Scientists and the Media
Those involved in communicating science to the public come from a broad
variety of backgrounds. Ivars Peterson, who is
profiled elsewhere in this issue
Ben Stein, a science writer for the AIP Public Information office, was
an undergraduate physics major at SUNY-Binghamton. He worked in a research
lab his junior year and realized that he enjoyed physics, but didn't enjoy
the laboratory work as much as he enjoyed writing up the results. He also
worked with an undergraduate research journal where he helped writers make
their papers accessible to other students. The combination of love of physics
and writing made science writing a `mission' for him. Stein received a
Master's degree in journalism, with a certificate in science and environmental
reporting from New York University. Stein interned at AIP and started as
a regular writer in 1991. Stein and Peterson gave their impressions on
the roles of the media, physicists and the relationship between the two.
Many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar
to those needed to be a good researcher. For example, Peterson believes
that the most essential characteristic for a science writer is the ability
to distill out the interesting aspects of a story when faced with a massive
amount of information. Stein identifies another essential characteristic
as not being afraid to ask questions and (like researchers) being able
to identify which questions to ask.
If many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar
to those needed to be a good researcher, why is there the current perception
that physicists are not very good at explaining what they do to the public?
Peterson notes that science writing is really very different from the writing
a Ph.D. does. For one thing, "(a science writer) has to focus on what elements
of the story will be interesting to other people. That's a good skill for
a researcher, but it's not essential." Stein notes that the would-be science
writer must also be interested in explaining science to non-scientists.
There is often a large gap between the vocabulary and culture of the two
groups, which complicates effective communication. He believes that the
best science writers are those who are both good researchers and good scientists,
because "they have how all the science fits together in their head, whereas
I have to call up three people to get those same connections."
Stein cites Hans Christian Von Bayer and Robert Park as examples of scientists
who have been successful in communicating with the public about science.
Robert Park, who writes `What's New' for APS, decries the "narrowness and
special vocabulary of the physics profession. We don't think twice about
saying that we're going to do something adiabatically -- which is meaningless
to someone who doesn't know the jargon." Park continues, "Part of the problem
is that the physicist is most concerned with impressing his colleagues.
The worst colloquia we ever get are from candidates for assistant professor
jobs, because they are intent on showing people how much physics they know
-- not how simply they can explain it. That culture is throughout the whole
profession." Park adds that sometimes the most respected physicists are
at an advantage in communicating with the public because their already-established
reputation in physics frees them from having to impress anyone.
Peterson agrees with the necessity for breadth, noting that the best
journalists are usually also the best Trivial Pursuit players. Stein believes
that breadth includes staying in touch with the public so that you can
develop creative analogies that are understandable to your readers. All
of the writers mentioned that a good test for a scientist considering a
foray into communicating science to the public is for the scientist to
first explain their topic to a parent or spouse.
Writing for the public can be frustrating due to the need to be complete
and accurate, but not overwhelm the audience, Stein says. "As satisfying
as it is to understand all the steps of a complex process, you have to
avoid boring the reader to death. As for accuracy, you may come up with
a cute analogy or a simplified explanation that reads well, but it may
turn out to be incorrect or inappropriate."
With the current difficulty many graduates are having finding employment,
the suggestion is made that some of them might be doing a service to the
physics community by becoming involved in science writing. After cautioning
that "...there isn't a big demand (for science writers)," Peterson emphasizes
the value of a formal science writing program. "Journalism is a very specific
kind of trade with very specific kinds of constraints and practices," Peterson
says, "My experience at the University of Missouri gave me an education
in what journalism is about: meeting deadlines, writing quickly and accurately
and learning a basic set of formulas you can use when you need them." Science
writing programs also offer courses in journalistic ethics and style conventions.
The most important aspect of attending a formal science writing program
is the opportunity to make contacts: both Peterson and Stein won their
present jobs via internships. Stein adds that the programs also force you
to write, which is the only way to improve. He also adds, though, that
a formal degree is not absolutely necessary -- one way of breaking into
the business is through freelancing. Many magazines are interested in 200-300
word pieces from freelancers, he says, and magazines are currently hiring
fewer full time employees and using more freelance writers. Peterson goes
further to suggest that, if it is your intent to work for a newspaper or
magazine, that you get your writing experience in a similar format.
"The tricky thing for Science News is that we have to do things quickly
and accurately, so it helps if your experience shows that you can do
things under a more journalistic type of deadline."
Both writers remain surprised at how willing scientists are to talk about
their research. Contrary to what one might think, some of the best leads
come from people who approach them. Peterson relates one particularly relevant
story. "I got a call a few months ago from a student at the University
of Massachusetts who was doing a research project on Newton's Gravitational
constant. She had just heard that the recent measurements disagreed with
the standard values given in the textbooks by 0.1% -- and that's a lot.
She was trying to track down where the information about this disagreement
was and one of her professors suggested that something this important would
certainly be in Science News. This student called me and said that
her professors had said that this was going to be big news and that it
would definitely be covered in Science News. I didn't know anything
about it at that point! I checked into it and I ended up suggesting to
the APS people that they set up a news conference on this because it sounded
good. They did, which made it convenient for me because they got all four
people -- two were from Germany and one from New Zealand, which would have
been hard for me to reach, or even to catch at the meeting. So I worked
with them (APS) -- the disadvantage was that it meant that all the other
reporters were looking at the same story. That will be the main story I
will do from (the April APS) meeting. It turned out to be very interesting
for all kinds of reasons. It was extremely important for physical reasons,
but also in terms of how science is done."
Stein also encourages APS members with interesting news to make the APS
Public Information Office aware of their findings. As a public relations
officer at a scientific organization, "People should be free to contact
us when they think they're doing something interesting. We won't know about
many of these things because there are so many things going on." Stein
welcomes preprints of articles accepted for publication, with a cover letter
explaining why the paper may have wider interest. Stein also suggests how
physicists can make the writer's job easier:
"(Scientists) should think of everyday analogies to describe their work.
They should have simplified pictures or diagrams illustrating their experiments
or the basic concepts behind their research. Scientists should avoid
jargon, and be receptive to any questions from the writer, no matter
how basic they may seem."
Increasing attention is being paid to the importance of communicating
the relevance and importance of physics to the government in the post cold-war
period. Peterson believes that this attention runs on a cyclical basis,
with the most recent cycle spurred by the cancellation of the SSC and other
funding cuts. He also notes that professional organizations periodically
feel that they are not being adequately represented and engage in public
relations campaigns. Stein disagrees with Peterson, believing that that
the end of the cold war will force a permanent change in how physicists
interact with the media and the public. In his view, the cancellation of
the SSC was not a one-time anomaly, but was the wake-up call for physicists
that things are going to be different in the future:
"There are some factors which I hope are cyclical: pseudoscience is
on the rise, much of the public is suspicious of science and scientists,
and Congress is calling for much tighter Federal budgets. But I think
that the need to justify scientific funding to the general public won't