From the Editor’s Desk is a new weekly series with posts occurring regularly on Monday. Kevin and I will trade the hot seat every other week. Each post will provide commentary on a wide variety of issues, offer solutions, and hopefully generate dialogue.
Only 28 percent of the United States adult population is scientifically literate, i.e. can follow complex scientific issues and offer opinion on them. The situation is equally dire throughout the European Union, where the rate is nearly half that of the U.S. To rectify this problem, we have created initiatives to increase science education from kindergarten to the undergraduate. And often, much too often, we find ourselves defending science education.
We have also targeted scientists themselves and their ineffectiveness at communicating science to the public. Books like Unscientific America speak heavily to scientists’ failures in this realm. The stinging critique of Randy Olson tells us how we should stop being “so cerebral, so literal, so bad at telling stories and unlikeable”, in other words, to “stop being such a scientist.” To change this course, training in outreach, communication, and media relations are common features of the new scientific landscape (examples can be found here, here, here). The philosophy that scientists are often ill-equipped and inexperienced communicators is not just held by non-scientists. Scientists too have adopted this line of thinking and subsequent remedies and advice often come from within professional scientific organizations and publications. Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, in 2007 wrote “If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live.”
Many scientists, myself included, are left licking our wounds as the public rails against us. To my growing list of daily activities, teaching, mentoring, administrating, university service, grant writing, and if I manage to squeeze it in, research, I must now add public outreach. Curiously, I was only trained how to do research, the one thing I find less and less time to do.
However, I don’t disagree (see here last line of this article) with the idea of a better scientist communicators. We need to be more effective and decidedly more passionate in discussing science. And we need to do it more often. As a first step we all need to read Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words.
But this is only part of the greater issue addressing scientific literacy. Egregious failings of the press in relaying science to the masses are too common. If you are unconvinced of this spend some time reading through the archives of Ed Yong’s other blog. Most scientists, including myself, have war stories in our dealings with the press. Often it’s not just an issue of poor science communication but more fundamentally bad journalism. This is detrimental to science literacy, yet we focus more regularly on the failings of scientists as communicators, not on those whose profession is communication. Indeed, there are few avenues in which journalists can acquire these skills. We are in desperate need for professional programs and courses in science writing like that at the University of California, Santa Cruz and only a handful of other universities in the US. Communicating science to the public, regardless of medium, requires a unique skill set—one that both journalists and scientists need.
Not all my, or my colleagues’, interactions with the press are negative. My interactions with several science writers and journalists were engaging and the piece ultimately produced was impeccable. I would go so far to say these collaborations were actually enjoyable. In the spirit of several articles, blog posts, books, and training courses providing advice to scientists, I would like to offer the science journalist/writer a few observations on my less enjoyable interactions with the press.
- While I enjoy explaining difficult concepts and providing analogies that make them more accessible, don’t expect me to explain junior-high level science to you. It’s called research and the last time I checked it was part of journalism.(And in case you didn’t know, Wikipedia is not an accurate source of scientific information.)
- Please read the article or press release/materials BEFORE you interview me.I realize you are fishing for a quote, but do not ask me questions that are easily answered from the press release. However, if you need clarification I am more than happy to help.
- Please realize my time is valuable. Today I need to teach, mentor, attend meetings, perform university service, administer, write a grant and hopefully if I can squeeze it some research. I also know you are busy. That is why I am so concerned with the prior points. Let us not waste our collective time.
- Don’t print what I said if you didn’t get what I said. I probably won’t get upset if subtle nuances of my research are not accurately conveyed to the public, but missing the bigger points is cause for concern. Don’t hesitate to ask me to look over the piece for accuracy. I realize it may seem a bit contentious but trust me I have no interest in editorializing.
- Please, take pride in your work. You should want to accurately report on science.
- Allow me to at least have the opportunity to see how I am being quoted. If I am misquoted or quoted out of context, I would like the chance for it to be corrected. I don’t want to look like a dumbass or tool to my colleagues.
- Please, check your agenda at the door. Be open to framing research from a variety angles. Whatever you do, don’t make the research about something it’s not just because that’s your favorite subject. Don’t make my work on snails about sharks.
- Stop treating the public like mindless drones who are only interested in the cute and cuddly or the ferocious and man-eating. Just because you are not creative enough to figure out the hook on the research doesn’t mean the public will not be interested. Lot’s of really great and interesting research exists outside the realm of dinosaurs, climate change, sex, sharks, chocolate, or cataclysmic events.
- Please, please ask me why this research is cool. I don’t spend 80 hours a week on research that I am not totally passionate about. No scientist thinks they do boring research…and they don’t. If you ask me why I am so energetic about this work, you’ll be able to convey this passion along to the public.
- Please don’t create controversy, especially when none exists. Don’t ask me to criticize someone else’s work publically. We have established mechanisms for commenting on each other’s work. To do this in a popular media, outside the established mechanism, makes me look like a douche to my colleagues. I am not in the habit of burning bridges with people I may eventually want to collaborate with. Realize as well that disagreement on scientific issues is often not personal and doesn’t mean I don’t want to share pints with the same colleague at conference. Don’t ruin that for me.
- Don’t assume I cannot communicate effectively to the public or don’t want to. The web is full of resplendent examples of scientist communicators. No better example of this is in the blogosphere.
- You can treat me like I am normal person…because I am.
- You have asked us to be humble and admit that we as scientists are not always the most effective in communication. We ask you to be humble and realize that sometimes you aren’t either.
- Please stop working against me and work with me.
Undoubtedly, some of you will find these comments harsh, which is neither my intent nor goal. I cannot tell how utterly frustrating it is for a scientist to have their work miscommunicated to the public. Unlike politicians, we do not have an avenue for rebuttal once errors are made, intentionally or not, by the journalists who cover our research. I am merely trying to establish a dialogue so that we can all work to together toward what I hope is a common goal. That goal is clear and accurate communication of scientific research, which we desperately need to maintain an informed public.