Caught in the Middle

Recently, while promoting his new book The Viral Storm, Nathan Wolfe appeared on Fresh Air and The PBS News Hour...even on The Colbert Report! I've watched Marcia Stefanick on Charlie Rose, heard Don Barr on KQED Forum during my morning commute, seen Robert Sapolsky and James Gross on the PBS series: This Emotional Life: Episode 2: Facing Your Fears. On a Tyra Banks show, featuring women who have put themselves on a tapeworm diet, D. Scott Smith showed up in blue scrubs to open up a jar of tapeworms! "Why scrubs?" you might ask. So the audience knows he is a doctor. The fact that Dr. Smith is the Chief of Infectious Diseases & Geographic Medicine at Kaiser means nothing compared to those "authentic" blue scrubs on television. This is what it takes to scare Tyra Banks' millions straight.

Anecdotally, I get the strong impression that most doctors and scientists would rather avoid the compromises that are necessary to perform for the media. There is always the risk that one's colleagues will notice and mistake the obligatory simplifications for condescension or pandering or, what is worse, self-aggrandizing. An even greater risk is that a remark taken out of context will go viral and you will find yourself with millions of fans! Or enemies.  Stephen Schneider, who never shied away from such risks, just took for granted that if he didn't speak to the public someone else would. Better to accept the limitations of the media, and learn how to compress one's ideas for the appropriate audience: prepare monographs and peer-reviewed articles for one's academic colleagues, a popular book for an educated readership, five minute talking points for testifying to Congress, and a 45 second speech for the reporter who asks you in the elevator.  45 seconds is really very generous in comparison to the demands of Twitter. Are you prepared to distill decades of research into one 140 character tweet?

The scientist is caught in the middle. In addition to communicating one's research for peer review--making predictons and carefully representing the methods for testing them and the uncertainty of the findings--increasingly scientists are asked to communicate to a wider audience these findings without all these caveats and complications. How can science be put in context and framed so as to motivate informed decisions, but without misrepresenting the facts (and the unknowns). In my interview of Carol Boggs she encouraged Conservation Biologists to reach out more to psychologists, in order to better understand how people make decisions when faced with uncertainty and risk: "Its not only understanding how people make choices. Its understanding how to shape those choices and that also gets you into ethics very, very rapidly. Because if you think about it, what advertising is all about is trying to change our behavior. And its one thing to be doing that to get you to buy a bar of soap; its another thing to be doing that to persuade you to have particular political leanings or to have a particular attitude about some kind of problem in the environment. I think that if humans are going to survive we've got to do that and the question is making sure that its done responsibly and in accordance with the evidence."

There is the risk that the public will misunderstand, but perhaps the greater risk is that one's colleagues will misunderstand. In his interview Don Kennedy noted that junior colleagues, who would speak directly to the public, are often warned against it: "As some of our humbio graduates might have discovered, when they went into PhD programs and other places...in their own efforts to try to express their views in more generally understood terms, that their mentors say: 'well, well that's all fine, but you don't want to get a reputation for being primarily interested in speaking to the public. Better tend to your thesis and leave that for later.' And its a little discouraging to some young faculty members, who are hungry for tenure and recognition and who nevertheless have enough curiousity about expressing and explaining what they do to want to talk to a reporter."

Although most Humbio faculty are much further along in their careers, many of those I interviewed for the 40th Reunion recognized this tension between their professional and public audience. An audience of sympathetic alum is perhaps the easiest place to speak out, but in order to reach beyond Stanford Humbio faculty have found a wide range of venues for speaking to the public.  In this blog I hope to reflect on and evaluate these venues where faculty have played a role both as educator and advocate.

Last modified Wed, 26 Jun, 2013 at 5:00