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What Should We Teach When We Teach Science Communication?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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We just began a new undergraduate program in Science Communication at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, and I’m agonizing over what to teach.

"Science communication" includes environmental journalist Andy Revkin bloggin, lecturing and singing about carbon emissions.

For example, before the semester started I had lunch with the science editor for a major publication, whom I’ll call Dick. I asked him what skills his company looks for in new hires, and Dick immediately replied, “Video.” His company, he explained, is increasingly dependent on revenue from online video ads for cars, computers, cell phones and other expensive items. The companies running these video ads want them linked to video journalism.

Noting my grimace, Dick hastened to add that video journalism had to adhere to the same high standards of accuracy fairness as traditional text journalism. His response still dismayed me. I’ve been one kind of science communicator—a journalist–for more than 30 years now. But I’ve never done video journalism, and I don’t have a clue how to do it. (Shooting the shit on Bloggingheads.tv with George Johnson doesn’t count.)

I don’t have a video recorder, or even a smart phone, which reportedly can serve as a video camera. I recently tried to make a one-minute video of myself with my MacBook Air, and the iMovie program, which I’m told is idiot-proof, baffled me. My students no doubt know more about making videos than I do, which isn’t saying much.

I’m trying to convince myself that my shortcomings aren’t fatal, and that I can fulfill the promise of my course descriptions. The syllabus for my course “Introduction to Science Communication” says:

Students will learn basic skills required for researching, analyzing and communicating science-related topics, especially those with important ethical, political and economic implications. Potential issues include attempts to understand the human brain and mind; treatments for mental illness; genetic engineering of humans and other organisms; global warming and other environmental issues; drones, cyber-surveillance and other military technologies. The course will help students become more astute consumers of scientific information; prepare them for careers in science journalism and/or science communication for corporate, governmental and nonprofit organizations; and teach engineering and science majors how to communicate more effectively to peers and the public.

This paragraph is dense with assumptions, so let me unpack them. First, “science” means pure and applied science, including social science, technology and medicine, and “science communication” encompasses an almost absurdly broad range of activities. It includes a journalist writing a book on astrobiology and then plugging it on NPR; an anthropologist lecturing other social scientists on conflict-resolution methods of tribal societies; an environmental activist creating an online map of fracking wells in Pennsylvania; a neuroscientist touting optogenetics in a TED talk; an Eli Lilly salesman pitching a new antidepressant to a psychiatrist.

Consider the diversity of communication engendered by mammography alone. Science journalists like me communicate their views, as do breast-cancer survivors like Angelina Jolie; the Komen Foundation and other nonprofits promoting breast-cancer awareness; governmental organizations like the National Institutes of Health; manufacturers of mammography machines; radiologists and other physicians employing mammography; insurance companies paying for tests and treatments; epidemiologists assessing the effectiveness of mammography; economists concerned about rising health-care costs. Each of these groups has its own methods and motives, but they’re all doing science communication!

The course description above also acknowledges, implicitly, that vanishingly few of my students want to become full-time science communicators. Most view communication as a skill that can augment their careers as biomedical engineers (a majority of the undergrads at my school major in engineering), financial analysts, encryption specialists, video-game designers and so on.

The reference in my syllabus to students becoming “more astute consumers of scientific information” is especially important. Because all of us, whether or not we are science communicators, should be informed about global warming, genetically modified food, cyber-security, treatments for mental illness, the threat of nuclear proliferation, and the latest twists and turns of the nature-nurture debate. Right?

Being a smart consumer requires assessing the credibility of scientific “findings” and weighing the risks and benefits of “advances” (another prejudicial word). In other words, you need a good bullshit detector. My hope is that my students, if they enter science-related professions, will also turn their bullshit detectors on themselves, and consider the social, political and ethical implications of their own work.

So here is how I’ve convinced myself that I’m qualified to teach science communication: First, I’ve decided–yes, self-servingly–that writing is and always will be the most important form of science communication. I also have a pretty good bullshit-detector, in part because I have seen so many bogus scientific claims come and go.

My bullshit-detector ain’t infallible; it may, perhaps, be prone to false positives. And my writing style, sadly, doesn’t appeal to everyone. To compensate for my shortcomings, I expose my students to lots of other science communicators, who employ different methods for finding, assessing and transmitting information. Some speak to my classes; others give talks open to the entire university.

My guest speakers, recent or upcoming, include science journalists Ferris Jabr, Keith Kloor, Lee Billings, Virginia Hughes and Dan Fagin; psychologist Maria Konnikova; security scholar Peter W. Singer; and ocean physicist Alan Blumberg, a Stevens professor who studies the effects of global warming on coastal regions, harbors and estuaries.

Yesterday, environmental journalist Andrew Revkin, an old friend, gave a terrific public “talk” at Stevens about the tendency of some environmental communicators to indulge in despair and anger, or what he calls “Woe Is Me, Shame On You.” On his New York Times blog “Dot Earth,” Andy has tried to cultivate a more optimistic, inclusive method of communication, which he believes can achieve better results.

I put quotation marks around “talk” above because Andy didn’t just talk. He showed us his photographs and blog posts, and played videos and a recording of Rush Limbaugh urging Andy to kill himself. He wrapped things up by pulling out his guitar and singing a rousing song about carbon. Andy is a one-man-multimedia-science-communication band!

Andy left me feeling more upbeat about science communication in general, and my own program in particular. I still fret over what to do in my classes, but I’ve decided that my uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. I’m going to experiment on my students, and to encourage them to experiment. After all, good science communicators tend to be experimenters, always seeking new ways to enlighten, exhort, provoke, persuade.

I’m making students in “Introduction to Science Communication” and “Seminar in Science Writing” post assignments on course blogs and comment on each others’ writing. (So far, most of their comments are far too polite.) I’m even incorporating video journalism into my courses. My students have to present video versions of their final papers and teach me how they did it.

Photo by Jim Motavalli for http://philipstown.info.

 

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff2 7:01 pm 02/20/2014

    John – Firstly, please let me apologize for commenting so often on your blog.

    It sounds to me that your blog this week describes two facets of the issue on your new journalism course. One is the required technical skill set of the students and the other is the journalist skill set of the professor. Video journalism is surely a subset of journalism, and not the other way around.

    You are already an expert in journalism, with a background in science, and a bullshit meter that we need more of!

    Here are some questions that might help with thought processes. Will the students expect guidance on the technical issues? Is technical proficiency handled in a prerequisite class or required as a basic skill set before a student can select your course?

    Do you need to create videos? What about instruction on makeup, attire/costume, style, filming technics, etc, etc, etc. Would that be on your syllabus or could it be handled via a student teacher(s) assisting you?

    Would students work in groups creating their own videos? Will they be graded on applying the journalistic skill sets that you teach, without regard to the quality of the video?

    More general questions that come to mind: What are the similarities between traditional journalism and video journalism? What are the differences? What do the students need from their perspective? What are they themselves confused about (probably not the technical aspect as you mentioned).

    Finally, my comments on how to easily use a mac to create video.

    1- Use Photo Booth to make a movie (it comes with mac OS X and is in your Application folder).

    2- Save/Export the movie (preferable to your Desktop or Movie Folder) using your ‘File’ menu and selecting ‘Export’.

    3- Open the movie in iMovie (also in your application folder) for editing if you are not satisfied with the original or want to add special effects.

    4- Save the final version by exporting it in whatever format you prefer or is required by your playback devices.

    I know it’s idiotic for me to comment on this and you have already developed an approach. Furthermore, being an expert at nothing gives me the right to remain silent, nothing more. But if some of this might be helpful to you or anybody else, then it’s worth it to me to feel like an idiot. My dear mother used to ask me questions about a subject to help me study when I was young. She really had no clue as to what the subject content was, but her questions were very helpful to me.

    If I read your blog correctly, this is a new endeavor for you? If so, best of luck and enjoy it!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Von Stupidtz 2:52 pm 02/21/2014

    Pardonezz moi unsolicited advice to a veteran journalist, but for a really good example of science video journalism, you should look forward to “Brave new world with Stephen Hawking” (which a laymen can easily understand).

    Compare that with a research paper in an engineering journal,IEEE Explore for instance,which takes huge amount of time and effort for a laymen to understand.

    I believe that science communication is not just about being skeptical about scientific discoveries but also about making the content palatable to the common reader.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 3:59 pm 02/21/2014

    I love your userid Von! You are surely neither stupidtz, nor a Von…

    Pardonez-moi aussi, s’il vous plaît. I didn’t really mean to lecture the lecturer or give unwanted advice. Mainly, I was going for the angle of providing moral support to someone I have respect for in his profession and think he has quite a bit to offer his students (all of us in fact), whomever they should be. John sounded a little hesitant at first, so I just wanted to throw in a cheer for him… And of course, the technic for creating a movie using the mac…

    Anyway, happy browsing and I hope to read more of your comments… Hopefully (if successful), you will see fewer of mine!

    Link to this
  4. 4. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 6:53 am 02/22/2014

    rshoff2, you are the best commenter ever! Smart, informative, kind, witty. Thanks for the instructions on Photo Booth. Gonna try that out shortly. And Von, good point. “Making the content palatable to the common reader” should be the goal even for technical, peer-reviewed journals. By the way, I started my career writing/editing for IEEE Spectrum, and my jobs was to make the (usually) horrible prose of engineer/authors readable.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Von Stupidtz 1:39 pm 02/22/2014

    @rshoff2

    Thank you very much. I prefer to be addressed by my title “Flee Marshall Von Stupidtz”

    @John
    “Making the content palatable to the common reader should be the goal even for technical, peer-reviewed journals.”

    I respectfully disagree. The goal of technical journals is to communicate scientific/engineering developments to other scientists/engineers who understand the language of science and engineering.

    IEEE Spectrum, very good. Which side of the country would you prefer to retire to? East or West?

    Link to this
  6. 6. stephenstrauss 3:53 pm 02/22/2014

    John, not surprisingly the question of how and why you teach science communication in an epoch when science journalism is withering if not entirely dying is on many long time science journalists’ minds. Somewhat self-interestedly I include a link to a blog I recently wrote for the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in which I approached the same issue from a somewhat different perspective for a somewhat different course/program. See http://sciencewriters.ca/2013/12/17/can-you-communicate-science-without-telling-a-story/

    Link to this
  7. 7. rshoff2 5:04 pm 02/24/2014

    Thank you John. Unfortunately, I’m not smart. At least not the way it counts or I wish, but if my little paragraphs here and there don’t give it away, then I’m pleased. As far as kind, thank you! Kindness is the most important human attribute. Without it, all the science in the world is meaningless. If I’m truly fortunate, I will become kind before I leave this world.

    So, as for you! I think you described yourself. Which is what resonates for me in your writing. Let me repeat those for your reflection: Smart, informative, kind, witty. Please let me add courageous, intelligent, and genuine to your list of attributes! And all that from a blog! Your students are lucky that they have you to expose them to new ideas and broaden their world.

    Don’t worry, with that passion comes unknown temperament. No one will expect you to be perfect!

    Link to this
  8. 8. rshoff2 5:07 pm 02/24/2014

    stephenstrauss – You’re article was very helpful. I didn’t realize that there was such a storm brewing in science journalism. Are we really at risk of losing science journalism?

    Link to this
  9. 9. rshoff2 7:13 pm 02/24/2014

    “to your list of attributes! ” meaning …”your attributes”

    Link to this
  10. 10. QRIUS1 12:41 pm 02/26/2014

    I enjoy reading your posts. I’d like to add a couple of comments pertaining to your Science Communication course. I taught Technical Communication for 21 years at a two-year technical college. For about 15 of those years, I also taught an elective titled History of American Science and Technology. My experience tells me that students in science and technology, and engineering, I’m sure, need fundamentals like careful word choice, attention to technical detail as well as composition detail, conciseness in reporting whether in written or spoken form, and willingness to sometimes struggle through dense scientific or technical prose to get at the meaning of the reporting. Video is fine, as a supplement. You are right to think that the students know more about it than we do. But, they do not know as much about the printed word or about the amazing STE discoveries of the distant or recent past embedded in the printed word as we do. If I were going to teach a scientific communication course, I would certainly include a regular class discussion of a topic from Scientific American, Nature, MIT Journal, or another quality publication. Good luck with the course.

    Link to this

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