Betere Dingen

| 29-05-2011 13:53Am I making myself clear?

Cornelia Dean (2009)

A lot of scientists have turned away from mass media because they tend to oversimplify and misrepresent science. Cooperating with journalists is frowned upon in some labs and may even be a bad career move because of this. This whole attitude towards mass media of course makes good scientific sources scarce to journalists and will lead to further misrepresentations and oversimplifications of good science. Cornelia Dean is a science journalist who has noticed that scientists have a peculiar way of communicating with journalists. Communicating results is an inherent part of scientific discours, and is done in ways suitable to science. There are evn differences between fields, for example the worth assigned to conference papers varies. However, all scientists (should) have one thing in common: they meticulously try to say true things. It is generally the meticulousness that is the 'problem'. It is the strength of science, but there is no room for it in mass media. There should be some room for truth in mass media though, so some sort of middle ground is available.

One of the problems I see is that scientists are expected to be just a as media-savvy as politicians and other public figures, and to be able to spout cool one-liners summarizing their research. This is never going to be the case. Scientists don't have a political agenda and do not expect trick questions, nor do they get media training. Cornelia Dean has some sound advice that enables scientist to partially alleviate this problem. Most of it comes down to being well prepared, which is something that scientists should be good at. So there is hope. ;)

The subtitle of this book is "a scientists guide to talking to the public". Most of the advice is however aimed at talking to journalists. Journalists also have some peculiar ways of communicating. If they cite you, they assume that any errors will be assigned to them as authors of the piece, though most people will instead assign the error to the quotee. That is of course the worst thing that can happen to a scientist. Nevertheless journalists will usually not allow you to check a piece for factual errors. And that is a major turn-off for most scientists. Perhaps something can change on the side of journalists as well?

This book is rather short, and the last few chapters deal with the situation in the USA specifically. It is a quick read (I read it on trainrides to and from Belgium) and I found it helpful, but others may feel it contains nothing but common sense.

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