Talking To The Public

So, Anton Zuiker and I went yesterday to the Talking To The Public panel discussion at Duke, organized by Sigma Xi, The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and The Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

There is nothing yet on their websites about it (the 20th century school of thought!), but the entire panel discussion was taped and I'll let you know once the video is available online (in a week or so?). Once everything is online, it will also be easier for me to write in great detail (links help!) about the event.

It was nice to see David Jarmul and Rosalind Reid again as well as to finally meet Karl Leif Bates (about whose recent activity I will blog a little later).

The panelists were Richard Harris, Joann Rodgers, Cristine Russell and Huntington F. Willard.

Of course, recent blogospheric discussions about science journalism and about framing science were fresh in my mind as I was listening to the panel and the audience.

Harris did the best thing: he played us a short audio of an interview with a Nobel Prize winner conducted one day after the prize was announced. The question was to explain briefly what the research was about. To a journalist. After a few minutes the entire audience at Duke laughed - we were all scientists and not a single one of us understood any of the scientific jargon. I still have no idea if the guy got his Nobel for physics, chemistry or physiology (certainly not for literature!). This really drove home the point that so many of us are so engroessed with our day-to-day research and discussing it with people who are "in the know" that many of us are incapable of recognizing that 99.999999% of the Earth's population have no idea what you're talking about!

Harris said that he recently spent some time with a couple of scientists, doing a story that will air in a couple of weeks. He got the absolutely best explanation of the research (on climate science) one day when the 5-year old son asked his Dad something about it and Dad explained it. Bingo! When you talk about your science - think "Five Year Old"! And you'll get it right. As Harris said - nobody's ever complained you made it too simple in an interview.

Much of the advice to scientists and to journalists has already been covered by many participants in the blogospheric debate about science journalism. The only one that was new to me was the advice to scientists to ask the journalists questions as well - make it a two-way interview. And in the end, when you explain your work to the journalist, ask the journalist to explain it back to you. That way you'll know if the message got through or not. If not, keep repeating and rewording it until you get the person to be able to explain it back to you in a satisfactory manner. Then, the published article will likely be OK as well.

The entire debate just reinforced my earlier observation that scientists want to educate, while journalists want to inform. The former pitch to an audience with an assumed scientific background, the latter know that the audience does not know what DNA is and thus pitch much lower. The former insist on accuracy, the latter on relevance. The former eschew the narrative and the anecdotes, the latter know that those are necessary ingredients of a news story without which nobody will read it. But, as I said before, if the two parties are aware of this discrepancy, the two can work together to produce an article that is satisfactory to both.

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By John Wilkins (not verified) on 23 Jun 2007 #permalink

The entire debate just reinforced my earlier observation that scientists want to educate, while journalists want to inform. The former pitch to an audience with an assumed scientific background, the latter know that the audience does not know what DNA is and thus pitch much lower. The former insist on accuracy, the latter on relevance.

As I said on my own blog, I think this relies on a much too narrow definition of "educate." At least as I understand the word, there isn't actually a conflict between these two things-- if you're serious about educating, you will take into account the background (or lack thereof) of your audience, and pitch your explanation appropriately. And if you're serious about educating, you will work to make sure that your audience sees the relevance of what you're doing.

I agree that too many scientists seem to be working off your definition of "educate," which is probably why science education is in bad shape. But if you're not tailoring your explanation to the audience, and explaining the relevance of what you do, you're not educating, you're lecturing.

And in the end, when you explain your work to the journalist, ask the journalist to explain it back to you. That way you'll know if the message got through or not. If not, keep repeating and rewording it until you get the person to be able to explain it back to you in a satisfactory manner. Then, the published article will likely be OK as well.

This reminds me of one of the basic rules of good interviewing: Summarize what the person just said. "So, what you're saying is..."

It's easy to forget that, however, when you're trying to get as much info as possible in 15 minutes. If you're writing on a very tight deadline, you might even be splitting your attention between the interview and prewriting the story in your head. TV people have it so much easier.

Although it wasn't a science interview, I had to do an interview once (with Bitch and Animal, a lesbian rock duo) outside in the dark beneath an overhang in the rain, while trying to hold both my notes and my recorder. Good interviewing skills sometimes get lost in situations like that.

Yes, we need to agree on definitions - saying "lecturing" is actually a good clarification of what I meant by "educating".