Friday, January 20, 2012

Science Friday's Callers: A Study in Derailing Conversation

OK, maybe I'm being a little hyperbolic in describing Science Friday's callers as derailing conversation; but it seems clear to me that these callers do not add value to the show.

If you're unfamiliar with Science Friday, it's a two-hour NPR show about lots of science-related issues, from new studies (how yogurt helps); to new discoveries (kraken kill dinosaurs and arrange their bones?); to ongoing arguments (is Dissociative Identity Disorder real?); to the origins of scientific words (who was Bunsen and why did he want to burn things?); to science-in-culture discussions (how realistic was Contagion?).

So, that sounds pretty interesting, right? As the cherry on top, Science Friday is hosted by Ira Flatow (thanks, Wikipedia!), who was the host of Newton's Apple, which is one of the guideposts of my childhood (and the reason why I love Rube Goldberg machines).

But Science Friday includes times to call-in and discuss these complex scientific issues or ask clarifying questions of the experts--and these calls really lower the value of the show for me.

Often, someone will call in to ask a clarifying question on something that the scientist said which seemed pretty clear the first time--but then, if one person is confused, it's likely that others are confused as well. So, these question-askers take time, but you can't resent them too much.

More aggravating are those callers who call in to grind their ax--anti-vaccine activists, global warming deniers, other members of the public who want to comment on science that they don't understand. I once heard a guy call in to ask Ira and guest if the internal structure of crystals proved that the whole universe vibrated in harmony--and the show was only tangentially on geology.

And what's worst is that Flatow cannot or will not cut people off or hang up on them for the longest time. He just lets people go on about how cavemen hunted dinosaurs and blah blah blah.

Maybe we should chip in a few bucks to Science Friday so that they can hire an extra producer to screen these calls. Or get some lessons for Flatow on how to be more assertive.


  1. Sounds like it could use a dash of Tom Ashbrook.

  2. And while I was typing this out, there was a show on arctic exploration, and this woman called in to say that she had inherited a bunch of photos from one expedition (Scott?) and would anyone like to see them? So that goes to show what I know.