Saturday, April 16th 2011
On April 8th, I was fortunate to be in the company of Matt Richtel, Scott White, Diana Yates and Dan Simons as part of a talk and panel discussion sponsored by the Beckman Institute and the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the New York Times who has written on distracted driving, your brain on computers, and, as many of you know, neuroscientists on a raft. Matt also writes a comic and has published two works of fiction. It was a pleasure getting to know a journalist so committed to respecting scientists and getting the story, and the science, right.
Matt began the event with a short, engaging talk on the interaction between scientists and journalists. He started with the fable of the scorpion and the frog, yet never quite resolved for the audience whether he saw the scorpion as the journalist or scientist. He shared several experiences with scientists who were uninterested in talking to the press, some who pushed him to add complexity or uncertainty to a story, and some who managed to convey simple, compelling ideas in their quotes. I want to briefly describe what he said about these three populations.
For those uninterested in talking to the press, Matt suggested that, for some, this may be due to a distrust of the press, or fear of how one will be represented to colleagues. He described a time that a female scientist agreed to talk to him, on the condition of not having her picture taken for the story. She was a former model, she explained, and didn’t want her image associated with her science, lest her colleagues take her less seriously. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of fields where this is a legitimate issue, if past issues in the science blogosphere are any indication. That said, I think he makes a good point that while you do take a risk in talking to the press, and there may be times where your work isn’t perfectly represented (and even times where it is grossly misrepresented), most of our colleagues know not to just blame the scientist. Besides, if you have a colleague that is that punitive, they aren’t a very good colleague!
Matt told a story about a scientist who worked with him on a piece, then backed out and asked that all of his material be removed. Over the course of a difficult conversation, the scientist revealed his fear that his colleagues would judge his quotes as overstating the results of the evidence. Eventually, they worked out an alternative quote that simply added in a qualifier (I believe it was the word “almost” but I don’t remember). Keeping the qualifier, or pushing for its inclusion, can satisfy a lot of scientists talking to the press, and in doing so it adds a necessary element of uncertainty. The scientific method s not about proving things, it is about disproving them. You want to disprove the null hypothesis (an example of this would be that your hypothesis is that estrogen varies with lifestyle, and the null hypothesis is that there is no difference in estrogen based on lifestyle). And, when you get evidence that supports your hypothesis, this doesn’t prove a thing. All it does is support the hypothesis in the context of that particular study’s parameters. Given this understanding of the scientific method, perhaps journalists could see how much scientists chafe at bold conclusions or words like “proof” or “fact!”
Finally, Matt described a class of scientists who are not only good to work with, but provide statements that convey complex ideas in an engaging, easy to understand way. He calls these scientists Quote Monkeys. Quote Monkeys not only distill a difficult idea for a lay audience, yet convey excitement and delight in science. He used the example from his “your brain on computers” series where one scientist said “Bring back boredom!” This captures the idea that not multi-tasking all the time, that having downtime to process events rather than always being plugged in, is good for our brains. (So, if you’re reading this on your phone in the bathroom, put the phone down. You know who you are!)
After Matt’s wonderful talk, Scott, Diana and I served as panelists, with Dan Simons moderating. Scott White is a professor in Aerospace Engineering who has had some media attention for his supercool self-healing materials. I appreciated his approachable, dry style. Diana Yates is a journalist who covers the life science beat for the University of Illinois News Bureau, and she has done an amazing job over the years showing the rest of the world why the science that happens here at Illinois is so exciting. Dan Simons co-authored a great popular science book The Invisible Gorilla (I bought it for my brother in law this past winter before I realized Dan was on campus), and has a social media presence as well, curating interesting material mostly on cognitive psychology. We each gave a little introduction to ourselves regarding our experiences with journalists; I largely talked about how social media is what has connected me to science journalists, and my experiences with CNN.com and USA Today writers (both positive).
The questions we received were good ones, ranging from how to keep from looking like a fool while talking to journalists to how to write science stories without resorting to clichés or self-help hooks. For the first issue, we discussed the importance of asking a journalist for her/his timeline (is your story due in 20 minutes, hours or days?) and that one should request seeing the quotes that will be used before the story goes live. You also don’t have to say yes to every request; if the timeline is too short or you have looked up the journalist and they or their employer aren’t reputable, just move on. For the second question, I talked about reframing the question that captures the audience’s interest from “how does this affect me?” to “why should I care?” or “why is this cool?” I mentioned Ed Yong as an excellent example of a writer who delights the reader, regardless of whether he is discussing algae, racism, or bat fellatio. He shares his excitement and is a guide, not a sage; I think Ed’s work is compelling for the same reasons NPR’s Radiolab is so good. You get the sense the narrator is learning along with you, though in Ed’s case I think you also get the sense that he has scientific expertise to add credibility to his analysis and what he chooses to cover.
One audience member made a rather bold, critical claim that journalists and scientists were in cahoots to promote the journalists and get the scientists tenure. The other panelists handled this one delicately. I did not (what, you are surprised?). Academic readers of this blog are likely aware that writing a blog is a professional risk, as is talking to journalists, especially when one is a junior faculty member. As John Hawks said in his panel on blogging in the academy at Science Online 2011, blogging is at best a tertiary activity. But if you use your blog not only to reach out to layfolks but also to make broader claims about your field, you may have critics as well as fans. I know the risks I take every time I put up a new blog post or agree to talk to a journalist. But I have also decided that my enjoyment, and the benefits to my own goals of scientific outreach, far outweigh the risks. I want women to read my posts and pass them on to their daughters. I want readers of sites like Jezebel and Feministe getting excited about biology. And I want every person who has found evolutionary psychology claims intuitive to think on the bias that produces that false intuition.
When I was a child, my parents had the following Man of La Mancha quote in our bathroom, on a poster directly opposite the toilet:
Too much sanity
May be madness
But the maddest of all
Is to see life as it is
And not as it should be.
I learned to read with that quote. I sang it in my head. And when I was younger, it meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t remember the moment exactly when it went from something I chanted in my head to something that defined my own outlook on the world. But I want to make this job into the job it should be, not the job it is. To me, that means blogging, talking to laypeople about science, and interacting with science communicators and journalists.
But don’t tell me I do it to get tenure.