Promise ’em Bigfoot, give ’em science

Like fellow PLoS blogger Seth Mnookin, I’m  spending a year at MIT, in my case as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism. Unlike Seth, I work in the craven world of cable television, making science shows on everything from the intricacies of evolution (see below) to what we in the biz call weather porn, which is the technical term for attention-grabbing specials on earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes and other potential mega-disasters. I’ve also put in time at the venerable Nova series, so I come by my take on things through varied experience.

During the three months I’ve spent as a Knight Fellow, I’ve heard many scientists speak frankly about their mistrust of the media. (One of the pithier summaries I’ve heard: “I hate science journalists.”) I’m not unsympathetic: I’ve seen scientific studies get twisted, sensationalized and scare-mongered by the media. But, to echo a debate going on in the #SciWriteLabs series, scientists need to realize that they’re in a different business from their journalistic brethren. I’m reminded of the punch line to the old Jackie Mason joke about actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan:  “People criticize, but you can’t blame him.  It’s not his field.”  Scientists want their work represented as science–but journalists’ jobs are to communicate with the public, and the main tool they have at their disposal is the story.

Science, on the other hand, is less concerned with narrative than results. Scientists speak to other scientists through their work.  Reputations are based on careful accumulation of facts, and a professional reluctance to speculate. This communicates within the community well–but not so well to the world at large.

Out here among the populace, where, as the Jimmy Stewart character says in It’s a Wonderful Life,  people “do most of the working and paying and living and dying,” we communicate in the language of story. Stuart Brown, who studies play, puts it this way in his TED talk: “the basic unit of human intelligibility is the story.”  Stories need beginnings, middles, and endings.  They need tension and drama and resolution. All of which are anathema to any particular bit of science. Science only proceeds as a story in the big historical sweep of things. Individual scientists are like ants (or Borgs): The collective is all.

So how can we bridge this divide? As one of my Nova mentors told once told me, “Promise ‘em Bigfoot and give ‘em science.” It’s not a bad formula. Our job is to build a bridge to our viewers:  folks who are smart, curious, but not necessarily educated in the same way we are.  They come to us for the story, but we’ve got to meet them where they live.  So if we get them into the carnival tent with a promise of a “mega-disaster,” once they’re there, in between the flying pieces of metal, we may be able to persuade them that, say, climate change is real, and there are still some things we can do about it. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

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