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"A science of science journalism & filmmaking" vs. "Throw strikes & keep 'em off the bases" (lecture synopsis & slides)

I haven't been faithfully reporting on recent talks, workshops etc.  But fortunately, James Bell, who attended one recently, did a great writeup!  

The event was a panel at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.  The two other panelists were Naomi Oreskes and Carl Zimmer.

Katie Carpenter's award-winning documentary! It's soooo good!In addition, the moderator for the panel was Katie Carpenter, my collaborator in the CCP's ongoing project to supply evidence-based science communication support to the Southeast Florida Climate Compact.  

Just the day before, the Festival had awarded Katie's documentary Battle for the Elephants the prize for "Best Environmental & Conservation Science Program"!  So of course she did a great job directing our panel while also contributing her own insights to the discussion.

Read Bell's excellent writeup if you want a blow-by-blow.

The only thing that it occurs to me to add concerns the relationship between Carl Zimmer's talk & mine. There was a bit of point-counterpoint to it.

My basic message -- surprise surprise-- was that science filmmakers & journalists could benefit by using empirical methods to refine and extend their craft norms (slides here).

The gist of Carl's talk, to paraphrase Stanley Fish, was that a science journalist doesn't use a science of science of communication; he or she is a science of science communication. By training and experience, science journalists acquire a form of professional judgment -- one not amenable to quantitative specification-- distinctively suited to discerning how to make what's known by science accessible to curious members of the public. 

Zimmer was Martinez, & I Berkow. Click it!I agree with him!

Or at least I agree with him that no set of methods, empirical or otherwise, can be a substitute for the facility Carl described, which for the most part operates tacitly and automatically as science journalists do what they do.

But the situation sense of science filmmakers, like that of other professionals, is neither static nor impervious to the conscious reflection of those who exercise it.

On the contrary, professional judgment evolves through the interactions of a profession's members, as they accumulate, observe, and share their experiences--formally via training, informally by conversation, and semi-formally through cool events like the Jackson Hole Film Festival!

My claim would be that that process would be enriched by access to empirical information generated with the input of science journalists and filmmakers for the specific purpose of addressing important questions of craft that they themselves recognize as admitting of multiple, competing plausible answers.

The studies would be unlikely to definitely resolve such issues.

But the results would give those participating in professional exchange an additional source of evidence they all agreed was relevant.  Such studies could also be expected to spark insight in individual science journalists and filmmakers, whose use of the study results to inform their actions would thereafter furnish even more material for collective assessment.

So for sure empirical methods are no substitute for professional judgment. But they can supply professionals with information that they themselves will value for the contribution it makes to the exercise of their professional judgment and to the accumulation of shared experiences through which such judgment is formed and transmitted.

Or at least that is my hypothesis! I'd bet (say, $10,000) that even Carl would agree it's worth testing.

& if he and other professional science journalists or filmmakers decided to try such an experiment, I and other scientists of science communication would  be honored to help them design and carry out studies in service of their continuing mission to perfect their craft.

Click to read James Bell's report of talks & Q&A

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Reader Comments (2)

I think it's so important to connect science communication professionals (including science journalists) with science communication scholars, so that we can learn from each other, in pursuing research informed by practice as well the vice versa (practice informed by research).

November 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaige Jarreau


Agreed. But best of all would be collaborative research. The journalists would have to play main role in identifying questions & assuring design is such that it will support inferences that give journalists more or less reason to credit competing answers. Actually, I think this would work best if there were a "Science of Science Journalism Institute," which, at direction of science journalist board of directors, would commission the studies & vouch for adequacy of design. At the conclusion of the study, the resuls would be disseminated to members of the profession (& made available to other curious people) & maintained in the Institute's repository.

Outside the Institute, there would be a statute of a cat standing on a keyboard to symbolize the intrepidity of the science journalist to persevere in the face of the myriad seemingly insurmountable obstacles that confront her

November 6, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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