New Review of Unscientific America in Science Communication

By Chris Mooney | March 25, 2010 12:52 pm

Our book reviews aren’t over yet–perhaps they will keep coming out all the way to the paperback release date in May. The latest is from David J. Tenenbaum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founding feature writer for the WhyFiles, who is reviewing in the journal Science Communication. Tenenbaum begins with a revealing vignette:

I e-mailed an eminent limnologist today, seeking to discuss an environmental issue that he’s considered important enough to study for several years. To my delight, he immediately responded with word that a new study was forthcoming in an important journal. Then, to my dismay, he added that the journal’s embargo would expire a couple of weeks after my publication date.

No problem, I replied. He’d watched the issue develop for years and would surely have a useful comment. Then I got the silent treatment.

Huh? When you contact scientists for a living (I admit, science journalism can seem a branch of telemarketing), you get used to nonresponses, to experts who think a “tight deadline” means 3 months, or are in Mongolia or at an invitation-only conference in Estonia. This latest wrinkle on the rejection letter told me that this expert would be happy to get help publicizing his newest research triumph but was unwilling to help me explain the environmental ramifications of oil sands mining in Alberta, which just happens to be the largest energy project in the Western Hemisphere.

For indeed, and as we argue in the book, some scientists–not all–aren’t particularly helpful when it comes to interacting with the media. Yet they simply must do more, writes Tenenbaum–and indeed, it is in their own interest to do so.

[B]ecause it’s the scientists who best understand science, and have the biggest stake in its continued respect (and funding), they carry the primary responsibility for bridging the gaps….scientists are going to have to answer the phone and explain why their work matters. They need to adopt common language and not let honkers like “neuropharmacology” and “biobehavioral” escape the lab.

Actually, we would put equal burden on both sides of the divide to act to bridge it–but certainly, there is a burden on the scientific side.

Tenenbaum ends like this:

Now that I’ve finished Unscientific America, maybe I’ll send my copy to my unresponsive correspondent in the limnology business.

I hope he likes it!

But seriously, we recognize that not every scientist needs to be interested in, or good at, communication or interacting with the media. These folks shouldn’t be punished for this; rather, those who have such an interest should be promoted and rewarded for it. The approach to making scientists more communicative should be a carrot, not a stick. And in fact, that approach already appears to be catching on.

Comments (1)

  1. ponderingfool

    “[B]ecause it’s the scientists who best understand science, and have the biggest stake in its continued respect (and funding), they carry the primary responsibility for bridging the gaps….scientists are going to have to answer the phone and explain why their work matters. They need to adopt common language and not let honkers like “neuropharmacology” and “biobehavioral” escape the lab.”

    Tenebaum seems to focus on scientists who are at research institutions. Plenty of wonderful scientists at liberal arts colleges, industry, non-profits, etc. that probably could speak to the big picture, why not call them instead of calling professor at a research institute/university? Many wonderful scientists choose not to be faculty at research universities. They already have different reward systems that might garner a better response.

    Most scientists don’t become faculty at research universities. Journalists should appreciate that and take advantage of what is available. For example if something came up about quantum and a journalist needed someone to connect it to the bigger picture maybe they should call Chad Orzel at Union College.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »