Scientists are Excellent Communicators (‘Sizzle’ follow-up)

Titles of blog posts have to be short, but I could expand it to something like this:
“Depending on the medium and the context, many scientists can be and often are excellent communicators”
That is what I understood to be the main take-home message of “Sizzle”. If you check out all the other blog reviews, even those that are the harshest do not state the opposite, i.e., that the movie pushes the stereotype of scientists as dull, stuffy communicators. Though, some of the commenters on those blog posts – people who could not have seen the movie themselves yet – imply that this was the case.
So, just a quick summary first, which I will try to use a springboard for some musings on science communication….
‘Sizzle’ is a movie in two parts, two very different halves that are purposefully made to make as much contrast to each other as possible.
The first half is full of exaggerated caricatures of stereotypes: stereotype of mindless Holywood (hard to make a caricature of that, though, as the first scene in which “serious” producers reject Randy’s idea is pretty realistic – after all, big-ego Holywood is openly stating “No more environmental movies”: who do they think they are to make such decisions? After all, ‘Sizzle’ is not a movie about global warming because it could not be funded – GW is there as a subtext, a tangent, and could have been replaced by another scientific topic easily), gay stereotypes (sweet and charming, rich and into fashion, but mercurial, shallow and materialistic, but passionate), Black stereotypes (Hummer, bling, being late), and all those are as exaggerated as possible in order to give people the hint that the other guys in the movie, the scientists, are also presented in exaggerated caricatures of stereotypes – as dry and boring and dull as possible.
The second half turns it all on its head – once out of Holywood, the medium steps out of the stereotype, gays step out of stereotype, Blacks step out of stereotype and, if you need a hint, scientists step out of stereotype and show how good they are at communicating: we get to see the clips that we were prevented from seeing in the first half.
Which makes one wonder – why are the stereotypes there in the first place, and why was the first half believable to some? The first half edited the scientists’ interviews in ways that fit well with the prevailing stereotype, cutting out the good parts according to expectations and biases – but whose expectations and biases? Who would cut the best parts of interview and for what reason? The movie explores the sterotypes of dull, data-hungry scientists, why are the stereotypes there, who is pushing them, and how they can be busted.
Which makes me wonder if we need to systematize our discussion of science communication in some way, distinguishing different types according to various factors – who is talking to whom, about what, with what goals, through what medium?
I can think of three possible goals of science communication:
– Education: you need to know this in order to be an educated, well-informed citizen and in order to make good choices in your personal life.
– Persuasion: you need to know this in order to correctly choose which politicians, organizations and initiatives to support with your money and your votes.
– Entertainment: you gotta see this! It is soooo coool!
– in person in an informal setting
– public lecture or Science Cafe
– classroom
– blog
– newspaper
– scientific journal
– popsci magazine
– radio
– TV
– movie
– theatrical production
– YouTube video
– etc.
Who talks to whom?
– scientists to scientists
– scientists to students
– scientists to media professionals
– scientists, via media, to the general population
– scientists directly to the general population
How many in the audience?
– one-to-one
– one-to-few
– one-to-many
Nature of the medium
– one-way communication
– two-way communication
You really need to read this excellent post by Janet who drew my attention to the importance of this factor.
So, there are many different combinations of all of the above factors. In some of those, scientists excel. In others, they tend to do badly for various reasons, e.g., miscommunication about the goals between players, lack of training, incompatibility between scientific ethical criteria and the demands of the medium, or just being set up to look bad.
Also, individual scientists vary in their ability to be effective communicators in a variety of different settings and combinations of the above factors.
There is no space here to go through all possible permutations, so let’s look at a few plausible scenarios….and especially the one point that ‘Sizzle’ makes – that scientists are much better in communicating directly to their intended audience than through the professional media. Let’s see why this may be the case….
As Janet noted in her post, it appears that scientists are much better at communicating when they get instant feedback from the audience, e.g., at cocktail parties, at Science Cafes, and on blogs. The question is: are they better in those venues because of instant feedback or because of directness of communication, i.e., the absence of the middlemen – the media?
Or let me phrase the question a little differently (and more provocatively): how does professional media screw up the communication between scientists and the audience by interposing itself in-between the two? Is it just due to blocking the feedback? Or is it something about the way they transduce the information from the source to the target (the game of Broken Telephones in which the journalists horribly mangle the message)?
Or is it something third: communication between scientists and journalists is broken due to differing goals, differing expectations, lack of knowledge about each other’s jobs, stereotypes and biases the two groups hold about each other, and thus wrong questions getting asked and wrong answers getting provided?
Take a look at this case of a misquoted scientist! Everyone has or knows of such horror stories. Commenter ‘helen’ writes there:

I’ve been interviewed quite a lot of times and almost never had the so-called quotes match what I said, and most of the time, they’re substantively different. I started learning to speak in sound bites in self-defense — if you can spit out a catchy sounding sound bite, it has a much higher chance of being reported accurately. But sound bite news tends to be stupid and trite. Sigh.

Hmmm, Houston, we have a problem!
When interviewed by the media professionals, scientists tend not to remember that they are indirectly communicating to the general populace. They are focused on communicating to that guy with a microphone. And the two of them are already, a priori, biased about each other!
Scenario #1
The newbie journalist goes to do his/her first interview with a scientist. Never met a scientist before. Has no scientific background so spends some days studying online in order to learn the background and also to impress. Comes in a little nervous. Colleagues say that scientists are tough to interview, dry and humorless, using over-complicated language, showering with data. How to ge that “money quote”?! Gotta get the scientist’s trust somehow in order to get the conversation to open up.
The scientist notices that the young journalist appears very sharp and smart, has some background, has a great command of language, and seems genuinely interested in the topic – so the scientist starts…teaching! Treats the journalist as a science student, a future colleague. Completely forgets that the journalist’s job is not to learn the science, but to make a fun story for the masses.
The journalist goes home and writes a fun story, misquotes the scientist in order to make the story-line follow the preconcieved story-line, picks up the paycheck and moves on to another assignment, just to be surprised by tons of angry e-mails from the scientists, science bloggers, etc., about the innacuracy of the article.
The scientist is livid – there is an utterly crappy misquote in a totally inacurate piece of fluff in the newspaper! How did that happen?
Why did the two never discuss what the goal of the interview was in the first place? Why did the scientist want to educate, and the journalist to entertain, and neither was aware that the goals do not match? Could they have agreed on a common goal? If not, should they have cancelled the interview rather than go on with the farce?
Scenario #2
The journalist, now with some negative experience, decided for the next interview to change tactics and to be more chatty and mellow and even “flaky” in order to prevent the scientist from misreading the intent and responding with a lecture.
The scientist, burned by previous experiences with the press, sees this shallow creature enter the office and works hard, hard, hard to stress how important accuracy is. The poor journalist is drowned in even more data, and even more strident calls fo absolute accuracy. The scientist insists on reading and approving the draft before it goes to print, as this is according to science norms (peer-review and stuff). The journalist refuses as that is against the media norms due to the importance of the freedom of the press (imagine the President having the veto power on every article about him).
The tension grows. There is an impasse that cannot be broken. The mutual stereotypes (humorless scientists and shallow journalists) persist.
Scenario #3
You are a scientist and you get invited to appear on a cable news show in a segment about, let’s say global warming. The segment is about 2 minutes long, out of which you will get, at best, 30 seconds, and that is if you are aggressive. There is another guy on the show who is a GW denialist, employed by some slime like Heritage Foundation or American Emterprise Institute or Cato Institute, personally trained by Frank Luntz to throw out talking points designed to pull at emotional strings of the audience.
What do you do?
Many scientists in this situation make a basic error in thinking they were invited to explain the science. No, they were invited with a pretense of explaining science. They are there to be fodder for the other guy.
Scientific training makes one want to preface one’s statements with a litany of caveats. By the time you are on your third caveat, your 30 seconds are up. You have no time to get into the science.
Your opponent talks aggressively over you and interrupts you (unlike your polite fellow scientists at a conference) and you are fazed and confused.
It is against the Philosophy of Science to make over-confident statements – that is why we always focus on our p-values and Confidence Intervals and standard errors. This does not work on TV. On TV, making any such statements comes off as you being unsure, insecure, having something to hide, perhaps even lying. That is the nature of the medium – only absolute confidence wins.
Your opponent trots out 30 lies in his 30 seconds. Each lie takes 30 minutes to debunk. You do not have that time. At this point you can actually say something like “Wolf, you are supposed to be informed enough to see when he trots out 30 lies per minute and call him out on it, as you know you will never give me hours needed to debunk them myself”. This makes certain Wolf will never invite you to his show again, but may be a good move at the time: the audience will emphatize with your face of exasperation as everyone’s been in those shoes before, they will rethink what they dislike about the media (and everyone hates the Corporate Media these days), and everyone likes to see the media talking-head doofoses smacked down every now and then. If nothing else, you’ll be the hero of the blogosphere for about 24 hours.
Remember – the goal of your opponent is to use his 30 seconds to discredit you. You are not on the show as a scientist but as an official Face Of Science, i.e., as a politician and a speaker. Your job is to use your 30 seconds to discredit the other guy and be better at it than he is about you. You do not need to talk about science at all for this goal. When preparing ahead, do not even go over the science, instead study the other guy – who is he, who pays him, what is his motivation, what other stupidities he has said in the past? That is the information you have to have at your fingertips, not scientific data. If he lies, you talk over him and say in plain language that he is lying. Then say it again. And again.
This is where the Framing Guys can help with their studies and polls and focus-groups, helping you find the catch-phrases that work. You are there to persuade, not educate (while the host wants you to be there for entertainment, as a victim of the other gladiator, thrown to the lions). You do not really need to be a scientist – you are there not because of expertise, but because you have the three letters PhD after your name.
Thus, most scientists should refuse such invitations and refer the studios to a list of a very small number of scientists who are specially talented and specifically trained for surviving and winning in this kind of media massacre.
In a sense, this is not a case of science communication at all, but a case of a scientist tricked into acting as a talking head – something best left to the professionals.
Scenario #4
You run a popular blog and one of the things that irks you to no end are anti-vaccinationists. You keep blogging about them, and how the science annuls all of their claims, and how their movement is dangerous for public health, etc., etc. The symbol of their movement is Jenny McCarthy who half the country is drooling over. I have met Orac and I just don’t think, objectively (sorry Orac), that he can get the other half of the country to drool over him. So, what can he do?
About 1-2% of visitors post comments. Those are usually people firmly on one side or the other. The anti-vaccer loons come in and spew nonsense in the comments, and the regular commenters counter with their arguments. What can Orac do to make sure that the other 99% of the visitors, including those who just arrived for the first time through Google searches (as his blog comes up high in searches), take the correct take-home lesson? How can we all help in this endeavor? After all, his blog nicely combines the three goals: education (facts), persuasion (glorious smackdowns of quacks) and entertainment (glorious smackdowns of quacks) and is very popular. Everyone agrees that Orac is an excellent communicator. Why is he not winning yet? Can the Framing Squad be of help to Orac? How can Orac’s blog and the way he deals with the problem be translated into Big Media in order to reach more people?
U.S. Media culture
OK, so we probably agree that scientists are good when talking directly to the audience (especially if getting instant feedback), but either screw up or get screwed up when trying to communicate through the professional media. In the two-step process, we have looked at a couple of scenarios in which the first step is messed up as the scientists and the representatives of the corporate media mis-communicate with each other. How about the second step, between media and the audience?
I think these two are in a spiral of mutually-enforcing expectations. The media look down at the people and assume that all they want is entertainment, and as low-brow as possible. The audience has learned that all the media is good for is entertainment, so when they switch on that TV, they want to be entertained. It got to the point that most people turn to information elsewhere as they do not expect the MSM to provide correct information – MSM is for entertainment only (and the same goes for movies, talk radio, etc.).
If you are a scientist and a non-scientist asks you something at a party, are you surprised how much interest there is for science? Yes, the amount of ignorance and disinformation out there is frustrating, but that person is genuinely interested and you know how to talk to him/her in a way that is appealing and understandable, and it is obvious that you can quickly and easily build trust and authority. You are looked up at as a scientist.
Now, what you say may not be accepted instantly. The person may keep countering you and disbelieving you, but you have planted a seed of doubt. It may take some time for the information you imparted to get comfortably meshed with that person’s worldview. But it may get there after a while, especially if that person hears the same message from other sources, repeatedly. It is an important aspect of framing that the ideas get repeated often by a variety of different kinds of authorities.
But if you say the same things on TV, people turn away and do not want to listen to you. Why? Because you are not Britney Spears or Jenny McCarthy. You are a wrong person at a wrong time at a wrong place with a wrong message using wrong language – get off my TV, I want to be entertained right now. I’ll ask you again at the neighborhood BBQ, or I’ll come to the Science Cafe next week, but please, man, leave me alone now, I am tired and I want to watch something funny now.
This is a very American phenomenon – that media is equated with entertainment and only entertainment. Yes, you can find some educational stuff on a few of the 500 cable channels, but nobody watches those. But unlike in other countries, the audience has been primed not expect or want anything else in mass media but shallow fun.
Watch BBC for a while to see the difference – educational shows, TV news, documentaries: they are serious, and they are popular.
Back in April, when I visited Belgrade after 15 years of absence, one of the things that struck me was the quality of TV programming. I know they complain there how silly it is, but compared to anything in the USA, the Belgrade TV channels are oozing with pure intellect. Quizzes are not multiple-choice – those competitors really know their stuff and the questions are not trivia either. Political debates (election was upcoming at the time) are long and full of detailed analysis of economic plans, etc., with spade being called a spade and liars being called liars in their faces while everyone is smiling and remaining polite.
My friend Ljuba is a small-animal veterinarian and he has a weekly show on TV in, pretty much, prime time. I have four of the episodes on DVD and have to figure out a way to place them online. The show has a little bit of fun – they start with a question and end with the funniest answer from the audience at the end. The hostess is pretty, so there is a little use of sex-appeal (this is TV, and this is Europe, after all). But for the most part the show is serious, even solemn. There is a dog or a cat in obvious pain on the screen. There is a bunch of vets doing diagnostics and discussing it using big words and explaining what it means. You see how the vets from several practices communicate with each other and how they solve differences in diagnoses. It is explained why a particular treatment is chosen, you see it performed in all the gory detail, and you end with the scene of the animal on the road to recovery. No watering-down of science at all. And it it a popular show there. Now, imagine trying to sell this idea to NBC – they will laugh in your face. The media in the States does not think of themselves as having any role and any responsibility in informing or educating – they are entirely interested in entertainment and the way if brings in profit. And the audience has learned to think of them that way, too.
How do we change this media culture?
Or should we just leave the MSM to rot and die, and put our efforts into new media, the kind in which there is no intermediate (who may believe that he-said-she-said journalism is the way to go) but the communication is many-to-many with instant feedback? Because in such an environment scientists are experts and seen as authorities and listened to and believed.

7 responses to “Scientists are Excellent Communicators (‘Sizzle’ follow-up)

  1. Very interesting post. A few comments:
    That was an excellent characterization of Sizzle, in my opinion.
    It is very common, as far as I can tell, for scientists to be cynical about their interactions with journalists and with how they or their work is presented in press. I have seen many individuals be sufficiently negative and cyincal that they either refuse to participate in the dissemination of their work, or they totally screw it up by washing their own hands of any responsibility. Those who take the time to learn that there are better (and worse) ways of interacting with the press get better press … meaning, their work is represented for what it is rather than for what a journalist things would be interesting.
    There are major shortcoming among the press as well, but I don’t need to mention them. So many of the problems with the dissemination of science information are blamed on the press that I need not bother. I just want top point out that where I have seen this interaction take place, more than half the time the scientist contributes more than their share of responsibility to making sure the science itself get butchered, and much of that is through simply hubris and arrogance.
    On the other hand, there are indeed a lot of scientists that are excellent at communication. Within this range, there are all kinds of different communicators … really, individuals communicating to different audiences. There is a big difference between Gould and Feynmann, for instance.

  2. You are right that it takes two to tango. I think scientists need to get some “media education” starting with the first lesson: what is media about.
    That does not mean we should not strive to change the media culture, but until we are successful in that endeavor, scientists need to learn how to talk to the press. And press needs to learn about the scientific mindset and what is important to us as well. Tit for tat. It may work better if both sides understand better what the other side is all about – its goals, assumptions, biases, methods, etc.

  3. Excellent post.

  4. Nothing to add but kudos.

  5. Thanks for the scenarios – I’ll keep them in mind!
    And the US-EUR media comparison is also spot on! When people here in Europe complain about how stupid their program is, I tell them they ain’t seen nothing yet, watch US TV! Having lived in the US, I so enjoy European TV (they’re still right about complaining, but it’s complaining at a relatively high level)!

  6. My experience on this issue differs: “The journalist refuses as that is against the media norms due to the importance of the freedom of the press.”
    When I was interviewed by WSJ and by a journalist from a trade pub they both gave me drafts of the portion of the article where I was quoted. In the second case – it was what I said but it sounded horrible, and the author was willing to recast it to more accurately reflect what I was trying to say. This wasn’t veto power, per se, but they did show me a draft.

  7. I’ve had very atypical results in my media experiences. All 2 of them, so maybe sample size is an issue.
    The science one involved a reporter whose given concern was graphics for a short note and maybe a couple of quotes about magnitudes. I helped with both, no problem as he’d explained what he wanted. Then he asked a kind of catchall ‘so, what might this be important for’ question. I gave him a good short answer, and then some increasingly long ones as he followed up. By the end, he’d been inspired to push his editor to make it a feature article, and had the ammunition he needed to persuade her. So what was to be a short note with a pretty picture or two and a quote or two turned in to a fairly lengthy feature article doing some education on some science I liked.
    The other was a reporter who interviewed me for an article on running training (I coach in one of the area running clubs). She took the time (as did the first) to check that she understood me to mean what she thought I did, and we had a good conversation about the topic. Now, rather little of what I said actually showed up, but all to the good, really, as she had multiple coaches to take quotes from, and the net was an article where even where what she quoted wasn’t me, I agreed with it.
    Both were print articles rather than radio or TV, which may be part of the difference.
    The major difference, I think, relates to scenario 3. To phrase it differently — in my positive experiences, it was important that I be a professional in the area. My webmaster could have answered the original question about the graphics and size comparisons (well, certainly, because I’m my webmaster, but even if he were a different person he could), but could not have provided a substantial enough answer to the ‘what is this important for’ to have helped turn it in to a feature article. Most runners just run and maybe try some things out by way of training, but haven’t made a considered examination on themselves and on runners they were training. Minus that, what they say can be good, and it can be awful, but almost certainly it wouldn’t have the context needed to make for good answers — and the reporter was interested in the context of how, how much, how fast, for what, …
    In (US) broadcast media, however, it seldom matters (in terms of content, for display purposes it might) whether the person is a scientist. The questions at hand are too shallow, or the time is too short to permit non-shallow answers, and usually it is set up as a debate rather than discussion. Scientists can be good at discussion, particularly open-ended, but debate is a different matter. For that, you want debaters. You want media-savvy folks (perhaps, say, educated on framing). You want people who have good camera presence and good voices. But a deep knowledge of all the science relating to the nominal point at hand … not very important. My initial chats with the two print reporters were half-hour affairs, not half-minute.