Lessons in science outreach from New York City (Part 3) – Insights from a Journalist

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Angela Chen

My final, and perhaps most notable lesson in science outreach and communication comes from my friend, journalist Angela Chen. Angela has a BA in comparative literature from the University of California at San Diego. She is currently a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

While Angela reports on a variety of issues, she has a noted interest in science and science journalism. I was very curious to find out what got someone such as Angela interested in science, since she comes from a discipline that seems so far removed from academic science, and yet is very well-informed and conversant about contemporary science discourses.

Angela mentioned that her major interests in the science world were concentrated in the behavioural realm, namely, neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology; the so-called softer sciences, distinct from the more quantitative disciplines of physics and chemistry. “Growing up, I always thought that I was a humanities girl. I typecast myself, even though from a very young age, I loved reading books by Oliver Sacks, and by freshman year of college I was reading a lot of Steven Pinker, like The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works…”, Angela said. “I think that’s what got me into science, approaching it from kind of a top down level; looking at how science explains these big concepts of philosophy of free will, the meaning of language…the questions that you would think were in the domain of humanities. Seeing empirical evidence for that was really powerful.” From thereon, Angela proceeded to investigate intersections of arts and science, and then increasingly became more comfortable in the realms of pure science.

Like many others, Angela became interested in science by reading books by scientists meant for a popular audience. As someone with a science background, I can be quite sensitive to subtle simplifications that detract from a larger explanation, and such strategies are often used by science popularizers. Angela, however, sees it quite differently. We discussed Malcolm Gladwell as someone who is notorious for “cherry-picking” science and giving haphazard explanations along with his anecdotes. Even though nowadays Angela does not have very high opinion of Gladwell’s works, she contended that they are sort of the writing that can get people to investigate and understand the importance of scientific literacy. “With science communication, there is always a spectrum, from good to bad”, said Angela. “Take for example, Jonah Lehrer, whose books are basically pop science, even before the plagiarism scandal, in a similar genre as Gladwell’s. Oliver Sacks’s books however, were never questioned for their scientific validity, and they too belong to the same genre of popular science books. So there is definitely potential for popular science books to become hooks for greater scientific literacy, if done well.”

Angela has written a number of articles that are based on contemporary scientific studies, including ones about the biology of the sports fan, and superstitions. She mentioned that explaining the methodology of these studies remain the biggest challenge, whereas the results are relatively easier to communicate to the public. She believes that not coming from a science background actually gives her a bit of an advantage, as she does not tend to get bogged down by jargon and can easily distill the essentials of a study to the layperson’s understanding. She is also privileged to often communicate directly with scientists and researchers, with whom she can clarify any questions she has had about the studies. However, the public at large does not have access to scientists and researchers with the same relative ease, and science communicators remain ultimately responsible for effectively relaying scientific information to them. Angela mentioned that an understanding of the way culture of journalism works may benefit both scientists and the public, as they could further understand the nuances of the mass communication process. Additionally, reaching out to a  number of science journalists and experts on social media is also a good option for the public trying to get better understanding of scientific topics.

Finally, I asked her about the gap that exists in contemporary science journalism, in that a lot of science writers are not up to speed with the culture of science, and similarly, many scientists are not familiar with how the media works. She recommended that this gap can be addressed by each group exploring the goals of the other, and experiencing what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes. Scientists are often concerned with the refinements of the procedure and methodology, whereas journalists tend to be more interested in the final findings and their implications. Reaching a consensus on the important aspects of a study by reconciling the not necessarily diverging foci of the scientists and journalists could thus indeed produce superior science communication.

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