Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Science journalism - Or how I met Jonathan Amos

Last week, I was in Vienna for the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Every year, more than 10,000 geoscientists come together in this beautiful city on the banks of the Danube and discuss their latest research results. Along with the scientists, educators, teachers, and policy makers, journalists join the party and report some of the most interesting, surprising, or groundbreaking scientific findings. For the first time, EGU launched a student reporter programme this year. There were five of us students who got to report on aspects of the meeting for some of the EGU division blogs (check out my posts for the EGU Cryosphere Blog here). One of the perks of our reporter status was that we got access to the press office, where I had the chance to have a chat with Jonathan Amos, science correspondent for the BBC.

Jonathan - originally from Bristol, my new home - has been working for the BBC since the mid 90s, but as it turns out he also has a background in science. Originally trained in sociology, he decided to take distance courses at the Open University to learn more about different scientific disciplines after having started working as a reporter. His continuous interest in science is very evident in his reporting, and among other he has been awarded with the prestigious Sir Arthur Clarke Award.

Jonathan's profile on the BBC homepage. I had no idea that he is from Bristol!

As someone who has acquired most of her science communication experience in North America, I was curious about Jonathan's opinion on differences in terms of science journalism on different sides of the Atlantic. Initially, his answer was that he can't think of any fundamental differences. However, when we kept talking about the issue he mentioned that from his view it seems like many science events in North America (such as the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco) do not get covered by the big US television networks. I never noticed that! This issue would probably be relatively easy to fix, and might help with some of polarization the US population is experiencing in terms of whether or not scientific facts are understood and accepted by the general public. 

Related to improving the way scientists communicate with the public, Jonathan made an interesting comment. As a scientist I sometimes read articles in the newspaper and get a bit dissatisfied with the use of some scientific terms. Viewed from a journalistic perspective, however, sometimes scientific accuracy might be less important than using a term that gets the concept across to a reader, in a way where they can relate to the idea with something they are familiar with. Jonathan's example was the term "regolith", which is used to describe the outermost layer of the moon. Even though there is definitely no soil in the scientific definition on the moon, using the term "soil" when we talk about regolith helps to convey the idea that regolith is often quite lose and broken up. I have to agree that using slightly inaccurate analogies might sometimes be good to convey a message. However, many misconceptions about scientific facts come from the use of such analogies. For example, during my outreach visits to schools I've encountered more than one teacher who believe the Earth's mantle is molten. The mantle does "flow" over time periods of many thousands or even millions of years, but there is only a very small amount of actual melt. If teachers have misconceptions about science, these will be passed on to our children, so if science concepts are simplified too much we risk misunderstanding. In the case of "regolith" and other specific terms I think the best option might be to use the term, but explain it properly when it's used the first time. What do you think?

Viewing the conference, geosciences, and science communication from the perspective of a journalist was definitely a unique experience, and one that I wouldn't want to miss. From what I've seen in the press office last week things can get pretty hectic, so I appreciate that Jonathan took the time to sit down with me and answer all my questions. At the end of my interview he told me that he likes to ride his bike, so keep an eye out and maybe you'll see him whizzing past on his way to the next interview...


  1. Awesome article Kathi!
    My opinion is that scientific imprecision is often a necessary sacrifice to ease lay-folks into scientific folds... The "molten" mantle is a good example - young kids can understand the concept of a molten fluid flowing, whereas brains might explode (and science may be forever cast feared) if a class gets bogged down in the concepts of rock rheology and plasticity, when the main focus was to teach about plate tectonics. However, somewhat older students might find the idea of "plastic, stretchy rocks" pretty exciting, which can reinforce scientific interests vs sending them running. Seems like a case-to-case basis where a teacher would judge where their students' intellectual levels, and use terminology accordingly.
    If I was dealing with astrophysicists, for example, I would definitely appreciate them "dumbing down" their science when talking to me, lest I completely get overwhelmed in cosmic complexities!

    - Allan

  2. I totally agree! As so often it comes down to targeting a specific audience, and maybe to emphasize that a foreign concept is "similar to" a familiar idea, instead the two concepts being "exactly the same". Thanks for your input!

  3. Interesting article, but I am quite conservative in the jargon issue. Most of the time this jargon is there for a reason: clarity. And as you said, some problematic misconceptions can occur.
    I recall the recent example of NASA announcing "water on Mars" while they were in fact talking of not-so-wet brine. This made a huge buzz for quite nothing scientifically speaking… Or another example in my field with the observation of glories on Venus described sometimes as "alien rainbows". Problem is, a glory is not a rainbow, they are created by different processes and do not appear in the same place in the sky!

    I think the jargon should be replaced only when it can't be defined immediately. People are clever enough hear that regolith is the (quite-)equivalent of soil for the Moon so you can then move on to your explanation using regolith instead of soil.
    And the problem I have with unnecessary simplification is that can lead to (as Allan said) "dumbing down" the science. This is a terrible expression! We should never dumb down the science, because people are not dumb! I am an astrophysicist and I can tell you that what we do is not as complicated as it sounds, it is just a matter of finding a proper way to describe it.

    I prefer a correct (i.e. not misleading) analogy than using improper words. This might not please journalists, but this is, in my opinion, one of the big problems scientific journalism faces, and why most of science related articles are just wrong (Mr Amos being amongst the exceptions to this).

  4. You're absolutely right, jargon often means clarity. However, the big problem with jargon is that often that there is a lot of it in a scientific publications, for example. If you kept all of the jargon from a science publication in an article for non-scientists, then your readers would get complete information overload very quickly, and not even bother continuing to the "meat" of your message. But as you said yourself, "it is just a matter of finding a proper way to describe" the concepts we're trying to explain. This is the challenge, and it's certainly a fine balance between simplifying and relating to familiar concepts while staying scientifically correct!