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Science in Mainstream Media
Sarah Andrews

As a geologist, I have two jobs: Inwardly, I walk the road to discovery, while outwardly I am a teacher, presenting my findings. My most elusive students are that highly diverse group we call the public. The public is hard to reach — they're busy, they come in all ages, and they have varying intellects, educational backgrounds and systems of belief. But I've found that I can educate perhaps a quarter-million of them at the stroke of a pen (or the tap of a computer) if I wrap my message in a good story.

"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
- Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890
It took me a while to figure out what story form was the best vehicle to present geology, but mystery was the obvious match. Geology has a lot in common with police detective work (evidence gathering, deductive logic, multiple working hypotheses and incomplete evidence come in both packages), but there's more to it than that. Looking deeper, the mystery story form embodies the hero's journey: Usually traveling alone, the hero leaves the safety of known territory and undergoes great trials and travails in order to discover truth with a capital T. Darkness vanquished, the hero returns home to share the richness of knowledge. Murder mysteries have murders in them for the simple reason that everyone agrees that murder is wrong. My job is to show that ignorance of the natural world belongs in the same bag of taboos.

In writing my mystery novels, it has been a continuing challenge to stay afloat within the vagaries and constant changes of the publishing industry, but professional skills transferred from geology have always carried the day. It helps that I worked in the oil patch: If I can sell a prospect to an irritable group of men who want me to shut up and go away so they can have lunch, a beer and a cigarette, then selling entertainment to people who actually want to be entertained is a slam dunk.

So what have I learned in the process of wrapping education in the sugar coating of escapist literature? First and most important to the task, nothing survives in the public media if it doesn't sell. My publisher has trouble figuring out how to package my books, so apart from championing them to various editors, I've had to help take them to market.

I was publishing the fifth book in the Em Hansen forensic geology mystery series before I got smart enough to put the word "forensic" in front of "geology." "Forensic" has appeal; in fact, it's the flavor of the year on network TV. "Geology" isn't sexy unless it's scary, so it has to be threaded through a narrative reeking with human interest.

I write fiction about science, not science fiction. While I would have put a magnitude-10.5 earthquake into Fault Line if it truly belonged there, delivering only a moderate-sized temblor put the story within common experience and put the real threat where it belonged: ignorance of earthquake preparedness or building codes. I prefer to ruin my audience for sensationalism by presenting the sweet-and-sour complexity of reality.

Ultimately, word of mouth is the best advertising and a satisfied reader is the best advertiser, so there is no substitute for the best story I can write. Readers are fascinated to know the smallest details of our scientific methods, and they are wowed by our intellectual talent for 4-D thinking, pragmatism and sheer determination. Finding out that scientists are human often strikes people as an unexpected bonus, and once they find themselves noticing geology in their surroundings or accurately second-guessing poorly reported science on TV, they are hooked on reality, just like we geoscientists are.

So why, you might ask, are so many movies, novels, TV programs, newspaper articles and other media representations of science so limited or downright inaccurate? In part, it's because the media uses different methods for measuring quality and value. Unlike scientists, who ensure high-quality information by paying directly for professional publications and meetings, the mainstream media — movies, TV and most print publications — answers to the capitalist system, which measures its success by the yardstick of sales. To maintain market share, media moguls hire focus groups, which measure appetite rather than nutritional value.

What little science does find its way into movies and TV is inaccurate for two reasons: Sensationalized material is wrongly believed to be more exciting (they obviously never compared audience's reactions to Apollo 13 with the Nova program that presented the real story), and unlike the novel, in which the author has control over every word, screenwriters have little control over what actually gets filmed. Once written, a screenplay is wholly purchased by a studio — no creative rights are retained by the author — and if it doesn't die a long, slow death in the studio vault, it is usually "doctored" by at least two other writers, along with the producer, director, actors, cinematographer, film editors and probably even the gaffers, throwing ingredients into the stew. It's a little-known fact that screenwriting contracts come with loopholes that allow the writers to change their names in the credits if they don't approve of the resulting film.

In the end, communicating science to the public is all about hooking the individual. I grasp my readers' attention by using buzzwords (such as "forensic"). But then I have to hold it by taking them inside our world and showing them what's compelling about how geologists think and carry out an investigation. And that's very sexy.


Andrews, a geologist, is author of nine novels and two short features that follow fictional forensic geologist Em Hansen. Visit her Web site: www.sarahandrews.net.

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