Critical views of science in the news

What Should We Teach When We Teach Science Communication?


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 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


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

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