SCI-ART LAB

Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Science communication series - Part 6

"Telling people about science is just as important as conducting the science".

A journalist of Indian origin in the US recently complained that when she attended a science writers conference there, she couldn't find anybody like her! In a blog titled 'Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers' , she says she felt lonely there! And according to her to stay relevant, science journalism needs fresh ideas—and the homogeneous group she saw at the conference was inherently limited in the ideas it can offer. (ref1) Without diversity in newsrooms, she says, what you get is a small group of (mostly privileged) people writing for another small group of (mostly privileged) people. Entire stories are missed, and those that do get written have the same, tired perspectives, missing nuances of color, race, class, gender and ethnicity. It is not being realized that only effective localized science journalism can help enhance public awareness about science and technology confronting their day-to-day lives.

And I am not surprised! The lack of diversity of Science Writers -especially journalists- might just be true of science journalism in general in the world.

Science is universal in nature. Therefore, it is important that people from all over the world took part in communicating science. We often see Reuters or BBC or AP - just 5-6 news agencies reporting on science issues and all the other news papers in the world - especially in this part of the world - repeating and reporting the same things. Most of the science writers here don't try to write independently. I agree science is a difficult subject to write on but you cannot really claim you are a science writer without being independent and innovative. Here, in this part of the world except for people from the field of science, others, especially journalists usually don't write on science. They just concentrate on politics, sports and movies. News papers and magazines only repeat what other news agencies say about science stories. Or they copy data from the websites of scientific research organizations and publish! I am not surprised now and I will not be surprised in the future too if no Indian or women journalists take part in these conferences or meetings because there aren't many who write about science and those who do write are not into quality science journalism to participate in the International conferences!

I was wondering why this is the case here when a British editor brought to my notice something very important that is happening there and not here - which could be one of the reasons for poor science journalism in this part of the world.

The British Editor said: Krishna, after so many years working in the science arena I have picked up a lot from a lot of fields! On Nobel announcement day or  any day on which we have to do a major science story, we would have three journalists with science PhDs in three different subjects at our end of the telephone. And I do mean journalists with PhDs, not PhDs who did a bit of writing on the side! And we do quality stories with their help!

Ah, now I got the answer for the Q why science journalism is not faring well in this part of the world!

Science is 'communicated' by journalists in two ways: Science "journalism" (contextualising, investigating and, at times, challenging science) and just science "communication" (a public relations exercise that is brought directly from the scripts of scientific institutions) (2).

I have read some of the best science stories told in the British media and New York times. I wondered innumerable times why Indians can't write so well with regard to science because the journalists and news papers/magazines here just do science communication, repeating what the scientists say at the press conferences / on their websites or what International news agencies say! Because they don't understand science as much as a person of science can to do interesting and informative stories. Articles which are informative, analytical, critical and having a continuous flow will attract more people. To write an article on a particular topic, one needs to understand the available literature and discuss the topic with concerned experts and incorporate their suggestions. It is necessary to bear in mind that an integrated and balanced view of the topic/ issue needs to be presented along with a proper analysis in a language easily intelligible to the common public. An article must necessarily reflect alertness, informative and the investigative bent of mind of the reporter. But I see no professional science journalism to talk about in this part of the world.

I will give an example here: Recently, when Mangalyan (Mars Orbiter Mission) was launched by ISRO, some people criticized it saying that it was a waste of money. Accept for quoting a few scientists refuting these criticisms by giving one or two points , no real effort was made by the media to defend the scientific projects of Indian Space Research Organization. One journalist when asked by me why this was so said, " We got to balance things. We are not PR people of ISRO. We will have to report all the views including the criticisms too". Who can disagree? Media people can be neutral if they choose to do so. But if the journalists want to balance ignorance with knowledge, superstitions with rationality, misconceptions with facts, doesn't the world stay where it is instead of progressing? This "false impartiality" of presenting the views of tiny and unqualified minorities as if they have the same weight as the scientific consensus based on facts is one of the biggest blunders of science journalism! Why don't the journalists thoroughly analyse the criticisms and facts and report the  relative truth like I did? Yes, I too wrote on this (4). But as a person belonging to the field of science, I realized when I analyzed the facts, when science is benefiting the society and the balance is being tilted towards the good of it, media should place the right facts before people and remove misconceptions if it is a really responsible one. Only when you know all the facts, only when you are passionate to bring the facts before people, can you do this. Who else can fit the description than a person who is deeply involved with science, passionate about it, see the picture clearly and describe it exactly? Can an indifferent person from the media do it? Can an ignorant person do it? If you are indifferent, impassionate and ignorant, you cannot do justice to science journalism! The indifferent attitude can be removed when the journalists have a deep association with science. Journalists can always go to the  experts, for details but at least some scientists complain that journalists don't portray the picture given to them correctly. This is where 'understanding the depths of a subject' is highly relevant!

But let me also add that although a Ph.D. qualification is not necessary to write on science topics, some of the best articles I read about science were written by science experts in the British media! Of course not all experts can write well or communicate well. But a Ph.D. or a PG in science coupled with a degree in journalism can do wonders!

 Sebastian Springer, a biochemist at Jacobs University in Bremen, who worked with Schekman (Nobel prize winner, Biology and Medicine, 2013 ) at the University of California, Berkeley, says there are major problems even in scientific publishing. "The system is not meritocratic. Sometimes the editors are not professional scientists, they are journalists which isn't necessarily the greatest problem, but they emphasize novelty over solid work!" (8) There lies the problem! And Randy Schekman himself criticizes (9) that some journals publish papers with the help of the Journalist editors. With regard to his journal eLife, decisions are made in an open and consultative manner with experts who are practicing scientists making all the decisions about what to review, what manuscript revisions to recommend and ultimately, what to accept for publication. Way to go!

Murray Gell-Mann , a Theoretical Physicist, who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics, says that science writers are “ignoramuses” and a “terrible breed,” who invariably get things wrong; only scientists are qualified to present their work to the masses (10). I don't go to that extreme but majority of the scientists somehow feel that way!

I wonder what journalism courses (BCJ and MCJ) , Indian universities offer teach regarding science journalism. I searched for such courses and found that the National Council for Science and Technology Communication under the Ministry of Science has sponsored postgraduate degree and diploma courses in science and technology communication. These have been started in a few universities.

Some courses are offered by bodies not related to professional journalism courses but by scientific bodies: http://www.iscos.org/courses.htm#Final_Examination

We have a body called Indian science communication society: http://www.iscos.org/index.htm

And they say they have several objectives like training in Science Journalism and Science writing, science Awareness campaigns – Rallies and Padyatra, energy conservation campaigns, Elementary Professional Training to Science Communicators, Public Relation Campaigns,Offer solution to public problems/queries related with science, Distribute educational material/literature on popular science.Science Exhibition/Melas, slogan writing on science.,Organise dramas/theaters on science issues. promote/establish Listener’s/Viewer’s clubs with active workers/participants,Science popularisation among children, specially school going children.,Environment, security and public hygiene campaigns,Organise science symposiums at village /Block/ Tehsil/ District/ Division/ State/ National level,Self employment scheme – including training and guidance based on science and technology.

And we have a science communication journal too! http://www.iscos.org/ijsc.htm

And we have a government wing which deals with science and tech communication: http://dst.gov.in/scientific-programme/s-t_ncstc.htm

Other private ones: http://news.ncbs.res.in/story/third-annual-ncbs-science-journalism-...

http://www.slideshare.net/smnattu/science-journalism-in-indiaa-jour...

I found several of these private bodies which claim they give coaching in science communication  boasting that 'foreign'/'western' science journalists give coaching with the courses offered by them! Do 'foreigners' understand the situations and cultural way of conditioning of minds here? During my discussions in various international forums I realized they didn't! Then how can they teach how to overcome these conditions? Completely irrelevant way of doing things!

Most of the 'communication' here -and several parts of the world too- is being done for the literates largely ignoring illiterates. When reading news papers published in local languages is non-existent for these people, reading the ones published in English is completely out of question. Therefore, local radio, TV and theater or movies can become the media of science communication for such cases. But these things are spreading more superstitions and pseudo-science rather than facts of science. Art comes very handy in communicating things to laymen. I find absolutely no effort being made to follow this form of  science communication here.

And still why aren't many journalists going for real science journalism, investigating stories and challenging bold claims of pseudo-science practitioners? Why are they unable to overcome the challenges of science communication? Not only in print, but in the broadcast media too, the misleading scientific information, a continuous decay of creativity in presentation, distortion in translation from other papers and articles, inconsistency in organizing the contents, lapses in the use of language, and many more deviations can be seen frequently here (3). One of the reasons for the science reporting to have remained underdeveloped in our country may be due to the fact that except for a few dry and drab articles, technical information/ news, and hardly any other modes of science writing were employed. Science journalism is misunderstood merely as communication of data in this part of the world! The logical and rational interpretation must come up to the fore, enabling the target audiences to shape their lives, ideas and thinking, as well. With the onset of monsoon the diseases still reach epidemic proportions.  After years of work by several bodies I see absolutely no change with regard to certain issues like pseudo-science, anti-science, superstitions ( on the contrary they are increasing day by day) in people's minds! And people still don't live in sanitary conditions and men - even the degree holders - still urinate on busy public roads! Children in cities too defecate outside their homes (now behavioural scientists are trying to help solve these problems)! Rumours of ghosts and witchcraft still stick on the minds of men on the street like a chewed gum sticks to the hair! The science communication of all these years by science enthusiasts in the field of journalism has come to a big naught!

The reason is- to investigate, one has to do research -real research - not like the research internet scientists do (5) on a science story or to challenge it, to do quality science stories to give detailed and valid explanations you need thorough knowledge and understanding of science. Communicators should be able to connect these facts of science to life's issues efficiently so that people would get convinced beyond doubt that following the scientific path would benefit them immensely! Journalists also are not all well-trained to assess the validity of a study so they  just try to find the human interest and the hope—a headline that can catch people's interest. Recruiters, however, do not always insist on degrees or diplomas in science . They mostly look for a zeal for science writing and the ability to write science stories in a way that the general public can understand ( sensationalism in journalistic terms?!).

Different organisations have different ways of recruiting. For example, the leading Indian news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI), annually recruits trainee science journalists. Trainees are selected after a written test to evaluate their writing skills and an interview. This approach seems to be successful, according to some journalists because no one recruited by PTI has left science journalism in 15 years. After gaining experience in the agency several of them have become fully-fledged science correspondents of national dailies, television channels and prominent international science and environment feature services such the PANOS Institute.(3) But still these people are unable to overcome the cultural, ritual and religious conditioning of the minds and induce scientific temper in people!

Like one of my British woman scientist friends says - "Science training is not like going to truck driving school. It is a way of thinking - a way of life - a way of interacting with the world in realistic terms no matter what you are doing." Yes, it should make science get into your veins, blood, each cell of your body and the mechanism that controls it. Then only you can become a person of science, living the way of science with passion and pass it on to others around you! Just interest and zeal in doing something - which sounds like a hobby - is different from doing it with passion like professionals go about their fields! Science writers and journalists are seldom experts in the fields they write about. Most of them have dabbled a bit in science themselves, but they are more or less professional amateurs.

I think, just a graduation - as is asked by science communication courses as minimum qualification- is okay when these science graduates work under an expert science communicator. And if the experts themselves contribute to science journalism that would be wonderful. Because (1) just asking for a degree is settling for minimum or average and not going for excellence. It is like saying if we don't get the best, let us settle for 2nd or 3rd best!(2) just curiosity or enthusiasm will not help you identify the themes of science and the problems that are faced while communicating them. For instance an expert can easily identify and differentiate between science and pseudo-science which is highly prevalent in this part of the world. A person who is not well informed or trained cannot do this. Recently a newspaper here published an article which propagates pseudo-science. The journalist who contributed the article , it seems, was a graduate in science! But still couldn't differentiate between science and pseudo-things! People who propagate pseudo-science write and argue so well - camouflaging with references and taking actual facts from science that a non-expert can't differentiate between it and the real science! When I pointed this out to the editors of the newspaper, they were all surprised! Well, that is the situation we are in! And it seems, the science graduate journalist who wrote the article took very little time to write it using very nice language and consulting experts in pseudo-science and not actual scientists! And got it all wrong! (3) Now some artists are trying to 'teach' scientists how to go about their work {yes, they think they can (6,7)}! But couldn't go far from mere words! Likewise, if non-experts with just degrees in science try to capture the vast ocean of scientific knowledge with limited capabilities and strange cultural conditioning of minds, I am afraid they won't succeed much. (4) Only when you have the whole picture in your mind, can you get clarity of thought to paint a picture of clarity. I have seen graduates in life sciences here not able to have a clear picture of how to avoid germs causing various diseases, not only contacting these diseases but transmitting them to others too. Can such people give 'advice' to laymen or non-scientific people on disease control like the experts do? I have seen Pharmacists with a degree in the subject who store and transport insulin and other drugs without cold storage facilities or pads reducing the potency of the medicines. I have also seen them selling antibiotics without prescriptions of doctors for various viral diseases contributing to drug resistance of bacteria. Recently it has been found that nurses in government run hospitals here don't even know about the precautions to be taken while dealing with swine flu cases. They are becoming vulnerable because of their lack of knowledge on how to use masks (11). Can such people tell how to use medicines and drugs? Can a nurse in a hospital do a heart transplant operation like a well trained surgeon in Cardiology does?

And how many people with Ph.Ds. in science will go for science journalism like they do in the West? I, therefore, feel the courses offered here are inadequate to do quality science journalism in this part of the world.

An article(3) by an Indian science writer says : A detailed knowledge of science is not necessarily the most important requirement. Most editors agree that the formula for a good science writer is 80 per cent good journalism plus 20 per cent aptitude to learn and communicate science.

I am afraid both science communication and science journalism are not making many inroads into the societies we live in while anti-science, pseudo-science and superstitions are gaining ground more and more with this attitude! Because that might have worked in the good old days but with scientific knowledge gathering more and more mass, a basic knowledge will not make you look a professional science communicator. Even with a Ph.D. in life sciences and a good amount of research experience, sometimes I feel I too am not well armed with enough ammunition to deal with the complexities of science, leave alone its communication! Some areas are expanding so quickly that even the experts in that field have trouble keeping up. Arming yourself with a basic degree in science, providing it is not too narrow, is okay. It gives you a base on which to build your scientific knowledge. A general knowledge of most fields is required on a science beat. Science is not a static field, and new knowledge is generated every day. A good science reporter must be willing to constantly update his or her knowledge. And they should work under the guidance of experts in the field to do this.

I can understand why News papers are not interested much in science communication because they are commercially oriented and science stories bring less money and eye balls than other stories and therefore are not preferred. Science certainly does not fare well when we talk of readers’ interest now because of complexity in understanding the subject when compared to other simpler fields and not because of lack of parameters of thrill and excitement, but it is also true that we need to work in the direction of making science interesting by simplifying it. Media can make science popular like it is making movies, sports and politics popular if it really tries! Only when passionate people from the field of science trying to entertain their sleeping and wild journalistic characters enter the media houses, this can happen!

But why scientists here are not bothered much with this? Because they are more interested in research than communication of science? Because they don't get enough dough to do these jobs? Because, they think there are 'others' to do the job? Because they don't get enough time? Because they are labelled as bad communicators? Because they just don't care? These are some of the important questions we must address to solve the problems we are living with now regarding science journalism and communication. A nation of scientific thinking and scientifically informed people can create a real paradise our founding fathers had dreamt. This can be achieved only when the experts too show real interest in getting across the right messages in the right way.

References:

1. https://medium.com/ladybits-on-medium/883869e27cb3?goback=.gde_1212...

2. http://kkartlab.in/group/some-science/forum/topics/science-communic...

3. http://www.scidev.net/global/communication/practical-guide/how-do-i...

4. http://kkartlab.in/group/some-science/forum/topics/in-defence-of-ma...

5. http://kkartlab.in/group/some-science/forum/topics/just-studies-are...

6. http://kkartlab.in/profiles/blogs/half-truths-of-science-art-helpin...

7. http://kkartlab.in/profiles/blogs/artists-have-to-remove-these-misc...

8. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott...

9. http://www.elifesciences.org/randy-schekman-answers-questions-on-hi...

10. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/12/17/from-my-...

11. Gandhi hospital nurses fail H1N1 test: Deccan Chronicle, dated 23rd January, 2015, Hyderabad edition, page 8. On line edition link:  http://www.deccanchronicle.com/150123/nation-current-affairs/articl...

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Replies to This Discussion

2916

Is science journalism ignoring censorship?

There is little rigorous evidence about censorship’s impact on the field

This may be because it is often low level and also involves self-censorship

We need research so we can assess the social and economic costs
http://www.scidev.net/global/journalism/editorials/science-journali...

Very well written madam.Being an MSc 2nd year student myself along with having a liking for  scientific writing I am faced with this dilemma . whether to go for proper research with a PhD or making research available to masses by doing scientific journalism.I think this problem is 2 fold.

1Lack of journalists who have made scientific journalism a (as we say in our ecology classes) "Niche"

2A large void which is still present between scientists and common man.More so in India,than in other countries.Although with the new boom in social media scientists have become more people friendly,most people dont know what a research paper is,let alone read it.Even my generation first came across papers after 12th.Sadly,reading research papers is only an activity for "nerds" of that particular field..Be it Physics,chemistry or Biology.That being said the papers themselves could be obstruse for the layman to understand.Sometimes scientists themselves make their research easier to understand by interacting more with people.

However what we need is a common medium between researcher and man.One,who converts the scientific jargon into language any one can understand.Thats the job of the scientific journalist.Dont get me wrong there are thin lines to cross here.Oversimplifying the jargon could essentially dilute the scientific essence of the research.But if scientific work isnt made easily understandable to people,how will society improve?How will ideas spark the revolution called science?

I think a basic understanding of the scientific method is a must for any one who wants to be a scientific journalist.Ability to understand whether the given matter is scientifically legit or just some random stuff passed under the guise of science is paramount.(as written in the main article-distinguishing science from pseudoscience)Is the underlying hypothesis falsifiable?I it universal?Is it objective in nature?etc. Ofcourse a great command over the language is a no brainer.Thats what the sci journo needs to do though.In short 

Thanks for reading my article and commenting on it.

I feel at least   retired scientists should go for science journalism if youngsters who are just entering the field cannot take chances. Science communication is as important as research because if no one outside your field understands what you are doing that is really absurd in my opinion.

I am at crossroads myself.I will finish my Msc biodiversity next year.I want to actively contribute to science(active research-PhD orJRF) first..but also make it available to masses.As a person who has done both..research and scientific journalism what would you suggest I do first?One of the people who did work in sci journalism said its better to get a PhD first and then venture into sci journalism as a proper career..as you have some standing as a scientist till then.

First go for Ph.D. Only after a few years of research experience you will be in a position to understand and analyse things properly in the field of science.

MDr. Challa its not proper journalism but I do write in a science blog .so maybe you can check it out and analyse it critically.

http://meanenthusiast.blogspot.in/

Will definitely do it but it takes some time.

I recently joined the science journalism course by iscos!The study material just became available online.Looks interesting!1 year duration..3 modules cover history of science,rules of sci journalism,sci writing etc.tests and weekly assignments are also there after each module.Hope it helps me in getting a better idea of sci journalism and mainly short term opportunities in future!

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