Dan Falk

Interview Transcripts

What is your scientific background?
I have a BSc in physics from Dalhousie University and I have a couple of degrees after that such as in the history and philosophy of science.
Where in your timeline did you become interested in science communication?
I have always been interested in science communication and I have always liked explaining things to people. Of course quite a while went by before I decided that this is what I want to do for a living.
What is your favourite/preferred platform to communicate to a general audience?
My journalism colleagues all seem to be on Twitter so it seems to be an important platform, but I don’t think it is my favourite platform. I prefer Facebook because you don’t to work about character counts. Also, Facebook has the public page which is easy to use and I like the interface. I’ll often post something I like on Facebook and then think to myself how can I make this shorter to post on Twitter. I appreciate though that they are very different tools. Talk to me in a year and maybe I’ll have become an Instagram master.
Where do you think science communication is lacking, and where it can be improved?
I think science literacy is a big problem in general. For example, we have people not believing what scientists say about climate change. So what to do about that? Scientists should be more open by talking to journalists. When a journalist calls you [a scientist] welcome it. Scientists, many of whom are partly funded by the public, have a responsibility to talk openly about what they are doing. I appreciate that this is a complicated subject and so that there is no easy fix. There is also the public education section—anything to keep young kids interested in science so that when they grow up they aren’t frightened of science or highly suspect of it. The other part is that the role of the science journalist is above and beyond promoting science. There are times when something bad is happening in science and it is also the role of the science journalist to expose and explore these problems.
When you are writing a non-fiction book, who do you imagine your audience to be?
I like to think of them as an educated, interested reader who happens to be interested in the subjects that I am writing about. I have written three books and they are not technical. You have to know something to enjoy my books, but you don’t have to be/ have been a science major.
Science can be quite technical, thus when presenting it to a general public, you have to simplify the subject matter, but you can’t simplify it too much or else it is no longer accurate. How do you do this?
I think this is a problem that every science communicator wrestles with, but in my case as a freelancer, my audience is not necessarily consistently the same people. When I am publishing with news agency such as NBC, I have to appreciate that there is a very wide audience for anything I write. This is different when I am publishing in science journals which may have a very sophisticated audience interested in the details. It all depends on the audience.
How do you pick the topic of your books?
At a minimum it has to be a personal interest.
Could you talk about your experience as a Knight Fellow in 2011/12?
The Knight Fellowship is a terrific program. During that year, I did a lot of work that evolved into my book “Science of Shakespeare”. I sat in on two different Shakespeare classes, I did a lot of library work, and I went to a lot of lectures and public events on a lot of different topics. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons we had to attend the guest speaker lectures who were usually local (e.g. someone from MIT, Harvard, etc.).
We analyzed the survey we conducted at the start of the summer, and found some pretty interesting results. Do you have any hypotheses as to why would most people with a university education trust scientific reports in the popular press with dramatic and opinionated language?
That’s pretty weird… or maybe it’s not that weird. I don’t know what to make of that. You would think that someone with an education who may have been exposed to different publications may be turned off by over-the-top language.
Do you have any tips for up incoming science communicator?
Science communication is a really important type of work to do… it is fun, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. Try to stay well-informed, read a variety of science-related news sources, and stay on top of the latest social media innovations.
Do you have any tips on how to determine if a popular science article is exaggerating the conclusions from a scientific article? What are the red flags?
If you are in any doubt go to the article source. The problem you may discover is that sometimes those sources are behind paywalls or are simply too technical. But as I hinted at with a previous answer, there are other things you can do besides going to the original source. For example, going to other popular media accounts to check their portrayal of the story. If multiple sources are reporting it the same way than that is a strong indication what they are reporting it factually correct. The biggest red flag is when something just sounds wrong. Unfortunately, we all have prejudges towards what we want to believe and therefore you may not just be reading the news but an interpretation of the news. Journalists and science communicators have a responsibility to determine what the facts are and communicate them appropriately.