March 4, 2010

Rhodes Prof Wells Speaks About Science in Media

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What does Stephen Colbert have in common with DNA and the origins of mankind?

In this case it’s Spencer Wells, Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor and Director of National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Wells kicked off his final day of a week-long presentation series on campus with a video-clip of his appearance on the Colbert Report to emphasize the difficulties that arise when scientists try to convey complex and difficult information to the public in a short amount of time.

A distinguished geneticist and anthropologist, Wells is also the author of 41 scientific papers, three books and has served as the subject and scientific advisor for eight documentary films, according to the Cornell’s Rhodes Professorship Website.

During his brief interview with Colbert about the details of the Genographic Project, Wells was forced to condense multitudes of information into a few key points: a difficult feat given that the project is a five-year long anthropological study that utilizes thousands of donated DNA samples from around the world to “map how humankind populated the planet,” according to the National Geographic website.

Wells said that the biggest problem with conveying scientific information to the public is that television networks are gearing their documentaries, interviews and shows toward an increasingly younger audience with a short attention span.

“There is a broader dumbing-down of the media that is very noticeable these days,” Wells said, “and [complex and long documentaries] would never make it on TV today.”

“This is an era of Twitter, Facbeook and YouTube and people, particularly kids and teenagers absorb their media in tiny little bits,” he added.

In addition, people are less informed about science today than they were two centuries ago when scientific discoveries first began to be published, according to Wells. Today, documentarians and scientists cannot assume that their reader or viewer is knowledgeable in a certain subject.

“At the time of Darwin in the 19th century you could actually imagine being conversant in every branch of science and mathematics if you were educated, but now that would be impossible” Wells said, “Even I read these [complicated] physics papers and I don’t understand a damn thing except the abstract.”

All hope is not lost though, according to Wells. He said that the use of character development and humanistic angles in a documentary or book may help to attract audiences. Wells said he utilized this method in one of his National Geographic documentaries about the Genographic Project by tracing the ancestral origins of a handful of people and intertwining their personal stories with aspects of human biology.

“I have to come at this as a practical scientist but also as a storyteller,” Wells said.

Wells advised students who were looking to present their scientific findings to invest in media training classes, because sometimes the character of the interviewer can make conveying information difficult. For example, Wells said, Anderson Cooper, news anchor for CNN, repeatedly interrupted him throughout their interview as he tried to answer questions.

“You have to try and tell the story you’re trying to tell not the story they’re trying to tell,” Wells said, “ I am almost never asked a question that I don’t already know the answer to.”

Original Author: Samantha Willner