I Heart Jorge Cham

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 17, 2009 12:08 pm

Just over a year ago, a film crew from a popular morning show arrived on campus to interview me about large-scale algal blooms because there was a related story in the news.  They wanted to shoot near a body of water to ‘look like we were in the field‘, so set up their equipment near a small pond by the parking lot. The conversation, more or less, went like this:

Reporter: ‘Can you dip your hand in the water, maybe play with some lily pads.

Me: ‘Huh? Guys, I do marine science, so this pond isn’t related to my work and doesn’t exactly have anything to do with algal blooms in the ocean.

Reporter: ‘Let’s get started… So the blooms, they’re most likely caused by the sun right?

Me: ‘I expect it has more to do with a lot of extra nutrients being emptied into the ocean such as runoff from agricultural practices in the region. This provides an excellent environment for algae to bloom which depletes oxygen levels. Eventually it can sometimes lead to what’s called a dead zone…’

Reporter: ‘Stop, let’s reshoot. We need you to say something about the sun being a factor.  And let’s get you wading into the water. Pretend you’re catching something.

Me: ‘Uh, the sun didn’t cause the bloom… and you do realize I’m wearing a dress, right?

Reporter: ‘You can say your reason too, but name the sun as another ‘theory’. And just look science-y.

Anyway, the segment never made it to air. Go figure. Jorge Cham sums it up well here:


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (28)

  1. Pete

    Hilarious! I’ve been there. Did you end up wading in?

  2. Gina Mel

    “PR should never come before the science.”

    Just wish more scientists were less tempted for short term reward to give into PR hype. (See Larry Moran’s site for numerous examples it seems each month).

  3. Joseph Soler

    I always thought journalists reported the news and didn’t create it while searching for someone to verify their pre-conceived notions. Oh, yet more evidence of the myth of “objectivity.” That is very disappointing. I read a story today (some one of my Facebook friends… maybe even you) from Change.org, which suggested that 35% of Americans do not believe in global warming and that many that do do not believe human activity has anything to do with it. Guess the similar goes with Algae blooms where there are big chemical companies dumping.

  4. Free Radical

    I remember in Graduate school when one of the chemistry research groups was having a reporter with cameras come in. They got every coloured liquid they could find out so things looked more science-y. No one wants to see stuff like dishwater or brown glop stirring away in roundbottom flasks. The staining solutions for developing and charring TLC plates featured prominently.

    No chemistry shoot is complete without separatory funnels filled with brightly-coloured liquids.

  5. @1 Pete:
    No I didn’t wade in the water–or budge on my message!

    @2 Gina:
    As for Pluto in Unscientific America, we’ve already stated:

    We’re not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn’t mind if it happened). Rather, we’re exploring what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair is deeply illustrative of that divide, as we explain. (This part of the book happens to be freely available online, right here.)

    @3 Joseph
    It depends on the journalists.

  6. Thank god the segment never made it to the air

  7. Gina Mel

    Sheril, I have read your excerpt. It does come across as does your reply you linked to that you favor if it was classified as a planet. The reasons given appear to be PR related not science driven. Mike also has a similar read and response. Part of Mike’s point is that science can not factor culture in the way you suggest and allude to in the excerpt above the actual science in how it operates which includes defining terminology. Science must come first. When communicating science, one must be mindful of culture and the science of communication but never at the expense of the actual science.

    What is wrong with being a dwarf planet anyway?

  8. Marcos

    Alan Stern makes a very convincing case that Pluto is a planet… and that we have about 30 planets. Things that are round (i.e. gravity bound and not chemical bound) and that orbit the sun. Nice and simple. Who cares where they are or what’s around them?

  9. Marion Delgado

    Sheril, WTF was up with the sun thing?

  10. @9 Marion

    It was a classic case of wanting to present multiple theories (aka ‘2 sides’) when there was one very obvious cause. As to where they got the idea that the sun was somehow involved, well, your guess is as good as mine….

  11. People today want entertaining soundbites, not substance (doesn’t matter if it’s politics, business, or science)… blogs BTW don’t help much — they too favor brevity and speed at the expense of depth or substance. I think current adult generations are locked into their science views, and largely unmoved by new communication. The best hope is to reach the young generations coming up.

  12. Gaythia

    Only hilarious in a semi-tragic sort of way. How do we get from here to scientific literacy?

  13. @Gina Mel:

    Part of Mike’s point is that science can not factor culture in the way you suggest and allude to in the excerpt above the actual science in how it operates which includes defining terminology. Science must come first. When communicating science, one must be mindful of culture and the science of communication but never at the expense of the actual science.

    That’s exaxctly how I’ve been reading Chris and Sheril’s book, but it seems too many others don’t. The Pluto incident is all about illustrating how the science WASN’T communicated with culture or the science of communication in mind, and as a result created an outcome that made science look bad.

    Put another way, whether Pluto is a plant or dwarf plant (or a hollow-core door) as defined by astronomers using accepted planetary sceince principles (which is how those scientists first presented their decision) is totally irrelevent to the general public. If, on the other hand, the astronomers in questin had made their announcement by prefacing such statements with references to the wonder of the cosmos, humans yearnings to discover what’s out there, Pluto’s place in common myth, followed by a descritption of how science now studies planets might well have led to a teachable moment, and allowed Pluto’s new status to pass into common understanding with less challenge. A win for the scientists, and a win for our culture.

    As to defining terminology – given that a set of words in a sentence or paragraph can mean two entirely different things to two entirely different people, I think scientists do need to be careful in how the choose language to communicate to the wider world. Creationists, as an example, deride Evolution because the common use of the word “Theory” is very different then the scientific use of the word. A Scientist using the word Theory to thus rebut a Creationist will likely loose the arguement – a Scientist using “Process of Evolution” may actually win, since process implies established fact to ordinary folks, where as theory implies somthing uncertain or not firmly established.

  14. Blogger

    >>People today want entertaining soundbites, not substance<<

    Thats because they want a respite from the world It's a rare bird, the person willing to invest something of themselves to learn deeply about a new topic.

  15. Also reminds me of how a similar interview technique is used for brilliant effect by Sacha Baron Cohen, to show how much people can be goaded into saying almost anything on TV. There’s a lovely bit in the TV show, where, as Bruno, he gets fashion designers to completely change their opinions on how celebrities are dressed, by telling them what to say:
    (Starting about 1:35)
    Maybe TV people think scientists are not much different from other TV talking heads…

  16. Michael D.

    As a research scientist, my day also involves a clipboard so that I can walk from instrument to instrument with a serious look on my face, occasionally nodding with intense interest while jotting down “readings”.

    My PI in grad school tells the story of when a congressman and his entourage visited his lab when he was a graduate student. The lab was straightened up, and all the visually interesting instruments were powered up while all personnel were told to look busy. The entourage was given a tour of the lab, but one undergrad in the lab, thinking the “tour group” had left (they were just around the corner, but still in the lab), yelled, “Alright boys, they’re gone, shut ‘er down!”

  17. Steve H


    We just use food coloring in water. Thankfully we haven’t had to do that for awhile, but we also don’t have the counter space so…

    re pluto, its my opinion that scientists, let alone the public, have difficulty grasping classification system alterations. My lab has been battling on using traditional nomenclature for our test, but those damn europeans want to report the results in SI units. I keep asking for some real research into the effect this will have on patients, but nobody will do it. Short answer, its all politics. That said, the contrasting classification of pluto in children’s books makes my five-year old ask lots of questions and has given me the opportunity to explain “evolution” of the universe, from pre-big bang to evolution of man!

  18. Marion Delgado

    Sheril I was the first reporter to do a story about the HAARP from HAARP itself (I was lucky enough to get a several hour briefing from the scientists and personnel involved the day it opened up). I also interviewed the people who thought it would produce weather control or even mind control including the author of a bestselling book about it, etc. and some who thought that it would help us generate power from the aurora (then Sen. Ted Stevens among them).

    You’ll be happy to learn I didn’t try to equate anyone or provide numeric balance. 🙂

  19. This is so frigging depressing.

    I wonder how many deeply entrenched truisms stem from scientists dealing with journalists demanding something sexy.

    Neurologists, circa 1940: “We only know what ten percent of the brain does.”

    Journalist, bored by comparisons to switchboard: “So, we don’t use 90% of our brains?”

    Neurologist: “Uh, well . . .”

    Journalist: “Great doc! I’m out of here.”

  20. I think your story points out one of the problems with laying the burden of communicating science to the public solely at the doorstep of scientists. While there is some fantastic science reporting out there, too often the science is misrepresented by the media for the sake of “storytelling” or “balance”. Not surprisingly, that discourages many scientists from speaking to the media at all.

    In the case of the Pluto story, the MSM chose to frame it as a petty squabble among scientists rather than actually providing an explanation of the scientific issues behind the decision. When some non-scientists took exception to the change of Pluto’s status, that is what became central to the story – not the science or even the scientists, but jokes on Leno and “save Pluto” web sites. That was what captured the public imagination, and it’s not clear to me that the scientists involved could have reframed it in such a way that both the scientific background of the debate would be included in the story, and the MSM would have devoted as much airtime to it. Without that public “outrage”, there might not have been coverage at all.

    So that’s the real question to me – what are scientists and science communicators to do, exactly? It’s hard to predict what will take the public’s fancy, so I would think that trying to anticipate how to frame a science story to “sell” would be hit or miss, particularly if you want the science behind the story to be presented accurately. The MSM’s interest in accurate science reporting – which from what I’ve seen in my local paper and on the local news is the exception, rather than the rule – is crucial to raising the awareness and interest of the public in science, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen when stories about the miraculous curative properties of red wine and scientific cat fights are what attract eyeballs.

  21. Tim Damon

    Where’s the machine that goes “PING!” ?

  22. Sheril Kirshenbaum:

    I’m sure this was extremely irritating when it occurred, but your account of that ghastly interview is a lot funnier than the Jorge Cham strip. The reporter’s strange fixation on the sun, the irrelevance of shooting a story about the ocean near a pond, and then:

    You: …it can sometimes lead to what’s called a dead zone–

    Reporter: …We need you to say something about the sun being a factor. And let’s get you wading into the water. …

    You: Uh, the sun didn’t cause the bloom… and you do realize I’m wearing a dress, right?

    I love the way the guy blithely ignores a significant point to go back to the sun, and then throws in the bit about wading into the water in pursuit of specimens–it’s like something one of those clueless reporters in the old BBC comedy show Radio Active would have said, or (to try to be a little more current) something out of a segment of the Daily Show. I can just see Stephen Colbert doing the interview back when he was still a reporter on the Daily Show: Okay, it’s not the sun, but could you just say that it is? And could we film you wading into this pond?

    Now I am aware of the flip side of that coin–interview subjects who can’t or won’t say anything usable, or who on camera won’t say anything at all. My father used to tell of a horrible interview he’d done as a young radio announcer (his first job). The guy, a famous musician with a hit single at that moment, on the show presumably to promote his concert, would talk only in monosyllables and had to be prompted to even mention that he was playing in town. The way my father told it it was hilarious, but I’m sure at the time he had visions of being fired. I get why reporters look for visually interesting material to shoot, and prompt their subjects to focus on what they see as the important elements of a story.

    But–I’m sorry, this is so over the top. I can’t get that picture out of my head–a marine biologist wading into a pond in pursuit of specimens. While wearing a dress.

    Stunningly ill-chosen, as Leonard Pinth-Garnell might have put it.

  23. TGAP Dad

    Just curious – you’re begging out of the issue of algal blooms in urban ponds (!) as outside of your field of expertise. That’s totally appropriate. But what the hell is with the kissing research??? Marine biology, kissing, WTF???

  24. @ 15 Steve Easterbrook and @22 sbh

    In retrospect it was a lot like Colbert or Ali G.

    @ 23 TGAP

    It started with kissing related blog post around Valentines day 2008 since I often choose timely topics related to seasons and holidays. There’s a lot of different kinds of research from across fields that has not previously been put together so it made an interesting project. By 2009, I did an article on it for New Scientist and co-organized the Valentine’s Day AAAS symposium on the ‘Science of Kissing‘ in Chicago. It’s a far more interesting and interdisciplinary topic than I ever imagined and the book was born…

    That said, I’d love to write about marine conservation next!

  25. TGAP Dad

    I totally agree that the subject of kissing, as a scientific pursuit, is interesting, 100%. I even participated in your preliminary kissing research, where we were asked to evaluate pictures of people kissing. Oddly enough, I never saw the incongruousness of this research being done by a marine biologist. I mean, I’ve heard of kissing gouramis, but seriously…

  26. Christina Viering
  27. K.A.Z.

    Hey guys,
    the same happened to me. I’m a computer scientist, working on the computer ALL DAY. When the film crew came they put me and a colleague in some biologist’s lab, where we were interviewed. After that they needed some introductory scenes where they let me enter the lab, go to a (switched off!) microscope, look into it, look up, make an ‘That’s interesting!’-face, and turn some knobs. Indeed, I had never before seen such interesting darkness!
    Poor guy who owned the microscope. Hope I did not change his settings!


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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