One would think that scientists themselves would be best equipped to explain to the public the scientific and technical developments affecting everyone’s lives. After all, the scientists are the ones doing the work that produces the developments. In general, however, science-related news and feature stories in the U.S.A. are told by men and women who have no formal science training. These journalists teach themselves the science they need in the process of reporting and writing for the public. The gatekeepers of the media—newspaper editors and radio and TV producers—stubbornly prefer these non-specialists in the storyteller role, for they believe that non-specialists know, far better than specialists do, what questions the reader wants answered. The problem is, of course, that the reader doesn’t usually know what questions to ask. This ignorance-caused vacuum, too often shared by the reporter and the audience, too often leaves unanswered the important questions about science, technology, medicine and the environment.

The solution to this problem is not an easy one, however. Even scientists who are verbally extremely gifted must be rigorously trained to communicate with average citizens in the language such people are used to hearing.

In twenty years of training scientists to be successful science journalists, we at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have found that the transformation requires that a number of crucial conditions be fulfilled before a scientist can make successful use of the training we provide. First, the scientist must already be an excellent natural writer. Second, the scientist must have a history of writing. Third, the scientist have substantial research experience. Fourth, the scientist must feel genuine interest in, and affection for, the ordinary people of the world.

We find that the personality trait that enables people to engage easily with others in social situations is the hardest to test for. We at Santa Cruz have developed an excellent test for the trait, which we will reveal at the meeting.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Making science writers out of scientists

John Wilkes   UC Santa Cruz, Crown College

One would think that scientists themselves would be best equipped to explain to the public the scientific and technical developments affecting everyone’s lives. After all, the scientists are the ones doing the work that produces the developments. In general, however, science-related news and feature stories in the U.S.A. are told by men and women who have no formal science training. These journalists teach themselves the science they need in the process of reporting and writing for the public. The gatekeepers of the media—newspaper editors and radio and TV producers—stubbornly prefer these non-specialists in the storyteller role, for they believe that non-specialists know, far better than specialists do, what questions the reader wants answered. The problem is, of course, that the reader doesn’t usually know what questions to ask. This ignorance-caused vacuum, too often shared by the reporter and the audience, too often leaves unanswered the important questions about science, technology, medicine and the environment.

The solution to this problem is not an easy one, however. Even scientists who are verbally extremely gifted must be rigorously trained to communicate with average citizens in the language such people are used to hearing.

In twenty years of training scientists to be successful science journalists, we at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have found that the transformation requires that a number of crucial conditions be fulfilled before a scientist can make successful use of the training we provide. First, the scientist must already be an excellent natural writer. Second, the scientist must have a history of writing. Third, the scientist have substantial research experience. Fourth, the scientist must feel genuine interest in, and affection for, the ordinary people of the world.

We find that the personality trait that enables people to engage easily with others in social situations is the hardest to test for. We at Santa Cruz have developed an excellent test for the trait, which we will reveal at the meeting.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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