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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10 Responses to Promise ’em Bigfoot, give ’em science

  1. Guy Edwards says:

    If “Promise ‘em Bigfoot and give ‘em science.” is a saying then why haven’t scientist done this with Bigfoot? Bill, I would love a group of scientist to get together and promise us Bigfoot. Too often we see bigfoot enthusiast describe the “science” of Bigfoot. I would love scientists to debate and estimate a breeding population, Bigfoot’s ecological niche, possible diet.

    Please promise us Bigfoot and teach us about primatology, human evolution, biology, anthropology.

    • Bill Lattanzi says:

      good idea, I’ll pitch it.. there needs to be a news hook… do you know of any?

      • Guy Edwards says:

        How about the sociology and communication of primates? If you wanted a more mainstream headline: How smart is Bigfoot?

        Assuming Bigfoot would have a breeding population, it would also have the complexity of social order and communication that other primates share.

        You could start with what is “hard-wired” in lemurs and assumed evolved into greater complexity with the great apes

        Social hierarchy of the great apes. Chimps and Bonobos resolve conflicts in different ways. The latter being a matriarchal.

        Jane Goodall’s ability to communicate with chimps using different sounds

        Laurie Santos shows us Capuchin understand economics or at least loss aversion.

        All of these examples above could feed into the topic “How smart is Bigfoot?” I don’t think it’s been done before. And the layperson would be fascinated.

      • Sharon Hill says:

        Did I hear “news hook”? I’d love for you to visit my news site that emphasizes why we need critical thought to navigate today’s news.

        Is also syndicated on

  2. Lauren Maurer says:

    I would just like to say that “weather porn” is probably my favorite bit of lingo i’ve learned thus far in the program. Thanks, Bill 😉

  3. Lee says:

    Fascinating. Promise a carnival and deliver a persuasive case for global warming. Make sure you lead them to the right conclusion by not presenting all of the information (that might be too confusing). If they look like they are getting lost, tell them that you went to MIT and know more than the disbelievers.
    How about doing a story on the “hidden secrets” of Las Vegas and demonstrate how radioactive waste can safely be stored for thousands of years at Yucca Mountain?
    Personally, I like for my science to be based upon … science. No tricks or gimmicks are necessary.

  4. Pingback: Communicating Science: Using story to report Results « The Relative Comment

  5. Joe Seely says:

    Give them a hockey stick, call it science.

  6. Dr. Mercury says:

    “…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?”

    In other words, “Promise them science but give them Bigfoot.”

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