The ‘boring’ catch 22 of being a scientist

I was reading a comment thread on sci comms blog yesterday and was struck by the comments raised by various scientists about the problems of communicating effectively with the media which matched many things I’ve said on here and elsewhere. In short, that there is a sadly widespread tendency for the simplest of comments to be taken out of context, stories rehashed incorrectly, and things even downright fabricated. The apparent comeback from people on the media wide was that scientists are too boring with their communiqués and if we could just be more interesting maybe the media wouldn’t ignore us.

This is an unwinable situation. As a researcher it seems almost impossible to avoid having your words twisted, changed, misreported or worse. No matter how much you simplify things to make them clear and unambiguous and accurate, they will not survive meeting most of the journalists who are intended to make them into stories. If scientists suck the life out of a story with dry facts it is manifestly not to do with the incapability of researchers to communicate well, but a terror of having your words distorted. If you are exciting, you are simply far more likely to be misreported, if you keep it simple, you are boring.

If nothing else, this strikes me as simply being lazy. Scientists could be the most boring and tedious people on Earth with the driest of deliveries and who merely recite facts and figures and data. But even if they were, it would still be the job of a science journalist to make that stuff interesting and readable and exciting. So really, this complaint seems to boil down to “you are too afraid of us making anther mess of your work to give us good copy and we won’t make good copy out of it if you don’t try harder”. Well, thanks for that. I can see now how everything is the fault of the uncommunicative and boring scientists and not incompetent / unoriginal / lazy journos. You know, those people who write all those books and magazine articles and do TV shows and write blogs, and give public lectures and run websites and so on. Yeah, them. None of them are any good at communicating their science, are they?

17 Responses to “The ‘boring’ catch 22 of being a scientist”


  1. 1 Manabu Sakamoto 06/05/2010 at 4:19 pm

    It just occurred to me that journalists rarely complain that politicians are dry and boring. Or bureaucrats for that matter. Or police reports. Those people give dry, succinct and simple answers and I presume they don’t like over-sensationalising things, no more than scientists do. So why do scientists always get blamed for being “boring”? I always thought bureaucrats, politicians, economy analysts and all those other “normal” people answering interviews and they seem very boring at times.

    • 2 Christopher 09/05/2010 at 11:52 pm

      I’m reminded of something Michael Crichton said in a speech once, regarding the perception that the media gets everything right except the stories in my field . . ..

      “You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

      “In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

      “That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say . . . but when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.”

      • 3 David Hone 10/05/2010 at 8:51 am

        I’ve wondered about that myself, though I’m honestly not sure quite how true it is. After all, some of the science reporting is good and I admit that it’s probably harder to write about science well than say football or even some aspects of politics. Thus while the science stuff if often generally bad, I’m not sure if the other sections of a newspaper are equally so. It would be interesting to see.

  2. 4 Manabu Sakamoto 06/05/2010 at 4:20 pm

    Sorry, bad grammar on the last sentence. Should be ‘I always thought bureaucrats, politicians, economy analysts and all those other “normal” people seem very boring at times, especially when appearing on the news.’

    • 5 David Hone 06/05/2010 at 4:32 pm

      I’ll let you off this time!😉

      Good point though overall, why are we singled out?

      • 6 Mike Taylor 06/05/2010 at 6:21 pm

        I don’t think we are singled out. I think we only notice it when it happens to us.

        It’s worth remembering that pretty much every group of people that has ever existed thinks it’s persecuted. We should make more of an effort to control for that tendency🙂

      • 7 David Hone 06/05/2010 at 8:28 pm

        Well it’s been said by other scientists before which hardly helps.

        And while we might not be being singled out as such (i.e. observer self bias) it is still soemthing levelled at scientists by the media / PR people to explain poor science reporting.

        “It’s worth remembering that pretty much every group of people that has ever existed thinks it’s persecuted. We should make more of an effort to control for that tendency.”

        True, but I’m only paranoid becuase everyone’s out to get me!😉

  3. 8 Manabu Sakamoto 06/05/2010 at 10:13 pm

    Oh but everyone is out to get you ;P

  4. 10 David 07/05/2010 at 4:30 am

    “The apparent comeback from people on the media wide was that scientists are too boring…”

    Seems more like a lack of vision and imagination on the media’s part than any flaw on scientists’ part. It’s also absolutely false. And juvenile. The media’s job is to report clearly and truthfully, and their stories can’t always be served up on a platter. They may need to do some – gasp – work to report well. Where did the media reaction come from? Can you post a link to the blog?

    This probably also reflects the fact that fewer journalists specialize in science now, and therefore lack a basic awareness of what issues are important, how to communicate effectively with scientists and institutions, and the subtleties of communicating science stories effectively.

    Ugh.

    • 11 David Hone 07/05/2010 at 8:34 am

      “Where did the media reaction come from? Can you post a link to the blog?“

      Well it is something I have specifically seen before in several places. This time out it was a comment thread I came across the other day and was put up by a self-identified PR person who represents scientists to the media claiming that it was our fault for being boring / bad communicators. Not sure I’ll be able to find it again in my history, it was a few days ago now and not a site I’ve visited before.

      “This probably also reflects the fact that fewer journalists specialize in science now, and therefore lack a basic awareness of what issues are important, how to communicate effectively with scientists and institutions, and the subtleties of communicating science stories effectively.”

      My thoughts exactly, but apparently it’s not them, it’s us….

  5. 12 mattvr 07/05/2010 at 10:47 am

    Do universities, scientists and scientific institutions need to invest in communication skills and strategies for dealing with the press?

    There is a professional language insulator between scientists and laypeople.

    Perhaps a guide for scientists needs to be drawn up so the press can be channeled into at least giving the correct information.

    • 13 David Hone 07/05/2010 at 11:39 am

      Well there is always room for improvement and I would be happy to see there being some formal training. even the bare minimum would be a start. However, while that would certainly improve things further, there is an obvious and failing middle ground where university press offices often do a poor job and the journalists themselves who do a poor job. Researchers could certainly be better at communicating, but those who do willingly and often (as opposed to those who prefer not to) are often pretty good and have lots of practice and experience. The cream rises to the top really and there are large numbers of people publishing popular books etc. that shows that they are willing and capable.

      It’s not one sided by any means and while it’s easy to have a skewed perspective when you are already on one side, it is notable how many ‘good’ science journalists I have spoken to at various time who decry the awfulness of many others and champion good researchers. That does suggest that much of the problme is not ont he side of the scientists.

  6. 14 mattvr 08/05/2010 at 8:24 am

    I’m not sure what you think of this kind of thing:

    http://www.symphonyofscience.com./

    It’s pretty damn romanticised, funny in spots too, but it also strikes at popular culture in a unique way.
    Might make people think a bit more about science and the ‘bigger ideas’ that make organised ignorance bunk.

    So your next paper will need to be playable in MP3 format and have a cool Youtube clip….

    • 15 David Hone 08/05/2010 at 12:04 pm

      I’ve seen stuff like that before and quite like them. If they get people interested and through the gateway was it were to more detailed (if still popular) branches of science then I”m all for it. I really rather like the LHC rap that’ still doing the rounds too.

  7. 16 Heinrich Mallison 08/05/2010 at 6:42 pm

    Well, there IS a simple solution: refuse to be interviewed unless your final apporval of any printed text is a contractual precondition for printing.

    Yes, journalists will always whine, but if you explain the problem reasonably, the good ones will agree. I always throw the Matt Wedel misquote at them´m and so far it has worked for me.

    • 17 David Hone 09/05/2010 at 2:13 pm

      Yes that is nice ammo to have now. The problem as I have experienced it so far is working out who is good and bad. After a few encounters it generally becomes clear (often in 1 go too) but that doesn’t stop you making mistakes with people who will get things wrong or of course others following in your footsteps.


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