Speed-dating for science TV

A psychiatrist brushes up on her flirtation skills to talk to filmmakers about her research

Jacinta Tan
Aug 17, 2006
As I walked into the room full of strangers, I flashed back to the feeling of being a kid at a school dance. I was early and didn't know anyone, so I found the seat carrying my nametag and sat down. At the last possible minute, someone dashed in and slung himself into the seat opposite me. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and after instructions and encouragement from the organizers -- "ding!"We had exactly five minutes. What do you say? Especially when you both are from entirely different worlds. I am a scientist, but I was sitting across from a filmmaker. I am skilled in analysis and critical thinking, used to couching statements in caveats and covering my bases. But here I was, getting up close and personal with an artistic type, about as far from the bench as you can get.And I didn't talk to just one filmmaker,...
found the seat carrying my nametag and sat down. At the last possible minute, someone dashed in and slung himself into the seat opposite me. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and after instructions and encouragement from the organizers -- "ding!"We had exactly five minutes. What do you say? Especially when you both are from entirely different worlds. I am a scientist, but I was sitting across from a filmmaker. I am skilled in analysis and critical thinking, used to couching statements in caveats and covering my bases. But here I was, getting up close and personal with an artistic type, about as far from the bench as you can get.And I didn't talk to just one filmmaker, but 20 of them, one after the other, in rapid and dizzying succession. I was one of 20 scientists leaving their labs behind to experience the thrills and spills of speed-dating. But it wasn't romance on the line -- it was the future of science TV.The so-called speed-dating session, called 'WLTM...Scientists' (that's 'Would Like to Meet', for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the language of personal ads) was part of this year's recent BritDoc Festival in Oxford. "From speaking to scientists, we [know] that they are often nervous about working with the media," said Clare Matterson of the Wellcome Trust, which co-sponsored the event. "'What if I get misquoted?' 'What if they misinterpret my work?' And yet they have exciting and important stories to tell."Indeed, according to questionnaires that we completed before the event, the scientists' biggest concern about science documentaries was the risk of distortion, sensationalizing, and 'dumbing down' of science when translating it to a general audience. Kathy Sykes, professor of Public Engagement of Science and Engineering at Bristol University, urged us to value documentary-makers, calling them hard-working, multi-talented people who strive to understand scientific material.But I was eager to see for myself. What were these filmmakers really like? The speed-dating itself was a frenetic, exhausting, and exhilarating affair. Sometimes the time passed slowly and sometimes quickly. Around me, there were couples who appeared desperate to hang on to their conversations, forcing moderators to intercede. On some of my 'dates,' I sensed a strong spark but had too little time to convey even the bare facts of my research, let alone explore any possibilities for collaboration. On others, it was evident from the start that our primary interests diverged, but it was nevertheless fascinating (and a nice change) to talk about issues unrelated to my own research.Diverse doesn't begin to describe the topics -- at one point, I found myself having an animated conversation about a proposed documentary on feces, wearing my child psychiatrist hat to speculate about how, when, and why young children develop an aversion to their own excrement. After the dating session, we were urged to remember that there is a big difference between members of the press, who may use scientists to provide sound-bites supporting certain foregone conclusions, and documentary-makers, who are usually genuinely interested in presenting the research itself. But filmmakers and scientists come from different cultures and have different agendas. Documentary filmmakers, for instance, have to please producers and the public, and these interests can take priority over anything a scientist wants out of the film. Viv McGrath of Redback Films, who was responsible for the recent Bodyshock UK series -- which included "The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin," one of Channel 4's most-watched program of the year -- explained that documentary-makers are under pressure to compete with reality television and other forms of entertainment. Her approach was to use sensational titles to draw in viewers, then treat them to treatises of complex subjects. For instance, McGrath entitled a film about Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) "The Man who Slept for 19 Years." And "The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin" is a story about Vanishing Twin Syndrome.My fellow scientists and I tend to be scared of how filmmakers might interpret our science, but documentary-makers are experts in mass communication, and they can help scientists communicate relatively complex research to the public. In order to work with them, however, scientists may have to abandon the delicate language and multiple caveats to which they are accustomed. They also must accept that they will lose control of their message once it enters the public domain. However, if a scientist carefully chooses a serious, compatible filmmaker, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.Jacinta Tan, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and medical ethics researcher at the Ethox Center, University of Oxford, also has a degree in philosophy. She is currently supported by the Wellcome Trust, and recently completed a series of research projects on competence and treatment decision-making in anorexia nervosa. 'WLTM...Scientists' took place on July 26 in Oxford. It was co-sponsored by Nokia and organized by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, an organization that gives grants to independent British filmmakers to facilitate feature documentaries that will reach new audiences.Jacinta Tan mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:Would Like To Meet...Scientists https://www.britdoc.org/festival/media/BD06_WLTM_Final_160606.pdfBritDoc Festival https://www.britdoc.org/festival/Wellcome Trust http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/K. Heyman, "The science of entertainment," The Scientist, September 8, 2003. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14074/Kathy Sykes http://www.bris.ac.uk/ias/collier/Bodyshock http://www.channel4.com/science/microsites/S/science/medicine/bodyshock.htmlJacinta Tan http://www.ethox.org.uk/about/staff/tan.htmThe Ethox Center http://www.ethox.org.ukBritish Documentary Film Foundation https://www.britdoc.org/foundation/

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