Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Medium & The Message

Over on the Vert Paleo listserve, the aftershocks of Matt Wedel's blog post on documentary makers continue to rumble on (there are times when I wonder how my colleagues actually get any paleontology done; if I spent my time expressing that much outrage, I'd have to retire to bed for a week afterwards to recover). Anyway, I'd have to say that the balance of the debate seems to be firmly tilted towards a mixture of "how dare they dumb down our science?" and "if only we could find a way to build a better working relationship with these guys, then we'd be able to get our ideas across." As you can imagine, I take a contrary position.

I'll start with a story. Some time ago, I went out for a drink with a paleontologist and a journalist, both good friends of mine. The journalist in question was a science writer - a very, very good science writer, who spends most of his time talking to scientists and translating their research into langauge that a moderately well-educated layperson could understand. He does this so well that he wins awards for it. The last time I won an award for anything was for my Samuel Pepys costume at the Queen's Silver Jubilee party in 1977 (and no, I don't have photos). So, after we had gotten our drinks and sat down at the table, and swapped a little small talk about families and stuff, the journalist says to the paleontologist "hey, what're you working on at the moment?"

About an hour later, as I picked surreptiously at the blood that was beginning to leak from my ears, I realized that was having an out-of-body experience. My paleontologist friend was leaning across the table, face alight with the joy of science, finger waving animatedly as he explained the nuances of the intracranial joint in the neurocranium of fishes and its role in cranial kinesis. On the other side of the table, my journalist friend was sitting frozen with a horrible blank look on his face, like someone had just told him his entire family and most of his friends had been slaughtered by a mad axeman and life had suddenly lost all meaning. I, meanwhile, felt like I was floating several feet above the table, inspecting my surprisingly large bald spot.

OK, so I exaggerate. But only a little. The point is that this scientist (who, BTW, is smart, articulate, and a very good teacher) was speaking to an interested, engaged, well-educated, and sympathetic audience. And he totally killed us. It wasn't that it was a bad summary of cranial kinesis in fish. It's just that it was too much to absorb over a quiet beer.

Now, let's look at the potential audience out there in the USA. First take a look at this 2006 survey from National Geographic. Only 14% of adults think that evolution is "definitely true" - if you're a paleontologist that means that 86% of your potential audience doesn't think at all like you. 33% of them reject the whole concept of evolution outright. And don't start laughing, molecular biologists, because the same survey revealed that fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA.

Next, let's take a look at what Americans do believe, courtesy of this 2005 Harris Poll. I guess the fact that 82% of American adults believe in some form of God is not a surprise. The 73% that believe in miracles, or the 70% that believe that the soul survives after death are also not that surprising either. But how about belief in ghosts (40%), UFOs (34%), witches (28%), or astrology (25%)? A quarter of American adults believe that their destiny is in some way controlled by the movement of the stars and planets. Under the circumstances, I think we've got bigger problems than explaining that the sacro-lumbar expansion in a sauropod housed a glycogen body rather than a brain to drive its ass.

How about some more statistics? The 2006 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau reveals that only 23% of the population has a batchelor's degree or higher qualification. Even when you add in students who never finished their degrees, or were awarded associate degrees, barely 50% of the population has set foot in tertiary education of any sort.

There is also a bunch of statistics available on attention spans – see here for a rather nice digest of some of them – and while they differ quite significantly according to how you define “attention span” none of them suggest that the U.S. Cable audience is ready for science programs that carefully weigh up competing hypotheses and then conclude that there is no outright winner.

The reason that I'm hammering through all these statistics is because I'd like my fellow paleontologists to take a long hard look at an assumption that many scientists make - namely that the best person to communicate the excitement and enthusiasm of science is someone who actually does science. Consider how totally unlike you the majority of your audience is. As far as most of them are concerned, you might as well come from another planet.

So, as a starting place, I think paleontologists need to think about the medium and the message. Don't worry - I'm not going to go all Marshall McLuhan on you; as you may know, there are risks involved in quoting McLuhan (see here - watch until the end). But there is an important point here for academics, which is that you need to consider who the Cable audience is (hint - they are not you) and shape the message accordingly. Cable may not be the best medium for transmitting complex scientific ideas.

This is not a problem that's unique to science - they are a bunch of people out there who have complex ideas that they need to transmit to a largely disinterested and undermotivated audience. They include politicians, educators, and anyone who's trying to sell something. What they do, with some success, is pay people who are specialists in packaging and selling messages. And that, I would argue, is the role played by the documentary filmaker in paleontology. I happen to think they are rather good at it.

Consider the National Geographic "Prehistoric Predators" series that I blogged about a few posts back. There are aspects of this show that, speaking as a professional paleontologist, make my hair stand on end. But my 8 year old daughter now knows that there were animals called entelodonts that lived millions of years ago, that they looked like pigs, and that you can discover things about their behaviour from their bones and teeth and from their fossilized footprints. How cool is that? And while she certainly listened to Scott Foss, Greg Macdonald, et al, what really hooked her was the computer animated reconstructions of Archaeotherium, Hyaenodon, Subhyracodon etc. The next day she went into school and told her class all about them. That, I would say, is a prime example of what Cable can do for our profession - it can get second graders talking about fossil mammals. And I think as a profession we should help do this and stop getting hung up on the details.

But we're scientists, I hear you cry; details are important to us! Well, what I suggest you do is this. Once the kids (or adults) have been hooked by Cable, some of them - the interested, motivated ones that we care about most - are going to go looking for more information, probably on the web. And the first place they will look is Wikipedia. So if you're a paleontologist who cares about the availability of accurate scientific information for a general audience, register on Wikipedia and start writing and editing. For example, I notice that there is no entry for "glycogen body." Matt Wedel, if you're out there, there's a tailor-made opportunity for you to use that great summary of sacro-lumbar expansion in sauropods.


  1. Thanks for this post. It is a refreshing break from the listserv echo chamber. Still, I think it is important to remember that this particular incident is not just about trivial quibbling with the number of fingers on a particular species. There is some pretty egregious editorial misconduct going on here. I'm pretty sure that 100% of American adults would be pissed off if their words were chopped and spliced by a journalist or editor to make them appear to be saying the exact opposite of what they actually said.

    Media are no more defined by their (perceived or realized) audiences than vice versa. There are plenty of complex, successful dramatic shows on Cable (also a lot of dreck of course) and I see no reason why non-fiction television should necessarily be beholden to the lowest common intellectual denominator. Also, look at all of the niche, detail-driven channels (sports, finance, cooking, politics) that lean heavily on jargon previous familiarity with the ideas and rules etc. I would like to believe that there could be a market for high quality, even (occasionally) complex, scientific programming on cable - and sometimes there is. There will always be a lot of crap of course, and probably also always a lot of complaining from scientists.

    There is another MC Luhan truism that is relevant here "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either."

  2. Love the post; nice work.

    Re: Wedel --
    there is a significant line between simplifying info / going for "wow" and misinforming the viewer. It would be far better to say "it was once thought that dinosaurs had a second brain in their necks, but it turns out that function is served by something called a 'glycogen body'" and then leave it at that. Interested viewers can go google it (or look on wikipedia...which I suppose really is more likely), everyone else walks away with knowing a little tidbit they can bring up to sound smart at their next social gathering.

    The problem I typically see in this sort of thing is information overload, as in your example. If, instead, a 30 min program stuck to introducing new concepts 10% of the time, reiterating important yet typical concepts 20% of the time, 30% going for "wow" (BUT NOT LYING), and the remainder making it accessible to the audience we'd probably be in good shape.

  3. There is now an article on the glycogen body.

  4. The 2006 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau reveals that only 23% of the population has a batchelor's degree or higher qualification.

    Yes, yes, but how many of them can spell the word "bachelor"?

    Excellent article otherwise, though!

  5. @ Realthog - someone once told me that a blog without typos is not a blog at all ;o)