07 May 2010

Making Science Relevant

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post called Science Has a Serious PR Problem and it got some notice on twitter, mainly thanks to Bora Zivkovic.  I'm very grateful for the feedback I got from science bloggers about it.   While it will no doubt take some time, I'm committed to doing something about it.  In the blog post I tried to convey two major points. First, the nature of the problem:
Science has a serious PR problem, and it's this: Critics of science are searching people out and talking with them in the simplest terms possible. Scientists and "science writers," if they talk at all, are basically talking with each other.
 Second, the beginnings of a solution:
I've heard people say "we need to make science cool" - a lot of that talk was at ScienceOnline 2010 - and that would be nice, but I don't think that's really the answer. "Science" isn't really going to beat out American Idol or the NFL or whatever.

Cool is important, but I think we need to make science relevant. There's a difference.

Since then I've been having some conversations with some science bloggers, some mom bloggers, some people who fit squarely in both camps, and some people who fit in neither camp on a project we could do to help address this.  (More on that later.) But earlier this week I saw an example of what "making science relevant" looks like:

 Yes, that's Rachel Maddow talking with an actual scientist - Dr. Edward Overton at LSU's School of the Coast and Environment - about the goop that's floating around in the Gulf of Mexico right now, what can be done about it, and why that's important.

Without a doubt, Dr. Overton did a tremendous job.   First, he knew his audience and avoided technical jargon, opting for terms like "the consistency of roof tar" and "chocolate mousse."  Second, he did a great job keeping his language moderate and his tone calm when prompted to expound on doomsday scenarios. This is critical. Media types are trained to focus on the controversy and the crisis - "if it bleeds, it leads" is a common mantra in the journalism industry, and cable news takes it to the next level - but Overton stuck to his guns, explaining what was cataclysmic versus what was simply bad and reminding us all to think about both the "possible and the probable."

Most importantly, by doing a good job in the interview he put the role of science in its proper context for an important current event.  You just can't overstate this.  Maddow and Overton flipped the current thinking of science in the media on its head.  Instead of trying to shoehorn a "science story" into the current news stream without context, they took a relevant, salient issue and explained the role scientists play in addressing it.

Think about how it works right now.  On television, sometime after the story about what the President said today and what the stock market did, but before the story about a panda coming to the zoo, you'll sometimes see a story that starts with "A new study was released today by a medical journal that says coleslaw causes cancer in ferrets" or something.  So on top of all the other things you're thinking about you have to remind yourself to not eat coleslaw, you know, because of the ferrets.  (The next day science bloggers will say the  article wasn't the definitive word on the slaw-ferret cancer connection, the methodology was flawed, correlation doesn't mean causation, and the media got it all wrong, and so on.) 

In newspapers, or at least in big newspapers, there's a science-technology section that comes out once a week - all neatly packaged and self-contained, chock full of cool stories about a solar eclipse in Bhutan or the DNA of fruit bats or maybe the dinosaur bone exhibit.

But it's all segregated from the rest of the news, even when there's arguably a strong role for science to play in a major story.  Think fast - what's the first thing you remember in the news reporting about the volcano erupting in Iceland?  Admit it - you remember all the flights in Europe being canceled.  BREAKING NEWS:  ABC News reports Whitney Houston has to take a boat.   Seriously.

I'm not suggesting we should stop publishing science sections in newspapers or talking about new health studies on TV - while the reporting is occasionally flawed, you can still find boatloads of great stories that educate, entertain, provoke, and even inspire you.   I'm suggesting science isn't an "angle" to be exploited in a story.  It's a big part of every day life.  Scientists and those who want science to be a more meaningful part of large discussions have to make the case for relevance and enter those discussions in a non-intimidating way.

The first step in this, I think, falls on scientists and science communicators.  The good news is they have to do something I know they already do well - listen and pay attention, and search for common ground with others.

More soon.

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