Summary of talk: 6 Things Scientists Can Learn From Science Journalists

“Never Say Diagonal of the Covariance Matrix: 6 Things Scientists Can Learn From Science Journalists” is a an excellent one-hour thirty-five minute talk given by Maggie Koerth-Baker (science editor for Boing Boing). As I mentioned in my most recent Weekly I took some notes that I am happy to share because not everybody will make the time to sit down and watch this talk.

Please note that these are the notes that I took as I watched (and paused) the talk and they are meant to summarize her talk as best as I could. Things in quotes were copied down verbatim and everything else is some delightful combination of what she said and what I thought she meant. If I missed any important points or misrepresented any of her points, please let me know, I am more than happy to fix my mistakes.

The main points where a reference to “you” refers to the scientist being interviewed by a journalist or otherwise trying to communicate with the public about science:

1. “Show, don’t tell.”

  • Turn it into a story.
  • Anecdotes aren’t data, but they do make data memorable.
  • Give the journalist good analogies because your analogies are going to be far more accurate than ones that the journalist would make up.
  • Use show don’t tell with the general public to counteract the pseudoscientists who are already doing this to connect memory and emotion.

2. “Don’t just talk…ask.”

  • Three questions scientists should always ask journalists:
    • “Can I see the story before you print it?”
    • “Can you send me questions ahead of time?”
    • This is actually three questions meant to probe how technical you should be and tips you off to mistakes that the journalist might make. These questions are (3a) “What got you interested in my work?”, (3b) “What have you read so far”, and (3c) “Who else have you spoken with?”
  • You should also talk to the general public and ask them questions. Good places to do this are to blog about science, and to have more interactions between scientists and the general public at public presentations (instead of scientists on one side of the room and lay people on the other side after the talk).

3. Lay people know more (and less) than you think.

  • Scientists will learn that lay people know more than you think and are each an expert in their own thing, which sometimes can end up complimenting your research.
  • Scientists will also learn that lay people know less than you think with what you consider “elementary concepts” never having been covered in typical schooling. She stresses the importance of communicating ideas like what exactly does peer review mean or the scientific definition of a theory every time you are communicating with the public about science instead of just when discussing publicly controversial contexts such as climate change and vaccination. Otherwise the public will “think that those basic scientific ideas are just about ass-covering,” (very well-put in my opinion).

4. Not everything is news.

  • Not every discovery or every paper needs to end up in the newspaper because what is important to you and what is important to the general public are not necessarily the same. People want to know about really important discoveries, but don’t need to know every tiny thing that happens.
  • What can you do to write about your research if you don’t have something that is “news”?  You can make it “evergreen”, which means make it timeless and not tied to any specific event and you need to “find an angle”, which is connecting a simple fact to a bigger picture .
  • No matter what your field, there are topics of interest to the general public.
  • Fantastic line: “Science is bigger than single discoveries and if we can make people understand that they are going to trust scientists a lot more and are going to be a lot more interested in science.”

5. Nobody is critical enough of their own work.

  • Hey, this is why peer review exists. She gives an example of being overenthusiastic about your own work in a press release. She also talks about how poorly understood the time-frame is for a discovery to make it from basic science to the public sector (and often they never make it to the public sector).
  • She suggests to attend public talks given by people outside your field and to apply the questions that you might ask and the skepticism that you might have to your own research to help filter what you communicate to the public.
  • “Don’t just pontificate, curate” – don’t just talk about your own work, talk about how the cool work of others (including those not at your institution) is related to your work. This will help build your credibility and help people better understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.
  • You can contribute to making science journalism better by being the first one to critique yourself when talking to a journalist: anticipate the response of other scientists and respond to those potential critiques. She reminds us that in the current economic climate that many journalists writing about science are not science journalists and have no scientific background at all and they don’t have the background to know that they should be looking for other scientists in that field to question or comment on that paper

6. Mistakes are lasting, but pedantry kills.

  • It’s ok to dumb it down
    • “Sacrificing storytelling and understandability for extreme accuracy is often just as bad as sacrificing accuracy for the sake of storytelling.”
    • “If you are not writing about your science to the general public at a 6th grade reading level, you are probably doing something wrong and not enough people are understanding what you are talking about.”
  • It helps us to use more understandable analogies. Sacrifice some of the nuances to make it more understandable. If you are being too pedantic, you are going to miss out on opportunities to get people excited and get them to want to find out more.

Her summary: know your audience, know your message and make sure to match those up so that people understand what you are saying.

Other notes

  • Early on she mentions book “The Matchbox that ate the a Forty-Ton Truck” which is a Physics for lay people book by Marcus Chown. I had not previously heard of this book, but am always on the lookout for this type of book.

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