Cutting room floors

2 minute read

Reading items on my desktop, I found a rant I had written a while back. I generally don’t post rants, but a decent amount of time has passed…

I’m totally irritated this morning because we turned on a cable channel where they were showing a documentary about Neandertals from only a few years ago. It’s a clutch of talking heads telling stories about what Neandertal life “must have been like”, accompanied by actors dressed in skins and clay brow ridges. The difference between the “modern” and “Neandertal” actors is whether the skins have been stripped of fur. If you’ve seen any human evolution documentaries in the last decade, you know the genre.

Walking caveman shows are hardly anything new, and I’ve been in a few that have been pretty good. So why am I particularly irritated?

This particular program was such a waste. The producers assembled a fair group of scientists to comment on the Neandertals and clearly spent a lot of money on the production. But then they encouraged those scientists to go way beyond the science. And the scientists went along for the ride.

Here’s a hint: When you’re talking about the differences between Neandertal and modern human spiritual beliefs, you’ve gone beyond the science.

Earlier this week, I saw a link on Twitter from a chemist sick of spending time on interviews with journalists: “Another interview makes the cutting room floor”.

Yes I wanted to be interviewed because its been drummed into me over 20 years that the public understanding of science is pathetic and we scientists have to do a better job communicating to the masses etc.. Now if you filter the scientists through journalists does that make us better communicators? I think in the pre blog days that was the only way to go but some scientists are cracking communicators and have huge audiences. Not me. My work has a couple of journals and magazines that would likely cover something I might do. The potential for my work to reach a broader audience by contributing to an interview is the bait. We scientists are lured hook, line and sinker every time. Bigger audience, equals more citations, more citations equals success, funding and respect. I should go further and say that we try to highlight the work because our collaborators and co-authors also benefit from the exposure.

His complaint is related to tuberculosis research, not bad caveman outfits. But I thought about his concerns when I was watching the program this morning. So many scientists want to help tell good stories about their research, hoping it will make some difference – a difference to their profile, a difference to public understanding, a difference to their status in the field. It’s a mix of selfish and altruistic motivations, a complicated mix.

We can’t tell stories alone. But we need to tell our stories, not the stories that writers feed to us.