I thought it might be useful for the readers of Pharyngula to get my sense of the Colbert show experience.
Being a scientist on the show carries with it some challenges. We need to convey facts of science correctly and do so in a way reveals how fun our science is to do and to think about. We need to educate, enlighten, and excite. The challenge is we need to do this in 5 minutes with Stephen Colbert sitting across the table. To make matters worse, the show does not tell you the tack Colbert is going to take in advance, largely because so much of what he does is ad lib.
Because of this, I was terrified when I received the invitation last Fri. I took a few hours to accept, largely because I needed a family conference on the strike. Once I came to terms with my decision (the readers do a good in the commentary on the various issues that swirled for us), I began to prepare for the interview.
How did I prepare for the Colbert interview? In watching successful science interviews (of which there are a number of real good examples to emulate) I saw some general patterns to a successful visit. It also definitely appears that Colbert likes scientists and he want them to be able to tell their story.
The best answers I saw responded to Colbert’s questions with a sentence that captured the essence of the science in an entertaining way. So, the day of my interview I came up with a number such answers for the questions I thought I’d get. For the most part, I prepared with answers defending evolution vs. other non-scientific approaches.
I was pretty nervous before the interview, so much so that I didn’t sleep much the night before. And, as it turned out, my predictions about Colbert’s questions were largely wrong– Colbert didn’t even touch creationism and did a number of riffs on things that weren’t even in the book (like the final questions). I was aided, though, by the experience of preparing my answers. It exercised my brain in a way that allowed me to respond to the questions he really asked.
In thinking about the experience a few days later I have one thought on language. As scientists we are very used to using language with a great deal of precision (note the string in the commentary on common ancestry, group inclusion, etc.). The challenge is adapting our highly precise vocabulary to the demands of a five minute performance on a show which is fundamentally not about science. It is a tough tightrope to walk to balance between language that is both engaging and precise. I had mixed success, but that has to be our aspiration for these kinds of experiences.
You can ask the question, a valid one, why bother with these kinds shows? If it is so difficult, and the conceptual and linguistic apparatus of science doesn’t easily conform to this venue, why do it? For me the answer is that we need to make science part of the public conversation. We live in a society where Britany Spears latest foible gets more ink than Mello and Fire’s 2006 Nobel discovery of RNAi– a breakthrough on a little worm that will likely lead to treatments of many diseases. Something is wrong here.
Thanks for your comments and criticisms and I hope my personal experience gives some perspective.