The Trouble with Scientists

When I first started in journalism I worked as a general assignment reporter. After a few years, I decided to become a science journalist. I thought it made sense, to focus on a subject that fascinated me rather than continue to rattle around assorted news beats. But I still remember the look of frozen horror on my father’s face when I announced the decision.

As you may deduce, my father is a scientist. He received his PhD in 1955 from the University of Illinois, where in addition to studying entomology he learned the essential lesson that “real” scientists shared their work only with each other and did not attempt to become “popularizers” because that would lead to “dumbing down” the research.

He emerged from paralysis to say: “I hope you’re not planning to interview my friends.” A science historian at the California Institute of Technology once told me that this disdain is rooted in the way we teach science. In particular, he said, K-12 science classes in the United States are essentially designed as a filtration system, separating whose fit for what he called “the priesthood of science” from the unfit rest of us.

“Why would I want to interview boring old entomologists?” I naturally replied. This conversation was in my parents’ living room (father in armchair, daughter pacing) but variations on this theme occur any time, any place. Scientists won’t talk to journalists; they don’t want to waste their time “dumbing it down”; they don’t see it as “making us smarter.” So many of the good stories in science don’t get covered at all. Or the stories get covered only for an already science-literate audience – explored in publications like Discover or Science News – rather than for that far larger group, the science disenfranchised.

Last week’s editorial by Royce Murray, the editor of Analytical Chemistry, “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor” brought home the point that while the medium may change, the dilemma remains the same. My PLoS colleague David Kroll, has done a brilliant job of blogger defense, pointing out that many are scientists (like Kroll himself) or award-winning science writers, emphasizing the rise of smart science blog networks. He demonstrates perfectly that Royce’s broadbrush declaration “the current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists” shows that the editor failed to do his homework.

My first reaction to Murray’s piece was to wonder if he belonged to my father’s generation of scientists-who-hate-to-share. Sure enough, he received his PhD in 1960, reinforcing my feeling we’ll really move forward in improving public understanding of science when we approach it through Kroll’s kind of 21st century mindset.

For one thing, one of Kroll’s remedies is to suggest that more scientists became bloggers – yes, public communicators of science – themselves. I’ve always thought that my own profession of science journalism grew to fill the void created by scientists who couldn’t be bothered to “dumb down” their work. Since the mid-1950s, the National Association of Science Writers (and, yes, I’m a past-president so I like to mention it) has grown from several hundred members to nearly 3,000. At the same time, science journalism programs have sprung up at universities from UC-Berkeley to New York University.

Science writers, journalists, broadcasters and bloggers became the voice of science during a time during which too many scientists simply refused to engage. Scientists have ceded that position of power amazingly readily; ask yourselves how many research associations offer awards to journalists for communicating about science but none to their own members for doing the same. Ask yourself how the culture of science responds even today to researchers who become popular authors or bloggers, public figures. Whether young scientists are rewarding for spending time on public communication? And ask yourself how hypocritical this is, to complain that the general public doesn’t understand science while refusing to participate in changing that problem?

As it turns out, the culture of the “real” scientist who exists somehow separate from the rest of us has not been a boon for public understanding or appreciation of science. So let me make a case that it’s not too late for Prof. Murray and those who think like him to approach science communication differently. It doesn’t hurt to remember that we in the science-literate section of the bleachers aren’t the only ones who matter here. He writes that he’s worried about the anti-science voices on the Internet; the best way to counter is probably not through an inner circle editorial in Analytical Chemistry.

To end on a happy note, my father decided that he wouldn’t disown me after all, that having a science journalist daughter wasn’t quite as embarrassing as he’d anticipated. He started calling his friends to make sure they would talk to me. He went on the Today show and persuaded former host Bryant Gumbel to eat beetles on the air. Of course, he once gave an interview to the National Enquirer, under the impression that it was the National Observer. But as I keep telling him, he should congratulate himself on reaching a new audience.

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43 Responses to The Trouble with Scientists

  1. Luis J. Villanueva says:

    Murray’s editorial shows not only that he did not do his homework, he is arrogant enough to demonize bloggers (using the quotes in purpose). Yes, there are many bloggers that sell news, and gossip, and nonsense, but scientists that write a blog can have an impact that very few scientists of Murray’s generation had: direct access to millions of people in the whole world.
    Science is a public endeavor, both due to its funding and its impacts, so its main players should be in the front line of science dissemination. Today, blogs are a better way in many cases than traditional media.

  2. "Shecky R." says:

    I’ve said for the last 5 years that science blogging is in it’s infancy, and I still believe that (…well, maybe it’s up to middle-school by now); most science blogging is amateur-hour, so I understand the trepidation felt by Murray and others. But there ARE MANY solid science bloggers out there (more this year than 2 years ago, and more next year than this year; every year sees improvement). What is often lacking in quality, thoroughness, and consistency is made up for in openness, immediacy, and engagement; and the first 3 elements will continue to improve as well. Needless to say, science-blogging is here to stay, and as in most media the creme will keep rising to the top and serve science well. It’s not as if the ‘old’ ways of science communication don’t have their own set of problems.

  3. In the circles that I move in, I don’t see any reluctance at all among my colleagues to talk to journalists. Some may seem reluctant to do much popularisation themselves, but there are two quite good reasons for this. One is that some subjects are simply too abstruse to be of much interest to the public (one reason I have never blogged about my own work). A more important reason is the quite unreasonable level of competitiveness that exists in science at the moment. By the time you have spent time on research, teaching and ever-increasing HR nonsense, there is simply no time for most people to do it, however much they would like to do so. After 70 hours a week doing that you simply can’t fit in anything else and still have a life.

    One problem arises directly from this competitiveness. There has grown up a school of science writing that is more interested in PR for the university than in explaining a fascinating topic. Worse still, there exists a minority of scientists who are willing to exploit this tendency for their own self-aggrandisement We need science writers who are sufficiently informed and critical to puncture this sort of perversion. There also exists a class of journalists who are more interested in a spectacular headline than in science, and it takes time and effort to prevent work from being distorted by them. One example of a case where all these elements come into play is in the recent reporting in the mainstream media of B vitamins and Alzheimer’s disease.

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    You both make excellent points here. It’s the impact of science on our every day lives that, to me, makes it so important to share in understanding of how it works. As a long time newspaper reporter, I was kind of amused by Murray’s praise of the “traditional” news outlets (in comparison to blogging) when I’ve heard constant complaints from scientists about just those outlets over the years. And I agree that blogging is, obviously, still evolving into something strong and substantive but – agreed – I think it’s moving in the right direction.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Hi, David – I’m glad to hear your comment on willingness to talk with journalists and I do agree with you about the way scientists are increasingly squeezed for time. But part of the problem, is that researchers are taught to think of public communication as “outreach”, another extra demand on their time instead of part of their job. There’s no standard training for scientists, for instance, in how to communicate easily or to how to tell a good science story.

    It’s too bad, really, because there are some exceptionally talented scientists; I once told Frans de Waal at Emory that if everyone wrote as well as he did, your profession would put mine out of business. And there is an art to it – I once got a story about the neutral theory of molecular biology on the front page of my newspaper just by the way I told the story (still a proud moment).

    Finally, you’re absolutely right that this doesn’t eliminate the need for smart, well-trained, science writers. The Vitamin B story illustrates beautifully what happens when we skip that step.

  6. Steve Silberman says:

    Fascinating post, thank you!

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Thank you Deborah. A wounderful endorsement for science journalism.

  8. Carmen Gonzalez says:

    Solid post, Deborah.

    I have always pitied scientists who viewed laypeople as a diversion or distraction from their work, when they are, as you point, central to gaining funding and other support for their research. I absolutely admire the work of scientists. If there were a way to offer my marketing and writing skills to them, I would glad devote some volunteer hours toward that effort. The closest I get is in my day job, helping develop strategies for patient recruitment in clinical studies. This isn’t quite coaching a researcher to convey his work.

    Deborah, if you ever want to pitch a collaborative project that brings writers and marketers together to train scientists to effectively introduce their work, I’m on board.

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  10. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much, Martin and Steve, for the kind comments and Carmen for the offer of support. I really appreciate the great response.

  11. Marlene Zuk says:

    As a scientist who works on sex in animals, I get a lot of media attention, and I have to say I’ve been puzzled by the disdain bordering on hostility that many of my colleagues (lots of whom got their degrees long after Deborah’s dad, I’m afraid) have about science journalism, bloggers or otherwise. People always roll their eyes and say, “they will just distort everything to get a story”, or assume that no one other than another person in the same discipline could possibly grasp their Extremely Important Yet Surprisingly Abstruse Work. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve had almost entirely terrific experiences with journalists. It’s true that they are not all writing for Science and Nature, or even New Scientist, but they all seemed to want to get it right and make sure the facts were accurate. I think some scientists have problems because they don’t understand that in addition to getting it right, the journalists have to make sure the audience understands the story, which necessitates some rewording from time to time, especially if they are doing a story for Glamour magazine. But I just don’t get the paranoia.

    The flip side of that is that if you do write for a general audience, as I do, your colleagues often dismiss that as something they could certainly knock out in a weekend if they weren’t busy doing Real Science. :-)

    But Deborah and others are my heroes — and lots of us scientists think so!

  12. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks so much, Marlene. I couldn’t have said this But your comment also emphasizes another point. Scientists like yourself – talented writers, open-minded communicators, AND smart and successful researchers – represent the new model at its best. You show that it’s possible to be an excellent scientist and an excellent public representative of science. I have to believe that your influence, the gradual changing of the system from within, is one of the most important parts of this equation. So I’d put the hero standing on your end of the story!

  13. CK says:

    Great post, Deborah! The more science blogs I read, the more I would prefer to be interviewed by bloggers than by print or TV journalists (who have more than once misquoted me or framed a story in an overly dramatic fashion, both of which embarrassed me and made me swear off speaking to the media for a while). I’ve guest blogged a few times and loved it, but as David said above, there never seem to be enough hours. So I’m thankful for the talented writers out there like yourself and Ed Yong who make it look easy when we all know it isn’t. Keep it up!

  14. Mark Grossi says:

    As the natural resources reporter at one of your former newspapers, I want to thank you for writing so clearly on this topic. I’ve covered science stories for 15 years, and I regularly get calls and e-mail from scientists who dwell on trivia or jargon that I haven’t included in the story. But I have to come clean here. They sometimes point out a wonderful nuance that has simply eluded me. I’m pretty quick to tell them more than half the staff is now gone here and we chase fires, murders and council meetings on top of our beat work. Truth is, that’s no excuse. It’s important for scientists to talk with us. It’s important for us to get it right.

  15. Pete Farley says:

    To be fair to scientists, there are journalists who overplay the “explain your work to me the way you’d explain it to your grandmother/grandchild” tactic. A political journalist wouldn’t dream of asking a Senator to explain how an appropriations bill gets passed in grandmother-ese; it’s simply a given that a good political reporter has to know all the gory details and jargon of government.

    The grandmother ploy, used sparingly, can be useful for getting concrete quotes and color (Asking, “What does that look like?” when things are getting too abstract, e.g.), but too often writers use it as an excuse to not read and understand the scientist’s work before an interview (I’ve heard “I’m not a scientist” way too many times), or to not regularly read the literature to keep up with trends in science as a whole.

    I’m mystified by this approach. Sure, once in a blue moon you come across a scientist who simply speaks great copy, but asking all the others to explain complex science to the proverbial grandmother doesn’t make sense. That’s our job, not theirs.

  16. Monte Davis says:

    > your profession would put mine out of business

    I was a science writer in the 1970s and 1980s. Early on, I freelanced press releases for a big medical research foundation, helping their staff writer in peak periods when they funded a big batch of grants at once. We worked from the grant applications, written in purest biomedicalese. One day I said to the foundation’s staff writer: “Surely someday these researchers are going to have to explain what they’re doing to laymen, or at least to peers in specialties so different they might as well be. Wouldn’t it be good for them to learn to do it themselves?”

    He replied, with the smile of a man whose career prospects are assured: Sssssssssssssssh

    He smiled

  17. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed, Mark, that there’s work to be done on both sides and that I worry that we in the media are going backwards on this one. The Fresno Bee (my first science writing job) has a strong tradition of good science journalism though. But your comment reminded me of something that I think does affect the issue. Science journalists – like me and you – spend a lot of time in the culture of science. The reverse is not true for scientists and I’ve wondered for years if there was a way to help researchers really understand what’s important in a making a good popular science story. If we could get that across, I think there’d be far less dissatisfaction.

  18. Michelle says:

    I think that part of the problem is that the old guard still runs the science departments in the academy. I received an NSF GK-12 fellowship, which focuses on learning to effectively communicate science in the community, including middle and high school classrooms and at least one professor told me he thought it was good that I was “training to be a 2ndary ed. teacher” because that was a good place for me. I am not. I am a Ph.D. student who wants to be a researcher, but who also believes it would be nice to have a conversation with someone where the first thing said to me is, “You’re a scientist. Oh, I was never any good at that.” If we want to stay on top as a nation, then we need to effectively show 1) science is fun, not hard and 2) anyone can understand science, not just the anointed few.

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  25. Claire says:

    The complaints I hear from my colleagues (I’m in linguistics) are not that they don’t want to talk to journalists because it’s dumming down the science, but because it is very common for the journalists to inject their own theories of how languages work and what the relationship is between language and culture. That leads to some basic errors about facts of language. Another issue is that there have been a bunch of cases where a journalist writes a story, asks for comment, has everyone explain why it can’t possibly be right, but then the story is published anyway without modification. That essentially says that the journalist feels they know the subject better than those who work on it fulltime, which is not only arrogant, but wastes the time of busy professionals. To take Pete Farley’s analogy one step further, a journalist who prewrote a story, spent a hour with a senator who told him/her how wrong it was, then published it anyway, would probably receive adverse publicity. But editors don’t seem to care for research reporting. I’m quite happy to talk to journalists about language work; your post resonated because I think it’s really important for the public to be better informed about science, and they won’t be unless more research is easily accessible. But I’m not going spend an hour explaining to someone why language doesn’t directly shape thought, in order to be quoted as saying the opposite.

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  28. 28 and a PhD says:

    While I agree that some scientists (IMO older ones, mostly) are of that mindset, I love talking about science. I don’t think I’m “dumbing it” for others who’s majors or life have nothing to do with science. I think that as scientists we are also communicators. If we fail to reach a wide audience, of both experts and non-experts, then all we are reduced to is being machines who cannot communicate and engage in conversation and debate with others. I think most of the people in my generation (I’m an early 80’s baby) like to engage in conversation and talk to people in other fields or with little science background about what we do, why is it important and how it helps to understand the world around us. Wasn’t it Einstein that said something akin to “if you cannot communicate your research to a 5-year old, then you have failed?” I’m of that mindset.

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  30. Deborah Blum says:

    We completely agree!

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