The informedness problem

The following is the text of a speech I prepared to deliver at the 11th Young Investigators’ Meeting in Guwahati on March 8, 2019.

I wanted to use this opportunity to speak about education, which is one of science communication’s less known yet more important goals.

I think it would be safe to argue that an accessible account of some scientific development in the Indian English media (and in many parts of the Indian language media) is more engaging and more digestible than an accessible account of a scientific development disseminated in school classroom.

This at least has been my experience, and the experience of thousands of people I went to school with. By the time you’re 14-15, it’s time to crack a few exams and break into the IITs — the wonder of the subject be damned.

So for most people who don’t go down the research career path, science journalism becomes the dominant source of scientific knowledge and even proper scientific thinking.

I would even wager that what science news we cover and how we cover it also influences the way school children build perceptions about what scientific research entails, what kind of person can undertake it, and what kind of impact it can have on the world.

So science journalism effectively complements science education. And for some people, it’s possible that it is a substitute for science education itself.

The ultimate takeaway here is that science journalists, and science writers and communicators, are all teachers in their own right. Sure, we may not have the responsibility to engage deeply with the young people, we are not responsible for their day-to-day development. But we contribute to it, and we know that if don’t perform our duties as communicators in a responsible manner, it could have a bad effect on the people who are reading us: young students, mid-level students, older students, all their parents, etc.

This fact, which is so specific to India, also has an implication for science journalism as it is commonly practised. From the newsroom’s point of view, and speaking as an editor here, there are certain common types of stories: there’s news, news features, op-eds, explainers, analytical pieces and longform.

The explainers here are used to unravel something that is in the news. But to me, that’s a limited view of what explainers can really do.

Your success as a science writer depends to a certain extent on the kind of audience you have. A less informed audience will allow you to succeed by pursuing a certain kind of story, and a more informed audience will allow you to succeed by pursuing a different kind of story.

But at the end of the day, it’s in your best interests as the writer or editor or journalist to move your audience from the position of ‘less informed’ to a position of ‘more informed’.

In this context, India’s higher education has left a very large number of news-readers less informed when it comes to science. This is what I call the ‘informedness problem’.

So science writers and journalists have an opportunity to succeed by doing the job that education was supposed to do but couldn’t (for various reasons) – by using explainers as a way of increasing their awareness as a people to different kinds of problems in the world. This is why explainers that are not connected to the news are a form of news for me, though most other editors will not agree.

By simply sharing what you have learned with more people – with no value addition other than clear thinking and good writing (both of which an editor can help you with) – you can be part of the news cycle. News is fundamentally something that is new, and you guys know a lot of things that are likely to be news to me, and to readers around the country.

And there is a lot of important value here: if you take to writing or videography or podcasts or illustrations, and become science communicators, you can effectively be educationists in your own right and at the same time you can help us journalists fix the informedness problem as well.

So you shouldn’t only pitch stories about papers that were recently published or stuff that could “disrupt” different markets or whatever. You should also pitch and discuss articles about something you know but which others might not. This could be anything from a day in the life of a scientist to some idea you think deserves greater recognition. You guys are best placed to determine what that could be.

In a country like ours, news can mean many things because it has the potential to do a lot of things, so let’s take advantage of that, and think up new kinds of knowledge and different ways to communicate them.

Thank you.