May 29, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Dr. Oz vs Carl Sagan: risks & rewards of pop-sci media and writing

Does science need some kind of version of a Dr. Oz to tell the world about science in simple, easy-to-understand ways that don’t distort the science?

I’ll admit I’m not a fan of Dr. Oz for a number of reasons, but I know he has legions of fans including my mom.

One of the reasons I am not a fan is a terrible, nightmarish moment in TV history where Dr. Oz on Oprah told Oprah and Michael J. Fox (MJF) that the stem cell debate was over (see video below) because of iPS cells. It was a nightmare on so many levels, but particularly because Dr. Oz didn’t know what he was talking about, and also because, for me as stem cell scientist, I see that Dr. Oz did a lot of harm to the stem cell field.

As he is prone to do in my opinion, Dr. Oz in that stem cell segment oversimplified reality and in his attempt to pre-digest it for Oprah and MJF as well as Oprah’s viewers, he spit out a red herring with shark’s teeth.

More generally, one danger of pop-science writing and especially sci-media is illustrated by the Dr. Oz’s of the world: oversimplifying things to the point where the facts in the story become lost or even flipped on their heads.

A long time ago when Saturday Night Live was far edgier than it is now, there was a particular skit on a restaurant that only served pre-chewed food that aired that was quite memorable and hilarious.

The restaurant was called Pre-Chew Charlie’s. At that restaurant they pre-chewed the food for you before you ate.

I believe that sometimes pop-sci media pre-chews science for readers/watchers and perhaps even digests it a bit before spoon-feeding it to the world in oversimplified snippets.

Charlie’s restaurant comes to mind when I read a science story that has been oversimplified to the point of simply being wrong. Or when I see something on TV or a video on Youtube that has been boiled down to the point that the science is lost.

There is a danger with pop-sci media of too much “pre-chewing” or digesting of the science for the reader.

The danger seems to especially manifest in TV sound-bites and in Internet and Newspaper Headlines.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science writing and science in the media. As a little kid, I was a nerd I guess on one level who loved Carl Sagan and his “Billions and Billions” describing stars and the universe.

I also have favorite science writers and bloggers now who I believe do an amazing job of making things understandable, placing them in a broader context, and capturing readers’ imaginations without losing the heart and soul of the science.

Who do I like?

Ed Yong

Christie Wilcox

Wired science blogs

There are other great ones too of course.

Perhaps I myself sometimes through this blog over-simplify things or get things wrong about which I may not be an expert (e.g. the minute details of FDA regulations), but I try very hard to be accurate and not oversimplify, while still most often being understandable I hope.

Since Sagan left us, other notable attempts at the same kind of pop-sci educational efforts have occurred including Alan Alda on PBS with the Scientific American Frontiers series, but I would argue that no one has captured science in the same way that Sagan did. Bill Nye does it well, but he seems to kind of have faded out of TV land of late.

I think we need someone to talk to the country (the U.S.) and the world about science in a way that sparks people’s imaginations without over-digesting the science. We need someone who connects with people like apparently Dr. Oz does about medicine and biomedical issues, but who at the same time doesn’t turn science into pre-digested sound bites that are so simplified that they run the risk of being wrong. I realize it’s a tricky balance, but I believe we should strive for that fine line of excellence in educational outreach.

Is there already someone out there, who in your opinion, is already like this that I don’t know about?

Please let me know.

Who are your favorite bloggers, sci writers, TV personalities, etc who connect with the public and teach them about science without oversimplifying it too much?

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