Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

By Grant Jacobs 26/10/2009 23

Can journalists really know how science really works?

Continuing from an earlier blog post, Brian Trench closes his chapter by repeating a statement John Durant made identifying three kinds of knowledge about science that the public may or may not have, knowledge about:

  1. essential facts
  2. how science works
  3. how science really works

Trench follows this with “[…] journalists reporting science could help throw light on how science really works, […]”.

While I take his point, I also have some doubts about how well journalists are able to do this.

Research science is one of those things that are largely learnt by doing, with some guidance. Doctorates are essentially apprenticeships.

It seems to me that unless the reporter has experienced research science first-hand, most won’t know how science really works. In my opinion most science reporters or writers are–with all the best intentions–stuck at level two of Durant’s knowledge scale.

An analogy for a journalist might be expecting a non-writer to really know what a writer’s or freelance journalist’s job is like, without sitting in on the job. I’m pretty sure that they’d say that all but close friends and family don’t really know.

I’m sure most of us can say this of our jobs!

Only a handful of specialist science writers have been research scientists. Most of those who have a university education in science, stopped at their undergraduate education and moved to science writing.

I’ve nothing against that. I’d rather see someone who studied science at university than not and it’s a logical point in a career at which to move to another interest, particularly given the effort that higher degrees involve.

However, there are considerable differences between an undergraduate education and research science, especially the first two years of undergraduate study. Undergraduates are still moving from understanding the output of science to the generation of new science. Post-graduates are grappling with the day-to-day reality of full-time research.

Having pointed out that really understanding science best requires having people who’ve “been there, done that”, I have to admit it’s one problem that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution.

One solution might be to provide internships that attach science writers to a research department or institute for, say, three months. In the USA, a good number of the larger research laboratories offer internships. A limitation of these, is that the interns won’t be within the actual research laboratories or attached to particular research groups for any real length of time. While they’ll learn a lot and some of the feeling of the overall endeavour will rub off, they are unlikely to get a good feeling for the work itself.

Another approach would be to encourage to scientists who wish to write. At least two problems surround this approach.

Firstly, most scientists simply lack the time to learn the ins and outs of the media on top of their already time-and-a-half day job!

Day or weekend courses are one solution. For example the University of Otago has previously run some short courses. These are certainly a help, although they are limited by what can be conveyed in a short time.

Another approach would be to fund scientists to learn about working within the media.

It wonderful to learn that the newly-minted Prime Minister’s Science Media Communications Prize is aimed at promoting scientists to take up science writing. The selection criteria include “A strong background in science practice”, precisely my concern in this article. I started writing this blog article before this award was announced; it really is nice to see this award fit my prescription!

A second issue is that professional scientists get few, if any, career benefits from science writing beyond satisfying a personal ideal that they should communicate what the research tax dollar is spent on and fostering a keener and smarter public. The issues associated with this properly belong in another post, as they are more about the universities and research institutes than science communication itself. So readers, I’ll leave you here!


1. Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media. edited by Holliman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Schmidt and Thomas (OUP 2009, ISBN: 978-0-19-955266-5).

23 Responses to “Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism”

  • You appear to have cast a stone here, Grant, may the circle grow..
    I haven’t read Trench yet.. and would respect an update on one view expressed early in your blog that doctoral work is (merely) apprenticeship.. how long has this been going on..?

    Back in the day when perhaps a state education resulted in high – even extreme – competition for places and research uptakes, ‘doctoral’ was oft cutting edge.. and oftener still the basis upon which career development occured..

    At which point one might well ask is there sufficient competition today..? Further, might not such competition be a better breeder of scientific curiousity via science journalism..?

    If so, would your expressed point of view amount to little more than cart-before-the-horse?

    Yep, I expect you to disagree with me here. In part at anyrate. Yet the nature and tone of response can be exceedingly valuable…

    with best wishes..


  • You have raised an interesting topic and potentially a can of worms as I can imagine there are many different views on science writing. I think the science writings who do not have a PhD could be pretty well served by just hanging out with a scientist who could explain some of the facts about how “science really is carried out.” Also popular science writing by scientists has often been looked down upon by a majority of scientists. This has been described by Carl Sagan and other science popularists. Also the modern academic is so busy, that science writing can be a challenge. I have co-authored several chapters for academic books and a lot of the work ended up being done in my spare time becuase of research and other commitments. I have made small forays into the area of more general science writing through newpaper opinion pieces and to put together a decent 800 to 1000 words can take a good days work.

  • drmike,

    By the way, I’ve nothing against those who don’t have Ph.D.s, some of their work is excellent.

    Sure, if people took to hanging out with a scientist who could show them the ropes, they’d pick up some notions about the reality. Hence, my suggestion of lab internships (and the limitations of these). Your suggestion seems to be to the same aim and effect. Just a thought though: wouldn’t this also run into the same “haven’t time” issue, too? Also, how many of those that write what nominally are science/health/medicine pieces in the media try to do this?

    I think what’s meant by “really know” matters, too. My reading of it was like the difference between reading the conclusions or press release of a research paper compared to digging your way through the methodology and understanding what took place. (Just an analogy.)

    The same applies to understanding the politics, etc. I had the experience of one person who is very involved in science writing not having any idea that starting a new institute can very political! (I have to admit I was slightly gob-smacked at the lack of understanding of the reality.)

    Most of the rest of what you’ve said is for an upcoming post. You’re jumping the gun a bit! :-)

    Also popular science writing by scientists has often been looked down upon by a majority of scientists.

    I don’t like it either, it’s rather silly in many ways. It’s also part of a larger picture of how non-academic science careers are perceived. There are practical (and political) aspects to this. I originally had a statement to this effect in my final paragraph, but as this and related issues is for a following post I left it for then. I can’t give the entire world of science writing from within research institutions in one blog post!

    Also the modern aca­demic is so busy, that science writing can be a challenge.

    I agree (as I’ve said in this and earlier posts). After all I have the same problem myself. Agree with the time it takes to write book chapters and short pieces (been there, too).

  • Another potential pitfall for science writers doing internships – how keen would a lab be to take on someone for an internship who has done an undergrad/honours degree (possibly several years before), when they could instead take on someone who is still studying/working in the field, and might be far more useful to the lab in terms of the work that they could do? It’s entirely possibly that a science writer intern might require far too much time in terms of baby-sitting/training, especially as many of the scientific disciplines require specific lab skills and a fairly up-to-date knowledge of technologies and methodologies. (I speak here from personal experience, and so could be wrong…)

  • Hi Amiee,

    By “from personal experience”, do you mean working as a student in a lab, or as a science writer intern within a lab? Or alternatively have left out a “don’t” (!) and mean you aren’t speaking from personal experience and so could be wrong? Sorry about this, I’m trying to shoot this off in between bits of work and I’m probably not as switched-on as I should be.

    The existing “science writing with a research organisation” internships (e.g. in the USA)—what I was really thinking of—aren’t literally within the research groups as far as I know, but affiliated to the institutions as a whole. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) That’s why I wrote “to a research department or insti­tute” (not a research lab) and then went on to say “won’t be within the actual research laboratories or attached to particular research groups for any real length of time”. By that I meant they wouldn’t be working as researchers and hence wouldn’t be picking up hands-on research skills. I hope that’s clearer now—?

    I agree with what you’re saying. I hope any undergraduates here can forgive me (!!), but undergraduate students working within research groups are often as much a case of the PI doing the student a favour or an obligation to the “system”, as the students contributing to the research work. (Some might say more of the former than the latter.)

    (While I say “PI” [primary investigator], in reality the load of “carrying” the students is often passed to post-docs.)

    With a few exceptions, someone who has been more that a small number of years away from (undergrad) science probably couldn’t easily contribute in any meaningful way so they’d be a load for a research lab to carry as you say. (In principle at least you might not even be able to try in labs with hazardous chemicals or equipment.)

    I’ve done a studentship like that myself, they’re good for students to get a glimpse of what working within a research lab might be like.

  • tomfarmer,

    Thanks for writing. Sorry I’ve taken time to get back to you. (As I’m a consultant, on top of science stuff I get to do business stuff and it’s GST & provisional tax time…!)

    I wasn’t meaning that Ph.D.s were “just” an apprenticeship! (I have one after all…!) I was meaning that the nature of the learning in them is in the style of an apprenticeship, learning by doing with guidance. It’s been that way “since forever”, being since the start of professional science in the late 1800s (or early 1900s depending on where you draw the line). Students would attach themselves to a mentor (today a Ph.D. supervisor) who would show them the ropes over several years. It’s still that way, just a bit more formalised.

    For what it’s worth, I dislike people putting down those with jobs based on apprenticeship, so I’d be very unlikely write something was “merely” an apprenticeship. It takes a lot of practice to get good at some things (writing, too, for that matter).

    I’m not sure if I understand properly what you’re getting at with “competition” and so on, so correct me if I’m reading you wrongly. I’m not sure that competition would increase scientific curiosity itself as I don’t think it’s a driver of scientific curiosity. Scientific curiosity is more driven by, well, curiosity! My own impression is that if there has been a shift, it’s towards higher competition (not lower), but towards jobs that people feel they are more likely to make living from.

    If there was an incentive to be a science journalist in NZ (there barely is given the lack of jobs for it) then, yes, greater competition would possibly help, but this isn’t really connected to the point I was making, which was about what it takes to understand research science and covey is accurately.

    If so, would your expressed point of view amount to little more than cart-before-the-horse?

    Perhaps you could explain what it is that you think is cart-before-the-horse?

  • Readers,

    Please be aware that I’m not trying to “bash” journalists, nor those without Ph.D.s (There are some exceptional science writers who don’t have a Ph.D. Carl Zimmer is one of the better known examples, he blogs at The Loom under the Discover magazine’s blogsite:

    I’m mainly looking at two things: (1) a response to what someone writing about science communication has said (from an fairly academic point of view at that) and, (2) given that there is some decidedly poor science communication out there, how can we do better?

    I may not have time to reply until tomorrow evening. For some of those of us who run their own businesses, it’s provisional tax and GST return time… The stress, the stress :-)

    Update: looks like I will be around after all.

  • Grant,

    First up allow me say there is no intention you overstress :-) upon my remarks. And, obliging that also, I’ll proceed snappily.

    The essence of your plea is that experience ought lead. Directing both curiosity and the curious. This is a very modernist point of view and attitude.

    Unsuited to the call which appears to me as needing engage what you termed “new science” though tweely put in a (learning) frame between year 3 graduate and post-doctoral. New science has no experience (to speak of).. yes? BTW my bracketed words eg (merely) arise from a blogging age of practice discerning inference. So.. its use says that I infered from your writing.. whatever it was you wrote.

    “Competition” – I reread this and still feel that my meaning as to “places” and ‘doctoral’ work access is patently clear. But, as you say you don’t – admit it tomfarmer it came back as a puzzle from one so otherwise articulate! – here’s another try. The competition is between people for places at, say, university. The people as evidenced in PM Wilson’s 1960s and (to students) the offers of free education. In the scramble the best and brightest emerged. We might agree how these b&b were likely the more curious. Or also possible, the more eager to attain well-paid jobs.

    “cart-before-the-horse” — refer my first response’s para 2 and subsequent premises.. experience as used, infered and relied upon by most modernists does not and cannot cut the scientific cake at all well. I am reminded of the once popular polemic known as cats-and dogs. That is to say how curiosity kills cats and old dogs(experience) don’t do new tricks.

    Resulting, to my mind at least, in your willingness to prescribe more authoritatively than the really of reality positively requires.

    As I said earlier.. no stress to tax beholders.. take your time answering.. take a lifetime if need be..

    with best wishes


  • […] I like a mixture of styles and content type myself. I couldn’t name one particular thing that ‘is’ science writing, although I prefer that somewhere it has, or links to, more than the ‘surface’ veneer. I could better name what I don’t like to see in science material. (Hey, scientists are strong on criticism!) Stuff that‘s poorly researched or simply wrong. Writers whose material reveals that they don’t really understand how science actually works. […]

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