NPR correspondent talks challenges in communicating scientific concepts to the public

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 9:40pm

NPR science reporter Joe Palca speaks about communicating science at West Hall on Thursday.

NPR science reporter Joe Palca speaks about communicating science at West Hall on Thursday. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

Joe Palca, an award-winning science correspondent from National Public Radio, visited the University of Michigan Thursday afternoon to give a talk titled “Communicating Science for Fun and Profit” at West Hall. The talk focused on how to better communicate science with the general public.

Palca, who has worked for NPR since 1992, has covered a large range of science news, such as new genome editing technology and the first snapshots of Jupiter’s North Pole. During his speech Thursday, he used his previously written stories as examples to illustrate several points, such as the low scientific literacy of the U.S. population according to a survey in 2013, just 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds answered correctly that carbon dioxide is the gas associated with climate change.

Palca said he constantly asks himself what he can expect his audience to know. Using his article on Jupiter’s north pole as an example, he explained how scientific research always has jargon, like “aurora” — lights caused by the interaction between particles from the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. Palca said, as a writer, he needs to first understand the technical words used to translate them into simpler language.

“There is always a certain amount of jargon,” he said. “Now, aurora — people don’t really, really know what aurora was. I had to go and look it up and remind myself what an aurora was. And I certainly didn’t explain why there are poles (on Jupiter) and why magnetic fields come together at poles. … I tried to, in the piece, keep the simplest words I can.”

He also said he tries to portray scientists as people, not as “a body of brains” without passion or interest who sleep in the lab or at their computer. To show the human side of scientists, Palca pointed to comments made by several competing scientists he interviewed, who said though they would be happy for anyone to discover the ninth planet, they would be happier if they were the ones who find it first.

“Scientists have said, ‘look it’s not about me, it’s about my science,’ ” Palca said. “You can say that to other scientists when you’re talking to them, but when you’re on the radio and you’re talking to me, it’s about you. I think people respond to people.”

Palca also noted that while there are many new findings in science covered by media, they are not necessarily the most interesting or important. For example, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, first published their study on graphene — a material that has the thickness of one carbon atom and has unique properties enabling scientists to test several fundamental theories in physics — in 2004. According to Palca, only a few, small news outlets did a story on the study that year. It was not until Geim and Nobeselov received the Nobel Prize in 2010 that more mainstream news outlets covered the story.

Palca has launched Joe’s Big Idea, a special series that focuses on interesting and important scientific research rather than the latest trend in an effort to combat the issue.

Rackham student Midhat Farooq said she attended the talk because invited speakers on science are not usually from outside the world of academia, and also encouraged fellow physics graduate students to attend.

“I think it would encourage the department to do more things like this if there’s a better turnout,” she said.

Farooq said she especially liked the format of Palca’s talk, which was different from what academic speakers usually use.

“(Palca) stood up and told stories, and it was very communicative with the audience instead of him giving a slideshow,” she said.