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.