Climate News Network

Training

Climate News Network and journalist training

See new Training material below!

Over the last 15 years, the editors of the Climate News Network have together trained more than 500 journalists in over 50 countries.

Hands-on workshops usually last between five and 10 days. The aim is to encourage journalists to deliver real stories in real time for their news outlets. There are interviews, presentations and press conferences with experts, and also field visits. By the end of each workshop, journalists should have produced clear, objective and factual material ready for publication or to be aired on TV or radio.

Ongoing mentoring also takes place through Climate News Network. Young journalists, particularly in the developing world, often struggle to have their work made available to a wider, international audience. The Network provides an outlet for journalists’ stories. Editors work closely with selected journalists, advising on content and style: if the piece is judged to be of Network standards, it will be published and a small fee paid.

At the major Conference of the Parties (COP21) in December 2015 in Paris, the Network held a three day training session for developing world journalists – ‘Understanding the COP Process.’ Access materials from the workshop and other journalist training materials here.

Examples include:

The editors have helped train journalists under the auspices of various organisations including:

  • United Nations Development Programme
  • Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
  • European Union
  • British Council
  • BBC Media Action
  • Deutsche Welle
  • GRID-Arendal/ICIMOD

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NEW! NEW! NEW!

We’ve designed this section of new material to help you with writing journalism, and most of it is free to anyone to use online, to share and to download. The third section, from Tim Radford’s forthcoming book The Wonderful World of Reporting, or the Marsupial Mole Revisited, is the exception: the copyright is the property of the Cambridge University Press, and the text can be used only on the terms set out at the start and end of the text.

If you have any queries, and if you would like to discuss the possibility of the Climate News Network running a workshop for your group, please write to us: info@climatenewsnetwork.net

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Manifesto for the simple scribe

Tim Radford’s how-to-do it guide to writing effective journalism.

That great and much admired story-teller Elmore Leonard once composed 10 rules for good writing. Years ago, some notes that I had once hastily composed for the editors of a set of science journals became widely available on the Guardian’s websitebut some of the references are hopelessly out of date, or would be unnecessarily bewildering to someone not living in the UK. So I have amended them slightly.

Tim Radford

 

  1. WHEN YOU sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.
  2. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, nor the rather appealing person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Nor even your mother. You are writing to impress some stranger standing awkwardly in a crowded metro, who, given a chance, will stop reading in one fifth of a second.
  3. So the first sentence you write will be the most important sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you – an employee, an apostle or an apologist – may feel obliged to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.
  4. Journalism is important. It must never, however, be full of its own self-importance. Nothing sends a reader scurrying to the crossword, or the racing column, faster than pomposity. Therefore simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all story-telling. So is a sense of irreverence.
  5. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your keyboard. “No-one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.”
  6. And here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says: “Nobody has to read this crap.”
  7. If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to over-estimate what the reader knows and under-estimate the reader’s intelligence.
  8. Life is complicated, but journalism cannot be complicated. It is precisely because issues –  medicine, politics, accountancy or the ethics of sport – are complicated that readers turn to the Guardian, or the BBC, or the Lancet, or my old papers Fish Selling and Self Service Times, expecting to have them made simple.
  9. So if an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole, ideally with the oil, garlic and tomato sauce adhering to it. The reader will be grateful for being given the simple part, not the complicated whole. That is because (a) the reader knows life is complicated, but is grateful to have at least one strand explained clearly, and (b) because nobody ever reads stories that say: “What follows is inexplicably complicated…”
  10. So here is a rule. A story will only ever say one big thing. You may put twiddly bits and digressive asides into your story, but only if you can do so very briefly and without departing from the one linear narrative you have chosen.
  11. Don’t even start writing till you have decided what the one big thing is going to be, and then say it to yourself in just one sentence. Then ask yourself whether you could imagine your mother listening to this sentence for longer than a microsecond before she reaches for the ironing. Should you try to sell an editor an idea for an article, you will get about the same level of attention, so pay attention to this sentence. It is often – not always, but often – the first sentence of your article anyway.
  12. There is always an ideal first sentence – an intro, a way in – for any article. It really helps to think of this one sentence before you start writing, because you will discover that the subsequent sentences write themselves, very quickly. This is not evidence that you are glib, facile, shallow or slick. Or even gifted. It merely means you hit the right first sentence.
  13. Words like shallow, facile, glib and slick are not insults to a journalist. The whole point of paying for a newspaper is that you want information that slides down easily and quickly, without footnotes, obscure references and footnotes to footnotes.
  14. Words like “sensational” and “trivial” are not insults to a journalist. You read what you read – Elizabethan plays, Russian novels, French comic strips, American thrillers – because something in them appeals to your sense of excitement, humour, romance or irony. Good journalism should give you the sensation of humour, excitement, poignancy or piquancy. Trivial is a favourite insult administered by scholars. But even they became interested in their subjects in the first place because they were attracted by something gleaming, flashy and – yes, trivial.
  15. Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don’t flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don’t whatever you do go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.
  16. Clichés are, in the newspaper classic instruction, to be avoided like the plague. Except when they are the right clichés. You’d be surprised how useful an appropriate cliché can be, used judiciously. In journalism, you don’t have to be ever so clever but you do have to be ever so quick.
  17. Metaphors are great. Just don’t choose crazy metaphors, and never, never mix them. Subeditors I once knew invented a special Muzzled Piranha Award, a kind of Oscar of Incompetence, first handed to an industrial relations reporter who warned the world that the trades union wildcats were lurking in the undergrowth, ready to dart out like piranhas, unless they were muzzled. George Orwell cites the case of a member of Parliament who claimed that the jackbooted fascist octopus had sung its swansong.
  18. Beware of street language. When Moses ordered his commanders to slay the Midianites he wasn’t doing it to show that he was well hard. When he warned Pharaoh to let his people go he wasn’t saying “and then I go, give us room to breathe, man, and Pharaoh’s like no way feller.” The language of the pub or the café has its own rhythms, its own body language, its own signalling devices. The language of the page has no accent, no helpful signalling tone of irony or comedy or self-mockery. It must be straight, clear and vivid. And to be straight and vivid, it must follow the received grammar.
  19. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like albedo, phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don’t want to be effulgent or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.
  20. English is better than Latin. You don’t exterminate, you kill. You don’t salivate, you drool. You don’t conflagrate, you burn. Moses did not say to Pharaoh: “The  consequence of non-release of  one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer  services. He said: The waters which are in the river… shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink.
  21. Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of South London should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall’s fate on Saturday, but mostly they don’t. Accept it
  22. Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds in the space of half a page.
  23. Beware of definitive statements and superlatives. There will almost always be someone who turns out to be bigger, faster, older, earlier, richer or more nauseating than the candidate to whom you have just awarded a superlative. Save yourself the bother: “One of the first…” will usually save the moment. If not, then at least qualify it:  “According to the Guinness Book of Records….” “The Sunday Times Rich List…” and so on.
  24. There are things that good taste and the law will simply not let you say in print. My current favourites are “Murderer acquitted” and (in a report of a local parish Easter religious play) “Paul — –, who played Jesus Christ, emerged as the star of the show.” Try and work out which one has the taste problem, which one will cost you approximately half a million per word.
  25. Writers have a responsibility, not just in law. So aim for the truth. If that’s elusive, and it often is, at least aim for fairness, the awareness that there is always another side to the story. Beware of claims to objectivity. This one is the dodgiest of all. You may report that the Royal Society says that genetic modification is a good thing, and that depleted uranium is mostly harmless. But you should remember that genetic modification was invented by people who were immediately elected to the Royal Society for their cleverness, by people already in there because they knew how to enrich uranium fuel rods and deplete the rest. So they would say that, wouldn’t they? The phrase “on the latest evidence” should be always in your mind, if not necessarily in the sentences that you write.

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Of course scientists can communicate

In an article originally published in the journal Nature, Tim Radford takes aim at the popular myth that researchers are hopeless at explaining their work to a general audience.

THERE ARE several canards about scientists, but one is more pernicious simply because so many scientists themselves repeat it: scientists are not good communicators.

Once again, the allegation is to be the subject of discussions, this time at next month’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. It can be found on Nature ‘s website, heard in research councils, it is even occasionally propagated by the public engagement community, and sometimes endorsed by journalists. In response, I can only say bosh, balderdash and Bronowski, and follow with other intemperate expletives such as Haldane, Hawking and Huxley, Eddington and E. O. Wilson, not to mention, as if in a state of terminal exasperation, Dawkins!

Between 1980 and 2005, I commissioned working scientists to write for The Guardian newspaper – from astronomers royal to impoverished doctoral students – and almost all of them delivered high-standard, well-focused newspaper prose, and many of them went on to live by the pen. I also encountered distinguished scientists who had already become literary stars.

One was the astronomer Carl Sagan, who told me that his literary hero was Thomas Henry Huxley. Another was the industrial chemist, poet and writer Primo Levi, who when I tried to ask him about the Two Cultures debate – the apparent divide between the humanities and sciences – gently reminded me that Dante Alighieri (himself the subject of at least one paper in Nature), was a member of the Florentine guild of physicians and apothecaries. And a third was the Czech poet and dissident Miroslav Holub, who wrote his occasional Guardian column in English, and asked that at the end of each I describe him as the author of Immunology of Nude Mice (1989). All three were better writers than most writers: two will still be famous as writers a century from now.

They were, of course, exceptions. We all inherit the gift of words; the gift for words, however, is unevenly distributed. Even so, there are reasons why scientists, in particular, should be and often are good communicators. One is that most scientists start with the engaging quality of enthusiasm – to get through a degree course, the PhD and all the research-council hoops, you would need it – and enthusiasm is derived from a Greek term that means divinely intoxicated. Enthusiasm is infectious, but to command an audience of readers, scientists should exploit their other natural gifts. One of these is training in clarity. Another is training in observation. And a third is knowledge.

Those who can think clearly can usually write clearly: thoughts have value only when expressed, and the more clearly they are expressed, the greater their potential value. Those whose business is to observe are aware of subtle differences that must be described, or the observations would be meaningless. And those who write must have something new or useful to say: if not, why say anything? A novelist who does not publish is not a novelist. A scientist who does not publish remains a scientist – at least for the duration of the research council grant – but the science performed is of no apparent value until somebody else hears about it.

The problems for the scientist as a public communicator start with academic publishing: the language, form and conventions of the published scientific paper could almost have been devised to conceal information. Even in conversation, scientists start with a communication problem – words that are perfectly ordinary within science are simply never heard on a football terrace or in a tavern or bus queue. So to be effective communicators, scientists have to learn to stand back from their own work and see it as strangers might do.

It is not a difficult trick: even journalists have learned it. What is the most significant thing about your research? Is it that, at cosmological distances, type Ia supernovae in high redshift galaxies seem insufficiently lustrous? Or is it that you have just realized that you cannot account for 71% of the Universe; make that 96% if you throw in dark matter alongside this newly discovered dark energy? Which is more likely to make people attend? Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday were stars of the lecture halls. Many distinguished scientists –  Richard Feynman, J. B. S. Haldane and Peter Medawar among them – knew how to hold a popular audience, and they weren’t afraid to address their peers with the same vividness and economy. In fact, their fame became inseparable from their gift for words. So the case for scientists as inherently bad communicators is a canard.

And while we have our ducks in a row, let me invoke the canard that scientists occasionally propagate about the media: that it does not appreciate scientific uncertainty. That one is especially irritating. It seems to say: “I, as a scientist, wish to have it both ways. I want the privilege of knowing better than you, and the indulgence of being wrong without guilt, because science, don’t you see, is really about uncertainty.” To which the foolish answer might be: “In which case, why should we listen?” But alas, people in any case listen selectively, even to the best communicators, which might be why so many Americans think Darwin’s theory of evolution is “only a theory”. Scientists are not the only people to blame for a problem in communication.

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The material in this section has been published in Tim Radford’s chapter in a Cambridge University Press book called Successful Careers Beyond the Lab, edited by David J. Bennett and Richard C. Jennings. This version is a proof copy: it is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press (2017)

 

tim radford

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The Wonderful World of Reporting, or the Marsupial Mole Revisited

I CAN name the day I first realised that science was a marvellous generator of stories that might gain in the telling: stories that no-one  had ever told before, stories that invoked almost operatic emotions, stories that played to the theatre of the mind.

I opened my New Scientist dated 1 January 1976 and read the Monitor column, which picked up the best of other journals, and found the magazine’s own take on a study of the male marsupial mole. There, in deadpan narrative, was a story of first love, of last love, of sex and death and indescribable poignancy, and not only did I instantly feel the drive to share it with somebody else – always the first test of a good story – but a less than laudable desire to embellish it with tiny mundane details that further offset its integral beauty. And – I realised this very quickly – that it illuminated something vital about Darwinian evolution that I had never quite grasped. I told this story, perhaps animatedly, at the Valpolicella- and Soave-fuelled parties that characterised the suburban 1970s, and watched people’s eyes widen.

Then – 15 or more years later – when asked to talk to scientists about the science that makes the media interested in science, I repeat- edly used this one as my example. I had long lost that copy of the  New Scientist, so I repeated what I could remember, including the unsup- ported embellishments. And I apologised for any misremembering, but since nobody else seemed to remember it at all, nobody ever told me I had got it wrong. And in any case, I had remembered the nub of the story correctly.

Successful Careers Beyond the Lab, ed. David Bennett and Richard Jennings.

Published by Cambridge University Press. © Cambridge University Press 2017. 211

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It was a chronicle of the enormous, self-sacrificing love of the  Australian marsupial mole, a creature that potters about for most of     his life without knowing the meaning of the word ‘love’. Then, sud- denly, during the all-too-brief mating season, he bumps into a female marsupial mole. Their lives are transformed. Courtship proceeds rapidly to lovemaking. And as the Romeo of the partnership declares his ardour in the most unambiguous way possible, the excitement is too much for him. As he engenders the next generation of little baby moles to fill his new love’s tiny pouch, he also releases a sudden rush of corticosteroids within himself, trips his aching heart, has a coronary and dies. It isn’t bad luck: he is programmed to pop his clogs as soon as he has fulfilled his biological function. That way, Mrs Marsupial Mole, widowed within minutes of her marriage, has a better chance of making it on the slender resources hitherto available to both. Love is supposed to be a matter of making sacrifices; it is also supposed to be undying, which makes it all the sadder. At the time I called it the most poignant case of post-coital tristesse I have ever read. The New Scientist was not nearly so sentimental. The headline read: ‘When a mole’s had it, he’s had it.’

I called the story unforgettable. In fact, I had swiftly forgotten the species (Antichinus stuarti) the authors (physiologists from Monash Uni- versity) and the source (The Journal of Endocrinology). But I had remem- bered not just the outline but the headline. It was a revelation: a realisation that science told stories that appealed to a sense of life’s comedy, or poignancy, or wonder. (The phrase ‘sensational journalism’ was always a lazy one. We read what we read because it appeals to some sense or other.) But there was something even better. That story told me something about  how the world worked that  had never occurred to    me before: that sex and death are part of the same inexorable bargain. And there was something better still: clearly, science was a source of stories that had never been told before. And best of all, it was a source  of unforgettable headlines. It was not the start of a career reporting science. I spent many years doing other things. But it was the beginning of an interest in science as the source of what journalists want most: good stories.

First, an admission: there was never a lab. It’s not that I had never been in one. My secondary school had pipettes, retorts, Bunsen burners, two kinds of litmus paper and a row of jars that contained magnesium,  sodium,  phosphorus,  sulphuric  acid  and  so  on,  and  I probably watched demonstrations with some measure of pleasure. But scholastic or formal science education was embraced lightly. Mathematics at the time was largely algebra and geometry; chemistry

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involved understanding chemical notation and sorting elements from compounds; physics seemed to be only electricity and magnetism in one aspect, heat, light and sound in the other. I preferred Latin – that’s how dull school science was in New Zealand in the early 1950s.

But there was the other lure: from the age of 11, I delivered morning newspapers and was already and perhaps separately fascinated by the daily miracle of the morning newspaper. In addition I read the Superman comics and was more interested in, and more curious about, the personae of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, than in the Man of Steel himself. I developed a taste for books written by former newsmen – Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Damon Runyon among them – and B-movies in which hard-faced but humane men in trench coats and trilby hats exposed corruption and confronted criminals before calling the city desk.

Most of all, I liked the magic of a printed news page, this black- and-white thing that somebody had made happen, every night; had written, taken the photographs, thought of the headlines, composed all the text in hot metal and scratched the photograph onto a metal plate with acid and a needle, had assembled all the reports, results, advertisements and imagery to fit neatly into a standard-sized frame, converted this broadsheet artefact into a curved plate that could be fitted onto a roller; did the same with 15, or 23, or 31 other pages all at the same time, smeared them all with ink, threaded great rolls of paper through the rotary presses and then printed this one achievement ten thousand or a hundred thousand times, and did it all at a pace dictated by the railway timetables.

So, admission number two: there was no academia, no college, no degree or diploma. At 16, not long after the start of my second sixth- form year and just before the Easter weekend, I walked into the New Zealand Herald office and applied for a job as a cadet reporter. It was a world of full employment, a world in which you could leave school at 15, a world in which you went into higher education only if you wanted to be something that needed a degree: a doctor, lawyer or, of course, a scientist. It wasn’t a very long conversation: the chief reporter asked me if I thought I was good at English, and then said, ‘Can you start on Tuesday?’ And so, on 23 April 1957, my life changed. I had become, like many of my friends, an earner, with a brown envelope that contained £5 14s 6d at the end of each week. Even more enjoyably, the notion that      I had to be home by dark or in bed by 10 PM also ended forever.

Auckland had its own evening  newspaper  that  reported  all the news that happened in the morning, so the early shift for daily

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newsmen began at 2 PM  and ended at 11 PM  with the first edition.      A skeleton staff stayed on until 2 AM to complete what everybody called the graveyard shift. Within a few days, I had been given my own responsibility: the shipping news. This was before the jet age. It was before the coming of the container traffic. And it was before the age of the public relations department. Those who flew to New Zealand were most likely to land in Auckland harbour from Sydney or Suva in Fiji by Solent flying boat run by Tasman Empire Airways Limited, but the vast majority of humans still travelled by sea, and so did almost everything that humans then grew, packed, made or sold. It was lowered into, or taken from, the holds of freighters, liners and tramp steamers and  stowed or unloaded by stevedores and dockers – known also as water- siders or ‘wharfies’ – who carried cargo hooks, and handled by fork-lift truck drivers who took the goods in or out of warehouses, and then  piled them onto delivery lorries, or railway wagons. The ships arrived daily, with bills of lading from anywhere in the Pacific or Indian Oceans, from Vancouver or Seattle, from Yokohama or Zamboanga or Trinco- malee and with passengers mostly from the United Kingdom, California or Australia.

Part of the job was to walk around all the docks, every day, talking to the harbourmaster’s office, the shipping agents, the companies, the unions, the managers and the police, to assemble a daily register of things that had happened or were expected to happen. That included the stories of cargo workers who fell down holds to be saved, seemingly miraculously, by landing on bales of wool, or of first mates who con- tracted malaria or yellow fever while in the South China Seas, and arrived on ships flying the Yellow Jack, the flag that said ‘infectious illness on board’. It also meant getting up long before dawn to join the pilot boat and hitch a ride to meet a visiting cruise liner out in the Hauraki Gulf, long before it turned to enter the Rangitoto Channel and then into Auckland Harbour, to jump from a pitching cutter onto a suspended stairway or rope ladder, climb on board and ride with the ship through the dawn to tie up, take on fresh food and water, and give the passengers a day in the city. We’d knock on the purser’s cabin door and ask politely if there were famous people on board. ‘We’ve got Robert Mitchum in the suite on A-deck,’ the man might say, and jour- nalists would troop to his stateroom in the hope of a photograph and an interview. So within a week, a schoolboy had stepped into the world of John Masefield, Joseph Conrad and the Marlon Brando who starred in On the Waterfront: a world of romance and adventure at second hand, but delivered freshly and unpredictably every day. And I was being paid for it.

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In the course of the next 50-odd years, I confronted politicians, chased fire engines, reported on natural disaster and human tragedy, flew over the forests of Chernobyl in a former Russian military helicop- ter, whitewater-rafted down some Himalayan rapids, rode an elephant through the Nepali wetlands, lay awake all night on the roof of a village house on the banks of the Zambezi listening to the lions across the river, travelled with a port chaplain out into the North Sea to deliver a turkey and read a service on a lightship, slept overnight in the monasteries of Mt Athos in Greece, visited Soviet Russia and the Central Asian states and then the Russian Federation, toured research laboratories that most of us had never known existed in Siberian cities we had once been forbidden to visit and of course – but we will come to that – been witness to a series of quite astounding revolutions in the worlds of science and technology.

As a conference party trick, I often compare journalists and scien- tists: both are fully paid-up members of the human subspecies Homo sapiens inquisitivus, and both regard the statement ‘I don’t know’ not as a statement of surrender but as an invitation: What is it I do not know? How would I find out? And of course, both rely on six simple all-purpose tools: the questions who, what, where, when, how and why. Nor is a morning newspaper reporters’ room so very different from a laboratory. Both are within institutions dedicated to research, and packed with eager young researchers who have learned to identify something that is simultaneously not known but worth knowing; have learned to begin with a search of the literature, and to frame a question or a hypothesis and then start looking for data.

Having gathered the evidence, these researchers then write a paper, submit it for peer review and then publish. The trivial difference is that in a laboratory, the process takes months, or even years; in an old-fashioned daily newspaper, everything described above happened between about 11 AM in the morning and 9 PM or 10 PM at night. The really big difference is that scientific papers are read by a very small  number of people and the research lives on – if it lives – in other people’s citations and the author remains a scientist. But  reporters, above all, must be read: of course, they should be right, but if they are not read, then they cease to be journalists, and the journals that employ them don’t last long either. The difference is that scientists publish research and journalists  write  stories.

So my other piece of debating imagery is Queen Scheherazade, the voice of the Thousand and One Nights. The caliph had the nasty habit of marrying,  ravishing   and   then  beheading   his  bride   of  the   day the

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following morning so she could never be unfaithful. Scheherazade understood the power of the story, and told wonderful stories – so wonderful, we tell them still – literally to save her life: each paused  with a cliff-hanger, and to hear how it ended the caliph kept her alive  for another night. Printed newspapers, too, were once addictive, and the people who worked for them thought themselves – mostly – the luckiest people in the world. Each day delivered a new story, and a different adventure. A day just ended could be a triumph, or a humiliation, but what mattered most was the next day: nobody remembered for long the good things you did, and your failures became the wrapping around the fish  and chips.

I made a comparison between science and journalism, and it is true that journalists, like scientists are interested in how the world works, and why, but for journalists the reward comes in the form not of an established set of facts, or a convincing hypothesis, but in the fleeting shape of a good story.

And science provided these, although for the first 20 or so years  of my working life, I wasn’t (I thought) interested in science. You couldn’t be a reporter and not be conscious of science.  I had been on  the New Zealand Herald for about six months when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in October 1957; New Zealand scientists were partners in the International Geophysical Year and in the formal explor- ation of Antarctica, and besides, we lived on the North Island of New Zealand, home to four active volcanoes and potentially vulnerable to earthquake.

As a child, I learned to identify scoria, and its plutonic partner  pumice, and knew that they were not the same as sandstone, or clay; as  a teenage reporter, one responsibility was to pick up the weather map from the meteorological office every night, and to check the supply of paper and ink for the office seismometer.

As an ordinary functioning suburb-dweller, I had seen science change our lives: my face is not pitted by smallpox, my limbs are not withered by polio and my lungs not scarred by tuberculosis because mass vaccination arrived in the 1950s. Households discarded the old  iceboxes – in which meat was kept cool by a great block of ice, delivered weekly – and installed refrigerators, and then gradually, telephones, vacuum cleaners and even motor  cars.

It was a world of Cold War, of implacable confrontation between the Soviet Union and Red China on the one hand and the treaty powers of the North Atlantic Alliance on the other. Within a few years we were to live in the shadow of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with

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thermonuclear warheads that could notionally obliterate London or any European city, an event that would be preceded by a warning that we had just four minutes of remaining life. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) did indeed seem like madness, so the Cold War was fought by proxy, most notably in Korea and then Vietnam,  increasingly with the advanced chemistry of napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange. Simultaneously, we marvelled at the Soviet and US space programmes,  and the race to  the moon.

So we were all aware of science. If I didn’t pay much attention, it was perhaps because there were so many other things to think about,  one of which would now be described as economic migration. At 20, at the beginning of 1961, I boarded a passenger ship and sailed to South- ampton for a total of £92, and started working in British newspapers. Until 1963, passports issued in the Commonwealth and the last bits of the Empire were British passports, and New Zealand operated in the  sterling currency zone. In those days, one could simply move to a new address 12,000 miles away. So I did.

I became a sub-editor on the weekly Fishing News, and the less frequent titles Fish Selling, Fishing News International and Self Service Times; I became a reporter for the Hull Daily Mail, covering – of course – the waterfront and the fish docks; I joined the Dover Express and learned the challenges of newspaper production in exquisite and unpredictable detail. (‘You know all those monotype headings on page five?’ the head printer once shouted through the hatch. ‘Can you rewrite them? We  have run out of the  letter E.’)

And for a few years, I became a Whitehall information officer, an unestablished civil servant employed by the Central Office of Informa- tion, writing and editing what we called ‘white propaganda’ to promote the interests of the British government through its embassies and commissions. White propaganda – as opposed to black propaganda then supposedly disseminated from some sinister department of the Foreign Office – could be defined as undeniably true, but selective.

And this organisation had a science correspondent: a man called Roy Herbert, who had been a  founder  member  of  the  staff  of  the New Scientist and who also wrote the magazine’s Ariadne column. Because of chronic illness – his, not mine – I found myself covering  the occasional Atomic Energy Authority press conference, attending      a British Association for  the  Advancement  of  Science  conference  and even (because these were the  years  of  anxiety  about  acid  rain and organochlorine pesticides) making a pilgrimage to the Natural Environment  Research  Council’s  Monk’s  Wood  research  station  in

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Cambridgeshire, to learn more about research into environmental pollution. But I imagined no career as a science writer. How could I?      I knew nothing about  science.

And anyway, I soon joined the Guardian, within a few years to edit the arts pages, a job that still seems to me to have been the best in the world: a job that required me to absorb film, music and theatre on a scale that I could never have been able to afford as a mere audience member, and to see amazing things performed by actors then in their first shining maturity: Alan Howard, Judy Dench, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen and many others.

But I continued to read the New Scientist, along with the New Statesman and New Society. I cannot now tell you why, except that it seemed to me to be a brilliant source of stories about really interesting things that I had never thought about before. And it was during this period that I began to understand that some profound change  had  begun to happen: that, at around the time my children had been born, physicists and astronomers had confected an entirely rational story of Creation from a Big Bang beginning; that biologists seemed to be on the track of life’s most intricate biochemical machinery; that earthquakes and volcanoes – and mountains and floodplains and seams of minerals and all other geological phenomena – were not random presences, but the consequence of imperceptible but explicable movement of a living planet. And of course, after the Apollo programme, that humans began the systematic exploration of the solar system and the faltering expan- sion of computer technology.

And most of this wasn’t – it seemed to me even then – being reported as it should have been: in-depth and with enthusiasm. Science correspondents for the most part occupied an unenvied and mostly undisturbed niche in the journalism’s ecology. It was not considered something as important as crime, day-to-day politics, City scandals, aristocratic divorce, Royal visits or the state of the economy. It was considered probably important but certainly boring, mostly incompre- hensible and – above all – not a reason for buying a newspaper. So, even before I had been plucked, unwillingly, from the arts pages and given the bigger job of helping to run a whole features department, I had started thinking of ways to make the stories that science could tell as exciting and as compelling as any narrative of sex and death.

As it happened, science at the time turned out to be terrific on the themes of sex and death, and animal behaviour research at the time delivered examples by the bucketful. Never mind marsupial moles; who could forget the paddle-footed worm that turned up in another issue of

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the New Scientist? At full moon and high tide in the tropics, the little creatures stomachs’ shrivel, their sexual organs swell and almost their entire bodies become containers for sperm and eggs. Then they all scramble madly to the surface for an orgy. As soon as the bristly paddles of the male worm touch the skin of the female, they both explode in a frenzy of lust, expelling showers of eggs and milt, and then all that is left is just two empty bags, tumbling slowly back to the sea floor.

That, as the phrase goes, was sex to die for. And who could resist the tropical reef-dwelling palolo worm? The palolo worm doesn’t lose his head when it falls in love. As its little heart beats faster and it gets that funny feeling in the pit of the stomach, something very odd happens. The lower half of the worm breaks off from the head and lurches towards the surface for the mating dance, leaving the brains and the teeth behind in the reef to carry on eating. This may be the only known case of a creature sending forth its own loins to be fruitful and multiply while the rest  of it settles down to  a good dinner. And          I thought at the time – it seemed to add new resonance to the coarse expression ‘having it away’.

And I had already made a discovery: the science behind a major news event could enrich the story. That’s a commonplace now. The mechanics of a tsunami – the physical forces that mean that it can race across an ocean at jet speed yet create no more than a ripple on the surface and then slow down and build up to a wall of water capable of mass murder when it reaches the shallows of the coast – register as my first bit of self-driven scientific  investigation.

In 1976, what we then called a tidal wave hit the coast of the southern Philippines, and I spent my lunchtime in the British Library’s science section, then near Chancery Lane. The mechanics of reporting, communication and public information at the time, the timetables of newspaper production, and the sheer difficulty of getting information from a disaster zone meant that it made sense to have, at least for the first edition, a piece describing what might have happened, how it must have happened and what the consequences may have been.

The principle is that if you can’t write about what the earthquake did because you can’t get there in time to report something for the first edition, at least write about what earthquakes do and why, and who is most vulnerable. When you ask questions like that, the very first thing you learn is that natural disaster isn’t random, or even very natural. The people most likely to lose everything, including their lives, are over- whelmingly the poorest, the dispossessed, the people who have almost nothing in the first place.

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But knowledge is power: if scientists and engineers could explain calamity after it had happened, then maybe the same scientists and engineers could inform and help people to be ready for the next shock. In which case, there was an obvious role for the newsman. I was, in 1976, still editing the Guardian’s letters page; I was already acting as the newspaper’s deputy film critic, I was soon to take over the arts page and experience the sustained delirium of great music, theatre and the visual arts both at first and second hand. And there I was, fretting about all the geophysics I didn’t know that I needed to know for an 800-word piece. It seems now, with the perfect perspective of hindsight, that I had already begun to change direction. It is important to stress that at the time I knew that I knew nothing about science, but I could not under- stand why my colleagues weren’t interested. In 1980, I changed jobs, and – while fretting about work shifts, copy deadlines, edition times, page design, picture choice and all the other things that make a news- paper work – I took over a once-a-week page, rang up a scientist and asked him to write something for me.

I very quickly learned that the older the scientist, the more poten- tially impenetrable the text. Post-docs on a meagre grant income, how- ever, responded with enthusiasm to the challenge to write something a human being would wish to read, especially if they were to be paid Fleet Street rates for it. Within a few years, the page had turned into a multi- page supplement, supported by advertising, and a number of scientists I had first encouraged had made themselves not just professional jour- nalists but direct competitors on other papers, and I had to keep on recruiting new writers. Other scientists stayed on in the universities but carried on as contributors and managed to win the annual science writing prizes awarded by the Association of British Science Writers.

I was already, effectively, a science editor. And so it didn’t seem unusual to me or to my colleagues when, after three years editing the Guardian’s literary pages (I had, separately, been reviewing non-fiction for various newspapers and journals since 1959), I followed in the footsteps of J.G. Crowther, who claimed to be the first science corres- pondent of any newspaper, John Maddox (later Sir John, and later editor of Nature) and the unforgettable Anthony Tucker, known as Phil, a former Spitfire pilot who first entered The Guardian to paint a mural on the canteen wall.

I became science editor in 1992, and held the by-line until I retired in 2005. Science coverage was, at the time, fairly low on any news desk’s list of priorities, and there were days when I felt I had entered into a  new personal competition: How many stories could I write that would

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be rejected in any one day? Attitudes, however, had, imperceptibly, begun to change. I had already become involved in Copus, the Royal Society initiative called the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science that John Durant writes about in his chapter 23, and separately, perhaps because I had talked to so many earthquake scientists and engineers, I had been drafted onto the UK Committee for the Inter- national Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

Climate change seemed to have begun to announce itself, in the shape of more calamitous floods, tropical storms and landslides. Space research became ever more ambitious, and so did its promotion by scientists and space agencies. Biologists had already started to do bewildering things with DNA, among them identifying potential criminal suspects, cloning sheep and tracing human evolution. America abandoned its superconducting supercollider – the machine that was supposed to identify the agency that made the universe possible – and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) took up the challenge in Geneva. The Internet happened, and then the communications revolution.

A few years later, I found myself playing another game: How many by-lines could I score in a single day? I had begun to think myself one of the luckiest journalists on the paper: I had ventured into a playground that took me in a few days from subjects such as chemical weapons research to discovery of the tomb of the sons of King Ramses II in Egypt’s Valley of Kings, from the devastation of the 1998 El Niño to an encounter with the man who thought up Inflation Theory and then a meeting with the man who published the first accounts of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and told the press conference, ‘If you’re religious, it’s like seeing God.’ I was lucky enough to share public platforms with Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Miroslav Holub, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, Stephen Pinker, James Lovelock, Paul Davies, Douglas Adams and many others, and the fun didn’t stop when I retired. I cannot stress this enough – I never felt I knew much about science, and when I got something wrong, it was because, idiotically, I thought I did know something about the science. I thought of myself always as a reporter, open-mouthed, delighted by the things I heard, thrilled to have the opportunity to shape them into stories that other people might want to read. Science delivered these, over and over again, stories beyond fiction: stories you couldn’t make up, stories that had never been told before. It has been wonderful. But I wouldn’t have

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missed all the other fun, too, on the waterfronts of Auckland and Hull,  or the magic of the Royal Shakespeare Company under Trevor Nunn, or the long-running near-farce of Westminster politics, or encounters with policemen at the scene of a crime, or the mechanics of newspaper hot- metal production, a vast train set you could play with every day. To which I can simply add the additional thrill of being able to fashion a poignant fable  about a marsupial mole.

 

This material has been published in Successful Careers Beyond the Lab edited by David J. Bennett and Richard C. Jennings. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press (2017)

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It’s the way you tell them

This is the text of a talk Tim Radford gave to the Geneva Environment Network on World Water Day, 22 March 2004.

In a democratic society, there is an obligation on scientists to explain their research to  the taxpayers and consumers. Unfortunately, there is no corresponding obligation on the taxpayers and consumers to listen. So scientists who believe their work is important have a further obligation to say so, clearly, vividly, and in as near to vernacular speech as possible.

Such an approach was once loftily dismissed, at least in British universities, as “popularisation”. All I can say is that being popular is probably a lot more enjoyable than being unpopular.

Disaster scientists and engineers are like scientists and engineers everywhere: they prefer the cold language of technical fact and statistical probability, secured from accusations of error by a thicket of protective caveats. This like the language of lawyers that goes into the small print of contracts is exactly the language the rest of the human race has difficulty listening to. So there is an immediate problem: of one group which apparently chooses not to be understood, addressing an audience that would on the whole prefer not to hear; the effectively mute speaking to the selectively deaf.

However scientists and engineers concerned with natural disaster have even more compelling reasons for speaking clearly, vividly and in the vernacular: for them, simple words can and do, literally, save lives. There is no point in issuing judgments about potential catastrophe in academic language. This is because the kind of language used in university common rooms and in scientific papers tends to suppress understanding, rather than promote it. For example: Moses did not challenge Pharaoh with a warning about the consequences of the continued detention of one particular subject ethnic population. And he certainly did not say that this non-release could provoke a demonstrable and conceivably unpopular ecological reaction that could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation   the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for Nilotic flora and fauna, not excluding vital consumer services.

Instead, in the words of the Authorised Version of the Bible, Moses “lifted up the rod and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants, and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died, and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river, and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.”

It could hardly have been clearer. Even then, Pharaoh failed to take the hint, so that yet more awful consequences followed. And there should be a lesson for everybody in that, too: authorities – princes and power brokers, governments, satraps, chieftains and local councils – usually need to hear warnings several times before they react, and even then, they may not react in time. In the course of the last 15 years, governments and authorities the world over have been warned loudly and repeatedly that global warming could be accompanied by a greater risk of severe weather-related events: floods, heatwaves, ice storms, typhoons and droughts.

Notoriously, some nations have still to take these warnings seriously: at least seriously enough to subscribe to united global action. The warnings have not stopped. This year, in a paper in the US journal Science, Britain’s own chief scientist publicly described global warming as potentially a greater threat worldwide than international terrorism. He had his reasons for doing so: he wished to stress the importance of action now on carbon dioxide emissions. This year, in Nature, other scientists have warned that global warming could result in the loss of up to a million vulnerable plants and animals.

These two bits of research did get a lot of play in newspapers, and in their different ways provoked unpromising reactions. But these were only two in a torrent of research papers. Here are three that preceded them. I quote them because they are reminders that there is more than one way to make people sit up and listen. These three papers tell what should by now be a familiar story in a new way.

One was a review article about the Commonwealth and sea level rise, in a journal called The Round Table. The Commonwealth has 54 members, and the review starts from the premise that by mid-century, it may have only 51 members: the Maldives and Tuvalu are already at risk of complete submersion. Most of Kiribati and the Bahamas are just four metres above sea level. Meanwhile by 2050, crop yields are expected to fall by up to 20% in Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia and Botswana. Altogether, in a separate calculation, sea level rise could hit up to 50 million people in Africa. Another 50 million will be affected along the coastlines of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Crop yields could decline by up to 40% in Pakistan. Yet a third 50 million are likely to find the sea lapping at their feet in Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago. In all these places, malaria, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis and dengue fever are also expected to increase.

So far, so clear. That is disaster in the making. Why is it happening? There is a clue in a paper in the Royal Society Proceedings B, by two marine scientists in Seattle and California. They compared humans with 31 non-human species in measures of biomass consumption, energy consumption and carbon dioxide production. You will not be surprised to learn that in almost every case, humans consumed more of whatever there was to consume than other creatures one exception was mackerel in the north-west Atlantic, where other fish and seabirds matched us – and this “more” wasn’t just a bit more, or significantly more. Sometimes it was 100 times more, or 1,000 times.

The human population, for instance, is four orders of magnitude greater than the mean for mammalian species: or to put it another way, humans are 36,760 times more numerous. “In this paper, we report tests of the hypothesis that the human species is ecologically normal,” the authors say. And then comes the punchline. “We reject the hypothesis for almost all the cases we tested.”

A glimpse of the scale of this human abnormality lies in our energy use. A researcher at the University of Utah last year worked out the true cost of a gallon of gasoline. That is, how much foliage had to grow in the Carboniferous to produce the tiny fraction that might get trapped in swamps or fall to the riverbeds and somehow end up as oil that could be refined as petrol 250 million years later. His answer, published in Climate Change: one gallon of petrol equals 98 tons of foliage, or 196,000 lbs of fern and cycad and algae and conifer. He translated that into modern agriculture. “Can you imagine loading 40 acres worth of wheat – stalks, roots and all – into the tank of your car or SUV every 20 miles?” he asked.

I love all this stuff. Each report is a new way of telling a story that must be told again and again. There are other, older, bits of global accounting that I am fond of. One geologist has calculated that – in terms of clay for bricks, gravel for roads, limestone for pavements, gypsum for plaster, lime for cement and so on – roughly six tons of soil is shifted every year for every human being on Earth. That adds up to 36 billion tons. Since the calculated flow of silt down the world’s rivers is put at 24 billion tons, that means that humanity is now the greatest earth-moving force on Earth. After hearing such figures you do begin to wonder what a sustainable world would look like, or a safe one? How do we get there?

The answer for all of us is, a bit at a time. Start anywhere. Just start. If all you can do is warn, or explain, keep on warning, or explaining, but do so in clear and urgent language. And always remember that a start is not the same as progress. The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction was a success, in a way – by the end of it, some of us had learned to say the initials IDNDR without stumbling, and London’s taxi drivers had finally learned how to get to the Royal Academy of Engineering but the success was limited. In fact, the number of deaths per year in natural disasters had fallen by the end of the decade. But set against that, at the end of the decade there were more disasters each year than there had been at the beginning, affecting greater numbers of people, at greater economic costs.

This does not mean the decade was a failure. It simply means that each hour of the decade saw another 10,000 people on the planet, each about to make an ecological footprint of more than a hectare, most of them crowding into cities that could barely support them, and certainly could not house them securely. You know that, I know that. But do governments? And if not, why not?

That is the second great communication problem: governments have a way of not listening, or rather listening very selectively, usually to those people prepared to supply the messages that governments prefer to hear.

That is why I no longer think it is enough to get the story right: you must get the story read as well. Machiavelli pointed out several centuries ago that you cannot ever tell a prince, a tyrant, or an oligarch something that he does not wish to hear. In a democracy, you are free to tell a prime minister or a president what you believe to be the truth. Even that, however is not so easy. I give you another memorable line from George Bush. When asked how he got his information he replied: “The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff.”

The point is: you may gain a politician’s ear, but there is no point in telling a politician anything unless you tell the rest of the world as well. The only things a democratic politician really listens to are the voters. So in a democracy, when you address an issue, you really have to address everyone. That includes the people who cannot read, or if they can read, cannot afford to buy books. These most of all, because, of course, these are the people most at risk from natural disaster. So it isn’t just what you have to tell that matters, it’s the way you tell them.

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