Rehydrated AGU

Well, I guess I did promise to try to reconstitute my notes from the AGU mass communication sessions I attended. Like many reconstituted foods, this might be a touch gritty-pasty…

I made it to two of the communication talks in between all the Science. Talk the first: Karen McCurdy on How Congress Stopped Communicating with Geologists. She began by pointing out that the current administration’s utter disregard for reality is not new: in the late 1800s, John Wesley Powell realized that the lands remaining for settlement in the West did not, in fact, have enough water for conventional farming, and suggested reorganizing things around irrigation districts. He was roundly ignored while people insisted that the rain would “follow the plow”. The bulk of the rest of the talk was an odd labeling of policymaking eras according to which experts get the most respect (technologists, naturalists, or economists), and drawing parallels between political science jargon and mineralogy jargon. Slightly baffling, at least to those of us who still expect talks to have anything to do with their titles; maybe with another 15 minutes of talk time it could’ve been spun into something interesting and more directly on point, there are arguments in the abstract that never made it in to the talk.

Talk the second: Julie Suleski on the Microcosm of Scientific Knowledge. The most interesting thing here, I think, was the observation that articles cited in the mainstream press generally have better citation statistics within the scientific community as well. Which everybody promptly assumed meant that actively working to get your research popularized is (potentially) good for your career – and it would certainly be nice if this were true, but I’m not so sure that science journalists aren’t just twigging to the same things that make scientists excited. One would need to study articles that made it to the mainstream media via active promotion, vs. those which were just picked up because some journalist read it in Nature.

Science journalists, incidentally, read four journals: Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Journal of the American Medical Association. All research faces lousy odds of breaking in to the popular press*, but if it’s not published in one of those four places, the odds get worse by several orders of magnitude. (And no, the relative prestige of these journals is not why reported-on research has better citation stats; they controlled for that).

While acknowledging the media’s preference for things that are easily sensationalizable, Suleski seemed to think that if we scientists merely package our research in an attractive manner, it will be picked up by the press and the state of science journalism will improve. Clever packaging certainly won’t hurt the individual fame-craving scientist, but I doubt the problems with science reporting can be solved so simply.

Someone in the peanut gallery wanted to know if the Internet hadn’t changed EVAR-ything. Answer: no. But curious bloggers wanna know: does Internet attention improve citation statistics?

*First time I typed it: the poopular press. Hee hee.

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