Saturday, February 20, 2010

Accuracy or boredom - your comments please

In Chapter 3 of Don't Be Such a Scientist Randy Olson describes the trap that we can fall into when communicating science.  Scientists are trained to prize accuracy above all else, and should constantly be skeptical of the things they read.  But striving for complete accuracy and completeness in stories about science can make them, well, boring.  Randy's advice, keep your story concise and interesting, even if you must sacrifice some detail.  As an example he compares the effects of two documentaries on public thinking about global climate change: Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and another that I never heard of.

Check out some recent examples from the science blogosphere that express the frustration of some scientists with the approach that Randy advocates.  On the lighter side, Christie at Observations of a Nerd pointed out a biological inaccuracy in the latest episode of Psych, which really ruined her enjoyment of the episode (as well as that of many of her commenters).

On the more serious side, read over the beginning of this post from the DrugMonkey blog.  A little bit of background - Matt Nisbet is a professor of communications who posts at Framing Science, and advocates an approach similar to what Randy is writing about in his book.  Check out how this approach of "framing" your science message to your audience, in effect sacrificing some detail or nuance to get your point across, is described on DrugMonkey.

So what do you think?  Which of these two approaches do you believe is more appropriate?  Have these been issues for you as you write your posts?

Please leave your comments below.


  1. Hmmm…interesting readings. Well, I would have to say I can definitely see both sides of this argument. On one hand, we need to make science interesting enough to get people, well, interested. And what better way than a the-bullet-is-higher-now plot twist? I didn’t even catch the mistake until she mentioned that is not how trees grow, and I remembered apical meristems. But really, it’s not so bad. I mean, if it gets people interested in science and they look into it themselves, they’ll learn how trees really grow. And that will lead to more discussions with other people about other science topics that are wrong in other places. But in order to have those discussions in the first place, you need to be well-versed enough to catch the mistakes. What I’m saying is, mistakes like this ironically draw MORE attention to science. Which article sounds more interesting? “Trees grow from the meristem!” or “Scandal when Mr. Whatshisface got the science wrong and was kicked off the advisor board – see how he lied!” Even though both ways will tell the true science facts in the end, the second way will attract the attention of more than just us nerds. We need science to be as interesting as possible to grab the attention of non-science people.

    On the other hand, though, there are some science facts that are just too dangerous to get wrong. Imagine what would happen if a box-office smash movie had a well-known actor say that all medicines are worthless because they cause AIDS? We could say goodbye to Aspirin, Novocain, Midol, Viagra, etc virtually overnight…and it would take a helluva long time to convince people that the actor was wrong.

    As for Matt Nisbet wanting to ban anonymous comments, I can see his point. If you can only leave a comment with your full name, you’ll only say something if you want what you say to be associated with you. Hey, it may even get people to reread it before they post to make sure they don’t sound like an idiot (I’m a Grammar Nazi).

  2. Whenever I’m writing a post for our blog, my biggest challenge is this: “How do I make this interesting enough to grab the reader’s attention and hold it all the way through, even if he found my post by accident?” Let’s face it, our blogs aren’t really that popular, so if we get a viewer, we need to grab on and not let go. I usually keep a mental image of my former roommate in my head as I make each new post. As a PoliSci major who sees science as dry and arrogant, at any moment he could choose to click back to his snoozefest of useless political news websites. We don’t want that, so we need to keep him on our side…at least until the end of the post. Hell, just to get him to sit down and go to our blog page I have to win the wager of kicking his ass at Mario Kart Double Dash. Then, even if he starts reading, he’ll close the browser right away if the post is boring, arrogant, or too dumbed-down. Oh, and if I make a mistake in scientific accuracy, he’ll rub it in my face. (The evil, arrogant scientist got it wrong!)

    So I have to find that special balance of accuracy, interest, and simplicity.

  3. After doing the readings, in particular the chapter out of Randy Olson’s book, I think that the approach that is the more appropriate one of the two is the one based on the premise that when communicating science, it is more pertinent to tell a concise and interesting story over one in which every miniscule detail is provided. As we’ve been talking throughout this blog, we are constantly asking ourselves what is the best medium to communicate information through and what are ways in which we can attract individuals, even those not heavily involved in the realm of science, to at least read and appreciate the text presented. When thinking about which approach I agreed with more, I thought of a topic I myself am not terribly interested in. For me, that topic is sports. Sure I enjoy watching baseball and the Cavs (when they aren’t losing), however, I cannot stand to watch shows such as ESPN News when they are merely talking about sporting events or statistics. On those types of shows, I want the concise and interesting story i.e. who won, who lost, and did anything crazy happen at the game. I could care less about who was supposed to win, how the coach’s techniques are unique, or how the athletes train. I would compare this interest to someone who isn’t interested in science. You want to give them the “highlights” not the whole story; all they need to know is what happened, why it’s good, and briefly how we got there. They don’t need to know all the technical tests used, or how much time and money it took. However, with my agreement that science should be presented in a concise interesting manner, does not mean that it should be carelessly discussed. Just because details are cut does not mean that those that are presented should be incorrect such as they were in the Psych episode. There needs to be a boundary between correct and concise details in an entertaining medium. One show I think successfully that bridges this gap is Myth Busters. Okay it’s not the most scientific show in the world demonstrating how cancer can be cured or the latest energy saving devices, however, they do present some science. For example, one experiment in particular shows how the Hindenburg could of happened chemically. They discussed the flammable compounds such as hydrogen among others that would ignites to cause the blaze. However, it was funny and entertaining. I mean who doesn’t want to watch two nerdy guys blow stuff up? Yet at the same time, I learned about the mechanisms and compounds behind the catastrophe. If you don’t like Myth Busters take The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin might have been a little crazy playing with crocodiles and poisonous reptiles, however he made learning about these animals entertaining. Thus science needs to be interesting if it is going to be communicated and appreciated.

  4. I agree with Randy's advice, and while I understand why Christie from Observation of a Nerd was frustrated--I don't think most science communicating would be quite as inaccurate as this episode. Taking Randy's approach, the scientist would explain factual information with flair, perhaps LEAVING OUT minute details but not all-together being wrong about things. The reason Christie was so frustrated was not because tedious detail of how a tree grows was missing but rather because the information chosen to be displayed was wrong entirely.

    Personally I'm more of a factual person. The few times I read science-y things I want them to be facts, not flair but I believe it's opposite for the general public. If it was something about History or Political Science I would need something extra to grab my attention so I understand where people are coming from; needing something flashy to catch and keep attention of a difficult subject. I guess my example (like Trish's sports) would be President Obama. Nothing against the man, don't get me wrong, but I CANNOT for the life of me sit and watch him give a speech. Was it Howard Dean with the "whooo-aahhh!"? I loved him. I actually sat and listened and was excited for him to speak. I really think it depends on your subject area and the audience you're communicating to as to whether or not you need to type fact or flair. While most everyone would agree something interesting is better than something boring, it is possible to get bogged down with personality--Like those suspense shows that last for-freaking-ever. Get it done.

  5. Despite how long-winded Olson's stories can be when he is trying to make a point.... he makes a good point. It is better for an author/writer/presenter (whatever) to be concise about a topic when it is being presented to the the public. This does not just mean the general public- any old public will do. If you are able to get a person interested in a story or in a theory using only the basics, that opens doors. A person who is interested in something is more willing to delve deeper and learn more themselves.

    Get a person interested with the basics- then let them make up their mind. If you catch their attention they will stay with the subject. If you bore them to death, a person is more likely to give up on a subject forever, always thinking "That one time I heard/read something about that, I almost fell asleep. It's not interesting to me." It's the foot in the door technique that advertisements use. Get your foot in the door then you can talk your way in. Throw too much at your audience and it will be door in the face.

    This has a big effect on my blogging. I want to make sure that each post is personal, at least mildly entertaining, not too jargony, and not too long. If someone looks at the picture and the title, they might read the post. If they like the first paragraph they'll continue to read. If it's easy to understand and doesn't take them a year to finish, they'll come back for more.

  6. I agree with Nichole. I think it's incredibly important in communicating science to be concise. It's a akill that all bloggers are trying to perfect, being concise without being too vague. I think the best way I have found to attemptthis is to edit your writing. Read it a few times and cut out stuff that isn't pertinent. I think it's kind of ironic that Randy Olson writes about how science writers should be concise. Like Nichole said, he gets a little long winded sometimes with his stories. On a side note, Psych is actually one of my favorite shows and I totally didn't catch the inaccuracy when I was watching it.

  7. I'm going to be short and to the point here- get the facts right first. Being inaccurate as its been said could cause many many problems, especially for the science community and we all know we don't need any more problems. If you can get your facts straight and be short and to the point all the better, but if you need to be long-winded to ensure no confusion then do so. As scientist we need to make sure that we get our facts right and convey them to the public (any public) in a way that there is no way they can be misconstrued.

  8. The answer to this post seems pretty intuitive, and it looks like several others have hit the nail on the head before me. First, make sure you have all the facts you need to support your data, then find a way to do tell an interesting yet concise story based on your findings. That's how I try to approach explaining scientific findings. For instance, when I explain my research to my non-science inclined friends I try to catch their attention and then let them inquire further. This approach draws them in and usually ends with me explaining the details after they're caught up.

  9. I agree with what Blair & Dave have said, the facts should be told first, in order to really get the point across. Then, as people show there interest, the details can be given to help them develop a more thorough understanding of the topic. Drawing someone in with an interesting fact about a topic is a much better way to explain things, than to ramble for 20 minutes on some topic and all its details.