1. Richard Harris says

    Bugger the scientists; this is more a question for philosophers!

    (Hint: “What is it like to be a bat?” – Thomas Nagel)

  2. says

    Actually, fish do sleep, and so do many invertebrates. Ida Karmanova studies sleep in fish and amphibians back in the 1970s-80s in the old USSR.

  3. Sven DiMilo says

    But, do fish sleep?

    What, with all that glass-tapping? It’s amazing that they can even sit down and put their fins up once in a while!

  4. says

    Anyone ever try to relax his or her brain with some light reading of Genetics or Journal of Clinical Microbiology only to be interrupted by some idiot asking if you’ve heard the latest news on “genes changing” or something along those lines?

  5. JoJo says

    Except for a few journalists who spend years specializing in one particular field, most of them have little or no knowledge of the sometimes quite technical fields they’re reporting on.

    A few years ago a reporter who knows me slightly asked me for background on an accident that happened to a submarine (USS Hartford grounding). I answered his questions and explained some of the technicalities. A couple of days later I read his article. The accident I briefed him on and the accident he wrote about appeared to be two completely different incidents which shared a few minor details.

    It’s not just scientists whose work journalists mangle.

  6. James F says

    What’s worse is when cdesign proponentsists are treated as having a valid side in arguments.

  7. gdlchmst says

    I think it is a general phenomenon for incompetent journalists, not just science journalists. Competency is in short supply these days.

  8. says

    During my brief stint as a science journalist, I once interviewed the director of a research facility who was delighted to learn I had a background in math and science. He jumped to the board in his office to give me a mini-lecture on the research being conducted at his lab. He said it was the first time he was able to just deliver the specifics to a journalist and let the journalist turn it into an article for a general readership — instead of having to spoon-feed the journalist some similes and metaphors from his press office’s publicity kit. (And he later praised the resulting article, much to my pleasure.)

  9. rob says

    James F:

    i can’t believe you would write that! of course cdesign proponents should be treated as having a valid side in arguments.

    it’s too bad about them picking the wrong side…

  10. varlo says

    It might have been worse. The wwriter might have asked if any fish were psychic or if fish were ever abducted by aliens.

  11. curious says

    ah, luckily some of us science journalists were actually science majors and researchers, so we get to laugh, too.

    but while getting the science right takes top priority, i never let on to sources that i speak their language.
    does a pretty good job of explaining why.

    too many scientists who glean that a listener understands the lingo will start speaking like they’re dictating a journal article. not that there’s anything wrong with those, but most of the world won’t have the faintest clue what they’re saying. playing dumb is sometimes the only way to avoid unprintable jargon.

    and honestly, sometimes i think there’s some truth to that old saw (variously attributed to einstein, feynman, and rutherford) that if you can’t explain something to a six-year old (or your grandmother, in one version), you probably don’t understand it yourself…

  12. minusRusty says

    “man, what’s sadder than an attractive nun?”

    “An attractive nun that keeps her vows!”


  13. Spinoza says

    Posted by: Richard Harris | August 25, 2008 3:55 PM

    Bugger the scientists; this is more a question for philosophers!

    (Hint: “What is it like to be a bat?” – Thomas Nagel)

    Err… it’s a question about qualia? How did that happen?

  14. Richard says

    “man, what’s sadder than an attractive nun?”

    I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to the swimsuit competition.

  15. says

    Curious: “playing dumb is sometimes the only way to avoid unprintable jargon. ”

    The beauty of having science-educated journalists is that they can translate for the rest of us!

    But I understand that the goal for scientists is to be able to explain their science correctly without loading it with jargon. It can be done, it just takes practice.

  16. says

    That is just brilliant. Apart from the likes of the BBC, reading anything science in the media is abysmal. Worse is when economic pundits give their opinions, you can see they have no clue. But I guess that’s why they are pundits instead of pwning the stock market.

  17. Kseniya says

    One of the brightest, most fun-loving adults (meaning, someone who was twice my age at the time) I’ve ever spent time with was my friend’s aunt, who was a nun. You just never know.

  18. sdrDusty says

    Oh, gawd, I know the feeling.
    also occurs when listening to some “science” programing on various cable networks… or when chewing aluminum foil and scraping a chalk board.

  19. Sven DiMilo says

    I do not doubt that there are bright, fun-loving nuns out there. I also do not doubt that there are nuns out there who are physically attractive without the wimple on. I just find it sad, in both cases (and especially the combined case) that these bright, fun-loving, attractive people have chosen to marry a fictitious dead guy.

  20. curious says

    @Nicole: of course, we can (and do) translate an awful lot. but quotes are what give a story a reported feel, and while i sometimes *wish* i could put clear explanations in my sources’ mouths, ethics requires that i work with their own words…

  21. blake says

    Sorry but I fail to see how a simple question from someone unfamiliar with your particular specialized field constitutes “treating scientists like oracles of knowledge” leading to confusion between science and religion. Sanctimonious piffle. Worse though, unfunny. People’s poor grasp on critical thinking skills leads to the aforementioned confusion, not genuinely interested but sometimes oversimplifying journalists.

  22. LisaJ says

    Ah, funny but so true. One of my first ‘science for the public’ interviews I gave was after winning a scholarship during my MSc. Upon reading the article, I was surprised to find out that I had single handedly figured out how to kill cancer cells. I gotta say, I was pretty damn impressed to find that our about myself ;)

  23. BobbyEarle says

    The BBC article lets us know that will be no swimsuit competition at the nun pageant. It says that they are more interested in a “discreet charm”.

    I don’t think you can judge “discreet charm” without a swimsuit competition.

  24. SC says

    As a journalist, I’m torn between acknowledging that some reporters ask dumb questions and ripping into the comic’s writer for being a jackass.
    Yes, reporters are not experts in the fields they often cover. We’re expected to be “jacks of all trades” so to speak and so when it comes to scientists, yeah, we come to them for expertise because we often don’t have any. It then becomes the job of the scientist to explain his or her work.
    But scientists — don’t get me wrong, it’s just a general statement. There are plenty of exceptions — rarely do an adequate job of explaining their research to the general public in a way most people can understand.
    Yeah, not everyone is a highly trained biologist or physicist, and, no, they won’t always get your complex answers. Are you really suprised by that?

  25. Heraclides says


    I’m a bit confused by your logic.

    If you know the lingo, then a scientist speaking it should be no issue for you. (Although your point about quotes stands.)

    So excuse for playing a little devil’s advocate here.

    I can see other reasons for not letting on that you understand, but not the one you gave. You appear to be saying that they must do the “translating” for you. Wouldn’t that be your job?

    To me, the whole point of specialist writers is that they can read/listen to the material in its original technical form and bring the essence of it to Joe Public. (It a point that the cartoon makes, too, although a little too obliquely, perhaps.)

    As others have pointed out this fails in other areas too. Business reporting is one that comes to mind. I recall an article on a local biotech company presented in the business pages. The writer didn’t seem to understand how venture-capital funded companies worked and inappropriately reported the company’s progress (the writer made out that making a lost in their initial years was in and of itself bad without any reference to the company’s and investors’ plans). You could argue that the writer didn’t know how to translate the financial summaries without someone in the company or some financial consultant “translating” it for them. A specialist reporter would read the original material for its proper meaning without needing a “translation”.

    I appreciate the issue about sound bite quotes. But, really, if you don’t get a useful quote in the course of the interview, can’t you just ask them directly for one, explaining that while you can work with the material you’ve been given for the most of the piece, you need a quote or two for the public to read directly? Its not as if you’re putting words in their mouths.

    Maybe its just your style to want others to do it for you. I don’t know.

  26. rcn2 says

    #37, SC

    Posted by: SC | August 25, 2008 8:28 PM

    “It then becomes the job of the scientist to explain his or her work.”

    No, actually, it’s the job of the scientist to publish their work in a technical journal. She is taking time out of her busy day to stop and talk to this reporter about radioactive fluorine, glucose, PET scans, and then notices that the reporter cannot spell ‘atom’ correctly. Grr.

    It’s the reporter’s job to get the information, look up the terms, check sources, and ensure that the piece is accurate and intelligible to the public.

    I expect a movie critic to know something about movies, the writer of the financial column to have a passing familiarity with money, and a science reporter to understand at least the high-school level of biology, chemistry and physics.

    If you don’t understand the highly complex answers it may not be surprising, but it does mean that you’re the wrong reporter for that particular job.

    I don’t necessarily fault the reporter, as I’ve been in positions where I’m doing what I do because my boss told me to do it, not because I have any skill at it. It’s not fun, and I am sympathetic to the frustration. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to blame someone else for my incompetence at that task.

  27. says

    Posted by: SC | August 25, 2008 8:28 PM

    Yes, reporters are not experts in the fields they often cover. We’re expected to be “jacks of all trades” so to speak and so when it comes to scientists, yeah, we come to them for expertise because we often don’t have any. It then becomes the job of the scientist to explain his or her work.

    No, that’s the reporter’s job.

    But scientists — don’t get me wrong, it’s just a general statement. There are plenty of exceptions — rarely do an adequate job of explaining their research to the general public in a way most people can understand.

    Hence the need for competent science journalists to translate.

    Yeah, not everyone is a highly trained biologist or physicist, and, no, they won’t always get your complex answers. Are you really surprised by that?

    What surprises me … OK, it doesn’t surprise me. What disappoints me is that journalists are expected to be jacks of all trades. It would make a lot more sense if journalists who had a background in science, or even in interest science coupled with the motivation to educate themselves further, were assigned to science beats. I know journalism isn’t done this way. That’s the problem.

  28. Kaleberg says

    Even fruit flies sleep. From the recent Science article:

    “Joan Hendricks thought she had killed her charges. She had been sitting under a dim red light in a basement for hours, tapping on vials of fruit flies to keep the insects active. Eventually, the flies rolled around seemingly lifeless; her tapping didn’t rouse them. But a couple of hours later, Hendricks, a sleep researcher who is now the dean of the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, realized her flies were simply sacked out. ‘They were just so sleepy,’ Hendricks says. ‘They were basically dead on their little fruit fly feet.'”


    Who says science journalists always get it wrong.

  29. yocco says

    Why does he put a “did not. at the end of the statement? It makes no sense. Otherwise a decent jab.

  30. Kseniya says


    I just find it sad, in both cases (and especially the combined case) that these bright, fun-loving, attractive people have chosen to marry a fictitious dead guy.

    Well, sure. I won’t argue that. I was responding to the quote in the article about the beauty pageant, which said that the pageant was intended to help counter the perception that nuns were “dour” – a perception I don’t really have. (I realize my experience and perception are not typical, and is trumped by The Sounds of Music alone.)

  31. says

    As an aspiring journalism student, I can only chuckle, nod, and say, “ouch”. This precisely why I’m going into the field, to combat as much anti-science nonsense as I can.
    Case in Point
    From MSNBC, TODAY.

  32. SC says

    Posted by: SC | August 25, 2008 8:28 PM

    Hey! Find another moniker! This blog ain’t big enough for the two of us (and I was here first)!

  33. curious says


    i don’t claim to be an expert in every sub-discipline of every scientific field, but honestly, translating a typical research paper into lay language is pretty trivial for me. i’ve logged some time at the bench and in the field, published research, taught bio, chem, and physics, yadda yadda. i’m at home poring over journal papers and reveling in the delicious terminology with the natives (i was once an unrepentant jargon-speaker myself). but readers expect explanations directly from the experts. that means keeping my mouth shut and letting the source tell the story as much as possible. i do it gladly: interviewing is one of my favorite parts of the job. since ultimately i want to share scientists’ words and enthusiasm with others, i need to ask questions that steer the conversation toward terms and explanations that everyone will be able to appreciate.

    as for quote strategy, please let me know how it goes if you do try asking a researcher to deliver a money quote on command. i’ll stick with what works for me, which is holding as much of the conversation as possible at a level appropriate for my audience, and then choosing the best from what’s there.

  34. says

    As someone who is not a professional journalist but does do a lot of science reporting, I have to disagree with #22. Typically, I rely on the peer reviewed paper for information. A well written paper (combined with some of the references therein) has enough information in the introduction and conclusion to understand the context of the work and its contribution, even if you can’t follow the methodology in detail.

    Generally, I don’t even read the press kits put out by the universities and publishers, but use them to get the original articles. After that, I don’t usually need to talk to the authors either. Our whole science reporting team works in a similar fashion, and I think we do an excellent job. The biggest danger of this approach is that if we do misunderstand a paper, it really really shows, however, given the bitching about science reporting, I suspect that it wouldn’t make a difference if we did speak to the scientists.

    BTW: there was a recent paper in Science (I believe) where the authors studied the outcomes of science/reporter interactions. Those of you who think that science reporting is complete trash should read it (you will have to dig up the link yourself though, sorry).

  35. Heraclides says


    Thanks for clarifying why you take this approach. Your original post was confusing to me as on one hand you implied you didn’t need the research “translated”, but on the hand that you did, but without it being clear as to why (to me, anyway). Your post didn’t mention you were making (extensive) use of their words directly in your pieces, which would have made it clear to me why.

    I hope you can excuse me clarifying my post, as some parts of your reply could imply to others I was saying things that I wasn’t. When I wrote “I’m confused”, I meant it literally. I was confused: I wasn’t trying imply anything else. I never suggested that you couldn’t read the literature, in fact I assumed that at least at some level you could.

    I didn’t write that I would just ask them for a quote, nor was I “advising” that: I asked this purely as a question. (Because I was thoroughly confused.) I didn’t mean to literally ask for a “money quote”. I know it can be read that way: but it is a blog comment and has the sloppiness that can come with them…

    Excuse the last sentence if it bothers you: I thought I’d edited it out as it might not be read in the light tone I meant it to convey with it.

    Most of the science pieces I’ve read don’t use extensive passages of “user friendly” explanations directly from the scientist (as nice as they can be), but rather a small collection of quotes which are then extended upon, or prepended with background, by the writer, with the bulk of the material being the writer’s words. (Or not in the case of non-specialist writers!) I’m not saying this is the “right” or “best” way, just most of what I’ve seen.

    Would it be right to say that you favour the “extended interview” style piece? I was writing thinking more or pieces with the emphasis on the topic, not the people, in the style I’ve just mentioned.

    For what its worth, the Rutherford version of the cliché that I know of has the explanation directed at the cleaning lady, not a six year-old. (I’ve seen claims that he said this to his research team. I’ve also read stories that he literally tried to do this, but I’ve never taken the trouble to check these out. Where’s a science historian when you need one…)

  36. Heraclides says

    Post 53 crossed 52 (i.e. my comments are independent of post 52).

    @laserboy: For what its worth, this is closer to the approach that I’d instinctively take myself, with the slight twist that my gut feeling is that I’d pick up enough interesting starting points simply by trawling the literature. (Not saying this is the best way, just one that feels most natural to me.)

    I take it from your post that you get enough success this way, without directly contacting the researchers, etc.–?

    Are you able to tell me the setting that you work in, so that I might have a better idea of the context that this approach is falling within? (Assuming it matters.)

  37. says

    @Heraclides: Yes context matters. I am a professional scientist (as are most of the contributors), so we are not relying on the income and can afford to take our time. On the other hand, sometimes our coverage is spotty because we get bogged down in real work and can’t take the time. Typically, I aim for 4-5 stories a week, which simply isn’t productive enough. If I were to devote myself to this full time, I might be able to turn out 3 a day (including the time it takes to find interesting stuff), which still isn’t enough to make a living out of it. So, yeah, I can see why our approach can be such that it is.

    As far as the site goes, I think we do pretty well. Our coverage is quite wide and fairly deep. We follow science stories as they progress so that the reader sees science as a process rather than a series of findings. We aim for a general audience but we try not to use analogies or metaphors (except, perhaps, for emphasis). As a result, some of the articles are a tough read for some, but we (and they) acknowledge that, and accept that some things are just plain hard work to understand.

    We do tend to get by without contacting the authors, but, again, that is mostly because of our backgrounds and low per-person output. In some ways this has an advantage because the reader really does get an outsiders view of the work’s significance, as opposed to the authors view. But, of course, it has the danger of missing the true significance of the work as well.

    @curious: your clarification appeared while I was still writing my post. My apologies, I didn’t understand what you meant by your first post either.

  38. J says

    As a science reporter (in Scandinavia), I am often impressed by the effort scientists put into communicating with the public, including yours truly. Most of them see it as an important part of their job. However, they are in general not very good at it. I often find myself asking researchers to simplify their answers – not because I don’t understand them, but because I NEED the quote (radio and tv-journalists generally do). Also, I feel that if anyone is going to simplify (or ‘dumb down’) the issue to make it more understandable, why not let the scientist himself/herself have the first go? Surely, that is the most honest approach.
    As for the comic strip, ask yourself this – what if these ‘stupid questions’ were asked not by a reporter, but by a twelve year old on a school field trip to your university? My point is, frustration with reporters is in reality often simply frustration with the outside world.
    Solution? Practice doing interviews. Avoid bad journalists, and seek out good ones. Realize that the general public is often genuinely interested in science, and that they deserve to learn more about it.

  39. Heraclides says


    – Didn’t look at the website! I guessed that you were referring to print media, but now I’m guessing you mean Nobel Intent :-) (Which I occassionally read.)

    “isn’t enough to make a living out of it”: seems to be a common theme… (sadly) I’d poke my nose into science writing myself, but this theme seems to invariably emerge…!


    That’s a very short moniker! (But a good one.)

    The advice sounds good, but there probably are only a handful a scientists I know that get interviewed more than once in a blue moon! I suppose its a bit of a circular thing, though: if you put the effort in, you’re more likely to have the media (whatever form it is in) come back to you. A sort of positive re-enforcement loop :-)

  40. curious says

    @ J & laserboy: thanks to both for sharing your experiences. neat hearing how others are approaching these issues and balancing the competing demands that come with the territory.

    @Heracles & laserboy: no apologies necessary, of course. it’s perfectly reasonable to question this stuff, and i didn’t spend a lot of time establishing context in my original comment.

    re: story format, i work in a mix: short newsy bits, in-depth features, and Q&As.

    i think this may be the paper alluded to above:;321/5886/204

    a snippet for those without journal access: “While respondents were certainly critical of journalists, they assessed their personal interactions with journalism quite positively. Overall, 57% of the respondents said they were ‘mostly pleased’ about their ‘latest appearance in the media,’ and only 6% were ‘mostly dissatisfied’. When asked to evaluate their encounters with journalists over time and across a variety of characteristics, scientists in all countries agreed with positive statements about their contacts and disagreed with negative ones.”

    so yeah, outcomes are a mixed bag, but most scientists working with journalists manage to avoid utter disaster.

  41. curious says

    oops. sorry Heraclides. i transmogrified your moniker from philosopher to mythical hero. tragically, no one fact-checks or copyedits wayward blog comments…

  42. Sili says


    It makes all the sense!

    The first answer/quote “dutifully went into the article”, the other “did not”. It’s ellipsis at its best.

  43. says

    The idea that reporting consists mainly of “getting quotes”, and the idea that journalism should be geared to a 12-year-old’s comprehension level, are two of the major problems with all American journalism, not just science journalism.