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.