Media Skills for Scientists

Everybody’s favorite science-and-politics blogger has posted a video clip showing part of what’s wrong in science communication. It’s a clip from the BBC from last December, featuring one of those head-to-head quasi-debates about “Climategate” between Prof. Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia and political consultant Marc Morano, who has made himself a nice little media niche as the go-to guy for climate change denial:

I don’t think this is quite as damning as Chris says, but it’s pretty bad. What you see here is a competition between a scientist and somebody who knows how the media works, and it doesn’t end well.

Morano very clearly knows his game. He speaks forcefully (he’s not shouting, he’s just an American) and quickly, gets right to his point, and repeats it several times in each block he’s given. He looks straight at the camera, and comes off as confident and well-prepared, if a little dickish due to his laughing during Watson’s responses.

Watson comes off as, well, a scientist. He blinks a lot, looks all over the place, and talks relatively slowly with a lot of extraneous qualifiers. He takes a while to get to his point, and is slow enough to appear non-responsive to Morano’s accusations, even though he does eventually get to the right place. And at the very end, he forgets the single most important rule of dealing with the media, which is that the microphone is always on– before the camera cuts away from him, he’s caught saying “What an asshole…”

This is the sort of stuff that scientists need to know if they’re going to get in front of the camera. There is a real art to appearing on television, and if you’re not prepared for it, you’re going to look bad. Watson’s performance isn’t completely terrible– had he not blown it at the very end, I think he might’ve come off slightly better, despite his slightly peevish complaints mid-interview– but it could be a whole lot better.

Yeah, yeah, he has the facts, and Morano is just pounding the table. The media are evil and distort the dialogue, blah, blah, blah. Look, in a perfect world, Morano’s shtick wouldn’t work, and calm recitation of facts would carry the day. But the sad fact is, we have to work with the media we have, and right now that means getting both style and substance right.

The good news is, this kind of thing can be taught, if scientists are willing to learn. There are schools of communications at lots of big universities, and theater departments at even small colleges, full of people who do this sort of thing for a living. Most professional societies have media officers, many of whom are happy to run workshops for members. It takes time and practice, but if you are willing to put in the effort, you can get to be good at this.

The crucial first step, though, is admitting that there’s a problem. If clips like this help make that clear, so much the better.

Comments

  1. #1 Idlethought
    August 19, 2010

    I think, on the whole, Morano comes off a lot, lot worse than you think in front of a UK audience. We’re not really used to that style of presentation; it comes across as arrogant, self-important and somewhat lacking in confidence. I might be biased because of his position, but since I don’t seem to have the same visceral hatred of AGW deniers others manage I think my reaction is fairly genuine.

    The other thing to consider is that the Newsnight audience skews heavily towards the affluent/educated and interested – and probably is slightly more leftwing than the balance of the UK population, otherwise they’d be watching Sky News.

    Which is not to say that this clip is not really handy for Morano to repurpose for an American audience – but I think it might be a little bit problematic to suggest that all debating audiences should be treated as if they were the US audience because they can be uploaded to YouTube.

    My first reaction was that I would have been happier if Professor Watson had made his points more clearly; but I think that is simply because I know what I think they should be and know what I think people who don’t know them need to hear. On reflection however, I suspect that were I more sceptical I’d probably find them as easy to dismiss as I found Morano’s. As it is, I find Professor Watson more sincere because of his less polished approach.

    Which is to say, were he more assured, I’d have been less reassured that there was no unethical manipulation of data. Had I a different cultural background, I might react differently.

  2. #2 Ken
    August 19, 2010

    Part of the problem is that scientists are trained to observe and report factual information. At the end of the clip Watson did just that. It’s hard for scientists to ignore or lie about facts. It goes against their training.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    August 19, 2010

    Part of the problem is that scientists are trained to observe and report factual information. At the end of the clip Watson did just that.

    I tend to agree, but that’s not how it plays out in terms of public opinion. All too often calling an asshole an asshole is perceived as more assholish than the asshole behavior that prompted the statement. If you want to lay claim to the reasonable and rational position, you can’t be seen losing your temper, which is why you always, always assume that the microphones are live and the camera is on.

  4. #4 Tom
    August 19, 2010

    Rule #1 is never get into a one-on-one debate in this type of situation. It elevates the opponent to the status of expert, even if s/he is not, and promotes style over substance.

  5. #5 Darkling
    August 19, 2010

    Meh.
    Do any of the great communicators discuss the importance of the actual audience? This aired on the BBC so the audience is going to be predominantly not American. As a non-American, upon watching the segment I thought Morano was the stereotypical American: self important, loud, boorish and obnoxious. Watson wasn’t perfect, but I thought he came out sounding the more reasonable of the two.

    When commenting on communication it would be useful to occasionally step outside of the American-centric perspective and consider that what doesn’t work for one audience may well work for another.

  6. #6 CCPhysicist
    August 19, 2010

    This is a perfect example of why I think the host of every talk show should have a mute button like they use on “Pardon the Interruption”, one that keeps score so it also gives the least penalized person the last word. A good host would cut off a non-responsive polemical non-answer as well as jerks being jerks.

    But it also shows why it is a huge mistake for any scientist to enter the public fray without training in debate skills, particularly those from the form known as “cross ex”. That has always been the weakness of the scientists who oppose creationists. You have to practice (like Morano has) so you have prompt replies to any comment. You need one-liners like “science is based on facts, not who shouts the loudest” that are thought out and prepared in advance. You need to turn the tables. Ask Morano if you could have copies of every e-mail and text message he has sent or received while he was working for the Congress. What are you trying to hide, Mr. Morano?

    But I do agree that the American boor probably lost this debate because he didn’t know his UK audience. It was also interesting to see that Morano could be shamed into short periods of silence. I wonder what his reaction would be if he’d been asked “Did your momma raise you to treat all women as rudely as you are treating our hostess today?”

  7. #7 Darkling
    August 20, 2010

    CCPhysicist said :But it also shows why it is a huge mistake for any scientist to enter the public fray without training in debate skills, particularly those from the form known as “cross ex”. That has always been the weakness of the scientists who oppose creationists. You have to practice (like Morano has) so you have prompt replies to any comment. You need one-liners like “science is based on facts, not who shouts the loudest” that are thought out and prepared in advance. You need to turn the tables. Ask Morano if you could have copies of every e-mail and text message he has sent or received while he was working for the Congress. What are you trying to hide, Mr. Morano?
    I think this is the key to the story (or at least one of the keys). Part of my job is to communicate to fisherman about why we have the particular management regime that currently exists. A good proportion of them are interested and care. Nevertheless, the last thing I need is some half arsed wankers born to the silver spoon publishing books about communication, playing on stereotypes making my job more difficult.
    I talk with fisherman and I talk with hunters (although I don’t do any terrestrial based management at the moment). I need them to realise that I understand there concerns and that I relate to the fishery. Every bloody book that is published talking about the Ivory tower makes that just a little bit harder. The people on the fringe of those groups will cease upon every such example of that. The ivory tower stereotype is simply a stereotype, but we don’t see the great communicators trying to address this. No they are going for the low hanging fruit.

  8. #8 Darkling
    August 20, 2010

    Let me rephrase the last portion of my previous comment. The “Ivory tower” is an insidious and anti-intellectual concept. They’re not making any attempt to address that stereotype, but they are reinforcing it.

  9. #9 Sili
    August 21, 2010

    Did he really blow at the end?

    As was said Morano comes across as very abrasive to a UK audience (and to this Dane). Watson may well have enunciated what a good deal of the viewers were thinking (or shouting at their tellies).

    Oh – and it’s arsehole.

  10. #10 Captain Obvious
    August 23, 2010

    Yep, going to have to agree that for the UK audience at least, the Morano performance was by far the worse of the two. Watson was by no means perfect but Morano came across as arrogant, self righteous bully, intent more on being a twat than actually discussing anything. Different audiences and cultures lead to completely different contexts and results, something that I am amused but not greatly surprised that the Great Communicators haven’t realised.

    For an example at the other end of the spectrum, I have difficulty imagining a US version the PMQs, even though I’m sure the assorted senators and congresscritters are more than capable of competing with parliament in the “act like children” stakes. ;)

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