Science soundbites

It is popular in the scientific community to be snarky about people who talk about science in the media. Particularly if it's a science journalist or correspondent, but even if it is a full blown practising scientist, there will be much tutting, muttering and general attacking of the idiocy of the way the science is presented. I saw it happening an awful lot, for example, over the Higgs boson results - not an easy thing to explain. One scientist was very sarcastic about the analogy someone (actually a politician) used on the radio, even though it was exactly the same analogy that Brian Cox (who, after all, works at CERN when he has a day off from posing) (sorry - snark attack) had used in print.

I had a personal example of this last week. In my role as totally unpaid science correspondent for BBC Wiltshire (you pay peanuts...) I was asked in on the breakfast show to talk about ENCODE, the next generation human genome project that goes beyond the genes to look at how the rest of human DNA does all the switching of genes, and the differences in the way this operates in a wide range of cells. And I committed every error that the science moaning minnies complain about. I oversimplified, at least one thing I said was effectively wrong, and I didn't use the best analogies I could.

But. This was around a four minute slot to explain a huge scientific endeavour. I'm not a biologist. And the discussion was driven by the presenter, who inevitably was more interested in potential applications than the science itself. So not a great performance. Do I regret it? Not at all. And this is where we've got to stop moaning. The fact is, the listeners got more idea about what was going on than they would otherwise. They got a feel for the excitement, the remarkable work that was being undertaken (something they need to remember when parliament is talking about cutting science funding) and the potential for future benefits.

I honestly believe that it is better to fire people up to find out more and be supportive of science, even if what you say isn't perfect, rather than say nothing and have it drop off the agenda. It's also important to bear in mind that such broadcasts are not carefully scripted - it's all top of the head. You have to give some leeway. But even if it is scripted (or a book) I'd rather it was out there in an approachable fashion with a few errors than presented in a totally incomprehensible way by someone who totally understands the science but can't communicate, or even worse is not out there at all.

It's the Inconvenient Truth effect. Al Gore's global warming movie contained a number of unfortunate errors. But it did a lot of good. I'm not saying errors don't matter - but it's more important to communicate the gist and the feeling than to have the kind of accuracy that scientists naturally aim for. Ideally we'd have both. But this isn't an ideal world.


  1. And frankly, even scientists over-simplify all the time. I know atoms aren't really coloured balls that attach to each other with springs - but it does help to think of them that way, sometimes, for some specific purposes. And anyway, most people are clever enough to know that an analogy isn't the real thing and will break down at some point, and realise that if it could all be covered in 4 minutes, you wouldn't need to send people to universities to study it for years, or employ specialists to work with it all their lives.


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