Why we still need, and will always need, professional science journalists

One of the topics I haven’t really gotten enough into in my time on this blog has been the  perceived problems of science journalism. Well, I’m not exactly a science journalist, but I’m definitely a journalist, and I’ve written on science both for love and money, so it seems like time to start weighing in on these issues.

Let’s start with a quote: “Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science ‘journalists’ because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators.”

The remark comes from a piece (Skip past all the kabuki stuff, about two thirds of the way down) written by a prominent science blogger named Bora Zivkovic,  (from Blog Around the Clock) a man who’s made effective science communication one of his personal missions in life. I’m all in favor of effective science communication, but I’m not sure why it has to come at the expense professional science journalism. I think he wouldn’t be so keen on it either.

I have to start by disagreeing with the idea that most scientists are excellent communicators. Let’s face it: Most people aren’t good communicators, why would we expect scientists to be any different? Scientists, like everyone else when talking about their field, fall into jargon, get overly precise or technical, and get excited about advances that are big in the field but not interesting to the world at large. And the problem is compounded when we’re talking about people whose work involves the barest minimum of language in it’s day to workings, as so much of science does. Communicating to a lay audience is hard, and the only way to get better at it is to work really hard at it.

The reason scientists have developed a reputation for being poor communicators is not because they lost the ability to use prepositions while earning their PhDs.  It’s because they’ve dedicated years of training to becoming serious researchers. Doing science means combining deep technical knowledge, brilliant insight, and  an extraordinary capacity for doing time consuming, tedious work: counting things, measuring things, running trials, titrating things, programming models, and so forth. The time they spend not actually running experiments is spent staying up on the literature, honing their skills as statisticians, or learning new experimental techniques. Notice how precious little of that time involves mastering the written or spoken word beyond the scientific paper or the scientific talk?  Most Serious researchers are often poor communicators simply because they haven’t spent any time learning how to do it.  If the scientists can master the jargon in their field so they can communicate efficiently with other scientists, the work aspect of their communication is accomplished.

This is not to say they can’t become good communicators. Scientists are smart, and if lecturing better or writing better are high priorities, they’ll learn to do it. But in most cases, that’s not what they want to do. Given the choice between spending hours writing  about their latest results or putting in an extra three hours at the lab (or, dare I say it, with their families), few will choose the writing option.  Instead many choose to rely on specialists who have spent years learning to gather information and communicate it to the general public. Typically, we refer to these people as journalists.

Yet Zivkovic firmly believes  that scientists will take keyboard in hand, “cut out the middle man” and speak directly to the masses, and in so doing, consign science journalists to the dustbin of history. Well, I’ve already addressed why I think there will always be a need for science journalists, but consider the trap laid for scientists who start to focus a lot on communication: They stop being scientists.  Zivkovic himself writes that he posts an average of 8.2 times a day. That’s actually quite a lot. Eight posts a day, even if half of them are just links flung onto the screen, will take several hours to post, especially when you consider the time needed to be snarky, spellcheck, solve technical problems, find images, and add links.  Even the linky posts reveal the vast amount of daily online reading Zivkovic must be doing to stay on top of the latest discussions in the blogging world. How much time can he possibly have to do science? As it turns out, precious little. His bio says he’s in the last stages of finishing his dissertation, but he hasn’t published a paper on his scientific interests in five years. Coincidentally, that’s about when he started his first blog.  Professor P.Z. Myers, of Pharyngula fame, told Miriam he spends six hours a day blogging. How much time can he have left for his teaching and research? It’s a trade-off that must be accepted by every scientist: take the time to focus on communications, or do actual science (Though with extraordinary exceptions:  Dr. Isis somehow combines daily blogging and motherhood with being a powerful researcher. We want to know how she obtained her Time Turner.).

I’m not criticizing either of these gentlemen for making totally valid career choices. But communicating science is not the same as doing science, and managing  hours is a zero sum game. Blogs are the new medium for journalism, but it’s still journalism by any other name. And both Myers and Zivkovic both get paid for their writing. Which means that in the end,  Zivkovic can root for the extinction of “journalistic dinosaurs” all he wants, so long as he  understands this: He’s one of us now.

P.S. I also can’t let go of this  snide remark from Zivkovic: “I’ve been in this business (both science and science communication) for a long time, but I have never heard of George Johnson until today.”  Dude. George Johnson has  written about science for the New York Times since time out of mind, and his books on science have been translated into eight languages, plus he’s received the science journalism award from American Association for the Advancement of Science (i.e. from scientists). Mainstream media? Yes.  Valid to criticize? Of course. But try not to act like you’re smart for never having heard of an influential member of your field.

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7 Responses to Why we still need, and will always need, professional science journalists

  1. Greg says:

    Eric, knowing as many scientists as you do, I’m surprised how skewed your view is of what scientists do all day. While most of us would love nothing better than to have all day to sit around titrating, regular communication is indeed a huge part of our daily routine. I’m not arguing that we’re all good at it, but certainly your written image of a scientist as someone spending all day in the lab communicating only with his or her test tubes and never getting any practice at communication skills is way off. In the realm of academic research science, all but a select few of us spend several hours a day teaching, and those of us who take that part of the job seriously do seek continually to improve our communication skills. Admittedly speaking to students and speaking to the general public isn’t the same thing, but there are certainly communication skills involved. I can’t speak very much toward what scientists in government and industry do with their days, but I would expect there is plenty of a need to explain what you’ve spent the week doing to your non-scientist CEO or congressional panels. Not to mention the continual parade of grant-writing and reports on current and past work to university administration and other overseers. It is the rare scientist whose job does not in some way involve communicating his or her science on a regular basis.

    I don’t know enough about it to say anything intelligent about the future of or need for good science journalism and I certainly don’t claim that all scientists (or even most) are great communicators, but I think you have mischaracterized scientists as non-interactive lab machines.

    And for the record, I’m guessing that if you asked most scientists, the thing they get to spend the most “precious little time” doing is their actual science. Even the titrating.

  2. Eric Wolff says:

    But most of the communication you’re talking about is technical communication, in which the writer/speaker can comfortably assume a basic level of understanding on the part of their audience. Conversation between scientists, or with their bosses (who are at least technically conversant with their missions) and grant writing are all jargon heavy, technical writing written for an audience of other people who speak the language of the field in general, if not the specialty. None of this is useful practice for broader communication with the world at large.

    So, that leaves teaching, which by definition does entail communicating technical concepts to a lay audience. Well, it does at at introductory and intermediate levels of college teaching, anyway. But while I do think some professors care about teaching, a lot don’t. A lot don’t see it as an important part of their job, just something they have to do. And I’m not just going on stereotypes here. I’ve taken those classes, and more recently, I’ve interviewed those scientists. And that ignores the many researchers whose jobs don’t entail teaching at all, thus reducing their need to translate their ideas for a lay audience even further.

  3. Scott says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think I agree with Eric. But a little backhandedly. Or rather, I’m going to say the same thing with a slightly different inflection and a teensie bit in a humanities-technical way. The issue is not that scientists aren’t good communicators. Many of them are. They have to be in order to keep getting grants. And to get and keep the respect of their peers. &c. But it’s not quite that there are different audiences.

    What there are are a bunch of different “language games.” Each activity—scientific talk, teaching undergraduates, grant writing, science blogging, science journalism—has different rules that participants (speakers, listeners, readers, moderators, &c.) play by. The term “communication,” it seems to me, abstracts unfairly from these different categories. Because you’re good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at another. And more to the point, what’s really at issue is the ability to recognize when you’re in one language game versus another. I think that much of why many trained scientists are “ineffective communicators” to the public has to do with an inability or reluctance to recognize that there are fundamentally different rules in the “public discourse” language game.

    Think of it this way: science journalists, science bloggers, and really good teachers all have very, very different amounts of and kinds of authority with respect to their audiences, even beyond how much relevant background knowledge these audiences may or may not have. And being an “effective communicator” means more than just figuring out how to “translate” ideas into and out of the relevant level of and relationship to jargon (e.g. undergraduates are expected to learn the jargon, but not newspaper readers). You might think of this in terms of how different audiences’ interest is stimulated or directed, or how much trust they have that an effort to understand new ideas will “pay off” (whatever that means in whichever context we’re in). Students have their interests largely dictated for them (I tell you what you need to know), and the payoff is pretty well understood (grades, professionalization, degree-granting, intellectual stimulation). What good teachers do is manage these complex relationships between trust, interest, and payoff well. But journalists can hardly do the same thing. And so “good communication” here has something to do with managing the much more complex and tacit ways of eliciting (the weirdly abstract category of “public”) interest, managing institutional authorities (individual scientists, universities, degrees, newspapers, governments, &c.), and issues of “relevance” (where science-journalism runs up against other journalistic language games like political-journalism). And science bloggers have yet another set of complex concerns in terms of authority (built up much more around questions of personal interest and style; in classical rhetoric, the “ethical appeal”).

    I’m not sure where that gets us, but it seems to me to be a really useful way to think about what’s at issue in making scientific knowledge available in domains other than academic institutions. And it’s an argument for scientific journalism to continue, as separate from science blogging. And, moreover, I think it helps explain why many researchers and professors don’t necessarily make good science journalists beyond, “they spend their time titrating things.”

  4. J.P. says:

    Professional science journalists at least know how to fill (shower?) sheets of paper with words most folks never ever knew to exist.

  5. What a great post, Eric! The fact of the matter is, I am not as prolific a blogger as the men you mention. I wish I had a Time Tirner because maybe then I would get some freakin’ sleep!!!

    I budget myself 1-2 hours per day to spend in the blogosphere and that means I have to choose carefully the things I write about. When I get on a bend where I am blogging about being a mother I sometimes think, “I wish I were writing more science.” When I get on a kick when I write about science I somethings think, “I wish I were writing more about my lifestyle.” I’ve got a notebook full of stuff to write about. I’m not sure I’ve found an effective middle ground, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t think scientists lack the ability to communicate to the public, per se, it’s that we’re not rewarded for it in the same way we are rewaded for turning out a peer-reviewed publication.

    I think that as the blogosphere becomes more accepted in academia, academics will see it as a valuable instrument for disseminating science and dialoging with the public. In the meantime, people who value this as an important medium will keep plugging away. I was thrilled to have been contacted by the head of my professional society and to receive such positive reinforcement. Progress, no?

    And now, I must turn back the clock to get some sleep before the Isis children awake.

  6. Coturnix says:

    Don’s skip the first “kabuki” part because that is the key part of the post. Also read the comment thread, and the responses by Stephanie Zvan and Tom Levenson (linked at the bottom of the post).

    I am not an active research scientist – I am a professional scienceblogger and I work for a science publisher. I am open about it.

    As the post was about the “kabuki” and science journalism was a side-issue, you need to follow some of the links within for more of the stuff I have written specifically about science journalism, and journalism as a whole, in order to see a more complete picture of my views on the topic. Archives – categories “Media”, “Open Science”, “Science Reporting”.

  7. Eric Wolff says:

    Professional science blogger = professional science journalist. That’s just how it is.

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