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Science Champions

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  • season 1, episode 8: science and the media

    Episode 8: Science & the Media

    Science reporting has to be engaging and accurate at the same time — that can be a tall order. Our guests explore how better science storytelling can ignite people’s imagination as well as inform them.

    Listen to our Champions of Science on Apple Podcasts Listen to our Champions of Science on Stitcher Listen to our Champions of Science on Google Play


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Featured Guest

  • Corey Powell, Science Editor, Aeon Magazine

    Corey Powell

    Corey Powell is the Science Editor at Aeon and Contributing Editor at Discover magazine. He has edited three science books with Bill Nye, and collaborated on Nye’s Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World.

    LinkedIn | Twitter

  • Deborah Berebichez, Ph.D., Chief Data Scientist, Metis

    Deborah Berebichez

    Deborah Berebichez is the Chief Data Scientist at Metis and the Co-Host of the Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science. She has a PhD in physics from Stanford University.

    LinkedIn | Twitter

There is a deep humanity in what scientists do. And that's often not well-conveyed in stories about science. @coreyspowell #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Don't think that science is always about getting the right answer. Many times, it’s about asking interesting questions and the journey of discovery. @debbiebere #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Read Full Episode Transcript

  • Science Champions - Science & the Media

    Jayshree Seth:
    Over 25% of people say they don’t see the point of understanding science as adults. And the less people know about science, the more likely they are to be skeptical or bored by it. How can scientists better leverage the media to speak to the public? We’ll ask the experts on this episode of Science Champions.

    Welcome to Episode 10 of Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.

    Scientists excel at a great many things: we are curious about the world around us. We have analytical minds that seek to solve problems. We have the patience to conduct experiments and evaluate the results. But when it comes to communicating our findings to the public, rather than just our peers, it’s clear we still have some work to do.

    This episode, I’ve invited two people who have cracked the code on science communication in the media. Deborah Berbichez is the co-host of a long-running show on the Science Channel, and Corey Powell has a long history of science writing in print, online, and is currently writing for a Netflix series.

    Deborah, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your work?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    Sure. My name is Deborah Berebichez. I'm originally from Mexico City. I am currently the chief data scientist at Medus which is part of Kaplan, the education company. we're a data science training company. My background is in physics. I have a PhD in physics from Stanford University where I was the first Mexican woman to have the honor to earn that PhD in physics. I also have two postdoctoral fellowships that I completed at both the Courant Institute which is part of NYU in applied math and another fellowship that I had at Columbia University, a post-doc in applied math and physics. My specialty within physics is in waves which as commonplace as they are, they are really incredible things and they're hard to explain or manipulate. I developed for my PhD a method whereby you can communicate using waves like your signals from your cell phone with a desired target in a specific location. So, very much like a laser beam but without the laser you only are able to capture those waves or that message in the location that you desire. So, it's a really important application. On the other hand, I also consider myself a science communicator. I give a lot of public talks around the world on issues regarding science and how to make it entertaining. How to get more minorities such as women to participate in stem. I explain specific aspects of data science or machine learning or robotics or physics in my talks and I also co-host the most popular show on the Science Channel called Outrageous Acts of Science. We're actually filming our 11th season just now. We've been on air for six years and it's a really awesome show that displays how science can be super entertaining and fun.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Outrageous Acts of Science isn’t your first video series, though, is it? You experimented with online video as well?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    Yeah absolutely! When I started my media career I had a video blog called The Science of Everyday Life and my purpose was to explain to people back home in Mexico who were not interested in science and didn't like it at all that science was everywhere. So, I did videos from the physics of high heels and the chemistry in the kitchen and chemistry makeup and all sorts of things to explain exactly what you're saying that science is really everywhere.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Thanks, Deborah. Corey, you’ve also had quite a career in science communication. Can you hit some of the highlights for us?

    Corey Powell:
    Okay my name is Cory Powell. I'm a long time science writer and science editor. I spent 15 years working at Discover Magazine including five years as editor-in-chief. Since then I've been working on a number of independent projects, working with Bill Nye the Science Guy on a series of books. And more recently on his Netflix television show and also doing some freelance writing, freelance editing for a number of other publications. I've worked with the digital magazine ION, sort of a-- kind of a culture and ideas magazine and recently I've been a contributor to NBC News online.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Bill Nye is a name that’s come up a lot on the podcast when we talk about popular media and science. What was your process like for writing with him?

    Well the process was good enough that we actually made it to book number three, so that's that's a good sign. So it was a little bit an evolving process you know I think-- you know I had I had the advantage of being you know I'm just a little bit older than the people who came of age watching his kids show Bill Nye the Science Guy when they were growing up. And so you know I knew about Bill, I knew what he did but I didn't have a sense of him as a celebrity. I just had a sense of him as a guy who a guy would I'd heard of who did this interesting TV show. And so I think that was actually very helpful in our early interactions that I had no real preconception of who he was and how he works. I think yes, seeing people's as a celebrity actually kind of gets in the way of that. He turned out to be a very easy guy to work with. We had a very kind of an iterative process. He's a great storyteller, I'm a great kind of like a sort of fussy detail guy and that turned out to be sort of a nice synergy that he is great at making big ideas very approachable. And I then you know I would kind of you know straighten out the lines of some of his stories and fill in details and add you know stories that I had encountered over the years that I had found effective. It ended up-- Yeah it's a being a collaborative storytelling process as much as much as a science writing process which was a lot of fun.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Mm-hm, that makes sense. What is it about the way he approaches science that captures people’s attention?

    Corey Powell:
    I think his popularity, I think precisely is because you know he does not present himself you know as a stuffy expert. You know he is in many ways-- you know he's a big kid in the very best sense and that you know he still has his childlike enthusiasm. And when he is going kind of over the top saying like isn't this amazing, it's not an act that he's putting on to try to sell science; it genuinely is what he is feeling. And I think that comes across and I think that is also-- I mean that is a challenge with a lot of science communication is that you know the people react very badly if they feel like they're being talked down to or if they're being sold a product. You know I mean it's not just in science, it's you know it's the problem of authenticity that we feel everywhere in the media.

    His straight background is in mechanical engineering and yet in some ways I think it really-- But yeah, I think that also is helpful that you know his training is really a lot in kind of the principles of how you get jobs done. But then when you talk to him about you know this is kind of the cool thing that happens when bubbles are forming in a pot and you’re boiling a pot of water on the stove; this is what actually happening. Or when you're looking at a star and and you're trying to understand how fusion reactions turn into starlight, how long it takes that light to get to you; he's coming at those things again you know with a little bit of you know kid like almost-- almost naive energy.

    Because you know he's not an astrophysicist who immediately comes from the technical end of the problem. He is you know he's an enthusiast who thinks like a scientist and thinks like an engineer. You know you need somebody who really sees the big picture. He's a guy who can see the big picture and again I think you know I would love to see more people like that. I think Twitter and social media has kind of helped groom a lot of people who have you know kind of mid-sized audiences who are really good at it. But there still aren't that many people who have you know a real kind of national and international audience. And I was fortunate to work with Bill because he does and he's very good at it.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Deborah, your show sounds like another great example of communicating real scientific principles in an entertaining way. What do you think makes it so successful?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    It really has shown me how science media can be super entertaining while also being faithful to the actual science. The show is based on a series of videos that are uploaded by people to YouTube or any other platform where people do amazing feats like jumping off of rooftops or creating amazing machines or you know working with electricity or chemical discoveries and whatnot, and we are a bunch of scientists that explain how come they're able to do this and not get injured or you know what the science behind it is. And it's been an incredible experience because we're very very careful. The notes and what we have to say are reviewed by several people. For example, my notes are reviewed by a physicist in the UK and I have ample discussions not only with my peers about whether we're getting these real-life physics correctly or not but also with the fans of the show. So, it's been incredible because it's created a very positive interaction with the public. I get phone calls sometimes when I mentor young women, or I get emails from fans of the show saying, hey! But how could you apply this principle to these other machines and this and that. So, I do think it's a very positive example of how you can make science accurate and fascinating but at the same time explain it in a way that anybody can understand, that even kids can understand.

    Jayshree Seth:
    What do you think is missing in most mainstream media science reporting? Corey?

    Corey Powell:
    You know there is a deep humanity and what scientists do and that's often not reported or well conveyed in stories about science. People have a very-- you know a broad generalization, I think the public has a very good sense of scientists as like people who do research and come up with numbers and come up with results. But the question of why they do that and how they do that and you know what makes a person want to spend you know thirty years of her life drilling into ice cores in Antarctica and trying to reconstruct ancient climate. You know when you think about it these are kind of strange things to do. And you know they take very specific personalities to want to do that and to have the patience to do it and have the discipline-- the kind of connected mindset to be able to do that in a way that makes all the information stick together and makes sense. And so that's in all kinds of different levels I'd like to do that type of storytelling. At one point I was an editor at Scientific American where I was editing to a fairly advanced and somewhat technical audience. And obviously that's a very different audience than what I'm writing to an NBC news audience. And yet I feel like you know the central goal of humanizing the process and using storytelling to explain how these ideas get strung together and how how information turns into ideas and insights. That actually turns out to be very similar you know they're different allowances for technical language and their different allowances for storytelling technique. But you know I find even-- this was a funny thing at Scientific American science was getting so hard that's getting to the point that you know biologists would write in and say I can't understand the physics stories. And then physicists would write in and say you know I can't understand-- you did something about genetics but I don't know what you were talking about. You know even cross fields of science communication was getting lost. And so again I think this is another thing that often people don't appreciate is that the specialization and kind of technical aspect of science is a problem for scientists themselves. They need to know what's going on in other fields of science and often they get a kick out of hearing what's going on in their own field - get told in a you know in a conversational in a storytelling way. So early on I thought I would get a lot of resistance from from researchers about trying to popularize their ideas and I did not encounter that at all. Very much you know often I found people were very excited and engaged to talk that way, to hear about their colleagues that way, to learn about other fields of science that way. You know there's a curiosity that is the same across all of us. And the people who go into research go really deep into it. But that doesn't mean that they are coming really from a very different place than the rest of us.

    Jayshree Seth:
    I think you’re right. There are amazing stories to tell about science, but often the coverage doesn’t focus on the human story. Deborah, what do you think is missing in most science coverage?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    I've thought myself that I wanted to create a website where I list a number of renowned science communicators who I trust and feed that to the media because I can tell you living in New York City, for example, I very often would get called due to being on the show to explain some scientifically based phenomena, something happened in nature, for example the Nepal earthquake, I appeared on CNN to explain, then you know the football the deflate gate, had some physics behind it. So, they called me. And what happens sometimes is that the media outlets either change the schedule or end up kind of bumping scientists off the schedule because there is some more important news that has to do with celebrities or something or they sometimes focus on only a very small list of scientists that they know already. So, I'd really love to expand the reach for these media outlets so that they can access the true experts that are sort of lying hidden to them in social media and have them access a wide variety of a diversity of subject experts and people with different backgrounds and stories. That way we can present a much more fascinating and true representation of what science and doing science looks like. So, I think that I would very much appreciate if the media outlets would be open to getting that list of experts and accessing them through the recommendation of scientists who are eager to participate in the media.

    Jayshree Seth:
    What do you think the media gets right about science reporting? Is there cause for optimism there?

    Corey Powell:
    Well yeah I have to say on the whole you know I cover a lot of stories in in astronomy and physics it's sort of the the kind of the esoteric end of things. And sure you know you see stories about doomsday asteroid is always gonna kill us all in one week. And you see these sort of sensationalized stories that are obviously intended just to get clicks and get readers. But I have to say I'm consistently impressed and occasionally amazed to see the reporters at local newspapers, at local local TV and reporters who clearly did not-- they have not gone-- they have to cover a wide wide range of news. They're not people who have you know deep technical physics backgrounds. But I've seen them cover these stories and often do them remarkably well. So you know I think that's where the natural curiosity of a reporter again is a you know is kind of a helpful thing in bridging to the natural curiosity of the researcher. I have to say I think a lot of you know even some of the tougher stories in climate research, I feel like the the level of reporting is often very high. Again I think this is somewhat unfair perception that you know the the small number of outlets that either get it wrong or that take sometimes deliberately misleading approaches; those errors and deceptions get a lot of attention. But if you look at the sum total of the reporting that's out there, the average quality is surprisingly high. It's just that the people who either goof the worst or deliberately seek out the most attention, they make the most noise I mean people get annoyed at them and that which is all for the good. I mean that helps with the corrective process. So I'd say that those are the upsides. The downsides are that especially when you get to the more technical levels of the stories, it is a lot to ask of different reporters. And I think because there are still a lot of people who are intimidated by science and intimidate by scientists; no I do see stories where the errors are pretty clearly errors of somebody who just didn't ask enough questions. And not necessarily because they didn't have time but because the idea of taking five minutes to call in a geneticist and really understand what happens in a genetically modified organism. That just sounded, seemed like a kind of intimidating thing and these are-- even if it's-- these are people who might be rushing to crime scenes to cover difficult-- cover all kinds of difficult situations. And yet the idea of calling up scientist and dealing with that embarrassment of not understanding something until they would explain it to two or three times; that's a barrier to a lot of people. And I think that is-- that to me is one of the biggest problems that I see.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Is there something scientists and educators should be doing to improve the media coverage?

    Corey Powell:
    One big area and it's a kind of a contentious area right now is outreach on social media. And I think you see there's a pretty significant generational divide. I mean there are a number of more senior scientists who do it and who are quite good at it. But they're also when you go to the older researchers there's still a lot of people who consider spending time on social media-- it's playing games. And with younger researchers, some people have gotten very sophisticated; Twitter outreach at developing any kind of like science channels on Instagram. I've seen some people even dipping a little bit into Snapchat which as unlikely as that seems. So I think most of the people who are doing this are doing this kind of on their own initiative. And so one thing that I think could really improve the relationship between the scientists and the media, is just to have their institutions be more supportive of that.

    And this is especially a problem I think at the level of Graduate Science where you have a lot of people who are really really enthusiastic about doing outreach and will happily put in lots of unpaid time do it. But not only are they not rewarded for this but they're sometimes penalized by their institutions that they seem to be like wasting their time doing something that's not producing publications and it's not producing a new grant. So I think that I've seen that attitude changing a bit but I also still see a lot of people, especially on Twitter which is a great medium for grumbling. I see a lot of people grumbling about that they're happy to do this but they really wish that they had more institutional support. And I think private industry is a little bit better about that because I think they understand a little more of what the-- sort of the cost-benefit. But I would love to see a little bit more of that as well. You know people coming from the private side of research doing outreach that isn't straight PR but it's more of an open conversation about what they're doing and what they're seeing in their field.

    And so again I think they're the issues sometimes are more legal of sort of how, the perception of how an institution is being presented by its employees. So I think there are these kind of institutional barriers that if we can get past would certainly improve the relationship. I've seen the PR offices and public information officers getting a lot more sophisticated about how they write press releases and how they do outreach. There again it's a-- the quality is highly variable. I think when you were asking me before sort of what people in the media get right and wrong. You know often when I see things that where research is misrepresented you can trace it back to press release that misrepresented the information. And sometimes these are press releases that came from big institutions.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Have you seen an example of that recently?

    Corey Powell:
    There was a story, Scott Kelly the astronaut and Mark and his identical twin, Mark Kelly is also an astronaut. Scott went up and space station for a year came down and then NASA compared his genes to his identical twins genes to see the effects of space genetics. NASA put out a big press release about what they had found and the press release basically made it sound like Scott had turned into a mutant in space. And 7% of his DNA had completely changed and he was no longer genetically related to his twin and it got widely reported that way. And I looked at these stories and like why are these reporters all getting it wrong? And then I went back and saw that it really was a very-- it was phrased in a very confusing way in the original NASA press release. And so that I think this is another big thing for improving the working relationship, is just really thinking very carefully about what a press release is and what a news release is-- that making sure that contact information is clear, making sure that all terms are-- all unfamiliar terms are defined. But especially making sure that kind of like the top-line message; I mean the story that you want to tell is the correct story. And that's an area where again although I see people getting-- I see improvement here. I think there still is a lot of room to go.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Deborah, how can we encourage people to take an interest and learn more about science? Where do we start?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    I think it reminds me of one of my favorite physicists of all time. Richard Feynman who was an amazing physicist. He wrote a couple of books to popularize science. One is called, Why do you care what other people think? And another one is, 'Surely! You're Joking Mr. Feynman.' he relates how science for him, physics especially, was always sort of a playful and intimate journey to have contact with nature and to understand the world around him and you could find Feynman as much in the lab as you could find him traveling in Brazil and playing the bongos and running in Central Park and talking to different people about different things. So, I think for me going back to when we were children and we're all born with that curiosity that somehow the education system and life manages to strip us away of that initial curiosity over time, I'd say, when you interact with young people don't think that science is about getting the right answer. Many many times is about asking interesting questions and about going through the journey of discovery. How Feynman used to call it, the pleasure of finding things out. I think that's the essence of science. So, when your kids or when somebody asks you a question as silly as it may sound like, why is the sky blue? Why does cheese melt as opposed to becoming liquid? Like why different materials act the way they act? Then go through the process of finding the answer with them. Actually, go and try to ask yourself, why is this happening? Don't just google the answer right away. Actually, enjoy the process of finding how things work. I think that and thinking about how people initially came up with the ideas, the concepts and the generalized laws that apply to a bunch of things in the world, that is the fascinating thing to just take it as a game and play with those questions.

    Jayshree Seth:
    So it’s more about finding answers than just getting them from the Internet or a textbook; developing that questioning mindset?

    Deborah Berebichez:
    Yes. Yes. I think getting kids and even adults to read about science, to play in the kitchen with you know how they're cooking, to think about it through physics classes, is how I call it, getting them to ask questions about the world and rewarding that curiosity with experiments and with fun things that one can do at homes. So, definitely yeah! Fostering that curiosity, enabling... I really like the growth mindset. Don't just give them the answer. Like have them experience the journey of getting to the answer and enjoying how their brain is expanding, allowing them and giving them opportunities to explore different things and even experience failure. Because experiments don't always work and that's part of science and learning to enjoy that sometimes getting something to work after a lot of tries is actually a really cool thing rather than only doing the things that come easy to us.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Corey, how can we motivate scientists to take a more active role in communication, to change these preconceived notions?

    Cory Powell:
    I think accuracy is probably as you say I think that probably is the single greatest thing is you know there's no stronger motivation than seeing what you do misrepresented. You have a small audience and somebody who has a big audience misrepresents what you do, that's a very strong motivation. So yeah, I mean I think some of it is just at that straight level. Some of it really is that-- I mean science, scientific research can be a very painstaking, detail oriented and sometimes kind of lonely process. And I think there's also a genuine kind of social outreach aspect to it that people-- And again seen as this is especially with the younger researchers who have-- they have a graduate community but they don't really have a way to reach out to a larger community and they're using social media to do that. And it's a way that they can expose people not just to the specific facts of their research but to the process of what they do and to the reason why they do it. And just kind of see themselves more represented in the broader world.

    I really can't think of anybody who I've ever talked to who wasn't in some way interested in science. I think it to me the real question is what are the roadblocks that stop people from reading science stories? Is it that it makes them feel dumb and they feel like it's not relevant to their life; they don't understand why anybody does it. It sounds ridiculous, it sounds silly, it sounds like a waste of taxpayer dollars. I mean there are all these reasons that people have to push away and distance themselves. And I think the-- so I'd say one really important way to think about science communication is to understand and take those responses seriously. And this is a sort of chronic problem that I see of people both on the science side and on the journalism side, they get frustrated and they say, well some people are stupid. Some people you're just never gonna reach them. Some people they don't want to learn, they don't want to know. And I'm really really opposed to that kind of an attitude.

    Understanding what those blocks are and thinking about unconventional ways to get around them; I think you have to have a lot of respect for the reasons that people choose not to read. Have a lot of respect for those blocks so that you can work around them. Obviously the problem of communication gets more and more challenging as you're trying to get deeper and deeper into the resistant communities. But I think it's very important to think about unconventional storytelling techniques that get to them as well.

    Jayshree Seth:
    Deborah, Corey, thanks so much for your time today.

    Scientists have amazing stories to share with the public. But in a 24-hour news cycle that thrives on drama and intrigue, it can be a struggle to keep science reporting both accurate and compelling. It’s up to scientists to take a more active role in science reporting, whether it’s sharing expertise with traditional media, or taking up their own cause on social media. Most importantly, we must make a human connection with the audience. Bringing out the people behind the research, really sharing our passion for what we do, is the first step in inspiring the public to learn more.

    Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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