Pimping Science’s Ride?

Katrina Voss

A few years ago, after reading an essay in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) by a respected Pennsylvania State University professor of meteorology,* I felt that itchy-finger sensation common to every writer when a hot retort is in order. At the time, I was a practicing broadcast meteorologist with modest BA and BS degrees, presenting the weather in both Spanish and English. The truculent BAMS essay made abundantly clear the author’s conclusion: we broadcast meteorologists were shoveling something other than data; we routinely disrespected scientific integrity; we were nothing more than poseurs. “Real” meteorologists such as the author himself did research, wrote papers, taught, and used complicated mathematical equations. And yet, those real scientists weren’t afforded airtime because they didn’t have sufficiently charismatic smiles. What was the world coming to?

After several revisions and many charged but respectful exchanges with the editor, BAMS finally granted me a healthy three pages for a response essay. In it, I conceded the professor’s point that broadcasters should be more careful about getting the science right. But, I concluded, both saleable style and scrupulous science are necessary ingredients for a successful weathercast; let’s try to learn from each other, and can’t we all be brothers (well, siblings)? Much to my delight, my essay met with a generally positive response. Many readers—themselves classical meteorologists—seemed to understand intuitively that while scientific accuracy was important, the visual medium of television demanded a certain élan.

What I did not write and what I am only beginning to realize is that meteorology, paradoxically, is one of the few sciences that the American public holds in great esteem. Despite the meteorology professor’s lament, in the United States, a meteorology degree is a greater indicator of success for a weathercaster than a journalism degree is for a news anchor. Indeed, in no other nation is an entire cable station dedicated to weather science. Nowhere else does weather science command the better part of a local newscast, often consuming up to four minutes. Yes, that’s four minutes of science, however flashy its presentation, and however its imperfect representation may annoy pedantic professors. Conversely, other nations seem to have no special appreciation for meteorology outside of academia. Compared to U.S. television, in foreign news broadcasts (and Spanish-language broadcasts within the United States), there is far less talk of jet streams and low-pressure systems and even more regard for how well the presenter fills out her blouse.

On the other hand, the United States lags embarrassingly behind other nations in acceptance of the natural sciences generally and evolutionary theory in particular. What makes meteorology such a rarity in an often science-disparaging country? According to one theory, in so large a landmass as ours, there is literally every type of weather imaginable: hurricanes affecting Gulf Coast and Southeastern states, tornadoes in the Plains, snowstorms in the North, thunderstorms, lightning, hail, ice, sleet—even earthquakes fall into a television meteorologist’s domain. So a likely explanation for our obsession with meteorology is simply our forced familiarity with all types of weather, all year long. Whatever the reason, American laypeople, indeed even religious American laypeople who think evolution is hackery, actually enjoy hearing about atmospheric pressure and wind flow. How could they not? Shrewd television producers know how to give this particular science panache.

In contrast, evolutionists, burdened with the Sisyphean task of educating the public, remain hobbled by their unwillingness to whore themselves out a bit in the name of science. Like the meteorology professor who disdained broadcasters for making science too cute, showy, and simplistic, there are biologists, geneticists, and anthropologists who believe that making evolution and genetics palatable—not to mention understandable—is selling out. Mendel forbid anyone to speak of a “gene for” a trait or confuse genetic with genomic! Let’s just chuck the whole enterprise and write off the public as too stupid and evolutionary science, genetics, and genomics as too complex.

Or… let’s take a cue from television weathercasts, where an agreeable spokesperson translates scientific information-of course, sometimes incorrectly—but nonetheless makes it immediately relevant, interesting, and entertaining. Now more than ever, in the new media age, those who care about science are duty-bound to get their hands a little dirty and try to repair the rift that alienates the public. To do this, science educators must be patient with nonscientists who dearly want to promote science but wouldn’t know a P-value from a pea plant. Those stick-in-the-mud scientists who tend to make enemies of journalists (you know who you are!) must allow metaphors to replace the tedium of technical accuracy. The 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos explored this very theme. Two years later, the nauseating success of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed seemed to confirm that, indeed, public science education would have to reinvent itself to keep up with antiscience propaganda. So, perhaps most important, science professionals must appeal to honest but cunning documentary filmmakers who know how to sex up the seemingly unsexable.

To be fair, there has been some grudging progress, particularly with the advent of “pubcasts,” most visible on SciVee.tv (a YouTube-like service where scientists upload video presentations of their research, presumably for the public as well as their peers). Still, watch any pubcast at random to conclude that, despite the well-meaning intent, these glassy-eyed, bumbling scientists (not merely a quaint cliché) would do well to elicit the help of more artistic minds (think Queer Eye for the Science Guy).

Most of all, scientists must accept some blame for their reputation as detached elitists looking down their noses from their balconies of academic purism. Let’s face it: for Ben Stein, creationism was worth donning shorts and black socks on the poster for Expelled. Surely scientific progress is worth at least a comparable measure of strategic pimpery.

Katrina Voss

Katrina Voss works as a bilingual broadcast metrologist and holds the AMS Seal. She is collaborating with her husband, a Pennsylvania State University physical anthropologist, on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

A few years ago, after reading an essay in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) by a respected Pennsylvania State University professor of meteorology,* I felt that itchy-finger sensation common to every writer when a hot retort is in order. At the time, I was a practicing broadcast meteorologist with modest BA and …

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