I recently went to a course run by some ex-BBC journalists, Media Players International, on how to engage with the media regarding your research. They encouraged us to become the Media Tarts of the future, so here I (vaguely…) recall some of Dr Armand Leroi‘s lecture to postgrads at my institute from way back in the Summer, which was on that very topic.
I’ve enjoyed Armand’s telly programmes and was fortunate to have a pint and a chat with him at the very first London Skeptics in the Pub I went to (having been apprehensive about knowing no-one beforehand!).
Probably most famous for his science best-seller, Mutants, Armand has a great passion for his subject – evolutionary biology – which I very nearly pursued after university myself (and still sometimes wish I had!).
My Life As A Media Tart
Guest lecture to School of Medicine & Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, Postgradute Day.
How I became one and how you can too!
The OMIM database* shows that we are all mutants. This gives us information on development.
[*I love OMIM; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, and have done since it was introduced to us at university. You can search any gene you can think of and see if it’s been linked to a heritable disease in people, with links to the original papers, follow-up studies, details of other-organism models, big clinical studies, drugs and so on. Very useful & interesting.]
Armand recalled dealings with the “innocent of knowledge” TV people in Soho(!) when Channel 4 had commissioned a series of programmes that should cover science in the form of:
Sex, death and deformity
He showed us a timeline of the deadlines set (and missed!) during the writing of Mutants, and its movement to TV serialisation.
Filming is wonderful! But draining.
Having worked on the flatworm C. elegans (one of biology’s favourite genetic models) for many years, Armand noted how human compassion affected the projects – studying mutants can mean ‘treating real people as flies’, with respect to their genes;
I was comfortable with worms!
We scientists are sometimes resistant to being taken out of our comfort zones!
TV is a crass medium
Apparently the BBC even has a ‘walking & talking’ school! They’ll teach you how to move and talk at the same time. Amazing.
Is it worth it?
A common question with regard to any sort of science communication endeavour, especially ones such as writing and presenting that can take a lot of time and effort. Armand replies:
There is a need for science. Lots of TV science!
The situation isn’t quite as dire as many of us tend to think. SciComms is flourishing in many ways; this is the first time in my life, at least, that it’s been cool to be nerdy! Perhaps I’ve just restricted my social bubble so much that that’s inevitable, who knows.
We need scientist-driven content.
Rather than producer-driven; otherwise you fall into the sensationalist traps, don’t actually inform anyone of anything and maintain useless stereotypes.
Prof. Kathy Sykes and notable others have started to take on alternative medicine (close to the skeptics’ hearts of course) and pseudo-skepticism such as the ‘global warming swindle’ (see below).
There has been a war of sorts, going for >2300 years; if one is going to be overly-dramatic about it, involving (un)truth, light/dark and (un)reason. Perhaps embodied by Aristotle’s movement away from his teacher, Plato, saying
Plato is my friend, but the truth is more my friend.
Something with which I identify very much, in fact.
The value of Scientists in engagement
It needs to be about more than just saying “trust me, I’m a scientist”
TV is run by humanities graduates!
That may well be so, in which case the narrative tends to rank above substance.
Is it true? It is news?
It is of course important that you have a good narrative, though, otherwise people will get bored and wander off! So I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss their skills or be particularly mean (have loads of humanities grad friends and they’re no less brilliant for it – am a firm believer in the importance of diversity. Hey, all the geneticists should agree with that!) – but it’s probably worth trying to give some input, to steer things in a more fact-based direction.
The example given was of a Channel 4 ‘documentary’ called The Great Global Warming Swindle. It was investigated by Steve Connor who said it:
was based on graphs that were distorted, mislabelled, or just plain wrong…
To which the producer Martin Durkin replied:
The original NASA data was very wiggly and we wanted the simplest line we could find
Given the audience and subject matter this is hugely irresponsible and, understandably, people made various statements against it.
Prof. Carl Wunsch at MIT, who participated in the documentary, said The Great Global Warming Swindle was ‘grossly distorted’ and ‘as close to pure propaganda as anything since World War Two’.
One of Armand’s comments during correspondence with Durkin, that ended up involving Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh as well, was affectionately dubbed the ‘Leroi Conjecture’
Left to their own devices, TV producers simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth
He finished with some advice:
Editing is unavoidable. Seriously engage and keep control. Say ‘It’s this or I walk’
Don’t be pressured into presenting something you don’t agree with or something that’s wrong. Don’t let your message be twisted.
Going back to the journalists I met on the course; apparently there’s no such thing as ‘off the record’. Get your message clear in your mind before you begin, do your best to stick to it. You can learn to direct questions yourself and maintain the agenda – they’re already skilled at doing it.
Use the Press office of your universities – fortunately at Queen Mary we have a very good one. Don’t forget that they exist.
I’ve talked of it before as a potentially important role for scientists (and anyone, really) and it seems to be a growing phenomenon – that or I’m just more aware of it. All perhaps catalysed somewhat by Nick Davies.
For example, the lovely Mr Marshall, not a scientist by training, has moved into covering Bad PR (or Bad News, as a more pun-tastic title for SitP talks and wotnot) – that includes opinion polls and general PR screw-ups.
These go along the lines of:
Determine the outcome, and then run the study to find it.
It’s rather like Creation ‘science’, if you like. Here’s the conclusion, now let’s go cherry-pick that evidence.
What doesn’t fit, it’s fine – we’ll ignore it, or we’ll design a study that irons that wrinkle out.
If you venture into comms/outreach, as a media tart or otherwise, you can do your own bit in this ‘war’, if you want to call it that – science would probably appreciate it.
Armand gave us a whirlwind tour of his programmes to date:
This 2005 programme was seemingly dismissed as a bit silly; indeed we had a bit of a giggle at a screen-grab of some computer-generated space whales.
What Makes Us Human
He expanded upon one example of how genetic research has used human examples to glean information about the functions of our genes and why we develop the way we do.
In Gujarat, Pakistan, there are shrines to the Rat People; they have unusually small heads and the mental ability of 2-3 year-old children. The local presumption is that they are cursed (or they believe that beggars or gypsies put pots on their heads to deliberately create a source of income in the family). Infertile people go to the shrine and must ‘donate’ their first child to the shrine, or all their future offspring will be doomed to this fate.
It’s fascinating because when we consider chimps vs. humans, our genes have evolved very fast; one major distinguishing feature being our ‘huge’ brains. One gene important in this feature of ours is clearly microcephalin.
He also recounted attending a very surreal dwarf conference in Reno, US., called Little People of America. Dwarfism is caused by varied bone disorders, achondroplasia being the most common, and there many people come together from all over the world to share their experiences, access support networks, meet up and make friends.
We got an amusing image of the evo bio lab’s shrine to ditto the pig (as a good luck mascot!) – animals with two faces are a striking example of mutants helping our understanding of genes; with this condition being particularly ‘entertaining’, given the gene involved (a favourite amongst us biologist/gamer types) – Sonic Hedgehog (or Shh).
Darwin’s secret notebooks
A National Geographic piece on the formation of Darwin’s thoughts. Tenuous links here being that Darwin was British and bald! They got to go on the National Geographic ship Polaris, I’m insanely jealous of this.
What Darwin Did Not Know
Armand’s favourite example from this is the Lake Malawi cichlid fish. An absolutely astounding variety of fish species have evolved in that lake and a lot of work is still going on to characterise them.
Armand’s pet project to date, the title referring to a Lesvos Lagooon visited by “the father of biologists”, Aristotle, who wrote the Historia Animalium as a result – the first in-depth zoological study.
Interesting as the recording of the Infinite Monkey Cage I went to recently involved the question of “Is philosophy dead?” and the seemingly age-old rivalry of scientific vs. philosophical study (not that I separate them that much, personally) – here Aristotle was considered only a philosophical figure, and I thought it was a shame they’d clearly not watched this programme!
Finally I should probably plug my first foray into the world of scientific telly, brought to you by the excellent Wellcome Trust – have a look at tissue culture in our lab, here!