Thursday, January 17, 2008

Neil Shubin on preparing for his 5 minutes with Colbert

Following his successful appearance on the Colbert Report last week, Neil Shubin has shared his experience (on Pharyngula) of preparing to beard that particular lion in his den, and on the challenges of communicating science in the sound-bite medium in general. Well worth reading whether you are a fan of Shubin or Colbert, or simply interested in bringing science to the public discourse.
It can't be an easy thing to do: the prospect facing an aggressive TV talking-head (even a fake one) was enough to give Shubin a sleepless night. But the challenge goes beyond simply having to face an uninformed and potentially hostile host whose primary goal is to provide entertainment - there is a more fundamental communication issue. Shubin writes:

In thinking about the experience a few days later I have one thought on language. As scientists we are very used to using language with a great deal of precision (note the string in the commentary on common ancestry, group inclusion, etc.). The challenge is adapting our highly precise vocabulary to the demands of a five minute performance on a show which is fundamentally not about science. It is a tough tightrope to walk to balance between language that is both engaging and precise. I had mixed success, but that has to be our aspiration for these kinds of experiences.
He ended up doing a pretty good job if you ask me - and certainly sold at least one copy of his new book (well, soon - its on my wishlist now) - but I'm not really the target demographic. I wonder if it is possible to measure his success with the show's typical audience - perhaps through counting the number of downloads this interview gets from the Comedy Central website? if they keep track of that sort of thing?
And you can't really argue with this final thought:
You can ask the question, a valid one, why bother with these kinds shows? If it is so difficult, and the conceptual and linguistic apparatus of science doesn't easily conform to this venue, why do it? For me the answer is that we need to make science part of the public conversation. We live in a society where Britany Spears latest foible gets more ink than Mello and Fire's 2006 Nobel discovery of RNAi-- a breakthrough on a little worm that will likely lead to treatments of many diseases. Something is wrong here.
Hear! Hear!



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