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Blog

The trick to talking science: explain the ‘how’ and the ‘why’

By Jon Cartwright

DeRegules.jpg
De Regules: “Science is the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world”. (Credit: Sergio de Regules)

One of the best features of the web is that it allows readers to give their opinion freely on the news, and at physicsworld.com we appreciate all your comments. In fact, it was while looking back at an article I wrote earlier this year that I came across an interesting comment by a reader called Sergio de Regules, who suggested we ought to have more “science commentators” to cover the history, philosophy, controversies and murkiness that make science so fascinating.

De Regules, 44, is a physicist, writer and musician living in Mexico City. As he tells me via e-mail, he has written a science column for the English-language newspaper The News (a selection of which are now archived on his blog, has edited at the Mexican science title Cómo Ves, has written several other books, and has appeared on radio shows and talks. Presently he is a science communicator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

I decided it would be worthwhile to ask him for his thoughts on science writing, and what academia is like in Mexico.

JC: What do mean by “science commentator”?

SdR: I like to think of science communication as a way of sharing science with the public. But we all know that science is not so much in the results of research as in the spirit of research, or in the stance that the scientist adopts vis-à-vis the natural world. If the scientific results reported in the news can be viewed as newly conquered territories, science is the strategy by which they are conquered. Explaining the what in a scientific development is very good, but it is the how and the why which are memorable. The science commentator provides these.

What are the big research fields in Mexico?

I can’t really speak about the big research fields in Mexico, but I can speak about the main research fields at the UNAM. Research done here accounts for 50% of the scientific papers published nationally, but not necessarily for 50% of the diversity of research fields in Mexico (my more-or-less educated guess is that most research done in this country is oriented towards agriculture and fisheries). At the UNAM, though, hot themes are genomics, nanotechnology, and alternative forms of energy. However, this university does have a solid tradition in astronomy, physics, and chemistry.

Do you think Mexican science gets the attention it deserves?

There is a perception in the public that Mexican scientists must be mediocre scientists. This is not the case. Mexican scientists are world-class scientists — like scientists in the developed world, they are required to publish in international, peered-reviewed journals, and they deliver. It’s just that there are so few of them!

What are the problems with science in Mexico?

There is very little money for science, and here’s why. Many years ago a group of physicists visited a prominent politician. They argued that the Mexican government ought to spend more money in science, particularly in physics. The politician looked at them and said: “Why should we spend money in physics? We don’t need nuclear arms.” More recently, the media aired a video showing strange lights flying in mysterious patterns beside an airplane. Evidence of UFOs, they claimed. The Secretary of Defense decided to have the video analyzed by a specialist, so he sent it to TV’s most prominent ufologist. The Institute of Astronomy protested: why wasn’t it sent to the scientists, they asked. The Secretary of Defense answered: “Because we don’t know any”.

In a country where the Secretary of Defense can claim candidly that he doesn’t know any scientists there is not a lot of hope for the continued support of science. The way to change this is through science communication, and Mexican science communicators (at least some of them) are very good. But, again, it’s just that there are so few of us!

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5 comments

  1. Ender

    Although I fully agree with De Regules, I must point out that the trouble with science in Mexico is somewhat more complex than what he has stated. Opposite to what has happened in other “emerging economies” such as Brazil, India, and South Korea, the scientific community in Mexico has failed to attract the interest of the enterpreneurs, who prefer to work with foreign patents, instead of promoting indigenous research. Indeed, there are a few exceptions, such as CONDUMEX, which develops high temperature superconductors, or COMEX, a paint industry which has a polymer research centre, but those few “don’t make a spring.” Another problem is that engineering hasn’t been properly incorporated into research, and it isn’t possible to have ambitious scientific projects of high investment without good engineering. On the other hand, it’s precisely this kind of projects which spark the imagination of the governments and attract the participation of the industry. But then, in a community where it pays better to publish as much as possible, without risking what it takes to invest time in more ambitious projects, there is no incentive whatsoever to do so. It’s more comfortable to keep publishing low cost papers and complain about the lack of scientific literacy of the government…which is true anyway.

  2. James

    I totally agree that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ can be the most interesting thing about scientific discovery. However, it is a VERY difficult challenge to convey this within the daily news cycle where masses of media outlets are all competing for the biggest story.
    When Sergio says: “we all know that science is not so much in the results of science as in the spirit of research”, by ‘we’ he is referring to the science community – the ‘already converted’. Basically, I think he underestimates the challenge of illuminating the ‘nuts and bolts’ of science within the confines of the media system.
    One of the beauties of the internet is that specialist websites (like this one) can now go into greater detail and explore the history and methods of research, and the issues surrounding science. “Science commentators” like ourselves can chip in left, right and centre but we cannot expect everyone to stop by and listen to us.
    Perhaps film is a more appropriate medium for conveying the spirit of science to ‘the masses’. And I’m not talking quasi-science howlers like ‘The Core’, but there have been some excellent smaller productions like 1987’s made-for-TV film ‘Life Story’. This followed Watson + Crick’s somewhat cavalier pursuit of the DNA structure and the relationships they formed along the way – both professional and personal.
    But at the scale of a daily news item, a more realistic measure is to stop de-humanising science by removing the identity of researchers. Check out almost any science story and it will say “scientists have discovered….”; or in the Sun’s case, “boffins are telling us…”; often the researcher is removed entirely and only the sensational finding reported. Surely it wouldn’t hurt journalists and mainstream journalism to sling in a name or two here and there. At least then science will be portrayed as a human activity rather than something to be done by robots!

  3. Sergio de Regules

    “I totally agree that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ can be the most interesting thing about scientific discovery. However, it is a VERY difficult challenge to convey this within the daily news cycle where masses of media outlets”.
    Indeed, and that is why news and comment (or news and features) are different genres within science communication. Even so, I for one would like to see more news items where people with names do the research that is being reported, and not just “scientists.”
    As James points out, when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘we, the readers of Physics World’. Most of us do know that science is more a Weltanschauung than a body of results. And, no, I do not underestimate the challenge. In fact, I pick up that challenge at least twice weekly in my radio show (though not always with the same felicity!).
    Sometimes meeting the challenge of illustrating the process of science can be as easy as substituting “scientists have discovered…” for “Perlmutter’s work suggests…” which transforms the unrelenting truth of a “discovery” or a revelation into a more tentative suggestion whose truth is up for debate –a little tweaking of the verbs that suggests (that word again!) that Perlmutter has to convince a community of very demanding specialists before his work is accepted as scientific truth, or “discovery.”

  4. Excellent thread, I absolutely agree with Sergio concerning the HOW and the WHY.I do a little bit of physics writing for both newspapers and magazines,and find the latter a lot easier.
    Perhaps it’s easier to tell the story in a magazine article precisely because there is room to give the background to the H and especially the W.

  5. These some great tips. I also think how and why are very important questions in science that some people don’t answer and pay for it.

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