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Evolutionary sound bites

There's an interesting discussion at Pharyngula and The Loom about the challenges of communicating science to nonscientists.

When I suspect an interviewer's only going to use a sound-bite, I decide in advance on a few I wouldn't mind them using. This doesn't always work, though. NBC interviewed me about transgenic crops a few years ago. They kept asking "can consumers tell if food is transgenic?" They already knew the answer and apparently had a script calling for a scientist to say "no" on camera. You might think they would want to talk to experts before deciding what the important questions are, but apparently not. So I kept saying, "that's not the issue; the question is how growing these crops will affect the evolution of weeds and insect pests." Not a bad sound bite, in my opinion, but it wasn't in their script. So they ended up just using visuals from my research fields, and adding their own stupid narration. Maybe if I'd said, "no, and labeling won't help" I would have had a chance to explain about gene flow, but I doubt it.

In contrast to my NBC experience, here's a nice example of telling a complex science story in 90 seconds. It's about our research on the evolution of cooperation between rhizobium bacteria and plants.
Download MP3 file

I like the sound bite, "an evolutionary effect, changing the proportion of good vs. bad rhizobia in the next generation." Evolution is a change in the genetic composition of populations, not "frogs suddenly turning into cows." Staff at the American Association for the Advancement of Science produced this story for their radio program, Science Update, which was nice of them, since we published the work with their main rival. They only got one detail wrong: rhizobia could get plenty of oxygen outside in the soil, so they enter root nodules mainly to get carbohydrates. But, once inside, the plant controls their oxygen supply, as described in the story.

I've also been impressed with the audio version of Science News, especially biology stories by Susan Milius. Like the AAAS radio spots, they're short, but still much longer than the sound-bites typical of commercial radio or TV.

My least favorite evolutionary bumper sticker is "evolve or die." We're all going to die, however our species evolves. I kind of like "stop evolution now", though.

According to the Fog index (which I learned about from Postgenomic), I should use shorter sentences and shorter words. I'll try.


My tech writing teacher had 4 rules - short, short, short, short. Or, short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and short pages. He wanted us to explain everything in as simplistic a way as possible.

It was hard for me. I can do the short paragraphs and space my text and white space out well. But short sentences and short words are much harder.

I've found that his advice is very good for business writing.

Thanks, OG. Often, adding a definition of a term seems like a good idea, even if it makes a sentence longer. But maybe I could use hot links for definitions, or something.

After many years of experience, our own 'gut feeling' about certain things starts to shine through and is a reasonable guide to some things, some of the time.

For example, a seasoned biologist can see through an 'amazing discovery' by a young, new biologist and help them find the point where they misinterpreted their data.

The problem with explaining science to Joe Blow is not just wording, but overcoming the misguided reactions of not-very-well-trained-in-critical-thinking Joe's 'gut reaction'.

In order to get a point across to Joe, we have a limited set of approaches which will end up being clear and hold his attention.

Supposing we have Joe's attention, how can we bring him science and compensate for the possible 'gut feeling' telling him he has better things to do?

My tech writing teacher had 4 rules - short, short, short, short.

But if he actually followed rule 1 he wouldn't have made rules 2 through 4... ;)

Kinda like Thoreau's "Simplify, simplify."

thanks for introducing the term 'transgenic' to my lexicon

"Transgenic" is a little more neutral than Frankenfoods and everything is "genetically modified", one way or another.

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