Communicating Science (and catching the last train home)

While the a number of my classmates spent their evening at the football stadium I hopped the train to New York to attend the “How various media outlets are used to popularize, communicate, and promote science” panel discussion, part of a series in the Science Communication Consortium. Even though the discussion didn’t necessarily answer the questions posed at the beginning of the seminar (namely where is science communication going, although Christopher Mims had a bit to say about this, as we’ll see), there were some interesting points made all around.

Kitta MacPherson of the Newark Star Ledger science section had some of the most useful insights when it came to the more “traditional” medium of newspapers and science communication, and some of her most important points seemed to parallel what was once said by paleontologist Kevin Padian about interacting with the media. Indeed, while scientists can’t ask to see or edit the article prior to publishing, hopefully the scientist or reporter will have it in mind to check quotes before the interview is over in order to make sure the proper points have gotten across effectively. This, of course, requires an ethical reporter and/or a mindful scientist committed to the accuracy of the story, but it isn’t a good practice to simply assume a journalist has understood everything you have to say and wait until the piece comes out.

Obviously I have a bit of a bias in this discussion because I’m a blogger (and on one the most prestigious science blogging website there is to boot), but I liked much of what Christopher Mims had to say. Chris helped to build ScienceBlogs and is now working over at Scientific American and was certainly mindful of the role of the internet in science communication. As he put it, and I agree, we’re just at the beginning of a titanic shift in science communication where scientists themselves are getting more involved in telling people about their work independent of mainstream media, oftentimes holding major television, newspaper, and radio outlets accountable for their scientifically-oriented output. I actually wish this idea would have been picked up on a bit more by the other panelists and elaborated on further, especially since I would love to see more scientists (or people with a strong background in science) writing about important scientific issues than journalists with little to no background trying to “translate” what scientists say into something digestible. The existence of ScienceBlogs in and of itself (as well as the ever-growing number of science blogs in the rest of the blogosphere) shows that scientists can be good communicators and write excellent summaries of important research, and I often get frustrated by the oft-heard opinion that scientists are inherently bad communicators or are not doing anything to reach the public.

This brings me to a bit of a diversion before I mention the next two speakers. As others have noted previously, the public needs to take an initiative in their own scientific education. We can make science as fun or accessible or easy-to-understand as possible, but if the public does not care then it’s going to continually be an uphill struggle. It seems that science news in mainstream media (most importantly TV) is often translated to be Medicine + Technology + Misc. Information from other fields, many viewers simply consuming what they are being told. Hopefully open access will increasingly allow interesting people to look at the original research themselves (I still get angry when a LiveScience, ScienceDaily, Yahoo!News, or other online news outlet does not link back to journal abstracts or contacts that can distribute journal articles), but as another panelist mentioned there seems to be this drop off in scientific curiosity in grade school that is often never picked up again. Children are still interested in science, absolutely, but something about our education system kills inquiry about the natural world, and that is what we should probably be focusing most of our attention on.

Back to the panelists; Ann Marie Cunningham of NPR’s Science Friday was also present and provided some important insights into getting children interested in science. Although she did not mention blogging specifically, she did recognize that the internet was a very powerful tool in getting science across to people, especially given the ability to put pictures, animations, movies, podcasts, and other multimedia up for easy public consumption. Being one of the minds behind the influential PBS show 3-2-1 Contact, she also connected the show famous tagline “Science is everywhere” with the ability to make science relevant to anyone.

The fourth panelist was David Levine of the Office of Communications and Marketing for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and he provided a few counterpoints mentioned by Chris Mims about blogging and science communication. While Chris implied that scientists taking “reporting” into their own hands on the internet was a good thing and would produce a shift, Levine said that blogging was dangerous in that what is put forth is only opinion (the implication being, I assume, that posts are not edited or peer-reviewed). Levine also stated that science bloggers are not journalists, and while this is true, it irked me a bit as it seemed to suggest that scientists shouldn’t be trying to tell the public about their own work and have to rely on the traditional media forums to communicate. Concerns about the reliability of blogs is justifiably widespread, though, and the subject was brought up to me by another attendee after conference, the general mistrust of blogging stemming from the fact that “anyone” can start one, the hypothetical “anyone” usually implied to be someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Again, this topic wasn’t addressed further, but Levine seemed to be more in favor of keeping scientists and journalists separate rather than integrating the disciplines, a view that I certainly do not share.

I should also note that the ever-controversial topic of “framing” came up during the discussion but didn’t go anywhere. It seems that the concept of framing is still very much bound by the internet and is not as hot of a topic in the media world as it is in the blogosphere, and most of the audience seemed a little confused as to what framing actually is or entails. I won’t go into detail about my own thoughts on the subject at the moment, but the controversy still seems to be obscure to many.

While the actual seminar was good, I have to say the best part of the evening took place after the meeting where I got the chance to meet the writer of the always-worth-reading Anterior Commissure, Kate. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera to document the historic meeting, but it was definitely a pleasure to meet up with a fellow science blogger and other new friends concerned about science communication and head out for a few drinks. In fact, it was so much fun that I nearly was late for the last train home to New Brunswick, waiting around in Penn Station until 5 AM not being being definition of a good time. There will be another discussion in November primarily about “controversial” science as well, and I’ll post details about the next meeting as soon as I have them. If you want to know more about the meetings and the group behind them, though, definitely read this recent piece about the Science Communication Consortium in the Rockefeller University periodical Natural Selections.

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