Four Burning Questions with Jenny Carpenter, freelance science journalist

Posted on Monday, February 4, 2013

Freelance science journalist Jenny Carpenter will deliver the Darwin Day lecture on Feb . 10 at the Redpath Museum. / Photo courtesy of Jenny Carpenter.

Science is often inconvenient for journalists. Scientists insist on talking about background literature, replication and the caveats and nuances of their findings in language peppered with ugly terms and impossible acronyms. Journalists then work black magic to turn years of research into bite-sized stories, sprinkled with puns and a dollop of mind-blowing principle. In the balancing act between scientists and their audience, journalists have to take care neither to overstate results, nor leave their consumers feeling nothing. This act is growing more treacherous as 24/7 news cycles and a limitless Web demand more and more information in a way that never quite satisfies the modern media’s appetite for new, heavy-hitting headlines.

In this year’s Darwin Day lecture, freelance science journalist Jenny Carpenter, will talk about the perils of pithiness in science writing, and discuss a handful of cases where science was misrepresented in the media because of pressure to make the information snappier. She will also examine why journalists and their audiences are often seduced by scientism – the belief that science, and the scientific method, alone can explain everything about the world, and review the consequences of this seduction.

Darwin Day Lecture: How the big bang explains your sex life or the disconnect between science and media; Feb. 10, 4 – 5 p.m.; Redpath Auditorium (859 Sherbrooke West). Price: Free, everyone welcome.

Your abstract for the Darwin Day lecture sounds very skeptical about the connect between media and science. What do you think could improve on this disconnect?

I am not skeptical, I am captivated by the coverage of science in the media. And for me, covering science for the popular press is like walking a tight rope between different versions of the same story. The scientists is at one end, the consumer at the other, and I am just hoping that neither one drops the rope in annoyance at the message I’m carrying. My aim with the Darwin Day lecture is to suggest how we might alleviate this disconnect by encouraging a better understanding of scientists by non-specialists (journalists and the public), and of non-specialists by scientists.

What makes a great science story?

A good tale; something with a gripping plot, some adorable (or deplorable) characters and vivid images.

In your bio, it says you write all types of science, but most enjoy writing stories with an “evolutionary twang,” please explain.

Perhaps it is laziness, I enjoy writing and making radio about evolutionary biology because people ofttimes ask evolutionary questions everyday as they go about their errands–why do men have nipples; why do I always get sick at this time of the year; why do I have these cravings during pregnancy. So I don’t need to do much convincing that these stories are worth listening to.

The title of you upcoming talk at McGill is “How the big bang explains your sex life OR the disconnect between science and media,” can you give us a little preview about what you have in store for the audience?

Nope, if you are interested in science, or the media, or both, come listen! But I will say that I hope it will be relevant to people with different interests and experiences. Some of us write the news, and some of us do work that other people write about in the news, but we *all* consume it. Without this ongoing, sometimes tempestuous, interaction we would rarely hear about science, and without science how do we hope to know whether to get this year’s flu shot, know the consequences of licking our fingers after cleaning out the cat tray, or stand up against the lack of evidence-based decision making by the Canadian government.


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