Scientists and journalists, still going….

Really, one of these times I’ll get onto a new topic, but every time I turn around, new posts pop up in the scientists and journalists conversation. The most recent updates:

Chris Mooney, part II. I want to emphasize a resource he linked: the report from a 2005 workshop on “Science Communications and the News Media.” I haven’t had time to do more than skim it yet, but it’s interesting reading.

Chris also notes:

The real upshot of all this is that scientists–at least those planning on doing interviews–need to study the media, at least in enough detail to get a sense of some of these basics. And vice-versa: Journalists need to talk to scientists to understand their qualms. But sweeping generalizations and lashings out from either camp won’t help things.


Mike also has a follow-up, and Chad shares his own media stories, and reaction to it by colleagues:

The most interesting thing about this, to me, was how many people seemed to find the whole business radioactive. Three people turned it down outright, and the fourth was willing to do it, but very happy to hand it off to me. And the faculty from other departments who I ate lunch with also regarded it as completely ridiculous.

I sympathize more with this one, because it was TV, which to me is a whole other ball of wax. (Just wait until the ASM video clip comes out…you’ll see why I stick to print media!)

Finally, the Chronicle had a timely story–not exactly on this topic, but on a journalist who received a PhD in comparative literature, but decided not to go into academia. It contained this on-topic quote:

But journalists often look down on Ph.D.’s. That was the flip side of my problem. There’s a mutual disdain between academics and journalists that is based more on an unwillingness to understand the other’s position than anything else. Academics are in constant fear of being misunderstood in the popular press, and think journalists often miss the nuances of a particular subject.

It’s been interesting reading all the comments…but what I want to know now is, where do we go from here? How do we educate the rest of our colleagues–or do we even bother to try? Your thoughts are welcome.

[Edited to add: and speaking of The Chronicle, they also have mentioned the discussion on their blog.]

Science/journalists update redux: Mooney chimes in

In addition to comments by Mike, Jennifer, and Astroprof, Chris Mooney added his thoughts to the scientist-journalist communication discussion in a post here–so perhaps a few more journalists will pop out of the woodwork there and elaborate.

I see a common theme here. Scientists have often had issues with misquotation, and it tends to sour them on science journalists. Journalists know that misquotation is bound to happen now and then, and it bothers them less. Chris notes:

I also second Jennifer Ouellette that sometimes scientists get too miffed about being misquoted. Don’t get me wrong: Misquoting sucks. Good journalists, and I hope I’m one, use tape recorders whenever possible to try to avoid this. Nevertheless, and although there are certainly major exceptions, when misquotation occurs the consequences are rarely very large. …The more you’re in journalism, the more you realize that life just goes on, and it is the rare case indeed in which a misquotation seriously impacts someone’s career. And more generally, the idea that all journalists should be punished for one journalist’s error…well, that’s just unfair.

I agree it’s unfair, but look at it from the scientist’s point of view. Unless you’re a very big fish, you’re unlikely to get interviewed all that frequently. Therefore, when it does happen, it’s a bigger deal to the scientist (who may be interviewed a few times a year) than to the journalist (who may do dozens of interviews a month, if they’re working for a busy daily paper). Maybe the more one is in journalism, they’re more likely to realize that misquotes just happen, but *scientists usually aren’t journalists.* One misquote is a big deal, whether or not it has a long-lasting detrimental effect on one’s career or not. If you’ve been burned once already, and each interview is a chance to get burned again, I can definitely see why people think, “why bother?,” especially when journalists themselves accept that occasional misquotations are an inevitable part of journalism.

Question for the academic types–interview requests

As y’all know, a frequent topic of conversation here is communicating science to the public. While many of us do it directly via sites such as this one, the bulk of science writing that the public will read is done by the pros–people writing for the magazines and newspapers, among other outlets. Often, their stories include interviews with research scientists. However, we’re not always so easy to get in touch with, and we blow reporters off altogether–apparently, pretty frequently.

On a listserv I subscribe to, there recently was a discussion amongst writers regarding how to get academics (and business-types; don’t feel the question is limited *only* to academics) to respond to interview requests. However, given the wording of the question and some of the responses, I think the question itself highlighted a bit of the gulf between journalists and academics, so I’m putting some of my own thoughts on why academics don’t respond first (and particularly when they are at conferences or on business travel, which was the topic of one comment), and I welcome any suggestions you have on how you prefer to be contacted–and what might improve response rates for writers. It would be great if any writers out there added their additional comments as well–imagine, a dialogue!…
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Malaria: the cure for AIDS?

Over at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles, the good doc brings up another instance of quackery from an unexpected source: Dr. Henry Heimlich, originator of the Heimlich maneuver for choking. While that procedure has clearly saved many lives, Dr. Heimlich doesn’t stop there–he advocates using his maneuver for drowning victims and asthmatics, neither of which have been scientifically proven (and indeed, major medical associations have spoken out against them). Dr. Charles also reveals that Heimlich also carries out other questionable research, including deliberately infecting HIV+ individuals with malaria, which he touts and a cheap and effective cure for AIDS. More after the jump….
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The outbreak that shaped the course of history

One of the most famous stories in all of epidemiology revolves around the very birth of the science, in the midst of a London cholera outbreak in 1854. At the time, the scientific community was divided over the cause of cholera and other diseases. The majority of them accepted the miasma theory, the idea that disease was due to corrupted air (“all smell is disease,” noted sanitation commissioner Edwin Chadwick). This idea dates back to antiquity, and increased in popularity in the Victorian era. It’s a great example of something that logically made sense, even though it was wrong. 19th century sanitation reformers pointed out to disease outbreaks that occurred in areas that were filthy, and along with that filth came a terrible smell. It was thought that the scent was due to the putrefaction of the air, and that when this putrid air was inhaled, it resulted in the development of disease. Again, it made sense–when areas were cleaned up, disease frequently decreased–it seemed like a no-brainer. Though this was prior to the formulation of the germ theory of disease, some scientists (dubbed “contagionists”) believed disease was not acquired via miasma, but instead passed from person to person via some sort of unidentified particle.

Physician John Snow was one of the early supporters of the latter theory. His careful investigation of the 1854 London cholera outbreak was the beginning of the end of the miasma theory–and the beginning of modern epidemiology as well. However, the impact of the cholera epidemic extends much farther than just the eventual formulation of the germ theory of disease and the downfall of the miasma theory. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson tells the fascinating history of John Snow’s groundbreaking investigation, and how it still reverberates in the world today.
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Grand Rounds 3.38

I’m on the road today, literally–driving from Iowa to Ohio with kids and dogs in tow. (Well, okay, not exactly in tow–I do allow them to ride *inside* the car). I have a post scheduled for a bit later, but in the meantime, hop on over and check out not one, but two versions of this week’s Grand Rounds. For you minimalists, click here; whereas if you want a bit more meat with your post descriptions, check out this version instead.

Not sure when I’ll next have a chance to get online, so I apologize in advance for any comments that get hung up in the junk filter…I’ll pull them out as soon as I’m able.

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What’s missing from this picture?

It’s been awhile since I picked on the real science journalists (as opposed to we Daily Show-esque “fake news” sites). I don’t mean to get down on them too much; I know that there are many out there who do an incredible job, but then there are also ones who write up articles like this one on how “…women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to stand out from the crowd and lure men away from the far more common brunette.”


So especially for you infectious disease types, can you spot a glaring omission in this article: “Meningitis A vaccine hope” ? Puzzle it out if you like (and the title alone may give you a clue); my comments after the jump.
Continue reading “What’s missing from this picture?”