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Scientists, students make ‘progress’

Complex science stories aren’t making it to the pages of the nation’s newspapers and airwaves not because of the lack of achievement, but because of misunderstandings between journalists and the scientists they interview.

These were the findings of the “Science and the Media” panel discussion, sponsored by the UTM student chapter of the Society of Professional Journal-ists and held at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 6, in 316 Gooch.

Drs. Jeff Rogers, Michael Gibson, Mark Simpson and Lionel Crews of the Department of Geology, Geography and Physics, along with Professor Emeritus Tom McCutchen, served on the panel.

Each panelist presented a lecture on a variety of topics, from reductionism, the notion of removing key information just to fill space, to pseudo-science, a classification of “science” that relies heavily on sensationalized ideas and little basis on facts.

Gibson, a professor of Geology, said that one of the reasons scientists do not talk to journalists is that they often “are fearful for how the interview will be translated into the media and really don’t always want to deal with it; hence, it is much easier to be too busy to deal with.

“Reporters want quotes/sound bites that are definitive and authoritative. Scientists are people with ‘work in progress’ – there is rarely ever a final stage – so the prospect of having to make that definitive conclusionary statement puts us on shaky ground,” Gibson said.

Rogers, associate professor of Geography and interim department chair, agreed that many of his colleagues were hesitant to talk to reporters because “names or key terms may be spelled incorrectly, the reporter has missed the main points of your research that you had emphasized during the interview, or the reporter has trivialized or sensationalized the topic.

“After being disappointed like this several times, you really wonder if it is worth the time to help journalists who just do not follow through with a good piece of work,” Rogers said.

“I enjoyed the evening and was impressed by the comments and questions posed by the students," Rogers added.

Crews, an assistant professor of Physics, said that many scientists are hesitant to talk to reporters because of fear of the “overexposure” phenomenon experienced by politicians or other public figures.

“Many [scientists] are afraid of ‘going out on a limb.’ It is easy to make a mistake, and if it is published, it is harder to retract.

For that reason, science journals are peer-reviewed. Someone familiar with your field will read your article and make suggestions before it is ever printed,” Crews said.

“Science is about slow, steady progress. There are truly very few ‘eureka’ moments. Some may think that what they are actually studying is boring or hard to understand for the general populace,” Crews added.

SPJ plans to continue working with the science disciplines on various ideas that came up during the forum, as well as sponsor more speakers this year.