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12Aug 2013

How to pick the "best" fourteen science communicators. Or not.

Deborah Blum
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On Monday, two science communicators published a twitpoll titled "Who is the best living science communicator?"

The two communicators, science writer Eric Berger of The Houston Chronicle, and Jeffrey Toney, also spread the word elsewhere. Berger posted it on his Sci Guy blog at the Chronicle site.  And Toney, provost of Kean University and a popular science writer himself, gave it a heads up at Dean's Corner at Scienceblogs. 

As they write:

It’s been nearly two decades since Carl Sagan, the great science communicator, died.

Since that time public trust in science has eroded, and no one has emerged as Sagan’s clear successor. At the same time popular culture is littered with faux science ideas, from anti-vaccination fervor to documentaries on mermaids and mega-sharks.

What the world needs, then, is a great communicator of science who can connect with large audiences, liberal, moderate and conservative, to help explain what science is, and the wonders it reveals about nature and the nature of the universe.

Between us, readers, I'm not a big fan of those mermaid documentaries myself. And I'd definitely be interested in meeting the savior of science proposed here - and, you know, maybe take a few classes with the great communicator.  Okay, that came out a little sarcastic. Setting aside the snark, I do understand that this is about promoting good science communication and I would  like to wish Berger and Toney well in a quest that visibly shines with good intentions. 

I'd also to point out that despite those good intentions, this is a poll that raises some problems for me in its execution. Berger and Toney have pre-selected 14 science communicators from which we are asked to pick the best. Of those 14, only three are women. And all three women are scientists. There are three journalists on this list - Science Friday's Ira Flatow, The New York Times technology write, David Pogue, and freelancer and National Geographic blogger, Carl Zimmer. These are all exceptional journalists. But to belabor the obvious, there's no evidence of a female science writer within spitting distance of this list. This exclusionary aspect has already resulted in criticism on social networks like Twitter. And, on Twitter, the British science writer Ed Yong (and Zimmer's colleague at National Geographic's Phenomena)  also noted another exclusionary aspect:

 2 Americans create poll of "world's best living sci communicator" that has 11 Americans out of 14.
 

So does this list just dismiss the non-USA science communicators as automatically failing the  greatness test? Because, you know, go USA?  Oh, I hope not. But rather than just staying in snark-and-sulk mode - although, yeah, that's always fun for me, I decided to ask Berger directly about some of the ideas behind this poll. Bergman is a smart science writer (as his work on hurricanes and climate shows) and  our e-mail exchange ended up providing some thoughtful background both on the poll and on the state of science writing. So I thought I'd share some of it here in a Q&A format:

This was the first exchange: 

Me: Hi, Eric - I'm going to do a short write up on your "best science communicators" poll for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. I'm wondering if you can tell me what the criteria were for the list? And I note that there are no women science journalists/communicators on your list. Any special reason? I'm trying to decide how much you mean this to be just for fun or to be taken seriously. Hoping to post this later today. Many thanks, Deborah

Eric: Hi, Deborah - The poll is intended to stimulate discussion and thought about the topic. It was not intended to be a rigorous academic exercise. Jeffrey Toney and I brainstormed the list, and I also sought input via Twitter in June. There is an admitted bias toward people who have appeared on television. Why? Because we were looking for someone who might be the next Carl Sagan. There are a lot of wonderful science bloggers and authors who have devoted audiences, but if their reach is, say, 5,000 or 10,000 people, then they are hardly making a deep impression on the public consciousness at large. So we were looking for people who are both gifted in communicating science and have a broad reach. This approach seems to have turned off some people, and I do regret that. It was my hope that this would celebrate our most gifted and widely known science communicators.

Please let me know if you have further questions.

As it turned out, I did:

Me: How did you decide to close the list at 11?

Eric: We have 14 communicators on the list. It wasn't a conscious decision. We got to the point where we felt we had identified most of the most prominent science communicators. I felt like if we had listed too many more it would become unweildy from a user perspective. I.e. I didn't want to overwhelm the survey taker. With that being said I'm far from a polling expert, so it was more of a gut feel thing than a rigorously scientific determination that 14 was the best number.

MeYeah, sorry I was thinking of the 11 men.probably says something about me! Did you mean this to be primarily a US focused list?

Eric: That is a fair criticism. We carry our own biases, don't we? I am an American. Jeff is an American. So the list is U.S. focused. It's also that way because both my (primarily Houston) and his audience are U.S. based so we were trying to identify science communicators with whom the public at large would be familiar. Ed Yong made a good suggestion on Twitter that David Attenborough should have been included. And he's right. If I lived in Britain I probably wouldn't have missed him.

MeDoes this list make you wonder about the status of female science writers?

Eric: It did after some of the feedback I received on Twitter! I would say that the lack of female science writers is certainly not due to their ability, but rather their prominence in the mass media, which by and large still drive the science content that reaches most of the American public. If I had the power to give someone like Rebecca Skloot a science show on the Discovery Channel, I would! Would that I had such power.

Me: Is the main purpose of such a list to further discussion or does it reinforce our ideas of who matters?

Eric: The main purpose of the list was to give respondents a discrete list of people to provide two data points about: how well do they communicate science, and how often are they read/viewed. Those were the two metrics we were looking for, and that's why we asked two questions. I certainly hope this furthers discussion about what makes a good science communicator, and I think the response I've received in Twitter has helped to start that. I think the problem with the list is that it might be seen to exclude many fine science communicators. I think the appropriate response to this is, the next time we do this is to have a much more expansive process by which we set the list of 10 or 15 people who finally get voted upon, and to have a better process by which the criteria for "best science communicator" is determined. This was our first effort. It was a bit informal. We'll learn and do better.

Thanks again for digging into this, Deborah.

Me: Certainly, Eric. In my role as one of the great science communicators of our time, I felt that it was my duty.

Actually, I didn't really say that. My better self rose to the occasion and what I really said was: You've been terrific about responding here, Eric, in a thoughtful way and I really appreciate it.

And I meant it.

-- Deborah Blum

 

Comments

Yes, agree that lists by nature are problematic. No matter how you do the criteria you end up excluding people who matter. But, frankly, I'm still trying to figure out how these guys arrrived at the criteria. It's an all-English language,  US-centric, almost all male list. So you have to ask yourself how two smart men - and these are both smart, good science communicators - didn't recognize that there might some issues with their particular gold standard.

A year or two ago, I thought about compiling a list of the 100 top science writers of all time, possibly using an online survey. I began to assemble a committee before I decided to drop the idea. The value of being included would be far outweighed by the harm of being excluded, I decided.

I think there are hundreds of people, maybe a thousand or two, whom we could describe as great science communicators, in one way or another. Even picking out Carl Sagan as the sole great communicator of decades ago is faulty. His contemporaries included Lewis Thomas, Walter Sullivan, John McPhee, Loren Eiseley, Stephen Jay Gould, Jeremy Bernstein, E.O. Wilson, Aldo Leopold, Heinz Pagels, Rachel Carson, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and many, many more.

Read widely, live long, and prosper.

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