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Communicating Science: Using story to report Results

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One of the difficult aspects of being a consumer of science is finding sound science in journalism. Being able to parse through the internet to find scientific sources of value is not an easy task. Most of the space on the inter-webs seems to give little (or no) concern to accuracy.

But this is not going unnoticed. It seems lately there is increasing coverage of this issue of how to communicate science effectively to the non-scientce community (like me) and where to find accurate reporting of science.  Ethan, for example, who writes the excellent Starts With a Bang, is starting a project on just this topic. If  this conversation occurs more openly in the scientific community, perhaps it will help avoid further climate-gate scandals, for example. The general public hears media reports and sees mental images of scientists interacting, but it doesn’t mean anything if the there is no effort made to communicate effectively to the general public. And that task, nobly as it has been endeavored upon, constantly needs to be re-envisioned.

The differences in how scientists communicate with one another and how science is communicated to the public are severe. And they are nicely encapsulated by the science journalist Bill Latanzi. In general, story informs people. But in science, results communicate. That is a very big difference.

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…

 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?

Of course, actually teaching science through story is not as easy as saying ‘this is is a good way to effectively teach science.’ But Nova sets the bar, in my mind. And has been the bar for years. The endeavor that Nova has been undertaking is worthy and critically important, and needs desperately to be emulated on the internet. This is happening, and has been, and will continue with the purpose of teaching folks how science operates.  Because without understanding how it operates, results will never matter.

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Written by Christopher ZF

November 19, 2011 at 10:28

Posted in education, Science

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