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

Cornelia Dean(Harvard University Press, 2009) ISBN 978-0-674-03635, 288 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Peter Schroeder

Yes, you are coming through loud and clear! And the message is that scientists must accept more responsibility for explaining their work to the public. Cornelia Dean, the bearer of the message, is a science writer and former editor of the New York Times and teaches seminars on the communication of science at Harvard University.

The first 6 chapters describe the general scene including the “landscape of journalism” and its relation to the scientist and research. Thereafter the book provides detailed advice to scientists on how to treat the various forms of journalism he/she may encounter. She believes that the general public does not understand science. On the other hand, there is a great need for an informed public, who can decide public social policies on reasonable and rational grounds. Americans do respect science; consequently, people with a political point frequently will cloak their arguments in the rhetoric of science by twisting the facts. Sad to say, several of the federal government's organizations such as the Office of Technology Assessment have been eliminated. These are just the very organizations that people and public officials might once have turned to for impartial expert advice.

The newspapers, a traditional source of news, have increasing competition from the internet and the proliferation of cable television. Many newspapers seek to cut costs by reducing or eliminating scientific articles and shifting science reporters to other tasks for which they are not trained. Who will rescue newspapers and journalists from this predicament? Dean's answer rings clear-The Researchers! But this will require a change in the mindset of most researchers, who tend to spend their time on nothing but their research. If they let their voices be heard beyond the bounds of scholarly publication, they could inject a lot of rationality into our public debates.

Dean's goal is to discuss the barriers to public understanding of science and technology by describing the journalistic landscape in which public discussion of these issues take place, and identifying the many ways in which researchers can fruitfully participate in this discourse. Prime requirements are that the scientist should know their audience and that he/she should prepare, prepare, prepare. She knows the public is largely ignorant of technical facts, and, worse still, of how science works, which leads to incorrect reasoning and false conclusions. But even if the public received an ideal level of understanding, they would still need someone to report the findings and explain what they mean. Who will do this?-The Journalists! And so Chapter 3 is titled The Landscape of Journalism.

To produce the journalism needed to maintain a democratic society, several newspapers are trying new paradigms, mostly using the internet, publishing online for example. Blogs are multiplying at a great rate, but unless these have high editing standards, blogs may end up cluttered with rumors and conspiracy theories which ordinary readers may find difficult to differentiate from reliable content. Furthermore, young people are far less interested in news than older people and the gap is growing. On top of this there is a poor match between what researchers do and what the reporter thinks of as news. To survive, newspapers frequently cut their budgets for reporting. Science coverage is often an early victim. Journalists cultivate an instinct for what people are going to want to know about, and Dean gives a list of attributes that tend to make an item “newsworthy”. It must be remembered that space, time and reader's attention are limited, especially in television and radio where news accounts must be immediately clear on first hearing. This is quite difficult for developments in science and engineering. With a shrinkage of science reporting staff, reporters--who normally don't report on science--suddenly find themselves parachuted into technical issues. Many more of the journalist's problems are discussed.

Researchers perennially complain about journalistic incompetence resulting in his/her embarrassment when they find their interview is wildly hyped in print. Dean gives a list of things that irk researchers followed by a list of how journalists view researchers. These are well worth consulting. Scientists also complain that they find themselves pitted in the media against some contrarian or crank who ostensibly provides proper balance to an argument. Journalists believe, falsely, that this leads to journalistic objectivity. But, journalists have real problems in distinguishing a good source from a specious one, and will frequently in effect turn the decision over to the reader, who may be as confused as the journalist. The desired objectivity then disappears. To Dean this is the most intractable problem in the coverage of science and engineering. She believes scientists and engineers can help solve it.

Chapter 6 is titled The Scientist as a Source. Ideally the researcher wants to convey the facts in a way that allows no misinterpretation. This is difficult to do, but Dean has many ways to improve the odds of success. The first of these is adequate preparation on both sides. The scientist must go into an interview with something to say, remembering that a fact is not a message or a point of view. So he or she should take time to figure out the message and think about how to convey it. Whether the researcher likes sound bites or not, the journalist is looking for terse, telling quotes that an ordinary person will understand, and for better or for worse there will be sound bites. It's better that they are the scientist's rather than the journalist's, which may be less accurate and cogent. Hereafter there is a series of chapters on a multitude of more specialized subjects which I will not attempt to review individually. Examples are Public relations, Press conferences, Telling stories on line, radio and television, Writing about Science and technology, Editorial and Op-Ed pages, Writing books and several other venues.

Suffice it to say that this book emphasizes the practical, political, and policy reasons why scientists should engage in the public life of the nation. It fills a gap by providing useful advice and information on a wide range of methods scientist can use to inform the public. It also gives scientists some understanding of the inner workings of the public institutions that publish news in all its forms. I recommend it.

Peter Schroeder, Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.