Education and Media Relations

The great media relations debate is starting to wind down, but there’s still a bit of life in it. In particular, I want to comment on something that Bora said, that was amplified on by Melinda Barton. Here’s Bora’s comment:

Everyone is afraid to use the F word, but the underlying tension is, at its core, the same as in the discussion of Framing Science:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance.

I’m on record as saying that I think the problem with “framing” is about politics, not science, but even leaving that aside, I don’t agree with this. Or, rather, I think that the conflict that Bora and others see here stems from a misunderstanding of what education really means.

The key thing you need to understand is that sometimes, education requires lying to children.

“Lying to children” here is a term of art, derived from a Terry Pratchett book, in which he makes a distinction between lies and lies-to-children. Lies-to-children are stories that we tell to children that aren’t precisely true in every detail, but that convey the right basic idea.

The “Schoolhouse Rock” version of how a bill becomes a law is a lie-to-children, because it leaves out all sorts of sordid but important details about how the process really works– amendments and filibusters and conference committees and pork and lobbyists and all the rest. It gets the basic idea across, though, in a way that a more complete description wouldn’t. Explaining the full process of how a bill becomes a law in practice is not something that grade school children are going to be able to understand, but a simplified version set to a catchy tune will get the basic idea across, and you can come back later and add the full details.

In a certain sense, Newton’s Second Law is a lie-to-children. It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. F=ma, provided you’re talking about macroscopic objects moving at low speeds. If you start talking about really small things, you need to worry about quantum mechanics, and if you start talking about speeds close to the speed of light, you need to worry about relativity, and life gets more complicated. But for high school students or pre-meds, who aren’t likely to ever encounter quantum particles or relativistic velocities, Newton’s Second Law is good enough, and it’s something that they can get their heads around. If they grow up to become physics majors, we can come back later and add the full details.

Most of the problems scientists describe in dealing with journalists involve a refusal to recognize the need to lie to children. Either people are offended at having to “dumb down” their research to communicate it to the journalists, or they’re offended that the journalists did the “dumbing down” on their own, without the approval of the scientists. One way or another, the stories end up being lies to children, and some scientists get offended by that.

The problem here is that the general public needs the lies-to-children version of the research– they may not be literal children, but they’re not going to grasp the full complexity. Somebody has to provide that version to the general public, and if the scientists won’t do it, the journalists have to.

Refusing to provide the lies-to-children version of science for the mass media might seem like a principled dedication to educating as opposed to informing, but in fact it’s pretty close to the opposite of educating. Education is the process of helping people learn things that they don’t already know. Real education requires not just giving people correct information, but giving them that information in a form that they can handle. If you’re not taking into account the background of your audience, and tailoring your explanation to suit their background, you’re not teaching, you’re lecturing.

And sometimes, effective teaching will require you to lie to children.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    June 22, 2007

    I think you oversimplify a bit.

    I suspect that most scientists recognize the need for the lie-to-children version of things. Then problem is that there are good lie-to-children versions of things and bad lie-to-children versions of things. F=ma is a good lie-to-children. What the <bleep&rt; do we know? is a bad lie-to-children.

    Yes, many scientists want to be very precise. I know that sometimes I get criticized in my A102 class for even mentioning that I’m brushing some stuff under the rug and oversimplifying, because it confuses people.

    However, if we are going to simplify, we want it done well. Figuring out how to do it well is hard, which is half of why teaching is hard. But, also, too often the journalists either try to additionally simplify things themselves and do it wrong, or we don’t communicate effectively to the journalist our simplified version.

    -Rob

  2. #2 A
    June 22, 2007

    OTOH, the lies-to-children stories sometimes just won’t do…because they don’t convey what’s interesting. If everything is described by Newton’s laws, then there’s no need to report on anything, because Newton did it already.

    This makes my difficulty as a scientist evident: I want to explain that my work IS indeed exciting and important, so I can’t sweep too much under the rug. Thus I find myself in the spot where I have to figure out what to sweep and what not to sweep.

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    June 22, 2007

    Excellent points, ones I’ve made in the past, but not as well. This is a clip and save. :)

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    June 22, 2007

    Rob: However, if we are going to simplify, we want it done well. Figuring out how to do it well is hard, which is half of why teaching is hard. But, also, too often the journalists either try to additionally simplify things themselves and do it wrong, or we don’t communicate effectively to the journalist our simplified version.

    Most likely, what’s happened is that the “simplified” version isn’t anywhere near simplified enough. Which is why the journalists are doing additional simplification.

    Scientists are really, really bad about cutting things down to the right level. When I was in charge of organizing the colloquia, I use to tell speakers that they should try to pitch their talks to the level of college sophomores. That would usually get us a talk that the good senior physics majors could understand.

    You even see it in science blogs– some of the “Basic Concepts” posts that have been done around here are complete gibberish as far as I’m concerned, and I have a Ph.D. in science. Even when they’re aiming for a general audience, many scientists still assume way too much background knowledge.

    When I try to wok out how to explain physics to a general audience, I try to think of how I would explain it to my dog. Which isn’t a slam on the general audience (she’s a very smart dog), but rather a recognition of my own limits. I’m almost certainly going to overshoot the level I’m after, because I’ve internalized so much technical detail about how these things work.

    A: This makes my difficulty as a scientist evident: I want to explain that my work IS indeed exciting and important, so I can’t sweep too much under the rug. Thus I find myself in the spot where I have to figure out what to sweep and what not to sweep.

    As long as you’re aware that something needs to be swept, you’re ahead of a lot of people.

    The most important part of communicating to the media is that you put in the effort to figure out what to sweep under the rug. It’s difficult to do, and extremely difficult to do well, but if you don’t put in the effort, it will be done for you, and most likely done badly.

  5. #5 Josh
    June 22, 2007

    Well spake, Chad.

    Giving good cartoon versions of science is important in communicating ideas well. If this was commonly done well then we wouldn’t have so many members of the public that think of science as a brand of magic instead of something that can be understood to varying degrees by real people.

  6. #6 Perry
    June 22, 2007

    I tell my fiziz students we lie to them a little less each year….

  7. #7 Craig
    June 23, 2007

    Most likely, what’s happened is that the “simplified” version isn’t anywhere near simplified enough. Which is why the journalists are doing additional simplification.

    On the other hand, you have some journalists who feel there job is 1) ask question, and 3) regurgitate answer to the general public, without realizing there needs to be a 2) understand what the hell is going on step in between. I’m pretty good at explaining my research, and the faculty I work with are even better. We’ve explained it to the administrative staff, parents, donors to the university, random people at bars, etc. But we’ve still had press reports that are garbled to the point of nonsense. The difference is, everybody else asks follow up questions, or stops you for clarification, or otherwise makes an effort. The egregious journalists just nod and go for the quote that makes good copy.

  8. #8 CaptainBooshi
    June 23, 2007

    I’ve always loved that explanation, and have used it myself several times when talking to people. IIRC, he also included lies-to-adults, which I suppose would be what we give students in the sciences; i.e. a more complex answer, closer to the truth, but still shading over the deep complexities and unknowns in every branch of science.

  9. #9 Fred Ross
    June 23, 2007

    But what do you do when you don’t have a lies-to-children explanation? I work in a genetics lab, but a lot of the work I do is pure mathematics. When I showed the results of an imaging algorithm to my lab, my boss asked for a layman’s explanation of how it worked.

    How do you explain bandpass filtering the product of the greyscale erosion and a Gaussian filter of an image, followed by a hysteresis threshold, which is fed into a seeded watershed? What is the lies-to-children version of a signal processing algorithm?

    This is a problem for a lot of research, particularly in pure mathematics. If you study idempotent semirings and their application to optimization theory, what do say?

  10. #10 A
    June 23, 2007

    Fred: As Feynman might say (or as he supposedly might say), if you don’t have a lies-to-children version, then it just means you don’t actually understand what you’re doing anyway. The typical quote from Feynman is in the context of a employee at a bar or some other craziness.

    Ok, but seriously, I think the generic point is well worth considering.

    Some kind of signal processing is performed by the sensory organs regularly anyway….we all do it….

  11. #11 Zuska
    June 23, 2007

    Chad, I think what you are saying is not actually incompatible with what Bora is saying, at least part of it. Even if you have your good “lies-to-children” version, a journalist is still going to want a hook, or way to sell the story to the reading public. So you have simplified the story, but how is the journalist to get people to care about listening to it? Both parts are necessary for communicating science to the public, I think. But I absolutely agree with you on the need to simplify the story.

  12. #12 goffredo
    June 24, 2007

    Hi guys. I thought about this thread last night during some long relaxed moments during a data taking shift. This morning I am feeling groggy but here are my two cents worth anyway.

    I personally think that the essential and first step when communicating science should be to tell/explain how science works, in particular how the discipline one is talking about works. The scientists are the best to do this. I don’t know what journalists are good at. I do know of several good journalists but they are good because they are clear, frank, informed/educated people, not because they are journalists. (That is not to say that scientists are clear, frank, informed or very educated).

    By explain “how science works” I mean explain what it means to claim there is a class of phenomena with “objective” characteristics (robustness, non marginality, reproducibility,…), what it means to claim there is a “law” at work (e.g. F=ma), what it means to use models and theories, based on “laws”, to, not only account for known observable phenomena, but to allow one to organize new ways of observing nature, planning new observations (more precise; beyond present range) and, when the model or theory really proves worthy or limited in try to account for new completely unexpected phenomena.

    If instead one just leaps into a show of tricks, makes a list or description of the achievements and goals (“gee wiz”, “you better believe it”…), tells nice stories like “Newton 2nd law says F = ma”, even adding new nice and fashionable stories like “… but then Einstein came along and HE says bla bla” (wow) or “… but QM says spooky and weird things like bla bla” (big WOW), or even adds qualifiers like “well Newton is valid for everyday objects”, then all kind or perverse misunderstandings can and will occur.

    What is the pertinence of all this gee whiz in the life of a person? Is it really sufficient to point out that his cell phone or laptop work because electrons are spooky quantum mechanical objects? I think science is far more pertinent than just a way to give the average bloke a heap of high-tech services and plug-and-play black box objects that he can use without understanding?

    I don’t like “lies-to-children” because it doesn’t help people grow. I’d rather people get a provocative glimpse of how science makes effective theories and how it can stay healthy if it sticks it neck out to and try to check if being on a “good track” in “knowing” nature rather than attempt to impress or decieve them, even if you think it is for a “good” cause (getting projects funded by tax payers).

    Of course this “philosophical” approach will makes sense if you discuss what you mean by “good”, and not everyone will passively aggree. Indeed I think they shouldn’t, and am never suprised they don’t, because these issues are not only OPEN but of general validity in life. I think it is generally healthy that people be made aware of good philosophical issues.

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    June 24, 2007

    Craig: On the other hand, you have some journalists who feel there job is 1) ask question, and 3) regurgitate answer to the general public, without realizing there needs to be a 2) understand what the hell is going on step in between.

    This is true. There’s not a whole lot you can do about people who just aren’t doing thier jobs right.

    However, my sense is that a lot of what’s driving this discussion is more a matter of scientists overestimating how good they are at explaining things than journalists doing an actively bad job. I’ve seen too many “general audience” talks that would’ve confused graduate students in the field to think that it’s all the fault of the journalists.

    Fred: How do you explain bandpass filtering the product of the greyscale erosion and a Gaussian filter of an image, followed by a hysteresis threshold, which is fed into a seeded watershed? What is the lies-to-children version of a signal processing algorithm?

    I’m not familiar enough with the field to have any idea. But there must be something, because if Scott Aaronson can explain Shor’s algorithm using nothing but arithmatic, there’s a lies-to-children explanation for everything.

    Zuska: Chad, I think what you are saying is not actually incompatible with what Bora is saying, at least part of it. Even if you have your good “lies-to-children” version, a journalist is still going to want a hook, or way to sell the story to the reading public. So you have simplified the story, but how is the journalist to get people to care about listening to it?

    Again, if you’re going about the “education” end of things properly, the hook should already be there. It might get more emphasis in the journalistic treatment, but if you’re explaining science to a general audience without telling them why they should care about it, you’re doing a bad job of explaining science to a general audience. Hell, if you’re explaining science to other scientists from outside your own subfield without telling them why they should care about it, you’re doing a bad job.

    The idea that education doesn’t involve a “hook” is just wrong. It’s also distressingly widespread, which is probably part of why science education is in such bad shape.

  14. #14 Perry
    June 24, 2007

    I guess this is another good reason to talk to journalists, so we can vett the “lies” that are told to make sure they convey some essence!

  15. #15 goffredo
    June 24, 2007

    In my opinion the best would be that a science educated/trained person decide to specialize in journalism, rather than expect much from explaining science to journalists.

    There are some attempts here in Italy, where I live, to organize schools for scientific journalists. I am not sure this is the right way, because the best I’ve read are people that discovered they had the talent for writing about science and didn’t learn it by taking courses or by reading books with title like “How to become a … in 10 simple steps.”

  16. #16 coturnix
    June 24, 2007

    I guess what we (or I) mean by “educate” is what you correctly identified (on my thread) as “lecture”. There is nothing wrong with lecturing, but it assumes that the hook has already been baited and casted and the audience is already ‘all ears’. Many scientists tend to “educate” in this manner as they are used to teach science majors in college and are less likely to have experience trying to explain stuff to 5-year olds.

  17. #17 SkookumPlanet
    June 25, 2007

    You’re right on target but I have a question and a point. Reactions appreciated.

    The question is your reference to politics. How are your defining that? Seems you are setting up the other two items as separate from politics.

    In the U.S. now anything can be engineered into a national political issue. DI’s founder was an ex-Republican hack. What ever reason it started, it’s a functional cognate to The War on Christians and Terry Shaivo. Specifically, activating evangelicals enough to keep them voting.

    In other words, I’m arguing it’s all political. Does that idea work with what your saying?

    The point is the narrow focus/definition of content here. “Lies-to-children” versus “truth-telling” seems OK as far as it goes. But because such discussions rarely seem to move beyond science, I’m concerned it’s an analysis predicated on an unrealistic view of what happens to the message, it’s an almost abstract discussion. Let me try an analogy.

    Imagine a research paper where every iota of data and information is preserved, but otherwise it’s written in “valley girl” or “hip-hop” argot. No chance it would be taken seriously by a journal. But, to overgeneralize, much of the discussion among scientists seems barely to know there is highly specialized communication knowledge required to successfully reach the public.

    I’m concerned about this. The ones who would argue for “truth-telling” are, well, I don’t want to offend, but very ignorant. What I don’t get, is why there’s no appreciation for the knowledge of fields outside science. Attempting to use media channels as the “truth-tellers” would have as much chance to make it to an audience as a hip-hop paper on synaptic gaps would of getting into a journal.

    The following is mine from Courtnix a couple days ago–
    ____________________
    There are two chokepoints in our mass-communication system — the media conduit itself and then the audience’s mental landscape which, in essence, pre-conditions how they accept incoming data. It’s not simply “know your audience”. It’s also “know your channel”.

    Conduits are maxed-out with messages from big money players whose existence is dependent on this, so they are extremely competitive and so very noisy. The U.S. communication environment is also undergoing rapid change, including the introduction of entirely new conduits. Last year at Intersection I wrote:

    “There are media screens in elevators! Screens on contact lenses? Don’t bet against it — screens on flexible, clear plastic exist in labs right now.”

    That’s already outdated. A month ago in the SF Chronicle I saw a techno-news brief announcing two specialized products on the market with full color displays on, essentially, plastic films.
    ____________________

    Internally, science has sophisticated and highly successful communication tools it developed over centuries. These will continue to be highly productive. Society also has developed “sophisticated and highly successful communication tools” for it’s communication needs — mass communication media. I’m suggesting respect for the tools and knowledge developed by specialized fields so they can then be used effectively. Going in that direction technical people should quickly see that their individual interaction with journalists is a very small part of the communications interface between science and society.

    My impression is much of science doesn’t understand this. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be the child-truth debate. The criteria is successful communication. Results on the ground indicate lack of success. Or am I missing something?

    PS.
    A last minute addition. About 20 years ago I very seriously looked into a career as a high-tech PR writer. These people, some are staffers, ghost write technical articles for scientists and engineers. Such writers must specialize, obviously. I was told, and read, so it seemed like a truism in the field, that it was much easier to take a talented, smart writer and teach them a technical field well enough to do it, than it was to take a talented, smart technical person and teach them how to write well enough [to adapt to publications & channels, I would add]. I should also add that the audience for this work were other scientists and engineers in that field.

  18. #18 SkookumPlanet
    June 25, 2007

    Coturnix!

    I have an incredibly stubborn block on this. I must have been misreading it for months. Sorry.

    By the way, that’s reportedly the most common complaint newspaper editors get, mispelled names.

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