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The Scientist and the Journalist Can Be Friends

• September 02, 2010 • 11:00 AM

Nancy Baron’s new book is an excellent guide for academic researchers on how to effectively communicate with the press, public and policymakers.

“With high certainty” isn’t going to top anyone’s list of favorite three-word phrases, but as Nancy Baron notes in her important new book Escape from the Ivory Tower, it could serve as a useful linguistic bridge between scientists, journalists and policymakers.

Researchers, she notes, are hesitant to make definitive statements. Aware that knowledge is gained incrementally and always subject to revision, they tend to hedge their answers even to the most direct questions. This can frustrate both reporters, who are looking for facts, and politicians, who want solid information that can inform policy decisions.

This clash of attitudes has real-world consequences — most recently in the climate-change debate, where scientists’ hesitation to make sweeping predictions has been both misinterpreted and willfully misconstrued. For political leaders reluctant to make tough choices, the experts’ understandable tendency to avoid absolutes has become, in Baron’s words, “an excuse to do nothing.”

Barry Noon, a professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Biology, faced this dilemma in the 1990s. When his research about the declining spotted owl population was disputed by the timber industry, he felt a need to express the urgency of the situation without pretending he had all the answers.

His solution, as Baron quotes him, is as eloquent as an Einstein equation:

“Address scientific uncertainty by talking about the degree of certainty that accompanies our scientific conclusions, not the degree of uncertainty,” he states. “For example, ‘our research allowed us to state that the species was in decline with high certainty.’”

What a phrase: It’s definitive enough for journalists, but allows enough wiggle room to keep scientists comfortable. We don’t have to know precisely how acidic the oceans are becoming, or exactly how this will impact the life that lives within them, to know with high certainty that we face a serious problem.

That language is one of many nuggets of practical wisdom provided by Baron, who has spent much of the past decade coaching scientists on how to communicate the implications of their findings to the press and public. As a scientist and science journalist, she is uniquely qualified to help these professionals understand and accommodate each other’s needs.

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In her book, which is aimed at experts who want to become authorities or activists (or fear they will be thrust into such roles), she shares ideas she has picked up over the years and provides room for smart journalists to demystify the writing and editing process. (Full disclosure: One voice represented is that of Miller-McCune Online Editor Michael Todd.)

Baron speaks to scientists in their own language, declaring that “learning to communicate effectively is really no different than learning a new methodology and applying it.” She then details that methodology, which essentially consists of reversing the way academics are trained to think and write.

“Journalists literally want to know your bottom line first,” she writes. “To talk with them, you must turn what you normally do on its head and begin with the conclusion.” Scientists, she notes, are often interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Journalists and policymakers — reflecting the needs of their readers and constituents — are focused on practical consequences.

“Why are you telling me this?” is the book’s informal mantra, and for good reason: A good answer to that question is essential, if a researcher hopes to get his or her work noticed by the media. (Sure, scientists can skip the middle man and blog — Baron has a chapter on that practice — but bloggers, like all other writers, need to know how to attract and hold readers.)

“The most basic way to make people care,” she writes, “is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.” If you’re not sure what that might be, think of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid, or Doug Kenrick’s recent recasting of it — a piece of research that got media attention because it cleverly played on an already-familiar image and addressed issues that hit home in a direct way.

“Keep in mind that nearly every citizen puts the highest priority on economic prosperity and public safety,” Baron writes. If you can frame your research to address one or both of those bottom-line concerns, the chances of it getting noticed by journalists and politicians increases exponentially.

To purists who bristle at such suggestions, Baron has some blunt advice: “You can work with human nature and what audiences will find interesting about a story, or you can resist it.” Tap into some basic human drive — say, fairness — and people with little inherent interest in your area of specialization will stop and take notice.

To get scientists to step back from their habitual linear way of thinking, Baron has devised a “message box.” The central issue they are researching is placed in the middle; it is surrounded by crisp answers to four one-word questions: Problem? (That’s shorthand for: What the specific aspect of this large topic I am addressing?) Solutions? Benefits? And, most critically, So What?

“If a conversation (with a journalist or policymaker) opens with a question about solutions, you can start there,” she notes. “The quadrant layout mentally prepares you to circle back to your main point, no matter where you begin.”

Baron’s writing is substantive but breezy; at many points of the book, she stands aside and lets such veteran science writers as The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin or National Public Radio’s Christopher Joyce contribute their own pithy comments. Such asides give the volume — the third book on the subject of scientists, media and society to be published this year — a unique multiplicity of perspectives, which coalesce into a crucial message.

Baron’s bottom-line advice to scientists entering the public sphere: “Sum it up, simplify, and tell us what it means … or someone else will do it for you, and may get it wrong.” Or, worse, your work will be ignored, which will effectively kill any chance it might make a difference. And that’s something we can say with high certainty.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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