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Sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate

by Donald Prothero, Apr 03 2013
The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings that used to be warehouses on the Duke campus

The workshop was held at NESCent, with modern facilities built inside classic old brick buildings on the Duke campus that used to be warehouses

On the weekend of March 22-24, 2013, I was privileged to be part of an amazing workshop entitled “Reporting across the culture wars: engaging media on evolution.” Hosted by the NSF-sponsored think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, it brought together some of the top names in both science and journalism, all experienced in the battle over evolution and creationism. It was organized and moderated by Lauri Lebo, the local reporter at the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, “Intelligent Design” trial who wrote a best-selling book, The Devil in Dover, about her experience, and by molecular biologist Dr. Norman Johnson of University of Massachusetts Amherst. These two organizers raised the funds to bring in a very diverse panel of experts, including Dr. Ken Miller of Brown University, one of the leading biologists battling creationism (he was the star of the Dover trial, and has beaten creationists in debates many times); Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who handles their efforts to support citizens fighting creationism in their schools; several authors of books about evolution and creationism, including yours truly, plus Dr. Michael Berkman of  Penn State, Dr. David Long of George Mason University, and Dr. Daniel Fairbanks of Utah Valley University; a distinguished group of biologists, including Dr. T. Ryan Gregory of Guelph University, Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley, Dr. Craig McLain of NESCent, and Dr. David Hillis of the Univ. Texas Austin; anthropologists, including Dr. Holly Dunsworth of Univ. Rhode Island, Dr. David Long, and Dr. Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian; and paleontologists including myself and Brian Switek of the Laelaps blog on Smithsonian.com. Among the journalists were Greg Bowers of the Univ. Missouri Journalism school, Lou DuBose of the Washington Spectator, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones, as well as e-journalists such as Cara Santa Maria, the science editor of The Huffington Post (her regular podcast, “Talk Nerdy to Me”, is a big hit on HuffPo), and Danielle Lee and Bora Zivkovic of the Scientific American blog. In addition, there were local Public Information Officers (PIOs), who handle press relations for scientists, including Dr. Robin Smith of NESCent and Karl Bates of Duke University. In short, this panel brought both a lot of experience and a lot of brainpower to the discussion, with a panel ranging from freelance print journalists to e-journalists to science writers to distinguished scientists in biology, anthropology, and paleontology—and nearly everyone on the panel has their own blog.

The panel met in a large room with a U-shaped table, and everyone had their laptops open as they multitasked.

The panel met in a large room with a U-shaped table, and everyone had their laptops open as they multitasked.

Naturally, with all this experience and brainpower, and diversity of background and opinions, it was difficult to keep the discussion very focused on one idea for long. It was often an exercise in herding cats. This group was amazingly tech-savvy, so many of them were tweeting away throughout the meeting, and you can capture the drift of the discussion by following the Storify version of the tweets here. As someone who has just stepped into the world of iPhones and has 4000 “friends” on Facebook but refuses to yield to Twitter yet (I already spend too much time on line), it was amazing to see all the multitasking going on. The panel was both trying to follow the conversation and contribute to it, but also tweeting and checking their laptops for the latest on Facebook and their Twitter feed. The moderators were fairly hands-off and let the discussion proceed organically, so we covered a lot of ground but didn’t focus on any topic for too long. After the initial greetings, Ryan Gregory and Norman Johnson did a brief presentation “Evolution 101: What scientists want journalists to know”, which focused on many of the fallacies in the public conceptions of evolution that are often perpetuated by journalists. These included the  “march through time” linear portrayals of evolution versus “tree thinking”,  misconceptions about “primitive” organisms and anthropocentric portrayals of evolution as culminating in humans, misconceptions about natural selection and population concepts vs. change happening in individuals, and some basics of genomics. Much of the presentation was interrupted by passionate complaints from some journalists about how these concepts are already too advanced and abstract not only for more science-illiterate Americans, but even for most journalists. When several examples were presented, the journalists argued that the subtle differences between “right” and “wrong” versions of the biology were nearly impossible to render in a short article or post, and the differences won’t be remembered by most readers anyway. Lauri Lebo then summarized the journalist’s perspective, pointing out how fast conventional print journalism is vanishing and how many journalists are losing their jobs, how the journalistic world has changed with the expansion of e-journalism and major science blogs, and especially how science blogging has become the latest method for fact-checking when a hot science story breaks but has not been fully vetted or peer reviewed. In fact, the room featured some of the most prominent science bloggers in the country, many of whom were also trained scientists as well. After lunch on Day 1, the entire group was broken into five small groups of five people, each a mixture of scientists and journalists. Each group ended up coming up with their own view of the most important issues, but we came to a lot of similar conclusions. Most ideas were focused on the difficulty for modern journalists (with the print media and their jobs vanishing and their training in science very limited) of keeping up with and doing a good job reporting science accurately and yet make it comprehensible to the layperson. Several times the journalists reminded us of the differences between “news” and “regular science”, with the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality in most journalism. The meme “it’s only going to be reported if it has sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate in it” soon became the regular gag line of the meeting. The scientists pointed out that most science is pretty conventional and rarely leads to startling or shocking conclusions, and thus not “newsworthy”—yet essential to the scientific enterprise of slowly expanding knowledge. I pointed out that science and journalism work on very different time scales, with months to years for a single scientific publication to reach press, and even many more months before a startling idea that is featured in the media and then forgotten has been truly evaluated by the scientific community.

Day 2 began with another free-ranging session which focused on the parallels between pseudoscience and “pseudojournalism” (never clearly defined, but vaguely referring to “journalism” produced as propaganda by denier groups with an agenda, or just plain sloppy, poorly researched science journalism). We then broke into two different groups. One group (mostly journalists) went to a different room and discussed the issues associated with the anti-vaxxer scare. I remained with the group which discussed the problems with the reporting last year about the ENCODE project, which falsely claimed to have shown that there was very little “junk DNA”, and used over-the-top publicity tactics that claimed that the project could cure cancer and many genetic diseases. The journalists in this room, however, pointed out that it was the lead scientists of Project ENCODE who had misled the journalists with their exaggerated claims (“the biology textbooks will need to be rewritten” and “this discovery is groundbreaking” are clear red-flags for science hype), and the journalists only fed this false message to the public uncritically. After both groups took a break for lunch, we heard Ken Miller summarize some of his personal experiences as the key witness in the Dover trial, including “know your audience,” “be clear and keep your wording simple,” and “use simple analogies to make your point.” Then we  began to draft a document of “best practices” or “do’s and don’t’s” for both scientists and journalists when it comes to working with each other, and reporting a science story accurately but simply enough that the average reader can comprehend it. I won’t repeat the entire list but I’ll post it here. Most of the key issues revolved around scientists trying to get the journalists to write accurately about complex issues without oversimplifying or using bad metaphors, while avoiding ambushing the scientists or misquoting them. Journalists need scientists to be more PR-savvy, be prepared to explain any science story so that your grandmother could understand it, and make the importance of the project as clear as possible without overdoing the hype and overselling the importance of the research. By the end of Day 2, we were getting worn out, and glad for a short popsicle break at a local Durham favorite, Locopops.

By Sunday, Day 3, the discussion was much looser and more relaxed as we covered issues not previously discussed, and tried to sum up what we had learned over the marathon weekend session. Since we all had to catch the airport shuttle bus at 2:00, we wound up early after lunch, and most of the time each of us was busy tweeting or sending posts on our blogs or Facebook. Then we all charged out into the cold rain and rode the shuttle to the airport, and before long we were all battling the airlines on our way home (13 hours in transit for me). But we all agreed that we came away with a lot of important insights about the process of science journalism, the differences between the needs and practices of scientists vs. journalists, and the pitfalls of making science understandable and interesting to a public that cares more about Kim Kardashian or Lindsay Lohan that it does about science which might change their lives or their futures.

Personally, I found the workshop a very surprising and novel experience. I’ve been to three Penrose Conferences (I’ve organized and moderated two of them), and these meetings (sponsored by the Geological Society of America) are somewhat similar in format. They are built on the same loose structure, where the moderators let every topic develop without a strict time limit, and no one attends without presenting something. However, this is the first such meeting I’ve attended where I had no formal responsibilities to present a talk.  I was happy to let the more talkative people speak  while I  just sat back and listened; I only chimed in when I felt I had something useful to offer. (And since I didn’t tweet my thoughts, I’m not represented on the Storify twitter summary). Hearing the opinions of so many people from different perspectives, from print journalists to e-journalists to PIOs, to scientists of other fields, was refreshing and eye-opening to me. Most importantly, we arrived on Friday morning as complete strangers (I had previously only met Miller, Rosenau, and Switek), but by the end we each knew the others very well, and had bonded over our shared experience. I now have a network of people I can use as a resource for almost anything, from my book writing to my blogging, to getting my writing featured in major media where it would get more attention.

There is no symposium volume of our observations, and we didn’t solve all the issues of science journalism overnight, but our “list of best practices” is a starting point. It appears this meeting will be the seed for further meetings down the road, which could be even more productive if they are more focused on a specific goal. Already my email box is full of the chatter between us as we e-brainstorm ideas that we never got around to discussing while we were all together. We may not have solved the problem of how to deal with creationists or climate-change deniers or anti-vaxxers, but I think we learned a lot of important things for scientists to know about journalism, and journalists to know about science, and that’s essential in this changing landscape of science journalism.

 

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7 Responses to “Sex, dinosaurs, or chocolate”

  1. Mike G says:

    Thanks for the google doc link; it’s helpful. By the way, if you’ve never seen this video on health literacy by the AMA, it’s eye-opening and easy to see how it applies to science journalism in general. These types of people are a large segment of the science journalism consuming public: http://youtu.be/cGtTZ_vxjyA

  2. TR Gregory says:

    A very good summary of an interesting, stimulating, and at times frustrating meeting. And I agree completely with this assessment, which was the main point that we eventually tried to make in the ENCODE discussion:

    “it was the lead scientists of Project ENCODE who had misled the journalists with their exaggerated claims (“the biology textbooks will need to be rewritten” and “this discovery is groundbreaking” are clear red-flags for science hype), and the journalists only fed this false message to the public uncritically.”

    It was a pleasure to meet you and various others whom I have only known online as well.

  3. kl green says:

    I like the list of best practices as far as it goes. This addresses 2 parts of the communication – the sources of the information (scientists, science journals, etc) and the conveyors of the information (journalists). What is not addressed is the end part (possibly because of limited control) – the recipients, the audience. The audience shouldn’t take any reporter or scientist’s comments as the final word. Also, we often don’t know what we think we do. Don’t assume the scientist is an idiot just because what he’s saying doesn’t make sense to us. People should be engaged with the material. Look stuff up, if it doesn’t make sense.

  4. Brian Dunning says:

    My answer to the question posed in the title is yes.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      I would insist on “or” being changed to “and” with the understanding that the three are sequential and not simultaneous.

  5. Melissa Wilson Sayres says:

    It was wonderful to meet you, and everyone else who attended as well!

    I think this is a pretty accurate summary. This comment especially resonates with me:

    “Hearing the opinions of so many people from different perspectives, from print journalists to e-journalists to PIOs, to scientists of other fields, was refreshing and eye-opening to me.”

    I am still considering my opinion on many of the topics discussed at the meeting. In particular, now that we’re removed from it, I’m trying to reconsider what people said, versus the defensiveness that sometimes overshadowed the conversations.

    I definitely appreciated the the ability for topics to grow organically, and this worked well on the first day. But, I think that inhibited us a little on the second day because 1) there was a miscommunication that instead of jumping into discussion, as we did the first day, we should first sit an listen to another presentation; and, 2) I think it was unexpected to be broken up into two groups discussing very different topics, that, now that I think about it, we didn’t really report on to the whole group (I would have liked to hear more about what the vaccine group discussed).

    Here are some of my take-homes from the conference:
    http://mathbionerd.blogspot.com/2013/03/culture-wars-what-im-taking-home-with-me.html

  6. Lauri Lebo says:

    “Most importantly, we arrived on Friday morning as complete strangers (I had previously only met Miller, Rosenau, and Switek), but by the end we each knew the others very well, and had bonded over our shared experience. I now have a network of people I can use as a resource for almost anything, from my book writing to my blogging, to getting my writing featured in major media where it would get more attention.”

    Thank you for this summation of the weekend. I agree that at times the discussions were invigorating and at times frustrating. (As well as sometimes going in places that I definitely didn’t expect.) Like Melissa, I’m still trying to wrap my head around much of the discussions and come up with opportunities to develop some of the ideas. I agree with Don that it was a terrific group of people and I look forward to continuing to work with folks in various capacities.

    Lauri