Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 12, 2007

The Public is Too Stupid to Understand this Article

“There’s nothing more important than knowing how an atom bomb works,” said Dan Vergano, “Yet 95% of people don’t understand it.”

“They don’t know the difference between an atom and a molecule!” interjected Elizabeth Weise.

“They don’t know where milk comes from,” called a voice from the other side of the room.

Adam Frank mentioned that one of the problems with scientists sharing their science is that they are too snotty. They think,  “Ahh, you don’t understand it,” and they refuse to explain it in plain English. 

Are the readers really that stupid?  Maybe, some of them.  But if they’re reading, then at least they can read. And if they can read, they can probably think.  And if they read something interesting, and they think about it, they might just decide to find out more.  If science writers write interesting, well-researched stories, people will learn from them.  They might remember a bit of it the next time they pick up a paper and see another story on the same topic. 

When I meet people for the first time, they are often a bit intimidated when I tell them that I’m getting my PhD in Neuroscience.  But when I tell them about what I study- neurotransmitter transporters that drugs like antidepressants (and cocaine) bind to- they usually have at least a vague idea of what I am talking about, and they are usually very interested. There’s no way that these people learned about neurotransmitters in high school. They learned, what they know of these topics, from science journalists such as the ones sitting in this room. 

March 12, 2007

Why scientists can’t tell stories

Adam Franks from the University of Rochester teased out a key issue in his talk - the role of scientists as gatekeepers.

What he means he how scientists themselves communicate, or rather, fail to communicate, the meaning of their work. Why is this? Partly, said Franks is that there is a sense among scientists that appearance of seeking too much media attention is bad. This is despite the fact that grants tend to have an outreach component. In other words, how is the scientist going to tell the world about their work?

But then the other issue that comes up is that scientists don’t understand narrative.  They tend to adopt an expository approach in writing. The aim is to expose information.  In contrast, journalism is about telling stories through narrative writing

This divide illustrates one of the big challenge scientists and journalists face in communicating about science.


This blog was written by prominent science journalists and science communicators who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace seminar.

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