Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public

Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public

Cornelia Dean
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public
    Book Description:

    Am I Making Myself Clear? shows scientists how to speak to the public, handle the media, and describe their work to a lay audience on paper, online, and over the airwaves. It is a book that will improve the tone and content of debate over critical issues and will serve the interests of science and society.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05371-7
    Subjects: General Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. 1 An Invitation to Researchers
    (pp. 1-12)

    I work as a science journalist. That is, I pay attention to interesting and important developments in science and engineering, talk to the researchers who uncover them, learn about the ideas behind them, and then communicate this information to the public as engagingly as I can.

    I like this work not just because research is fascinating, though of course it is, but also because scientists and engineers are interesting. Typically, they are passionate about their work—and passion is an attractive quality.

    I did not begin my career as a science writer. As a young journalist, I covered school board...

  4. 2 Know Your Audience
    (pp. 13-23)

    A few years ago, I was one of about a hundred participants, most of us science journalists or would-be science journalists, in an experiment on extrasensory perception. The experimenter was Josh Tenenbaum, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tenenbaum had a penny—a fair coin, he told us. He would flip it five times. Each time he would send “mind rays” out into the room telling us whether the coin had come up heads or tails. All of us would try to receive his signals and then write down what message we received. At the end of...

  5. 3 The Landscape of Journalism
    (pp. 24-36)

    The conventional (mainstream) journalism that people like me grew up on emerged around the turn of the twentieth century, when newspaper publishers embraced the idea of presenting the news “without fear or favor,” a motto of Adolph Ochs, founder and patriarch of the family that controls theNew York Times.The ideals of the profession—and it was a novel idea to refer to it as a profession—were independence, objectivity, fairness, and an adversarial relationship with those in power. The goal, as an old saying had it, was to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

    But there was...

  6. 4 Covering Science
    (pp. 37-46)

    In 1978 New York City was in deep financial trouble, and theNew York Timesalong with it. In typical fashion, the newspaper decided to expand.

    At that time, the daily paper had two sections, one headed by page one and the other a “metro front,” featuring news of New York City and its region. The new paper would have four sections, fronted, respectively, by page one, metro, business coverage, and a topic that would vary every weekday. The candidate subjects were sports for Monday, food and décor for Wednesday and Thursday—traditional days for coverage of those subjects—and...

  7. 5 The Problem of Objectivity
    (pp. 47-55)

    My 2003 commentary on the necessity of scientists’ engaging with journalists was prompted in part by an article by pollster Daniel Yankelovich inIssues in Science and Technology,a publication of the National Academy of Sciences.¹ Yankelovich, in turn, was responding to complaints from scientists who, he said, all too often “find themselves pitted in the media against some contrarian, crank or shill who is on hand to provide ‘proper balance.’”

    “The scientists who hold this view have put their finger on an important problem,” I wrote. In striving to But it is not always easy for us to tell...

  8. 6 The Scientist as Source
    (pp. 56-83)

    In the otherwise forgettable movieRomantic Comedy,a character played by Dudley Moore warns a friend about to be interviewed by a reporter: “He’s a journalist— he makes a living writing down what people say when they are off guard.”

    This is a lesson too many researchers have taken too much to heart. They worry so much about saying the wrong thing to journalists that they decide never to talk to them at all. Asked how they deal with reporters, they commonly reply, “I don’t take their calls.”

    This is a mistake. Even if you believe, as many researchers do,...

  9. 7 Public Relations
    (pp. 84-96)

    According to Earle M. Holland, assistant vice president for research communications at Ohio State University, most researchers have “an infantile belief” that scientific findings routinely make their way to the public without human intervention. As he put it, “They envision a ‘eureka moment’ on the part of a researcher, after which that new knowledge osmotically wafts from the laboratory into the populace.” While this idea is “comforting,” he wrote, “I’ve never seen it happen in real life.”¹

    The problem, Holland says, is that most researchers are not students of the media. They don’t know how news organizations operate and they...

  10. 8 Telling Stories on Radio and TV
    (pp. 97-109)

    The writer Gore Vidal is said to have embraced this simple rule of life: “Never pass up an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.” You may not think much of this adage—the television part, anyway. So you may not think researchers need to be adept at telling stories on television or radio. You may even fall into the notorious researcher’s trap of thinking that those who speak smoothly and engagingly on the air have embraced superficiality or, worse, have somehow betrayed their research for the sake of fleeting fame.

    But some of the best science reporting today...

  11. 9 Telling Science Stories Online
    (pp. 110-127)

    The first time I heard a serious researcher seriously suggest that scientists should post material on YouTube, I thought she was joking. (I was so unable to take the idea seriously that I don’t even remember who made the suggestion.)

    Then, in the summer of 2008, the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, opened a particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest apparatus yet built in the quest to unravel the secrets of matter and energy. Hours of television time and tons of newsprint were expended in the effort to tell people what would go on at...

  12. 10 Writing about Science and Technology
    (pp. 128-148)

    Daniel Pauly, former director of the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia, used to fume about the poor quality of writing on scientific and technical subjects. “I could do better than that,” he would think. But then he accompanied a colleague to a karaoke bar, and his outlook changed.

    What happened was, his colleague decided to sing. The would-be vocalist had a microphone, musical accompaniment on the karaoke box, the lyrics to his chosen song, a dark and romantic atmosphere—even an intoxicated audience. Still, he bombed.

    Somehow, Pauly told me years later, this episode made him think...

  13. 11 The Editorial and Op-Ed Pages
    (pp. 149-160)

    When journalists talk about the separation of church and state they are not ordinarily referring to faith-based initiatives or municipal Christmas trees. They are referring to the organization of the companies they work for—and the way the typical news department is separate from and insulated against the company’s business operations and its editorial (opinion) writers.

    Although many people find it hard to believe, the people who own reputable news organizations do not allow their own ideas or business considerations—chiefly, the wishes of advertisers—to influence the news coverage. For example, in 1999, when an executive from a cereal...

  14. 12 Writing Books
    (pp. 161-177)

    Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.

    I am not speaking here about the obligatory turning-the-thesis-into-a-book process that is a rite of academic passage. That is not book writing in the everyday meaning of the term.

    I am talking about writing a book for ordinary lay readers, what people in the book business call a “trade” book, a book that comes out in hard cover, is aimed at the general public, sells in ordinary bookstores, appears again in a paperback edition, and maybe even finds a place in college courses. Writing this kind of book...

  15. 13 On the Witness Stand
    (pp. 178-192)

    “As society becomes more dependent for its well-being upon scientifically complex technology, we find that this technology increasingly underlies legal issues of importance to us all.” That’s what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a decision inGeneral Electric Co. v. Joiner,a case involving the admissibility in court of expert testimony.¹ Examples of these technology-related issues are all around us: microwave radiation, mercury in vaccines, asbestos exposure, and, in the environment, everything from the Endangered Species Act to climate change—these and other topics regularly turn up in the nation’s courtrooms.

    But science in the courtroom is problem...

  16. 14 Making Policy
    (pp. 193-215)

    Many researchers believe that when political disputes hang on questions of science, government officials, regulatory agencies, and ordinary people would do the right thing, if only they knew the facts. That is, they believe that if everyone knew whattheyknew, everyone would think like they think, and if policymakers make bad decisions, it must be because they are ignorant of science or technology.

    That’s just not the case.

    As Congressman Sherwood Boehlert of New York told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007, “Science has to inform policy making, but it isn’t determinative....

  17. 15 Other Venues
    (pp. 216-228)

    In 2007, a graduate student in my Harvard seminar told me he was working for one of the candidates in the race for president. I was delighted—not because I thought his candidate was the best, but because it was so refreshing to see someone from academic research involved in politics. This kind of involvement, once common, is becoming more and more rare. And that is too bad. When scientists enter the political arena they can make a big difference.

    That was the case in 2006 in Ohio, where scientists at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio State University, and elsewhere...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 229-238)

    The chemist and novelist C. P. Snow, in a lecture in Cambridge, England, in 1959, spoke of “the two cultures,” science and the humanities, and the gulf of mutual incomprehension he saw growing between them. “It is dangerous to have two cultures which can’t or don’t communicate,” he said. “In a time when science is determining much of our destiny, that is, whether we live or die, it is dangerous in the most practical terms. . . . At present we are making do in our half-educated fashion, struggling to hear messages, obviously of great importance, as though listening to...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 241-252)
  20. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 253-256)
  21. Suggested Reading
    (pp. 257-262)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-266)
  23. Index
    (pp. 267-274)