Thursday, 28 February 2013

Anecdotes, data and personal stories

I once heard my profession of communications referred to as “the new cultural intermediary”.  It’s a wonderful piece of jargon that I couldn’t possibly use without irony, but it does contain a grain of truth.  As a science communicator I often feel that I am trying to bridge the divide between two distinct cultures when I strive to make research accessible to a wider audience.  Scientists aim to remove the personal element from their work, to make it unbiased.  When they write for publications that will be read by their fellow scientists they like to use the third person: “the experiment was performed thus…” rather than “I did it this way”.  But you will never read a news item that is written in such a style.  It would sound much too flat and unengaging.  Every journalist is looking for an individual’s own account to illustrate their story because it’s the personal that brings communication alive for a reader, listener or viewer.  We want to connect with other human beings and to understand their experience.  I have had many conversations with scientists about this. and I understand very well how presenting research in this way conflicts with their training.  A brilliant comment today on Twitter rang many bells for me: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘data’”.  I have to agree.  If a friend says that they found homeopathy helpful that doesn’t make me believe that it works.  I’m sure we all have friends who say they have found such therapies helpful, but that still doesn’t convince me.  However, if a rigorous clinical trial ever showed that it did have benefits and I had the job of communicating this, I would want to use some case studies and examples of real people to help me to do that.  I do think that there is a difference.  It’s true that this difference is sometimes lost in news stories and that can make scientists fearful of communicating their own research via the media. I would like to think that this is where we “new cultural intermediaries” can play a useful role, albeit one that sometimes feels like walking a tightrope.  Many scientists also shy away from social media, such as blogging and Twitter.  Some may simply dislike the technology but for others it is the idea of such personal communication that is alien and threatening.   However, social media are being embraced increasingly by the younger generations of researchers in both their private and professional lives.  I hope therefore that this new generation will be less fearful about making their research accessible to a wider audience, by allowing the personal to become more prominent in their communication. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Products or produce?

I’m just old enough to remember when you had to queue up at different counters in food shops for your bacon, cheese, meat and so on.  Supermarkets were very new idea, and greeted with suspicion by many.  But they were convenient because you could buy everything in one trip and only queue up once, so they soon caught on.  Then, recently, we became a bit suspicious again when we found that not all the food on the supermarket shelves was quite what it seemed.  Whether eating horsemeat is problematic depends very much on one’s personal feelings.  There are committed carnivores in this country who can’t shake off the image of childhood pets when faced with rabbit, while in other parts of the world people tuck into dogmeat with great enjoyment.  So we all draw our personal boundaries in different places but, assuming no harmful pharmaceuticals have contaminated the meat, horse is as wholesome as any other animal protein.  We say we are alarmed by the lack of transparency in the food chain and this does raise all kinds of questions about what goes into the food we buy.  There’s an easy answer if we are genuinely worried by this, of course.  Buy meat and vegetables to make the dish yourself, and you can be pretty confident that you know what has gone into it.  There has not yet been any suggestion that cuts of meat on sale in supermarkets are fillets of horse, and you could always buy from a local butcher, or even a farmer, if you feel concerned.  But increasingly we don't buy produce of this kind, we buy products that the retailers tell us will save us time.  Everyone seems busier these days and who has the time to cook?  But when we still have time to do so many other things, why is cooking an enjoyable meal so very far down the list of priorities?  Things have changed during my lifetime, women generally go out to work now, and I don’t for a moment think that cooking for families is automatically their responsibility.  But perhaps the fact that women have generally done most of the everyday cooking is part of the reason for it being devalued as a skill.   So, increasingly, we let someone else make the food for us and buy it in the supermarket as a ready meal.  Then the next generation doesn’t actually know how to make simple food, and has no choice – it’s buy the ready meal or starve.  That’s great for the retailers, who expand their ranges constantly so that they can sell us more and more products.  Presumably there is more profit to be made in the cheapest range of ready meals than in selling us the ingredients to make our own, so who can blame them?  Selling food and making profits is their function.  But the result is that we can be found eating the ready meal, in front of the television, watching a celebrity chef cooking up a dinner party menu that few will ever actually attempt.  And how shall we spend all that time we have saved?  We could watch some more television – there’s bound to be a documentary coming on about the disasters happening in the food chain.