Communicating Science In A Post-Newspaper Era
IRA FLATOW, host
This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're broadcasting today from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in San Diego, and I'm sure I may be preaching to the choir here when I say that science is an important part of our daily lives.
But you know, when you watch those broadcasts on cable talk shows last December, where they reviewed the big news stories of the year, did you hear anyone talk about the Large Hadron Collider, the Mars Rover, the nanotechnology, dinosaurs, hominids, hundreds of other major science stories of the year? Did you hear any of those mentioned on these shows?
Now, from climate change to agriculture to the latest medical advances, we all know that science is everywhere, everywhere, except on TV news or in the shrinking pages, science pages of your newspaper.
And while science themes are showing up more and more in movies and television shows - think "Lost," "CSI," "The Big Bang Theory" - it seems harder to get accurate, unbiased science and technology news anywhere.
Well, maybe it's time to start looking somewhere else, and where the other news sources are going - that place might be the Internet, the blogs, Facebook, Twitter, social networking.
Can these sites fill in the science news void, and can scientists and science writers do more to advance the case for science news? That's what we'll be talking about this hour. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK, and you can always Twitter us. Send us a tweet @scifri, @-S-C-F-R-I. We'll see if we can get a Twitter in, a tweet in or two, and also in Second Life, you can join the folks in SCIENCE FRIDAY Island out there, who will be sending us stuff also.
And if you're here in the audience, I invite you to step up to the mikes on the aisles there, and don't shove. So please, be nice to one another. I'm sure you always are.
Let me introduce my guests. Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her newest book, just out this week, is called "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." Sounds interesting. Love to have you on to talk about that.
Prof.�DEBORAH BLUM (University of Wisconsin-Madison): I'd love to do that.
FLATOW: Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Thanks for being here.
Prof. BLUM: Thank you.
FLATOW: Paul Raeburn is no stranger to science writing. He sits in for me every once in a while. He's a science writer. He blogs for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and a blog spot called True Slant. He's also the organizer of the annual New Horizons in Science conference, and his forthcoming book is called "Why Fathers Matter." Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Paul.
Mr.�PAUL RAEBURN (Author): Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: And Stephen Schneider. Dr.�Schneider is a climatologist at Stanford. He's also the winner of the Collective Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Al Gore and others in 2007. His new book is "Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate." Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr.�STEPHEN SCHNEIDER (Climatologist): Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: Jane Stevens is the director of media strategies for The World Company. That's the parents company of Lawrence Journal-World and News. Last time we talked with Jane Stevens, she was in Antarctica on an ice-breaker ship about 10 years ago.
Ms.�JANE STEVENS (Director, Media Strategies, The World Company): That's right.
FLATOW: She was reporting on thin ice. Thank you for being with us today.
Ms.�STEVENS: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: And that I said - Lawrence World-Journal and 6News.
FLATOW: Let me correct myself. Well, tell us about what that is. Let me begin with you, Jane. What is that site all about, and why did you start that site?
Ms.�STEVENS: Well, actually, I came to The World Company last June because they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, which was to actually figure out a way to make journalism survive and thrive and relevant in this new Web world that we're going into.
So part of that is a structure that we're creating, a new contact-management system, and we're going to be launching a beta version of that this coming week, and it's about health. It's called Well Commons(ph). And we're integrating social media with journalism in a brand new, revolutionary way that we think will actually make science more popular.
FLATOW: Well, let's talk about it. How do you ensure, if people are sending stuff in, how do you ensure that it's accurate science or there's accurate news coming in there?
Ms.�STEVENS: We've engaged the health community in Lawrence a tiny little town in Lawrence, Kansas, the blue spot in the red state, in Douglas County, and they've been helping us and participating in this. So they will each have their own group pages on there, and they're responsible for the accuracy of their pages, as we are responsible for the accuracy of ours. So it's like fractals. It's groups within groups within groups.
FLATOW: Paul Raeburn, you and the Knight Tracker follow a lot of these new media blogs. Do they are they successful at vetting what they're putting out there?
Mr.�RAEBURN: Well, I think they are, but it's hard to tell. I can I could tell you one story. A couple of months ago, I saw a very interesting story about a woman who died in jail in Vermont, who had anorexia and apparently needed potassium supplements and knew she did and pleaded for them.
It was a really well-done story, of a kind that we're familiar with in newspapers. It was a site called vtdigger.com or vtdigger.org. So what the heck is that?
You know, so I actually, normally I just write in the Tracker about what I see on the page, but in this case, I emailed the reporter, and I said: Who are you guys? And it turns out they're a lot of former newspaper people, and it seems to be a legitimate news site on the Web.
The problem is, it's hard to tell that. You have to do a little bit of research and roam around and see. It's possible in a few years from now, anybody who follows Vermont news will know vtdigger.org as a great site. But we're in this transition point now, where, you know, it demands a lot of the reader to figure out what you're looking at, and can you trust it?
FLATOW: Right. And Deborah Blum, you've been around for decades, writing science news, starting out in the newspapers. I've been around that long too, so I know.
Prof. BLUM: I'm thinking: I'm old, I'm old.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: How have you watched the how have you kept track of the changing, shifting landscape of all of this?
Prof. BLUM: Well, I teach journalism, and so I have to say to myself, I'm not going to teach my past. It's not interesting to me, and what interests me about the changing landscape of journalism is the opportunities that I hope it has for us to do things better, to find different audiences, to approach people about science in different ways. It allows us to build new voices, and I try to teach that, and I try to do it myself.
FLATOW: Stephen Schneider, you have been very vocal about your criticism about how the climate situation has been covered. What bothers you the most about all this?
Dr.�SCHNEIDER: Yeah, Ira, as you know, when you said in the beginning, how do we get accurate information, I actually don't like to use the word because science is not in the world business of total accuracy.
The worst oxymoron I know of is exact science. What we do is we approximate. So you take a complicated problem like climate, and you have to break it down to the same components you would in health or in military or in other complex systems, into well-established bits, you know, the parts that are competing explanations and the speculative.
What I've been so annoyed about is this dumbing-down polarization into kind of end-of-the-world and good-for-you extremes, all have Ph.D.s How can the public be anything but confused. In fact, end of the world and good for you are the two lowest-probability outcomes.
What we do is we provide bell curves with multiple outcomes, and our job is to winnow out the relative probability of these, and lately I have actually been reading about the IPCC-gate. It's frankly a fraudulent frame.
The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indeed is a human institution. You know, it's 200 scientists. It goes through multiple rounds of review. It's people from all over the world. It's got to have mistakes. That's not the problem.
The problem is when it makes a few mistakes, and these mistakes were largely discovered by the well-oiled, multimillion-dollar disinformation engines and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other things, they pointed it out. You know what? They have a right, and they should have.
IPCC, I think, badly responded by calling the ones who pointed it out voodoo scientists. That's ridiculous. What you have to say is thank you, we'll check it. When we checked it, two or three of those errors were really bad.
What they didn't say, and this is the fraudulent part, is how can you report just a few mistakes and not report the overall track record of the group? It's a man-bites-dog story. So here's the temple of, you know, intellectual science caught in a few errors, and indeed they are, but not to say that when there's a thousand conclusions, and no matter how hard the guys search from the other side, they've only found three wrong, my view is: Give me a crack team, I could probably find 10.
CONAN: Paul, would you agree with that assessment?
Mr.�RAEBURN: Yeah, I think so. One of the things that, again, things I look at in the Tracker, are sometimes just the standard some of the issues in the new media are the same issues in the old media, which is to just do things accurately and to avoid the kind of which often comes up in climate, not exactly what Stephen was talking about, but the, you know, he said/she said, quote the quote the, you know, the deniers who dug up the errors equally with the IPCC and so forth.
But you find the same kind of mistakes all the time in all kinds of coverage. There was another post I'd done that said, you know, women who are depressed during pregnancy are likely to have more aggressive kids when the kids are 10 years old.
Yow, that's a good story and frightening, and that's a long time to worry and wait until your child grows up to be 10 to see how bad he or she is.
But it turns out the study was done on, you know, a very low socioeconomic group in tough neighborhoods. You might guess that there would be other explanations for why the kids have problems, but most of the reporting didn't point that out. It just stated it flatly like I did at the beginning, and we just see these things. They're the old errors in the new media.
FLATOW: Deborah, is that because there aren't as many science reporters around as there used to be, or are they just not paid or what? Or is there a political agenda?
Prof. BLUM: Well, I don't see conspiracies behind every problem in science journalism. There aren't as many science - trained science writers as there used to be. Some of that's been the down-sizing, especially in this country. You can go to other countries and see that they're starting to grow new generations of science journalists.
I agree with Paul that a lot of what we're looking at are problems that have been around for a while that have simple transferred over, and I think one of the bigger problems is that when you look at the vast landscape of the Internet, it's really hard to tell who the carefully vetted sites are from the ones that someone is just thinking about an issue and getting it out there in a random way.
FLATOW: All right, we're going to have to take a break and come back and talk more with Deborah Blum and Paul Raeburn, Stephen Schneider, Jane Stevens, all talking about the state of science journalism today. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you're in the audience, and you want to ask a question, don't be afraid to step up to the microphone because we have a lot of time to step up there and ask your question.
Also, if you're on Twitter, you can send us a tweet. We have some tweets coming in. And also, you can give us a call by the phone, and don't be afraid to ask questions. We're going to be talking about climate change and about how and all the science issues and how scientists deal with them in the media. I'll give you the number again, 1-800-989-8255 is our number, and also you can tweet us @-S-C-F-R-I. That's @scifri. And surf over to our Web site. It's sciencefriday.com, and you'll be able to leave us a message.
So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break. Don't go away.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Diego, and we're talking about how science writers and scientists get the news out to the public. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. My guests are Deborah Blum, professor of journalism, University of Wisconsin in Madison; Paul Raeburn, science writer, and he blogs for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker; Stephen Schneider, climatologist at Stanford; and Jane Stevens, director of media strategies for The World Company.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to questions. Let's start on this side of the room, yes.
MAGGIE(ph) (Audience Member): Thank you. Do you want us to identify ourselves or just talk?
FLATOW: It's up to you. Do you want to get bad mail?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Or do you want to stay anonymous? Give us your first name, if you want.
MAGGIE: I'm Maggie from the University of New Mexico. But anyway, you brought up a very important point, and it is the problem with the signal-to-noise ratio. It's affecting all of you, I can see. It's also affecting us...
FLATOW: That's an old engineering term that a lot of people may not understand.
MAGGIE: Well, I work with a lot of engineers and love them dearly, but I'm a biologist. But the bottom line is that I can see with the scientific literature, there is also this signal-to-noise problem, and what concerns me the most, and what I've heard from some of you, is that when that happens, what system do we all tend to rely on? We rely on who we know.
And so what I see is a resurgence of this no offense, but it's sort of an old boys' network, and it can also include women, you know, where people for instance, if you're at Princeton, you know what people at Harvard and all the people that you're seeing at meetings are doing, but when people are at smaller institutions, they become lower and lower on the horizon.
And so the question is: How do we develop tools or methods, you know, sort of meta-level methods, sort of the way Cisco developed or Google or something, that will help us improve our signal-to-noise ratio? I mean, I don't know if it's possible.
FLATOW: All right, let me...
MAGGIE: We have to be at least...
FLATOW: Let me see if we can translate the question first.
FLATOW: That's okay.
MAGGIE: I'm worried about diversity in the age of a poor signal-to-noise ratio.
FLATOW: Signal-to-noise ratio, from my old engineering days, that's like getting the good stuff out of where it gets very noisy. Any suggestions? Deborah, you have any I mean, I kind of when people ask me how do I trust something, who do I trust, I say, you know, it's sort of like a movie review. You know, you find people who do good science reporting or newspapers or bloggers or whatever, and then you go sort of trust those sorts of people, experience. Deborah, do you have any suggestions?
Ms.�BLUM: For finding your reliable source?
MAGGIE: Well, what are we all going to do? We're all in this you're in this position, I'm in this position. You know, what's the sort of meta-level solution that you have maybe thought about for identifying reliable sources and allowing new sources to be heard?
Ms.�BLUM: Well, you know, it's interesting because, especially in the Internet age I find that I never trust one source, and so whereas I used to read one newspaper every morning, I get up and I scan online six or seven, and I - or more than that, and I'll find myself saying: This story is done better here, or I wonder what is happening with the coverage of this story overseas? So then I go look overseas.
One of the things I think that the new sort of deluge of information forces us to do is to really look at multiple angles because you and I both know that no story is single-faceted. There is never one voice that tells the entire truth.
And so one of the advantages of today over the sort of bottleneck we used to have of getting our news from only a few places is that if we're smart about it, we can really do a kind of sophisticated analysis of what's out there.
FLATOW: Jane, how do you on your new venture, how are you going to get those trusted sources?
Ms.�STEVENS: You build community, and the people who are part of that community obviously are the ones who are moving things forward, or sometimes backward, as the case may be, but if you engage them and give them the same tools that journalists have and then raise the community standard so you're trying to create a safe place and a trusted source, I think you have a better solution for that.
Now, I've been a science journalist for a really long time, and one of the things that I saw was exactly this issue. The signal-to-noise ratio was a big deal. So this system that we've created I think has a shot at making that an easier thing to manage.
FLATOW: Stephen, what about politics in all of this? We all bring it with us, don't we, when we look at issues in science?
Dr.�SCHNEIDER: Nobody, including scientists, is entirely free of bias. The way we try to suppress our bias is through a peer-review system. And science has sometimes a tough time in the street because science is not a democracy. It's a meritocracy.
Your ideas have to have evidence, and while we have so in our world, quality trumps equality. A lot of people don't trust us because there's an entry barrier to get in, but remember, science has two components. There's risk, what can happened, multiplied times the odds. That's the science part where we fight it out.
And then there's risk management, what to do about it. That's the political part. That's value judgments, which scientists have only one vote, just like everybody else.
But if people are uninformed about the risk part because they've been so knocked off their pins by this false balance debate, then it's hard for them to apply their values, and they either do quote who they trust, which unfortunately for a third of this country is those famous, you know, climate professors, Professors Beck and Limbaugh, and you know, whose everything they say is utter nonsense, or worse, and it does lead to a serious paralysis.
The one thing we have to remember in signal to noise is that there are some components, as I said earlier, that are well-established. There is a strong signal to noise, but a large fraction of complex system science still is a signal-to-noise-neutral kind of event and that may have significant outcomes. People need to know about that.
FLATOW: How do you get scientists to talk to the media?
Dr.�SCHNEIDER: Okay, just one last thing. I always tell my students: Watch out for the myth-busters and the truth-tellers. Listen to the people who are apologizing about talking in ranges and caveats. They're so much more qualified than these blogsters with the truth.
How do you get scientists involved? Well, unfortunately, what's going on now is only getting them less involved, because when they see what they say, either getting distorted or ignored, and they see this polarized debate, they just go back to the bench. That's the wrong decision.
I think you get them engaged by showing them that they have an obligation to explain their field. But one more thing. Scientists often think that when the media call them, they want to know about their little irrelevant detail. No.
Our job is to relate the nature of the field when we have a deep understanding of it. It is not our job to represent ourselves but our field, and if they really care about what you do, specifically do that, that's going to be a tough nut to crack in science.
FLATOW: All right. Let's go to the audience right here. Yes, step up.
DAGNIA(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Dagnia, and I'm at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and I want to ask your help. I've got scientists who want to talk to the media. I have scientists who are engaged in doing great things in cancer research, neuroscience and plant biology. What do I, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, as a content provider, what do I need to do to get you to listen and you to help relay the messages about the great discoveries that are going on?
FLATOW: Jane, can you help this person out?
Ms.�STEVENS: I would say not only more important is actually building your own community that supports what you're doing. I think that a lot of scientists haven't done that. We haven't had the tools to do that, for one thing.
But Hubble was a great example of how to do that. For NASA has been pretty good about telling people what's going on, and Hubble, I mean, I don't know how many of you have the screensaver of, you know, some beautiful galaxy or a widget or whatever on your computers, but it became part of people's life so that when NASA said, oh, we're going to scrap it, we're not going to repair it, there were thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who were very angry about that and let their policymakers know.
So building that community is the first start, I think. I think that the traditional media is becoming less relevant, but the community you build is going to become more relevant.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Paul, there's this phrase about news on the Internet that it's, quote, self-correcting. I mean, is it really self-correcting?
Mr.�RAEBURN: Well, of course it is. You just have to read an infinite number of Web sites, and then you're all set, you've got the truth.
I mean I think the you know, one of the issues I was going to suggest with regard to getting messages out and signal-to-noise ratio is, you know, I would recommend that people, you know, get an RSS reader. If you don't know what that is, Google RSS reader, and you'll get 10,000 explanations of what it is, how to use it, how to set it up. And subscribe to all the Web sites you can think of and everything you can find and read them, and after a period of time you'll find that you're not looking at some, you don't trust them, you don't like them. You'll find that some become favorites.
The reason that we you know, pick your favorite newspaper. It's always fun to beat up on the New York Times. So the New York Times, which is probably, you know, certainly the best newspaper in the country and the one that professionals like us especially love to hate and criticize and debate and so forth, but the reason we have feelings about the Times, we trust them, or we know where we don't trust them is, you know, they've been around a long time.
We've been reading them for a long time. We're familiar with them. It's the same thing with the Web sites. Read a lot, look at a lot, waste some time, and eventually you'll settle in on the things that are delivering the message that you're looking for.
FLATOW: Here's a question from Second Life, from Silverwing Benoir(ph) who says, which country has the best coverage of science in their news, USA, UK, others? And I guess this is an attempt to just narrow down your sources. Deborah, if you go to a country, will you get better coverage in another country?
Prof. BLUM: I think it depends on the science you're talking about. I work with World Federation of Science Journalists. You see, as opposed to in the United States, that a lot of places like Latin America or China or Asia are building up their science journalism forces at the same time that we seem to be pulling ours down. But at the same time, you're going to see really tricky taboo issues, right?
And I have a friend in South Africa who wrote about evolution and is still dealing with the death threats that resulted. So it's specific to the issue you care about and the politics of the country that you're dealing with. I mean, let's face it. A lot of science coverage is influenced by the culture in which you live.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're going to see a lot of science coverage, and I know we're going to be one of these people covering it. President Obama has been pushing for the renewal of nuclear power, right? It's going to be a hot topic. People are going to be debating it. How should people look for coverage, let's say, on a very hot topic issue like that? How do you tell people, you know, what to look for? Can you tell you people how to, you know, what - Deborah?
Prof. BLUM: How to - like how to evaluate risk?
FLATOW: Yeah. How do you evaluate the risk? How do you evaluate what people are saying about it, whether they have vested interest, that sorts of thing?
Prof. BLUM: Well, I think it's on us to do a better job with that. And one of the things, I think, we sometimes - I'm speaking for myself and the community of science writers - don't do well is remind people that science, including nuclear science, is a very human enterprise. And many of the players in it do have stakes. We need to provide the stories that actually round out our coverage.
And I also believe that hot topics should be covered kind of coldly. So that when I am writing about nuclear power, I step back and I objectively look at all the risks involved. Finally, I really don't like the he-said-she-said stories either. There's always a point of view that you need to write for and explore.
And so, the one thing I think we do a disservice to all our readers and listeners and viewers is if we are weighing equally both sides of an argument without qualifying the sources. It's really important for us to do our homework and get in there and let people know what each side of the argument represents.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let me go to the audience, then we'll go to the phones. Yes, sir.
DAN(ph) (Audience Member): Hi. Thanks for being here. My name is Dan. I work for AAAS and I recruit scientists and engineers to come and work for the federal government. And one of the biggest challenges that they face in their assignments is communicating effectively about uncertainty to policymakers such that they can make better decisions, if they can make decisions at all. And I'm curious if the panelists - Dr. Schneider, you've spoken about this before - can talk a little more about how both scientists and science writers can talk about and write about uncertainty so that the public can understand it and accept it and so that policymakers can make better decisions.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow here at the AAAS meeting in San Diego. You heard the question. Anybody want to tackle it? Stephen?
Prof. SCHNEIDER: I think that you have to use metaphors that convey both urgency and uncertainty that people use. Don't use your jargon. In terms of climate, there are things, as I said, well-established speculative. I use metaphors like buying insurance: two percent chance your house burns down, yet 95 percent of people who can afford it, have it, because you have to look at the consequence as well as the probability. The other metaphor is loaded dice. You know, we have hot and dry and cold and wet.
So you're switching some of the cold and wet towards hot and dry depending where you live. You can use military deterrence and other things. And bell curves - I always use - never show a bell curve. I always use a wheel of fortune. So here are the lucky slots, one or two degrees warmer - not great. And over here are the oh-my-God slots, five degrees. We don't know the answer yet.
We're talking about, you know, risk management with the planetary life support system. So tell them the stakes and use metaphors that they absolutely understand in their everyday life, and you can communicate that. But the big problem is they keep thinking that science is a trial. It is not guilty and innocence. Very often, we are not going to know the answer to really critical questions before its too late to prevent them from recurring and we're in the risk management game using, as I said, wheels of fortune for our life support system.
FLATOW: All right. Deborah, did you want to jump in on that?
Prof. BLUM: Yes. I mean, and one of the problems you have is that journalism is event driven and science is a process. So that one of the things that we need to do better in dealing with uncertainty is convey better the way science actually works so that people understand that it is an uncertain process instead of just, you know, discovery, discovery, discovery, discovery, solid facts, solid facts, solid facts, solid facts. And that, I think, we're still trying to figure out how to do well. How do you do the theater of a process when an event is so much more naturally wonderful?
FLATOW: I got a quick question in, Burke(ph) from Orlando here. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Burke, are you there?
BURKE (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi. Quickly, please.
BURKE: I just had a quick question. Like, if my grandmother goes to a Web site and she sees some information about some new amazing pharmaceutical item and it's, you know, hyped up as, you know, the best thing ever, it's a little bit concerning that she'll go to this site, it'll be a blog. It won't be - you know, it will be like this is - you know, it will be displaying all of this amazing information about this product, yet there's nobody backing it up. There's no company actually associated with that blogger telling, you know, all these amazing things about this product. And she has no real idea, you know, whether or not it's good or not but it's like a regular person saying, hey, go try it.
BURKE: Is there anything to protect people like her from - to identify who is the source providing the money to pay for this blogger to...
Mr. RAEBURN: I'm actually an expert on this because I get this from my parents all the time too. And, you know, so what I do - I'll tell you what I do. I look at four or five Web sites knocking down or - supporting or knocking down whatever it is they've emailed me to ask about and I send those back and let them take a look. Again, it's I think, it's that idea that with this new stuff, you have to look at a lot of places to kind of get a sense of what's going on. The other point I was going to make about communicating some of these things is that there's actually something nice about the new media, which is that you now can see the blatantly biased sources in all their naked beauty.
So in other words, if you're interested in nuclear power, one of the things you can do is to try to look for neutral sites that will give you the pros and cons and all the things. You can also now look at the nuclear industry site and you can look at the sites of the anti-nuclear critics and weigh those things in too.
You know, it wasn't so long ago that the only people who got to see press releases for the nuclear industry were us. It was secret stuff. It was part of the fun of being a reporter. We got to see all the secret stuff that we would write about and nobody else saw it. Now everybody can see everybody's press releases. So it's also a good idea to look at the really biased sources.
FLATOW: We have to take a break. We have to say goodbye to Jane Stevens. Thank you, Jane, who's director of the media strategies for The World Company, that's the parent company of Lawrence Journal-World and 6News. Thank you, Jane. We'll see you again.
Ms. JANE: Thank you for having me, Ira.
FLATOW: We're going to take a break. We'll come right back. Stay with us.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're out here in San Diego at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, talking about communicating science with Deborah Blum, Paul Raeburn, Stephen Schneider. And joining us now to talk about a project to get more science and scientists into the movies and on television is my next guest, Jennifer Ouellette. She is director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and that's a program of the National Academy of Sciences and she's here in San Diego. Thanks for being with us today.
Ms. JENNIFER OUELLETTE (Director, Science and Entertainment Exchange): Oh, thanks for having me.
FLATOW: And so if do I read this correctly, this is how scientists do what? How are you going to help scientists?
Ms. OUELLETTE: Well, we actually recognize the power of Hollywood to inspire people, to inspire imaginations. When I was working as a journalist, I always would talk to scientists about what made them want to become a scientist. And invariably it would be a book they read, a movie they saw, or someone they met, but in general it was this entertainment industry.
It has the power to reach people with a very strong, inspiring message and it can get across very broad, general messages about, you know, the good or bad of science. And so this is a way of doing that by essentially finding a way to get entertainment people and scientists in a room together and talking.
FLATOW: So they pitch ideas to each other? Or if someone, let's say, is out there writing a screenplay about string theory, they can come to you and call your office to get help from a scientist or something like that?
Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes. We will match them up with a string theorist. And believe me, we've gotten those questions. We've had requests for laser scientists, for neuroscientists, for an expert on the star-nosed mole, believe it or not. And that's part of what we do, definitely. We want to get these people in a room together. And one of the things that we do particularly on film, because you have some lead time there, we did this for "Tron Legacy," we did it for director Ridley Scott on a project that he was working on and a couple of others.
We basically they bring in the producer, the director, a couple of writers and we bring in three or four scientists, and they sit there and they brainstorm for an hour, usually about either - a couple of key plot points that really rely on science. And you get the creativity of both sides and it's wonderful.
FLATOW: How do you view "The Big Bang Theory"...
Ms. OUELLETTE: Ah, that...
FLATOW: ...which has a lot of science in it, you know? And...
Ms. OUELLETTE: And the science it is the best physics on television. But the portrayal of physicists as I which is I'm sure is what you're getting at here...
FLATOW: No, I'm not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. OUELLETTE: And...
FLATOW: Oh, I think it's smack on.
Ms. OUELLETTE: Then you've met some physicists.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Oh, yeah.
Ms. OUELLETTE: I think it's a wonderful series. We know the technical consultant on that. He's a physicist at UCLA named David Saltzberg. I use those clips all the time. It's one of the few places where you can actually hear jokes about slope of an inclined plane and weird effects and time travel and have it done accurately.
FLATOW: You know, Leon Lederman, you know, physicist, spent 20 odd years going back and forth to Hollywood. I used to talk to him all the time about this...
Ms. OUELLETTE: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...trying to convince people like Norman Lear, people like that, to put science into a series. Instead of having it in a hospital, why not have it in a laboratory and do all that stuff that they do, but at least you're watching scientists work?
Ms. OUELLETTE: Right. And I think it could go a long way to changing perceptions of scientists in particular. If you look at television, now you've got female scientists. You've got them solving crimes. CSI is all really attractive people doing science in a lab.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. OUELLETTE: And, you know yes, their DNA results come back in two minutes rather than two weeks. But...
FLATOW: Well, let me ask a scientist. Stephen, how do you react? Is this all good for science to see shows like this?
Prof. SCHNEIDER: It's good when it's done well. For many, many years I was on and still am - on advisory boards to Hollywood, and I keep trying to tell them that it's not so much your job to tell the science story, but to tell the science process, because that's not where people are going to get their science information, so you need an accurate thing. In fact, I was on an Academy review panel in the '80s where we set up planet Earth. And I was the only guy that could talk to the producers and the scientists, because the scientists wanted it to be quote, "accurate" and the producers were interested in production value.
And it turned out they're actually were compromises you could make to make it work. So if your program is trying to get them to talk upstream, not after they're already committed to their storyboards and all the other things, then we have a chance that we can get science in. And so you want no mistakes and show the process honestly and people find out, hey, you know, those guys are trying pretty hard and they're doing a good job.
Ms. OUELLETTE: He raises a very interesting point. It's one of the reasons that I like working on the film projects, because we get involved very early in the development process. And at some point, you're just fact-checking. At some point the story's set in stone and it's woven into the fabric of the narrative and you actually can't separate it at that point. It's too late.
Ms. OUELLETTE: But if you get involved early on in these discussions, okay, maybe the movie ultimately doesn't get made, but there's been an interaction, a relationship there.
FLATOW: You get a feeling that these things run in cycles. We're now in a cycle where physics is king everywhere.
Ms. OUELLETTE: Physics is the new black.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Yeah. Who would've ever thought that physics - apart from "Star Trek" and the holodeck and all things like that that were going on it?
Prof. SCHNEIDER: But they're not on policy relevance stuff. I mean, "The Day After Tomorrow" was the it was a potboiler. I mean, how can you have temperatures change in degrees per second? It violates thermodynamics. It was really disastrous that they couldn't have gotten that right - supposing they said per weeks, would have been just as effective. I mean, that's the kind of thing where we have a much better job to do. We have to get in there early before they wreck it because then they just embarrass us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. OUELLETTE: It's interesting that movie came up during our discussion. We just had a session on this. And I've actually met the screenwriter of that movie who knows the science very, very well. He was caught in the middle. He had to please a director, Roland Emmerich, you know, who wants...
FLATOW: Right. Right.
Ms. OUELLETTE: ...big special effects. One of the things that our other speaker, Sid Perkowitz, brought up during our session was, okay, yeah, the science was ridiculous in terms of the time scales on which it happened, but it did have a measurable impact on people's attitude towards climate change. People came out of there with a sense of immediacy and urgency that they did not get had they happen to see "Inconvenient Truth."
FLATOW: Now, you've written a book called "The Physics of the Buffyverse."
Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes. Yes, I have.
FLATOW: Is that because you believe also this, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the physics of that or is that what it's like?
Ms. OUELLETTE: You know, a physicist dared me to do that book. He said, you can't do it, it's vampires and monsters and magic. How could you possibly find science in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"? But I explained it in terms of world building, and we talked a little bit again about that earlier today.
Ms. OUELLETTE: I mean, you're building a fictional world and you need your audience to buy into that. You need it to believe them. So it has to be plausible. And one of the ways you make it plausible is you have rules, you have conflict, you have limitations. And you have to decide in advance what those rules are.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the audience here. Yes, standing there very patiently.
CHRIS MOONEY(ph) (Audience Member): Okay. Well, my name is Chris Mooney and I'm, among other things, a blogger. And my blog, whenever I write about climate changes - overwhelmed by hundreds of anti-global warming people. And so that's what my question is about. It seems to me that the Web is a wild, wild, west in terms of the conveyal(ph) of information.
And right now, there's three anti-global warming blogs, in particular Climate Depot, Watts Up With That?, and - I'm sorry, I'm forgetting the third. But they basically drive massive amounts of traffic. So how - and we've got good sources of information about climate. But we've also got bad ones that are very popular. How do you ever overcome the fragmentation of audiences that exist with this new media? Do you just have to shout louder or is there something structural that can be done? Or is it always going to be Conservapedia versus Wikipedia in terms of what the truth is?
FLATOW: I mean, are you ever going to change anybody's mind, I think is another way of looking at that. You can get the other people to look at the other. Deborah, you want to jump in there?
Prof. BLUM: I was actually thinking of it different, like Chris, which was that we can reach different audiences with blogs and with our approaches that we get to before. One of the things that really interests me in science communication is how do we get out of our science-literate box? What about those people who often do end up driving the discussions, who ran away from science a long time ago? How do we get to them?
And so, I am now a true crime blogger, which is an unusual thing for a science journalist to be, but I just did a book which is a very "CSI" book. And I got invited to write about the science of crime for Women in Crime Ink. And I thought about this really seriously, you know? I'm now looking at all of these horrible murder stories daily. I'm worried about who I'm going to be at the end of the year.
But I also think this is a great opportunity for me. I can reach people with fascinating things about science who would never read a science blog. So I, you know, I see that there's this wild West but it - that has these wonderful outposts that we can take advantage of.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Paul, did you want to jump in it?
Mr. RAEBURN: I was just going to say one thing about the - about all these things, whether it's climate or the new - the latest new miracle cure or whatever it is - excuse me - where there are all kinds of people who are on a kind of an anti-science kick. I'm afraid that a lot of scientists and smart people like all of us in this room often think that if only those folks knew what we knew, they would, of course, agree with us. And I don't think that's true.
And so, my question is with these things, which I think is a question that isn't asked often enough, which is why are these people so vehemently anti-climate change? Now, we know why the utility industries might be or the coal industry, that's easy. That's not an interesting question. But all these people, whether they're tea partiers or whoever they are, why do they feel the way they do?
And if we want to have more discourse with them and weed out some of the junk, the first thing we need to do is figure out why they're so voraciously, you know, vocal about what they're saying.
Prof. SCHNEIDER: If my hundreds of emails, which I'm sure Chris Mooney who's just asking a question and has written on this topic in his books, are any indication, the typical line - and you would not believe the vulgarity and even violence threats. It's amazing. Only in the last two years since the Tea Party-types decided that their, you know, their imagined version of the destruction of America allows them this kind of radical, you know, ugly behavior.
What they generally say is, you communistic dupe of the United Nations who wants world government to take away our religious and our economic freedoms. They live in a mythology. They get it reinforced by people who take out-of-context quotes to convince them, and then they sit there and it's very - I'm sorry to say this - red-state, blue-state specific.
And, you know, if you want to take the world and oversimplify it, you have people in two kind of value systems - faith, trust. Don't give me evidence if it's going to knock me off the pin. And doubt test, which is our value system. You change any opinion when you have new evidence.
I don't know if you're going to be able to reach that 25 percent. You have to go for the middle that still has a mind that's open, and that we can get a majority and a democracy, except if it's a 60 percent Senate.
FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in on the phone. Bill(ph) in Chelsea, Michigan. Hi, Bill.
BILL (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
BILL: I was wondering about the tendency for some scientists, especially in paleontology and even in the environmental movement, a run to the media with their latest theory, and then if it turns out to be wrong, it hurts their credibility. Have you thought about that at all?
FLATOW: Stephen, can you make a comment on that?
Prof. SCHNEIDER: Well, I don't mail things out. I have colleagues at Jim Hanson who do. Most scientists are really lousy public relations agents and they have their university or their lab P.I. information, public information officers, trying to get them to do that stuff.
Most people come to us. You know, when it comes out in science and news or wherever it is, whatever the magazine is, you can bet that it's going to be on a blog immediately, at least a blog that's sympathetic, and then you're going to get phone calls. What I keep telling most scientists, it's not your job to report your stuff.
Prof. SCHNEIDER: It's your job to report the field. And if they ask you about your stuff, go for it.
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're at - in San Diego and we're on the road today. Deborah Blum, did you want to comment on that?
Prof. BLUM: Well, does anyone believe that science has only good ideas and that only the - only scientists who come forward and want to get their research out are the geniuses? And so it's not the logical part of the process to have people who aren't the most brilliant scientists in the world trying to get their ideas out there. And the responsibility for dealing with that, I think, comes back to science journalists.
Your question earlier about do we keep enough good, trained science journalists who can put this in the proper context? We still need gatekeepers out there, actually. We still need people trying to put this work in context.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Stephen?
Prof. SCHNEIDER: Very quickly on that, I completely agree and I got to put down the blogosphere. The blogosphere is one of the worst places to go for information, because, unlike Paul and others, most public people are not going to spend three hours a day doing this. We really need to reestablish the mainstream media in putting some specialists back in who can smell the north end of a southbound horse, because most general assignment reporters can't and certainly their editors can't.
FLATOW: A lot like - let me ask Jennifer - I have time for our last question. This afternoon, the National Science Foundation is going to announce a new collaborative partnership with the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Are you familiar with that?
Ms. OUELLETTE: I've heard about that. I dont know want to, like, jump ahead of the announcement. I think it's fantastic. I've worked in the past with the National Science Foundation. I think anything we can do to help bridge these gaps...
FLATOW: And it's basically (unintelligible) have helping scientists to create visual items, you know? Everybody is thinking visually these days.
Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes, they are.
FLATOW: So that they can get their messages - somebody asked, how do you get their message out.
Ms. OUELLETTE: And also to think narratively(ph). When I was thinking of that when I was hearing you guys talking about how, you know, you just can't reach these people. You're assuming that if you - that they just know the facts, they'll change their minds. And it's not just about facts. It's about emotion. It's about story. And that, I think, is one way in which we can learn from Hollywood. I mean, they know how to change minds.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Deborah, you're shaking your head.
Prof. BLUM: I'm agreeing. I think that absolutely right.
FLATOW: Violently up and down.
Prof. BLUM: Violently.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: So you have to just - scientists have to know how to tell a good story, too?
Prof. BLUM: Yes, that's exactly right.
Ms. OUELLETTE: That's why Deborah and I have a job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: So are - so you're then - are you hopeful for the future, Stephen? You're a sort of - do you think it's going to get better or just going to get more polarized?
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Well, I wrote "Science Is a Contact Sport" because I thought that I could get people to understand the process, and when they understood the process better they might actually be able to, as I said, figure out who's giving it to them straight. Unfortunately, since I, you know, published the book in November, it's gotten worse with these phony gates that pick on bits and pieces and don't give you perspective.
FLATOW: Let me just...
Prof. SCHNEIDER: I'm not optimistic, I'm sorry.
FLATOW: Well, would any of you then encourage students here at the AAAS meeting to become science journalists? Are they going to have jobs, Deborah?
Prof. BLUM: Absolutely. It's still a great profession, and it's still a needed profession. We see all kinds of new opportunities, online, new publications, new ways of telling stories, growing audiences internationally as at home. And it's necessary because science literacy is necessary, and people who are able to really get out there and make science compelling and real and important are an essential part of what we need to do today.
Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, no, I think it's the wild West, you know, stake your claim. There are going to be gold dust in a lot of those streams, we don't know which ones, but there are going to be a lot of jobs. You're going to have to work for nothing or for lousy pay for a long time, but, you know, tough, we did that too when we were working for newspapers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: And Jennifer...
Ms. OUELLETTE: I actually agree with him. I think this is - you know, yes, there's this huge change, and you know, I am in some extents watching my profession go down in flames, but only in its past incarnation. You know, it's the metaphor of the phoenix: it will rise up again. And there are a lot of opportunities. When you tear everything down again, once - during the rebuilding process, new structures will emerge. Finding out what those are going to be, that's kind of part of the adventure.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we started this conversation. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Deborah Blum, professor of journalism at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her new book is called "The Poisoner's Handbook." Paul Raeburn, a science writer, he blogs for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. Stephen Schneider is climatologist at Stanford. His new book is "Science as a Contact Sport." And Jennifer Ouellette is director of science and entertainment exchange, and she has a new book, "The Physics of the Buffyverse." Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. RAEBURN: Sure.
Prof. BLUM: Thank you.
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