Peter Doherty, Nobel laureate, fellow of the Royal Society and a prolific author of popular books about science, refuses to be a “fuckwit in a white coat” any longer.
He has radical advice for any scientist considering giving an interview to a television or newspaper journalist that can later be edited: don’t do it.
Professor Doherty, who won his Nobel in 1996 for research into how virus-infected cells are recognised by the immune system, spoke to Times Higher Education at a summit for laureates and young scientists held in late June in Lindau, Germany, where he told delegates that they now have unprecedented opportunities to communicate online with the public directly.
This is just as well, because his exasperation with traditional news outlets has reached breaking point.
It is now “hopeless” to do an edited interview that will be trimmed before publication or broadcast, Professor Doherty warned. “You will inevitably be misrepresented,” he said, adding: “I’d say don’t have anything to do with that.”
Bad interviewers are simply out to push a predetermined storyline, he argued. “If you allow yourself to be drawn into that, you’re just being used.”
Professor Doherty – whose most recent book, The Knowledge Wars, published in 2015, aims to help citizens analyse scientific debate for themselves – is scarred from personal experience.
He recalled a “terrible experience” on the Australian current affairs programme 60 Minutes, where a 35-minute interview about bird flu was cut to a single answer to a “leading” question, in which he acknowledged that there was a possibility that the outbreak could be a “catastrophe” – despite having stressed repeatedly that, all in all, the situation was likely manageable.
“These people are crooks, basically,” said Professor Doherty, who is now laureate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne. “You cannot try anything that’s edited,” he continued. “Once it’s edited, you have no idea where it will go.”
60 Minutes did not respond to a request for comment.
Professor Doherty did say that there were “responsible” exceptions to his rule: the BBC’s Horizon programme, for example. Direct-to-air interviews are also effective, he said, because they cannot be edited selectively.
He now has a novel way to rebuff interview requests. “I’ve found the way to get rid of TV news people is to refuse under any circumstances to put on a white coat, to go into the lab, to look down a microscope. That’s all they want. They want some fuckwit in a white coat who hasn’t looked down a microscope for 30 years. I just won’t do it. I’m so pissed off with the stereotypes,” he said.
Professor Doherty stressed that he did sympathise with reporters who were “trying to be good journalists” in the face of “terrible editors” and a “terrible economic model”.
But in Australia, science journalists are so thin on the ground that he has sometimes found himself being interviewed by sports reporters. “About the only journalists we’ve got are sporting journalists,” he said.
After an interview, “you wait with a sense of genuine terror to see what these people are going to print”, he continued.
“It’s very hard for a scientist to understand just how low the level of scientific understanding is in the community” – and “in particular among journalists”, who “add a certain arrogance to it, as they think they know what they’re doing”, he added.
What, then, is the solution for researchers if the traditional channels of communication to the public through journalists are indeed broken?
Professor Doherty is a big fan of scientists explaining their work more visually, through graphics or videos taken in the field or lab. “If you want to think about the effect of climate change on the tundras, the fact that you can take a match and light the tundra and show a little video is pretty impressive,” he said.
Another option is The Conversation, which Professor Doherty helped to found in Australia in 2011 – the website publishes articles, often addressing current affairs, written by academics but edited by journalists to make them accessible to the general public.
Academics often lose the public “immediately” when talking about relative probabilities and relative risks, he warned. “People can understand that, but they don’t understand it in those terms,” he said, explaining that scientists “have to break it down to examples”.
If there is an overarching Doherty doctrine for how to talk to the public, it is “don’t tell people, show people”. Appeals to scientific authority do not work, he said, warning that “the only people who provide a holy writ are priests – and crooks”.
“I think scientists deluded themselves that if you present the evidence, people will accept it,” he added. But in a supposedly post-factual age, “we now know that’s not true.”