Ushering Science through the Media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

 After four long days at a conference, all you want to do is board a flight home, crawl into bed, and try to forget how your boss saw you dancing at the open-bar party. But on July 30, 2015, a dedicated group of scientists and communicators rallied at the end of Plant Biology 2015 conference in Minneapolis, MN, for the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop on science and public engagement hosted by Sense About Science USA.

As the 2015 ASPB-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I was invited to participate in the workshop and talk about why and how I began pursuing opportunities in science communication. And I eagerly joined my colleagues in discussing ways early-career scientists can improve how science weaves its way into the media.

The media workshop was divided into three sessions, with a corresponding panel of scientists, journalists, and scientist-communicators.

To start, Douglas Cook, a professor at University of California, Davis, made it clear that scientists should be firm about combatting myths and speaking forcefully for evidence-based action. “Science is not democracy,” he said, no matter what the polls say. For effective communication, facts and data are insufficient—people find their own version of the truth. Instead, Cook suggested, look for the values people hold, and see if your work can fulfill those values.

Coming at the issue of how to engage with the public from a different perspective, Sally Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president-elect of ASPB, felt that a coordinated, repeated message could break through even to opponents of some scientific advance, such as genetically modified (GM) foods.  “Some level of activism is our responsibility,” she said, dispensing with the notion that scientists should remain disinterested observers from their labs.

During the question and discussion period of the session, we discussed the labor force of science communication: should it be advanced by scientists who add on communication, or by dedicated communicators with scientific training? Do you need a Ph.D., or is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient? Do you need to study science at all?

The issue we kept coming back to is whose responsibility is communicating science? In academia, science communication is usually left as an extracurricular activity for overworked professors. That will never compete with efforts made by organizations that are committed to advocacy that goes against science and evidence. For instance, as someone noted Greenpeace—a vocal opponent of GM foods—spends $185 million a year on communication alone [The figure was closer to $211 million in 2013].

And with that, it was time for lunch and group work on what the media gets right and wrong when covering science, which led to the second session for the day. In the journalist panel we heard from Emily Sohn, a freelancer and contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook, and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio.

To a room filled mostly with scientists, Sohn described how she finds stories, and how scientists can help her get their research to the public. If you are responsive to emails and phone calls from journalists and give clear, concise answers to questions, you might just end up as one of her “Super Sources” – someone she returns to time and again. And though Cook and Mackenzie, as well as several other scientists in the audience, felt that they had “been burned” by sloppy journalism, Sohn tried to make clear that she was on their team: “We’re all trying to get it right,” she said.

Dunbar, who had stumbled into science journalism from a general assignment background, freely admitted that in radio—where four minutes is a lifetime—she has learned that to communicate effectively she needs to cut all but the most basic scientific concepts. “I try to teach my audience something about science,” she said, and then explain just a fraction of the hot new research.

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was given a chance to pitch their own work to the journalists to see how well they could capture attention for a possible story. In one instance, Sohn and Dunbar helped Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, plan his pitch to journalists on his campaign to put Barbara McClintock on the ten-dollar bill. Their advice: Give a positive message, and make the main point—it’s time to put a female scientist on currency—pop out right away.

And then it was finally time for the last panel, where I joined Karl Haro von Mogel of Biology Fortified; Natalie Henkaus of the Boyce Thompson Institute (which supported the workshop) and soon-to-be ASPB staff member; and Neda Afsarmanesh, Deputy Directory of SAS USA and the organizer of the Media Workshop. We all had scientific backgrounds and we were all in the process of or had already moved into full-time science communication positions.

Henkaus stressed the importance of collaborative communication efforts from the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks, ASPB’s National Plant Science Council, and Cornell’s Alliance for Science (another supporter of the day’s workshop). Von Hogel described how Biology Fortified began as a group blog and morphed into a forceful advocate for biotechnology—and purveyor of cute GMOs. And I got to tell what it’s like to jump straight from the lab into the newsroom, and the importance of funding for training in communication. As the final panel, we had the luxury of longer, casual conversations that conveniently morphed into hor d’oeuvres and drinks. Business cards were exchanged; dramatic reenactments of speeches were staged; theories of science communication were pored over and debated.

My takeaway from the day: Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. They both want to tell others about what they see in the world—what they know to be true—and they both want everyone to be as excited about the story they have to tell as they are.

[This post first appeared on the Sense About Science USA website]

Why my sources are (usually) happy to talk to me

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Mid-way through my experience as a science journalist for the summer, I realized that unlike some of my colleagues in the newsroom around me, my conversations on the phone with sources were rarely combative. The university researchers and government scientists and physicians were usually happy to talk with me about their work—the process, the scope, and the limitations.

(In fact, many are keen to point out the limitations, for fear of stoking baseless hype.)

Sure, getting your name in print is fun, and most scientists don’t often see that. But maybe more that that: Scientists want to look at the world and then tell other people about what they’ve seen. Is that really so different than what drives journalists?

We even use the same language. The verb “report” comprises a formal account, as in a research study, and the gathering of information and preparation for print or broadcast. Reporting is what I do at the Journal Sentinel. Reports are the main section of Science Magazine.

Science has its share of scandals and closed doors—it's a human endeavor after all—but as an institution it’s about discovery and transparency, even if it falls short of those goals.

So I can go ahead and ask probing questions. That’s what scientists are trying to do of themselves all the time; there’s no offense to be taken there.

Now, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Scientists are concerned about their reputation, like anybody else. The one piece of hate mail I have received in my work was from a researcher who was incensed, thinking we intentionally made him look bad. It was a misunderstanding, and he reacted petulantly, saying his reputation was at stake. Nobody wants to look dumb, and I’m sorry he felt hurt.

Other sources have been guarded at the beginning of our conversations, claiming they have been “burned” before with misquotes and inaccuracies. Speaking with a reporter is a brief relationship built entirely on trust, so it’s natural that when that trust is violated people are more cautious for a time. A few well-formed questions and assurances typically open them up; their inclination is ultimately to speak freely.

But most have been thrilled to set aside half an hour or more of their time to talk with me. They are passionate about sharing their work with just one person, and hopeful that our readers will see their work as they do.

I am preparing to go back to being a scientist as my ten-week internship continues to fly by. I hope that I have gained some skills in communication, writing and investigation that will help me be more successful in that work.

But I also hope that the passion for discovery and communication I hear from the sources I speak to every day sticks with me as I head back to lab.

 [This post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

A Summer of Science Reporting

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

After learning I’m a graduate student, a lot of people I meet start asking me in the spring what kind of job I’ll get for the summer. It’s a year-round appointment, I tell them, and is a lot like a normal job—no summer vacation. I had to do even more explaining than usual this year because I am taking the summer off from lab, but neither to lollygag nor to pad my bank account. Instead, I’ll be a science reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This summer, I am one of 20 scientists accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Fellowship. We will scatter all around the country to report on science for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

Now in its 41st year, the MMF aims to give young scientists the opportunity to learn about and hone their skills in science communication. Many alumni stay in academia or industry research, while still writing for a general audience more often than their peers. But many others—43% according to the AAAS—formally transition to science journalism and communication, a number many fold greater than for most graduate students.

The fellows are drawn from a pool of students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the natural sciences and engineering; journalism students do not qualify. Across their different disciplines and education levels, the MMF participants are connected by their motivation to solve the challenges of translating technical information into understandable and engaging material. The program has trained hundreds of students in four decades, and counts among its alumni the co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and popular reporters such as NPR’s Joe Palca and David Kestenbaum.

I can no longer remember how I learned about the program, or even how I discovered that ‘science communication’ was a viable (albeit not exactly lucrative) profession. But knowing both, securing a spot in this program became my top professional priority. As one alumni says, the MMF is “a ready-made way to pole vault out of academia and into journalism.” And I needed that boost.

About this time last year, I happened to meet the one person in the world who knew that the American Society of Plant Biologists-sponsored fellow had dropped out at the last minute, and I was put in touch with the program coordinator, Dione Rossiter. I hurriedly submitted a half-application to try and fill the slot, but was rejected in light of the unusual circumstances, although invited to reapply for real in 2015. The 2015 program was already in my sights, but I was only more motivated to land a spot by this close encounter. Plus, I got to learn more about the application process in a way that helped me prepare to apply in January of this year. Luckily, things broke my way and I was accepted.

Now I am cruising at 33,000 feet on my way to Washington, D.C. to meet the 19 other fellows and go through orientation. We’ll practice interviewing techniques and how to pitch a story to our editors, tour NPR(!), and mingle with alumni. Then off to Wisconsin, where I will write science stories for the local desk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to accounts from previous fellows at the JS, it’ll largely be up to me to find, pitch, and report the stories I’m interested in, so long as they have a local angle. The freedom is enticing, but nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the paper has Pulitzer prize-winning science reporters I can probe for advice, but the impetus will be on me to make the connections necessary to be successful.

I am grateful for this opportunity and anxious to get started moving my byline from blog posts to newsstands. Check back here for updates during the summer. Or pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel in the coming weeks to see what I've been up to.

[This post first appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

Audio File #4: Civil, Civic Discussions

Our conversations about civic matters—economic policies, schooling systems, religion, science, and social institutions—are severely lacking in nuance and reasoned debate. Instead, what flourishes are simplistic arguments and ad hominem attacks. This trend is strengthened by a media environment where we can easily consume pieces tailored to our point of view, avoiding challenge and change.

 

On Being is a weekly public radio show hosted by Krista Tippett ostensibly about religion and spirituality, but now the host of a broader series of discussions called the Civil Conversations Project. I used to turn off On Being when it came on my radio Sunday afternoons, put off by the wispy quality, assuming it was a liberal echo chamber of feel-good, empty spirituality.

 

But as I would listen in snippets, or accidentally turn it on in the car, I found it to be a series of careful, respectful dialogues about difficult subjects, with religion, of course, among the trickiest.

 

So it did not altogether surprise me to find myself enchanted by arecent episode on gay marriage, which really became a window into how to have civil debates. An interview of David Blankenhorn and Jonathon Rauch—originally on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate, and now friends in agreement on many issues—the discussion covered David’s changed mind on gay marriage, but much more interestingly their process of what they called “achieving disagreement.”

 

For this post I really want to excerpt some longer segments that, I think, speak for themselves. I encourage listening to the full episode. To have two people agree about how to disagree, that are intellectually honest in their point of view and empathetic enough to consider the other side is tragically rare these days and models a better way to converse. I think we can learn from them how to continue to passionately disagree while remaining not just polite, but truly civil.

 

Following are minimally-edited excerpts.

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Reaching Across the Gap with Curiosity


"I think there is nothing so exciting as listening to someone think on the radio." — Jad Abumrad


On Wednesday, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame presented at Washington University’s first Ampersand Week, a series of events celebrating the ‘and’ of Arts and Sciences, or the value of liberal arts education over exclusive specialization. A perfect choice for such a purpose, Radiolab draws on the composing background of Jad and the inventive science journalism of Robert to explore scientific topics with a humanistic lens. The event took place in Graham Chapel, the pews filled with students, faculty, staff, and the public for the free event.

I was not sure what this presentation would entail. Would they present a live version of Radiolab? Or just introduce a series of archived podcast segments? The experience was somewhere between those two. Relying on existing tape, Jad and Robert discussed the production of Radiolab, the task of distilling technical knowledge from experts for a lay audience, and the musicality and intimacy of radio over other mediums.

Jad opened by acknowledging his mother, sitting in the front row, an obesity researcher here at Washington University, a professor in my program no less. I had no idea. On the large screen behind them, Jad put up a picture of his mother’s protein, what she studies every day, which helps bring fats into the cell. In fact, Jad grew up in a scientific home, with a medical doctor father and scientist mother, an environment that clearly influences his work to bridge the sciences and the arts.

The first segment began by peeling back the curtain on how a formal interview with a scientist becomes radio drama. Robert spoke with Cynthia Kenyon, a C. elegans researcher at UCSF, about two genes that control aging in the tiny worms. One is a hormone receptor, which, when activated, represses the activity of a transcription factor. When the transcription factor is allowed to function, it controls the expression of many separate genes that work together to increase the lifespan of the worms several fold. Jad played the unedited interview, demonstrating how even a media-savvy researcher stumbled to translate the molecular action of genes into something a non-scientist could grasp, and even care about. It was awkward and difficult to keep track of.
 
But as Jad pointed out, Cynthia’s explanation naturally gravitated to exciting, narrative verbs. Spring. Inhibit. Leap into action. The nouns suffered from alphabet soup—scientists rely heavily on acronyms and jargon for naming genes—and specialized phrases. Receptor. Transcription factor. DAF-2. Radiolab’s job, then, was what Jad called “noun replacement therapy.” Keep the substance, but swap technical language with vernacular.


The translated version: The Grim Reaper Gene (hormone receptor) cue evil laugh battles it out with the Fountain of Youth Gene (transcription factor) cue toddler giggles for control of the aging process. Beat up on the Grim Reaper (mutate it) painful groans and the baby is free to keep cells, and the animal, youthful, blowing spit bubbles as it does.

To some scientists, this kind of translation may seem simplistic. (Cynthia produced the gene nicknames, it was not a liberty taken by Radiolab.) Robert even phrased it as having to ask, “How stupid do you want to be?” Always there is a trade-off between accuracy and understandability. Always. “You’re somehow trying to find a way to stay in the middle,” Robert said. Choosing that point, and then finding that point, is the challenge a show like Radiolab contends with for every topic. But to avoid any kind of simplifying is to wall off scientific research to the ivory tower, something far more damaging than “noun replacement therapy.”

This translation is not foreign to most of us, maybe just lost. Jad recalled trying to bridge the gap with his mom to explain her work when he was a kid, dinner plates standing in for cells and the salt shaker for her protein, the iterative process of trying to get closer to the truth one curious question after another. Our interest in understanding something new, something difficult, is dampened by a culture that discourages looking stupid, but it can be encouraged as well. Jad and Robert try to use the power of stupid questions asked with genuine curiosity to recapture that sense of wonder. “Yes, but why?”

Robert said that if they approach a scientist with sincere curiosity, about 60 percent will spend the time to tell them what they need to know. I wish that number were higher, but I am surprised it is that high. I think they may have a self-selecting group of scientists more inclined to work with the media than most. But I could not say for sure.

Beyond translation, the hour-long presentation delved into the frenetic production of the show, with layers of music and noise and swirling audio energy, a style that aims for a composer’s musicality and an authentic struggle for new knowledge. As a technically naïve but huge fan of radio, I appreciated seeing the depth of production at the software level that goes into making one of my favorite shows. Although hard to miss in a show like Radiolab, I know that most audio production is successful when it goes unnoticed, but it is good to be reminded of the work that goes into these programs.

The floor open to questions, I waited in line at the mic to ask: How can scientists help reach back out to the journalists, or the public, who have reached toward us to help bridge these gaps? I did not get an answer to my question, but I did get a good answer to a good question.

Robert instead answered the why. Why should scientists care about communicating their work? He couched it in militaristic, epic terms—scientific inquiry is the product of intellectual freedom, a resource that is constantly endangered. To tell a story of the science we do is an enchantment, one that can draw people in and convince them that the freedom required for this kind of work is worth demanding and worth preserving. No less than the ability to perform honest work is at stake in the communication of our research.

Jad again put on screen the structure of his mother’s protein, her life’s work, to help illustrate his partner’s answer on the value of free inquiry. He then answered a question closer to my own. “The story of science is in most cases the story of ceaseless failure, which is really the story of everyone who walks the earth,” he said. Tell that human story of vulnerability, confusion, failure, and occasional bright points of insight and success, and anyone can be reached.



Audio File #3: Getting Entangled in Invisibilia

Cover for "Entanglement" by Daniel Horowitz
“Two things separated in space can be the same thing.” –Geoff Brumfiel, Entanglement

After the hit podcast Serial landed and enraptured a widening audience of audio fanatics, I think that a lot of people have been searching for new shows to fill the gap left behind by the conclusion of Serial season one. To this group—and to existing podcast aficionados—I present Invisibilia.

Invisibilia is the spiritual successor of Radiolab, and its production love-child along with This American Life. The two hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, are founding producers of This American Life and Radiolab, respectively, and NPR science reporters besides. Latin for “all the invisible things,” Invisibilia promises a weekly exploration of the invisible forces that shape human behavior. So far, four shows in, this means Spiegel and Miller are creating a surprisingly spiritual discussion rooted in cutting edge neuroscience about the psychology and brain biology behind how humans feel and act.

The first three episodes covered the power and intrigue of our very own thoughts; how to control your fear (and what happens when you feel none); and the profound, very real, effects of people’s expectations of the blind. Each is truly, almost alarmingly, excellent. Today, I want to cover the latest episode: Entanglement.

Lulu and Alix begin by visiting a physics lab at the University of Maryland to witness the creation of quantum entanglement, the physical phenomenon of linking two objects together at a deep level. Once entangled, if one particle is altered—even at a great physical distance from its partner—the other responds accordingly. It’s messy, and brushes up against our notions of causality and the fundamental limit of the speed of light, but it is very real. And quantum entanglement is the lead in to the equally bizarre and fascinating world of entanglement among people, how we are intimately tied to the people around us in conscious and unconscious ways.

The first story of entanglement takes Alix and Lulu to a woman, Amanda, and her family. Amanda experiences a very rare form of extreme empathy, called mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is the general term for relatively rare but well-documented cases when people experience a mixing of traditionally separate senses, like seeing colors in numbers or tasting sounds. Basically, synesthesia boils down to crossed wires in the brain, which ultimately integrates all of our senses into conscious experience. In some people, that integration is messier.

For Amanda, the very experience of seeing someone experience something triggers the subjective sense of that act within herself. When she was young, she realized that seeing someone get hugged felt like a hug, at a very real, physical level. A woman scratching her arm felt like a scratch. People chewing food felt like they were stuffing food in her own mouth. Pain also transferred across space. Experiencing all of this, and an intense level of emotional empathy as well, left Amanda drained every day, and even unsure of her own identity as she took on the feelings and mannerisms of those around her.

The neurological explanation of Amanda’s difficult condition relies on mirror neurons. Observed directly only in monkeys so far, mirror neurons fire both when observing an action and when doing it. They are a cellular explanation for empathy. Presumably, mirror neurons, or something much like them, cause Amanda’s sensory cortex to light up just when watching a stranger feel or do something. I will leave the engrossing and melancholic exploration of the effects of this overcharged empathy on Amanda and her family to the hosts. Suffice to say, it is not easy being so intimately wrapped up in the world.

The second story features psychology researchers Elaine Hatfield and Dick Rapson of the University of Hawaii and their studies on ‘emotional contagion,’ the phenomenon of mimicking the physical and emotional states of those around you. Unconsciously, we match the posture or speaking patterns of people we interact with. Lulu goes on to explain that even imperceptible patterns, like blinking or breathing, will become synchronized.

Emotional mimicry is at play here as well. Linked to microexpressions—unconscious, rapid-fire flashes of emotion—this kind of emotional empathy influences the mood of everyone you interact with. Filled with audio of old Candid Camera episodes and the meshwork of Elaine and Dick marveling at the subject of their studies, the story comes alive with emotion and a sense of wonder. The researchers explain the consequences of this sponge-like absorption of our environment’s emotional energy, which include a limit on our individuality. We cannot truly be isolated, emotionally contained individuals if we react so viscerally to the emotions around us. Like smokers who try to quit but still hang around smokers, all of us are influenced in obvious and subtle ways by the people we surround ourselves with.

Or as Lulu explains: “It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.”

There is a bonus story at the end about the greatest entanglement—the one with our mothers—that I won’t spoil. In their exploration of Amanda’s extreme empathy, and our commonplace experience of it, Lulu and Alix manage to weave an emotional hour of awe, sadness, and laughter. Their story-telling pedigrees, and science journalism chops, combine to create the best science show I know of since Radiolab.

The show can stretch credulity. This is clearly not an accident. Alix and Lulu want to stretch your mind to the border of science fiction, and then push you back just over the edge toward reality. They deliberately construct ridiculous claims—about the blind seeing or the material reality of thoughts—and then carefully lead you to that exact conclusion through their narrative. They may test the boundaries of accuracy with hyperbole, but the sense of curiosity and wonder they instill seems worth it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the refreshing power of having two quick, smart women discuss science with a clear sense of awe, respect, and desire to learn and share. Although Lulu and Alix are journalists, not scientists, I expect the show could really impact our culture where women are still underrepresented in science and face a lack of role models for scientific curiosity. Not scientists, no, but Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel have the scientific curiosity down, and we all benefit in Inivisibilia.



Distilling the Discussion of Climate Change

Speaking science is hard. There’s a lot that goes into it. How do scientists, journalists, or other communicators get across the scientific process, facts, models and predictions? In a way that doesn’t put everyone to sleep? Persuasively, even? Science is a process that goes on for years and decades, and a particular subject area may need to be condensed down to 15 minutes, if we’re being generous.

Climate change is the prime scientific subject in our culture today. Everyone has heard of it, most people have an opinion about it, yet it remains muddied in a haze of misinformation, hyperbole and doom. “How to talk about climate change so people will listen,” an article by Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic, tackles the problems of persuasion and the limits of facts in this conversation.

Unlike most non-scientists—okay, unlike most scientists too—Mann digs into a doom-and-gloom news story about sea level rise associated with climate change and reads the two journal articles that backed up the story. He found that the timeline was left out of the story: barely any effect would be seen in his lifetime or even while any descendants could remember his name, according to the predictions. An economic-moral problem at the heart of this incredibly long-term problem is how much do we value future generations, and how much should we do to help them out? “How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren…,” Mann writes. “Americans don’t even save for their own retirements! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?” The human species isn’t good at planning for the future. Can facts and scary stories overcome that limitation at all?

Every side in the debate throws a mass of data at unsuspecting lawmakers or the public, hoping to win over hearts and minds. This strategy has two weak points: the invocation of Science, and the presentation of facts. The data, Mann writes, only work well between climatologists, but “for the typical citizen they are a muddle, too abstract—too much like 10th-grade homework—to be convincing.” Previous research on persuasion shows the limits of data for winning over the skeptical, even the neutral. Another problem is that every side claims the science is on their side, and the do-nothing crowd is all-too-happy to point out the rare dissenting scientist and then let the ‘controversy’ spin itself. “Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands,” writes Mann. Like children in the middle of feuding parents, most people are too frozen to pick a side, instead hiding their head under the pillow. Who can blame them?

Science communication comes upon this thorny problem like Sisyphus against his boulder. Progress is made—in polls, in treaties almost signed—then lost again, erased in a cloud of obfuscation and contrived debate. Because it’s not easy, because facts are insufficient, because it will take work and money to address the causes and symptoms of climate change seriously. Some environmentalists turn in frustration toward hyperbole—spitting out boldly false predictions of Malthusian starvation—and “moral blackmail” that sours the public on the whole movement.

Mann argues that to move past the confusion, we need to simplify the discussion and define quantifiable objectives. When talking about carbon, the majority comes from burning coal. And although a lot of carbon dioxide is also released by burning gasoline in personal cars, coal is burned in a much smaller number of power plants, making it easier to wrap our minds around. “No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change,” Mann writes, “you are primarily talking about coal.” Although the most economically sound solution to producing too much carbon dioxide, an essentially global carbon tax that avoids ‘carbon haven’ countries, is still politically and practically difficult, “it is, at least, imaginable”. And that’s a step.


The Obama administration is, in fact, taking this approach. Coal emissions in the United States are now supposed to be reduced 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  Is it enough? No. But it’s a start. And reflecting on the lessons taught by the conversation around climate change can help us think about other thorny issues where the communication of science is at the forefront. If we can begin to condense down the salient points about climate change—coal is at the forefront, and changes can be made—then we can think more clearly about simpler issues, like GMOs. Coming to a mutual understanding about what’s at stake, be it coal emissions or agricultural pesticides, can help clear away the clutter and improve both the communication of science and help society decide what to do about the issue at hand.

Agreeing to Disagree

“Disagreement agrees with me.” –Mike Pesca, The Gist

Honest opinion and in-good-faith disagreement seem rare in today’s media. Now, that statement may first conjure up the millions of blogs (ahem) that are nothing but opinions. But! I would challenge the ‘in-good-faith’ clause of many of those. The press, on the other hand, shies away from opinion in order to present an even-handed account of ‘both sides’.  (We’ll cover the value of the he-said-she-said approach to reporting another time, perhaps.)

Hence the brilliance of unleashing Mike Pesca upon the world in his new show, The Gist, on Slate. A short, daily podcast, The Gist typically covers around two topics from the personal (advice column follow ups) to the curious (the state of candy Peeps) to serious current events, like Ebola. And Pesca’s energy and, yes, opinion, permeates the show in a way I find refreshing. The ending segment, the spiel, is Pesca ranting—rant doesn’t need to be a bad word here—on the same mix of anything from the fantastic to daily minutiae.

Friday’s spiel was an argument in favor of arguments, couched in the context of debates on HBO and CNN around the very premise of Islam. Is it a bad religion or a good religion? You can, I’m sure, imagine some of the simplistic arguments on either side of that simplistic question. But Pesca was not diving into the specifics, but rather encouraging the exercise. Strip away the personal attacks and you have the basic elements of a debate. “There was a struggle over the definition of terms. There were competing assertions as to what the relevant facts were. There was a thesis offered…” Counterpoint. Counter-counterpoint.

Although Pesca cops to the increasing tendency to devolve into “shouting or bullying or baiting or clapping at the dumb parts,” he calls out for a (possibly imagined?) past when argument was intended not to make your side feel better, but to reach through the column to the undecided, even the other side. Because these are different constructions, of course. The cheerleading argument is much simpler and easier than well-framed persuasion.

I’m not sure that Pesca is imagining the supposed golden age of discourse quite right. Regardless, I would like to see his vision realized today. I think of the ongoing conversations St. Louis is having over the events in Ferguson, and now in the City as well, about black youth and police behavior. Many of my conversations are civil and respectful, with participants vulnerable enough to provide honest opinions and to be swayed by good-faith arguments and to stand comfortable in disagreement. But a fraction (and a majority online, unsurprisingly) of these conversations are sadly reduced to choir-preaching and name-calling. Disagreement is taken as evidence of treason. Even skepticism can be anathema in the wrong circles. That’s sad. Because as our society grapples not just with the inequities of race, but with our stance toward Islam, our approach to immigration, or our rights and responsibilities on the world stage, we need disagreement. The called-for ‘public debate’ after every significant moment must be both. To shut down debate is to shut out progress.

I think one thing wrong with our conceptions about disagreement is the tendency to write off opinions that are not our own far too quickly. But, as Pesca notes, “if the argument is sound, and if the disagreement is honest, then an expressed opinion doesn’t need to be subscribed to in order to be valued.” There is no debate without disagreement. No progress without debate over the facts and over our values. Let’s not squash that with conflict-aversion or simplistic name-calling. Let’s embrace it.

Unless, of course, you disagree.


The Spirit of Cosmos

After watching the entirety of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and rewatching some episodes, I wanted to write about how it impacted me and what it accomplished.

I was hooked from the first episode. Having such a well-produced and overarching presentation of scientific discovery, scientists, and the scientific method on prime-time television was thrilling in and of itself. For the most part, every subsequent episode only reinforced this feeling.

What you can only see when considering the series as a whole is its main narrative arc, one I hoped would be highlighted, and arguably the most important topic for this show: climate change. Particularly from the second episode on, with the unnamed chamber in the "Halls of Extinction" left for the current mass extinction perpetuated by human activity, through to the final episode where Tyson's appeal for changing course is explicit, urgent, and heartfelt, global warming was addressed from all angles. Cosmos was broadcast on Fox on Sunday evenings and again on National Geographic on Mondays. It was a major cultural force with millions of viewers nationally and millions more worldwide. The explanation of climate change, our evidence for its human origin, and the steps that need to be taken to remediate its effects is a moral imperative that Cosmos addressed head on. Yet in taking climate change seriously, Tyson still managed a carefully-chosen hopeful tone for this and other issues.

That's the second theme that shines through each episode: hope and optimism for improvement. Really the entire series focuses on humanity's potential for advancement, both in our knowledge about the universe and our application of that knowledge for benevolent purposes. And remarkably, Cosmos manages this hopeful tone without shying away from our failures and mistakes: the persecution of scientists; corporate greed; personal spats; sexism. It is this presentation of humanity as mistaken but self-correcting--a metaphor perhaps for the scientific method itself--that imbues the show with a spiritual quality that I connected with deeply. This humanistic approach is in a way very scientific. We can only rely on our own ingenuity, our own innovation, our own purposeful application of scientific knowledge to save us, and the rest of the planet, from ourselves.

From a simple and clear explanation of evolution by natural selection to Sagan's Golden Record, Cosmos was a thrilling look at why we do science, how we do science, and what scientific inquiry can offer to humanity in our search for meaning and understanding in this world. I can only hope they consider another season or that future scientific documentaries study the lessons of Cosmos to make a meaningful impact.



Urban Media

Public radio is like a city.

The pledge drive for St. Louis Public Radio ended yesterday. (And it's not too late to pledge!) And I just spent the last two days, as I often do on weekends, listening to roughly eight hours of programming. Actually, that might be a conservative estimate. So I have public radio on my mind, you could say.

I listen to public radio not only to get my news--although it is my primary news source. I listen to get different perspectives, to expand my horizons and to see the world from a new point of view. I listen to On the Media so I understand the broader implications of mainstream and alternative media portrayals of events. I tune in to This American Life to hear how other people live and connect to one another.

Public radio provides something that few other media outlets can, or do anyway. It gives perspective. A local newspaper or broadcast may focus narrowly on nearby events. A lot of times these are sensational stories like murders that absolutely deserve to be covered but are teased out like twisted candy to attract visitors. A national paper or broadcast casts a wider net and tells you what is happening to people around the world and about the political machine marching toward new legislation that will affect you. And the network alternative, cable news, caters itself to self-selecting political ideologies or, like CNN, simply stoops to reach the lowest common denominator.

But public radio can offer a wider perspective. Partly because of its funding model, which at least for KWMU is about 50% individual donors with the remainder from corporate sponsorships, government funding and foundational support. This leaves public radio stations a good deal more independent and capable of covering issues with fewer conflicts of interest. And partly from what I can only assume is tradition. Or another way of phrasing that: choice.

Public radio chooses to provide a human narrative to many of the stories they cover. You hear people in their own voices, beamed into your home from another city or the other side of the world. You hear the pain when they describe loss and their joy when they overcome it. It is an intensely emotional medium.

Public radio is like a city because it provides you with those new experiences you only get from other people. Happening across an engaging, moving story on the radio is like running into a stranger at a coffee shop and striking up a conversation. You didn't know it was going to happen, but by being at the coffee shop, by surrounding yourself with new people, you let it happen. And it enriches your day, maybe even impacts your life.

When I put on the radio on Sunday afternoon I'm always hoping for those same experiences. To hear about problems and solutions and suffering and triumph and the bizarre and wonderful ways that my fellow human beings live grounds me in the wider society. I find this diversity invigorating, much as I do city life.