Lost In Translation

By cjohnson | March 29, 2006 2:12 am

So I was a bit daunted by the task of trying to describe the excellent departmental colloquium we had here at USC Physics and Astronomy, mainly because I just did that long post just before this one on Categorically Not!, and I’m really quite a bit tired and still have to do a ton of stuff before going to sleep.

It was by the science writer (and now USC professor) KC Cole, and the title was “Lost in Translation: Writing about Science for the General Public”. Excellent title. Very very interesting topic, don’t you think, given all that we’ve discussed here and all that I have been known to rant (a bit) about here on the issue.

But guess what? It turned out (thanks to a quick google-blogs search) that another blogger came to the colloquium and did a post on it! So I don’t have to! Great stuff!…Please follow the link to it here. Whoever you are…thanks!

So I get to just say that it was a really fantastic presentation, and pop up a couple of pictures of KC in action, and urge you to read the post of the blogger, and comment here and there if you like:

kc cole talk

As the blogger noted, some people (including them) had to sit on the stairs. This was because we had an excellent turnout, by physics department members from all groups who had a genuine interest (and told me that they really enjoyed the (unusual for a colloquium) topic and speaker) and from people from several other departments (not just science ones, but the school of journalism, the Dean’s office, etc). Here’s a shot of a bit of the audience….

kc cole talk

On the subject matter itself (and the depressing and often comical state of science journalism in some prominent circles), we laughed, we cried…. we wondered what we could do to make it all better.

(1) Letters to your editor (suggested by KC) is one important way. Why does the LA Times not have a science section any more? Where is the actual science coverage in that paper now? Why did the Guardian abandon theirs? (Has their promise to put science routinely all through the newspaper come off? Is the science still good? Easy to find? I don’t know……I’ve not been reading the print version any more…. do tell if you know…)

(2) Another is to make sure that those young people in science, or in the arts, who might end up writing for newspapers one day (or editing them) get to know the importance of science in our society, and how we can’t have a real democracy if most of our population can’t make informed decisions about some of the big ticket items in politics today that affect our future and our quality of life…… yes, the ones which are all about science. Get them learning how to write, how to communicate the content as honestly as possible.

(3) Another is to, well, blog about the issue. And blog about your science. Practice writing for (and explaining science to) others as much as you can. The readers and the science writers will take notice and come to you, and maybe eventually some of the editors (the biggest part of the problem) will take notice too. If the editors (and writers) don’t take notice soon enough, they will become irrelevant anyway since (if this blogging lark continues to mushroom) more and more people get will continue to their science from sources closer to the producers of the knowledge….the web/blogosphere.

That latter possibility/probability is a big part of the reason I’m doing this blogging gig.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I went to a similar colloquium that KC gave at Case Western quite a few years ago when I was a postdoc there. It was excellent – she does a great job.

  • http://tingilinde.typepad.com/starstuff/ steve

    All very important stuff.

    Some time ago I was interviewed by Robert Krulwich of NPR. He has several fantastic features among them having a real fascination for science and being a great storyteller. He suggested that storytelling can be a gateway drug to deeper things – things like an appreciation for science that starts to spark a bit of curiosity.

    The NovaNow series takes this approach and does an excellent job. For an example of what can be done on an audio blog (and I think that this approach needs to be audio or video to reach a general audience) consider his piece on NPR’s All Things Considered last night (listen rather than read).

    Find some fascinating results (not necessarily your own current work … there are great stories from the 18th century!) and develop a narrative. If you aren’t a great story teller, find one and collaborate.

  • http://www.radioactive-banana.com/blog Kristin

    I attended the “Science Is Sexy” panel during San Francisco’s Litquake festival last October. It was a full house at the Commonwealth Club downtown, at least 300 people, I’d say. The panel included Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Michael Pollan, who wrote The Botany of Desire (and who also had an interesting article in this week’s New York Times magazine about his experience hunting).

    Anyway, Michael Pollan said that the way he gets people to read about science is not to tell them explicitly that he’s writing about it. He writes about gardening and food and then slips the science into the narrative where it comes up. So he chooses the stealth approach to get around barriers that people might reflexively put up against reading what they perceive to be another boring science story. It’s kind of like hiding the pill in the Gainesburger when you give your dog medicine.

  • http://optics.unige.ch/peter/home_peter.html Peter Armitage

    Although I really appreciate KC Cole’s tongue-in-cheek bullet point advice found here (Lie, Cheat, Steal, Dare to be Stupid etc. etc.), helpful hint #7 seems to be particurally ill-advised. I’m not sure if the quote “The truth is, you’re always out of context…so get used to it.” is an accurate transcription, but this seems to be exactly the wrong message. In fact ‘context’ is everything!

    Scientists doing their jobs properly will be very careful about the words they use – both to each other and to the ‘public’ at large (for instance see the example set in Sean’s post pointing out the WMAP’s PI Chuck Bennett’s careful choice of words). Indeed, words express how we think and clarity of language begats clarity of thought… but it is not just the words themselves, but also their context and the cavets and qualifiers that we add that are important. Quoting out of context changes meaning and of course … meaning is everything.

    To just dismissely wave one’s hand and say one is always out of context misses the point. Seldom is what any of us say 100% correct and covers all possibilities, but we do our best. Context being an elusive thing means that everyone is always out of context and therefore there is no reason that a reporter has any less right or reponsibility to ‘context’ than scientists themselves.

    My personal experience on a few isolated occasions of giving comments is in having my caveats dropped and my quote bracketed by phrases that I didn’t ascribe to or believe. In essence I was endorsing views that didn’t hold at all. If context is meaning then why quote me at all?

    I wasn’t at the KC’s talk though, so perhaps I am taking all the above out of context! I did always enjoy reading her when I lived in LA.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford


    I think in that case the reporter was not as accurate as could have been. That was her last sentence…… she actually said a lot more on context. The point of the last sentence (the one quoted) is that there is a limit to how far you should go in chasing down the issue of being quoted out of context….. you have to let it go at some point…within reason.

    Diminishing returns and all that.

    Indeed, she did say more than just that sentence.



  • http://alun_clewe.livejournal.com Jeff Nuttall

    I’m the person who posted the account of the the colloquium linked to above; I was very surprised to see my post linked to here. Not that I mind it being linked to, by any means; I just wasn’t expecting it.

    (For the record, as for who I am, I’m a physics grad student at USC who’s…been in school way too long. I’m trying to finish up my doctoral dissertation (my research adviser is Dr. Darrell Judge), but it’s taking me much longer than it should…though admittedly a large part of the reason for that is because I’m trying to do too much else at the same time and not putting in as much time on my research as I should…still, I hope to be done by the end of the summer.)

    Regarding the “you’re always out of context” bit–well, that was a direct quote, but I’m afraid I may have taken it, um, out of context. All of the points she expanded on in much more detail in her talk than the brief summaries I wrote in my post, of course, and yes, that quote did make more sense at the end of the rest of what she’d said. I think Dr. Johnson’s explanation better captures what that point was about. She certainly wasn’t saying that context wasn’t at all important, and if that’s the impression I gave by just quoting that one sentence, mea culpa.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi Jeff!

    Thanks for blogging it and some of the other colloquia (I peeked)…. this is great that there are other bloggers lurking in the Physics and Astronomy Department!

    Come back here and read and comment from time to time.


  • http://www.all-translations.com Helen

    I like a lot that those lectures have been created to allow the Colloquia to be seen by a broader audience on the Web.

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