly. The solution would seem to be to kick the journalists out of the room, as they apparently have no real decision-making power, what with being constantly repressed by their editors and publishers, and get said editors and publishers in the room with the scientists. If the buck gets passed, follow it.

@JATetro said...

I have found that using the 4Es of social marketing work best when communicating science. Entertain the audience, demonstrate how science can Enrich their lives, Educate to the level of the demographic, and Engage the thought process. It is a very useful system and has been successful over the years.

@pvanheus said...

I think that sometimes we do want newspaper headlines, but often we get the wrong kind. That said, I agree with the general gist of Prof Moran's post. If sports was reported the way science is, all we'd ever see is some kind of edited highlights, without the rest of the game. Similarly business reporting would only comment on stocks that had really unusual performance. These fields of journalism rely on their readers having some understanding of the subject matter, whether it be the arcana of baseball stats or the functioning of the economy. Unfortunately, right now we cannot assume a similar understanding for "science journalism" (and of course there is not one "science" but many many sciences) but it might not be impossible to build one.

At the moment some of the best writing I've found in this regard is on subject specific blogs (e.g. "squid a day" ( gives a wonderful portal to the world of cephalopods). Such blogs provide anecdotes on a theme, but also to their regular readers they provide an ever-deepening understanding of a field. In my own arena, topics as widely varied as viral evolution, the pathogen/host arms race, metagenomics and the significance of methylation of DNA could all link together through the common theme of exploring genomics. Would anyone print a column on this theme? I don't know - but in this internetworked age, if writing on such a theme did happen it could draw on an enrich other writing. Columns could link to earlier columns, to glossaries or Wikipedia entries.

Personally I think there are more than enough topics in this field (genomics) that hit the 4Es that @JATetro mentions. But then again, I'm a scientist, not a publisher. I don't know the market. Maybe, as TheBrummel mentions, that's who needs to be in the room: the editors and publishers to whom writers report.

Denny said...

I appreciated Larry’s comments in “Communicating Science to Society.” I share his skepticism of science writers and editors, and how they approach writing/shaping science for public consumption. I would go further by saying that contemporary journalists sometimes ignore objectivity and accuracy for their own sake preferring to shape public opinion through their own lens, which (in the U.S.) is influenced by the fact that the Hollywood culture and the major media are frequently culturally, philosophically and corporately in bed together.

I also believe that laziness and tight budgets cause journalists to prefer that scientists to come to the journalist’s novice level vs. making an attempt to go to the scientist’s expert level, which often results in somewhat dumbed-down science for the public. I further agree with Larry’s notion that better public knowledge of science (knowledge of the natural world) would be good for people. Every human being, no matter economic class, benefits from the advance of science, and the hard sometimes-thankless work of scientists, science researchers, and science teachers.

However, even though I personally think that blending natural science knowledge with the philosophical naturalistic/atheistic view of Evolution, is not a good idea, I think such a view will likely never catch on widely because Evolution and its basis of godless chance and an ultimate grim cosmological outlook will never resonate with the longings of the human spirit/heart, which is quite apart from how our atoms may have coalesced from star dust - even the stars are all going to die. The fact that stardust may be seen as part of our physical bodies and natural surroundings has a warm fuzzy sound to it, but (like atheism) stardust and complex theorems offer littel for the ultimate human concerns which transcend our molecules.

I have observed that Sandwalk fans often appear to live in a small elite (positive inference) very specialized world, largely inaccessible to most other people. It seems unlikely to me that larger portions of the public will ever be able or willing to enter this exciting but small world, despite any attempts to get journalists to be better science writers, or extolling the virtues of Evolution. Putting aside any specific religious beliefs, it seems to me clear that humans habitually and ‘naturally’ look for more from life than ‘how’ we got here. They want to know ‘why.’ The 4Es seem to me to be a good tactic for science teaching, but the strategy of converting people’s worldview is another matter, when considering what humans really need or look for. Natural science and Evolution have no rational extra-molecular response for ‘why’ that would ever appeal to the masses.

It would seem better to me if Larry and others would stick to science for science’s sake, and limit trying to marry science to something that can’t be proved via the five senses. Physical undetectability is no proof of God’s non-existence. Things can exist objectively and be real, even pervasively present, even when there is no direct evidence of its presence. The fact that Larry even concerns himself with marrying natural science evidence to ‘godless’ Evolution is further proof that science is not enough.

konrad said...

Larry, are you suggesting that newspapers should publish short pieces communicating material such as that in Microcosm (or Carl's other books)? If yes, the problem is how to convince the editors that this will be worth their while (which they presumably measure in terms of expected readership). Getting newspaper editors to publish something which is clearly not news may be a hard sell (though of course they already do that in columns on various non-science topics).