I was brought up in a  culture where individuals felt honour-bound to point out other people’s errors, character flaws and factual shortcomings. Diplomacy was considered sinful; a form of deception. This brutal honesty has never made my life straightforward, nor me easy to get on with, but it has often helped me avoid fooling myself in a scientific sense.

So I found myself by accident in the audience for a talk, last week, that I’d never have chosen to attend, based on the subject matter: Media Relations for Researchers.

It was given by a very striking journalist and tv presenter who has worked on programmes that I greatly enjoyed (and which have now been replaced by dumbed-down science-strand meeja).

The content illustrated, unintentionally, a modern version of the Two Cultures -one based on objectivity the other essentially on sales. The reason that scientists can’t cope with sales people in general is that the latter tribe, like barristers and journalists, are paid to present only one aspect of the full picture -to stay on-message. This is anathema to anyone who has had a first-class training in scientific method. It’s also why ‘media dons’ are regarded with contempt by genuine practising researchers.

The lessons we were taught at this event included always being available on one’s mobile phone in case a journalist with a one-hour deadline calls you to summarise some paper they haven’t read, but which an assistant with a degree in History discovered using a keyword search on Have they no idea how annoying it is to be interrupted like that -let alone to be asked to comment authoritatively on unfamiliar work? (Often, they will have based their enquiry on a University press release, itself written by some hapless PR firm).

Only those biddable labfolk who answer their phones will get quoted and can then use this ‘public engagement’ to advantage in their next grant application or specious Impact Statement.

One participant was asked for her ‘elevator pitch’….the one-line summary of her work -as if she were begging some venture capitalist for investment. Using the words ‘artificial photosynthesis,’ she was brought to an abrupt halt and told that her problem was that no-one in her audience would understand a word of what that meant. I’m not sure whether it’s even possible to communicate with people that paid no attention to nature study in primary school.

It’s true that researchers are in general not taught how to build an argument by describing evidence for and against and then performing a kind of qualitative calculus via which a conclusion is drawn from a logical weighing of one set of views against another. I think that’s an omission from technical education that should be addressed eg in writing a thesis -but often isn’t. No such careful consideration happens though when someone calls you in the middle of the day in an attempt to write 1000 words about sperm or quanta or oilslicks.

Explaining research results to taxpayers is really important but the whole process which The Media require is so shallow as to be largely worthless…and vindicates my decision not to watch television ever again.

The ‘advice’ that most enraged me though was “No matter what question you are asked, make sure you say what you want to say”. This drives science into the realm of political soundbites. Don’t answer the question, since the journalist won’t have read your work, or indeed anyone’s work. We need to resist this kind of sub-honesty. Meeja types all have an angle, a ‘take’. Their preconceptions have to be accepted and pandered to if you expect to have any kind of influence via broadcasting. When asked for example “Is it safe?” you aren’t supposed to answer that that’s a complicated question -even if it really is. Journalists are busy people with no time for subtleties.

I’m led to the conclusion that science and broadcast are just incompatible. You only have to listen to the note of derision that switches on when the ascientific John Humphries introduces a ‘piece’ about any scientific subject on Radio4:  “Are we really expected to believe, Professor, that X causes Y? How could we ever know?” Small wonder that science blogging has superseded much conventional journalism -the people who are actually interested in it tend to have worked hard to gain their understanding.

If I’m ever faced by the safety question, I’ll simply answer that I’d be happy for John Selwyn-Gummer’s kids to swallow it, whatever it is.