Scientist tries to communicate with public, gets quote-mined instead

Trailer for Jurassic Fight Club II Clash of the Dinosaurs

This year saw the release of Unscientific America and Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist, two books that aimed to take scientists to task for not being media-savvy enough. Whatever “it” is scientists are clearly not “with it”, the books argue, and the public’s inadequate understanding of science can be traced back to the inability of nerdy scientists to give themselves media-friendly makeovers.

I didn’t particularly like either book (and that is putting things a bit mildly), but I have to admit that I am a little biased. Within the field I am most interested in, paleontology, there have been many scientists who have worked hard to help the public understand science. My own early interest in the science can be traced back to scientists like Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, Philip Currie, Paul Sereno, and Stephen Jay Gould who frequently appeared on television, in magazines, and in books. Even today many paleontologists collaborate with feature film companies and documentary crews both on and off camera to help bring solid science to the public. (And though she is not a paleontologist, the contribution of botanist Jodie Holt to the production of Avatar is a great example of how scientists and feature film creators can work together.) These scientists spend a lot of time reaching out to the public, but sometimes they get burned.

Such was the case with paleontologist Matt Wedel’s appearance in the documentary miniseries Clash of the Dinosaurs. You can find all the gory details here, here, and here. Long story short: media company wants to include dino myth into the show, Wedel tries to correct misconception, media company still wants to perpetuate myth because they don’t think their audience will understand the real science, media company carefully re-edits interview with Wedel to make him seem like he was trying to endorse an incorrect idea he was actually trying to refute, Wedel gets pissed.

Paleo blogs and mailing lists have been abuzz over this story over the past few days. There are lots of horror stories. Some scientists have had pleasant experiences with TV crews while others have been treated rather poorly in the name of selling the public a “more interesting” story. Of particular interest is the fact that the high rate of turnover in media companies means that the person who you started working with, the one who seemed really interested in accurately depicting science, suddenly disappears and you wind up with someone who wants to create controversy where there is none. (Check out the novel Terminal Freeze for a fictional take on this.) No two companies are alike, and I don’t want to damn all documentary production crews, but paleontologists who have often contributed to programs meant to educate the public have had their words twisted, been ignored, or otherwise had poor experiences with companies that value style much more highly over substance.

I guess that is why it was so difficult for me to enjoy Unscientific America and Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist. There are many scientists, many of whom I have had the pleasure of corresponding with thanks to this blog, who have worked hard to help the public better understand science. Rather than berate them for not trying hard enough maybe we should take a more comprehensive look at how science communication works and how messages can get distorted by media companies more concerned with making a buck than actually telling an interesting story in a responsible way. It is time for critics to stop being so negative about scientists and actually consider how we might push for change within mass media to better help scientists connect with the public.

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