Freelancing: Scientists care about reality TV too.

My name is Adam Fortais and I am a final year PhD student studying Physics at McMaster University in Canada. For the last few years, I have been writing popular science articles, creating science content, and freelancing. In this column, I reflect on my experiences entering the field of Science Communication.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a statement of interest with the hopes of being accepted into a science journalism summer school at Concordia in Montreal. As I was writing this application, it began turning into somewhat of a manifesto. Upon re-reading this tiny mission statement, I can see that I’ve learned a lot since then. And now that I’m on the cusp of graduating, I think it’s time I review the manifesto.

Last week I considered the difference between what I’d call #SciComm and what people think of as Science Journalism. I divided these activities along the following lines:

What topics do you cover?

What’s your message?

What is your motivation?

Who do you work for?

And while the role of Science Communicator and Journalist may differ, I did not see any intrinsic conflicts of interest between the two roles. For details, check out Part One of this series HERE. Today, however, I will be diving into the rest of my old Statement. 

I think the lack of understanding of what a scientist does is because many people don’t actually know any scientists (for example; the CBC recently ran a story which claimed nearly half of all Canadians couldn’t name a single female scientist). When I was young, the careers I imagine myself doing were the ones that I could actually imagine. Having a picture of someone with a career I admired allowed me to express my interest and find guidance toward pursuing that career.

To think every young student will be able to meet and interact with a scientist is naive – many scientists are located in metropolitan areas, not to mention the fact that there simply aren’t that many scientists per capita. These factors limit how many young students will ever get to meet a scientist to a small, (and demographically biased) group. For this reason, I began considering how to reach students indirectly.

Aside from directly interacting with a scientist early on, I was influenced by media portrayals of scientists and the opinions of my family. It’s here, within social circles and the media, that I believe the majority of people’s scientific understanding comes from. Yet, through my blogging and outreach activities I have begun to see a fundamental issue with these forms of media – they seem to only reach those who look for it. In a sense, we are “preaching to the choir”, and I think this is dangerous.

I’m worried that when a detachment occurs between a source of authority and the general population, distrust develops. Maybe this is the origin of climate change denial or the anti-vaccine movement. Of this, I can only speculate. However what I can say, is that current scientific journalism leaves many people behind. Podcasts have helped increase access to science, but are even still biased to the people who look for such a thing, and have the ability to consume this type of media. I think the way we involve the public in research needs to be rethought, and I think this begins with us.

Thank you for your consideration,

Adam Fortais, M.Sc

I find that I still agree with much of what I wrote several years ago. But I don’t agree with all of it. The main points I seem to make are that:

  • Many people don’t know who scientists are or what they do
  • Science content only reaches people who look for it, is geographically and demographically exclusionary 
  • Building trust in science requires that we “invite the public in”, so to speak. Groups of people whose work informs huge public decisions yet remains mysterious is sketchy at best, and potentially terrifying
  • New and better forms of Science Journalism can hopefully solve these issues

As far as the issues go, my thoughts haven’t changed. I still think that depictions of scientists are too few and too cliched. I still think science and science content is highly exclusive. And I definitely believe that Scientists are a poorly understood and mysterious bunch, as far as the public is concerned. Heck, I’ve been interviewing researchers for The AlmaMAC and scientificanada.ca for over a year now, and no two guests’ average days are the same, and I’m often surprised by what they tell me. I don’t think journalism can solve this. I don’t think journalism should solve this. I think proper science journalism should credit the people whose work is being reported on, but humanizing the science seems irrelevant. There are very few occasions where someone “liking” or “not liking” Dr. Fauci. It just doesn’t matter.  

My Statement was designed to imply that better or different science journalism could fix science’s publicity problems, better equip the public to vet the scientific information they are given, and reach underserved communities. That’s a tall order for one form of media. When I read the news, often I attempt to read as little of any given article as possible while gleaning the basics. For science-based policy decisions, the personalities of the people behind the science should not be important. However, for engaging the public into thinking about science stories, forming opinions about research, and being able to fend for themselves “out there”, personalities are crucial. Under-represented groups need to be represented. Young students need to see themselves in these STEM careers. People outside metropolitan areas need a voice, and need first-hand access to science and scientists. 

Basically, more is more. We need more TV shows, books, movies, and news with a science focus. We need more people with different backgrounds and lifestyles talking about science. We need to see scientists doing science, or not doing science. Let’s see scientists talking about current events, creating art, writing stories, and helping other hopeful scientists get to where they are. I’m tired of seeing scientists as 1-dimensional proselytizers of facts and logic, here to lecture us on what we’re doing is wrong. Scientists are real people with stupid opinions about reality TV, just like everyone else. And the sooner people start seeing scientists in this light, the sooner they will feel comfortable asking them “why?” And isn’t that the most important question in science?

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