Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Science and the Media: A personal perspective

Following my last blog, and where at the end I hinted that I would be making my own media appearance soon, I felt it would be appropriate to discuss my own experiences as a scientist who keeps getting involved with the media. Although I think it is a relevant subject for blogging, it also neatly covers the fact that I can't seem to find an article that I feel can be thoroughly satirised or ridiculed.

I've been featured in all types of media now, apart from films. TV, Radio, journals, newspapers, magazines and of course, the global interworldweb, what you're looking at at the moment. So, I feel I have as much right as anyone to comment on the portrayal of scientists in the media, and I'll be honest, I'm not happy with it. You might think it churlish of me, that I'm biting the hand that feeds me, and this would be a good point if at any point in my life I'd actively sought out media exposure.

The weird thing is, I never have. Genuinely. About 90% of my media exposure has been thrust upon me as if by the whim of some wacky God with a questionable sense of humour. The only times it hasn't been, it's been me calling in a favour on behalf of some other friend/project.

I usually get my media gigs by the same route; an email ends up in my inbox, my work or personal one (possibly via my myspace in the past but not so much these days), which says something along the lines of "Hello Dean, we've never met, but I'm X and I work for Y, and we need a scientist to say something about Z for article/show ... Z1... yeah, that works.

This happens surprisingly often. Here's a brief synopsis of some of my media appearances and how they came about.

GLEE TIME (ITV) - I emailed Glee club manager to enquire who the 'local acts' advertised as part of the show were, he said I could do the first night. Unprompted.

'SCIENCE' MAGAZINE - Journalist (the lovely Krista) created a myspace account for the sole purpose of asking if she could profile me, and berated me for being hard to get hold of in the first message.

FUNNY BUSINESS (BBC Wales) - Director Neil gets hold of Dan Mitchell, who assembles us all to discuss it. I end up progressing further in the televised 'contest' than any of us expected, especially me.

SOUTH WALES ECHO - Get called several times by Katie, lovely girl, asking for my contribution to various articles, which oddly continues after she leaves.

BBC RADIO WALES - Get contacted, again out of the blue, by Sarah, who asks me to guest on the Rodri Williams show.

HTV NEWS FEATURE - Email via work, asking for me, discussing the exact same topic mentioned in and echo article a year previously.

BBC RADIO SCOTLAND - Another work email, asking if I'll do a live link-up to a chat with Fred Macaulay and Tim Vine.

I know a lot of comics who would crave such exposure, and I'm genuinely not trying, so I feel bad in a way, but there's not much I can do about it. I think if you type in 'comedian + Neuroscientist' into google, you get me, although I don't know why people keep typing that in.

But anyway, my credentials established, I think the problem with media and science, and this is becoming a laboured point, is one of ignorance. On both sides. Scientists, by and large, either don't understand or don't expect the way 'the media' does things, it goes against their grain. In scientific media, you can't say or do anything without evidence supporting it, or the references to back it up (but then there are those scientists who do it anyway, but they tend to get frowned upon). The Media doesn't work this way. My impression is that scientists try and tell people what they think they people need to know, or should know, whereas the media leans heavily toward telling people what they think they want to hear. These two things rarely overlap.

Case in point. The recent 8 second clip of me on HTV news (it was on Monday, I think I was on for 8 seconds, I don't know because I didn't watch it) was part of a 'humorous' feature on Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. When I say 'most depressing day of the year' this is according to Dr Cliff Arnil, whom everyone I know has their doubts about. He once taught a night class at Cardiff University centre for life long learning, and has since labelled himself a 'Researcher at Cardiff University'. Hmmm.

His equation is self promoting bollocks he sells to travel agents, sales executives and anyone else without the scientific wherewithal to question it. So, media people lap it up. When the reporter Duncan (nice guy, I'll say that) turned up at my flat (yeah, they come to me, I'm that important) to get footage of the story form the 'scientific perspective', I explained thoroughly why it was bullshit. His expression turned to what can only be described as 'I've dedicated an entire feature to this theory and if this viewpoint ever gets established I'll look like a right arse' expression. But we ploughed on. He allowed me to say it wasn't the most depressing day of the year, that there's no such thing as an absolute most depressing day of the year.

According to people who saw it, in the final edit a bit of that was left in. This is quite impressive. The editing I mean, because I didn't say much else, apart form a crap joke which got pride of place of course.

But this sums up exactly why science and the media don't get on. By the time the scientists are asked to get involved, the media has already decided on the story/report from an understandably ill informed viewpoint. A lot of people have complained that science stories in the media are rarely looked over by trained scientists in the way political or economic stories are. This may be the case, but when you consider that most people who study science go on to become scientists, there's probably a shortfall of science versed people with media jobs. Those scientists who do spend a lot of time with the media are generally ones who are more concerned with self publicity. This is also frowned upon in the scientific circles.

But I think the media does need to give scientists more say in how they're represented, they should give control over what's said about an issue to those who understand it most. The media's obsession with the MMR-Autism link (which doesn't exist) has probably resulted in the deaths of children. Doctors aren't familiar with measles, and it's quite a potent disease, but because some idiot said there might be a link and the media took his side, some child somewhere will not have the vaccine, catch the illness and will be presented to a doctor who doesn't know how to handle it. Assuming this hasn't happened already.

On a lighter note, here's a good example. When I was filming funny business, the fact that I was a comedian-neuroscientist proved to be of interest to the film crew (this is why I get all my exposure, I won't deny it, I'm an oddity). They wanted to film me at work. As it happened, a busy neuroscience lab like the one where I work(ed) isn't really open to filming, a lot of sensitive material and equipment scattered around. But no matter, they just wanted to film me 'doing science' a phrase that I've never really defined.

This ended up with me sat in an empty teaching lab that normally occupies over a hundred students, transferring water from one vial to another with a pipette while they asked questions. Apparently, this looked fine. This is the equivalent of someone being an IT technician in a busy office building, and interviewing him/her sat at a child's desk in an empty warehouse while he plays with a calculator. This wouldn't look fine, but people would see that. And that, I think, is the problem.

Rant done

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