Scientists and journalists convene to discuss blogs and whatnot

A couple of nights back, I attended a panel discussion at Rockefeller University in NYC, organized by SONYC and sponsored by Nature. Entitled Courting Controversy : how to successfully engage an online audience with complex or controversial topics, The meeting consisted of a three person panel, a climate scientist, a pediatric clinician and a former science journalist, addressing a crowd full of journalists and scientists. I won’t give a full review but just a couple of quick points.

One question that emerged from the meeting was whether or not the role of scientist bloggers and/or science journalists should be to educate their readers. The consensus that emerged from the panel seemed to be that education should not be a goal. One panelist, Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a driving force behind the RealClimate blog, made mention of how scientists live in the space between the known and the unknown, and that in order to really understand discoveries that emerge from this space in a given field, one would need an extensive background education, e.g. the kind of background that one receives when doing a PhD. This kind of education, Schmidt said takes many thousands of hours and can’t very well be accomplished through reading blogs or articles in mainstream media.

While this is certainly true, I’m not sure that science writers are not educating their readers. It’s perhaps a question of how you define “educate”. It might be defined as an act by which one is, “qualified or trained for a particular calling, practice, or trade.” By that definition, any given piece of science writing would certainly not qualify. But, education can also be defined, more simply, as the act of providing something of informational value. Science writers certainly do that. And to the extent that a person’s opinion is influenced by information they’ve consumed, whatever the format, then I think we can say some educating has taken place.

One other point that stuck with me was made by David Ropeik, a former journalist who runs the blog, On Risk. He made the point that negative messages carry much more weight than positive messages. Not a new observation, to be sure, but it’s good to be reminded that to participate in the news/information space is to be in competition for reader’s eyeballs. How one frames their message is probably as important as the message itself. The “competition” probably has less scruples than you. Negative sells. One ignores this maxim at their own peril.

There was some good vigorous discussion in the latter part of the event and the whole thing should be online soon.