Joe Palca joined National Public Radio in 1992 and since has covered a variety of topics as a science correspondent, from the immigration crisis to doughnut holes. One thing in particular bugged Palca about the way science and research were and are covered by the media, however; this bug gave rise to Palca’s project, Joe’s Big Idea and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, the latter dedicated to the people behind the science and their methods, explained in a way that anyone can understand.
“They sometimes get pigeonholed as experts and I wanted to turn them into real human beings,” said Palca.
Palca will be a guest of KCLU for a “Brunch and Conversation” event on Sunday, April 23, in Thousand Oaks, and then will host an award ceremony at the California Science Fair at the California Science Center.
VCReporter: Tell me about Joe’s Big Idea.
Joe Palca: The idea for the project was simply to stop telling science stories as a series of results and start telling science stories as a series of processes getting to results. . . . There’s this temptation to make everything new and different sound important but often, very often in fact, it isn’t. So I just said, let’s talk about this idea of how people go about getting answers in science. I also wanted to change the idea of how scientists sometimes aren’t people in the piece.
What surprised you most when you launched Joe’s Big Idea?
What was really gratifying was the reception I got from the scientific community, because I think they feel like the expectations have been raised too high. They really like the idea of saying, “Let’s take a deep breath and realize not every scientific discovery is going to be a big deal.” They’re all interesting, but their ultimate value is going to be determined by history and other discoveries.
I’ve done a lot of stories, and there’s a lot of times when scientists get pissed off at journalists because they make an outright mistake or they oversimplify. I’ve had the good fortune where people, like my mother who doesn’t know anything about science, will say, “I really understand it when you do a story,” and the scientists say, “I think you represented my work accurately.”
Is there some sort of uniformity behind what drives most scientists or do you find that motivations vary?
Several scientists have said a version of this to me that at some point in your scientific career, you’re going to have finished an experiment . . . and for a few minutes, or maybe even longer . . . you’re going to be the only person on the planet that knows that bit of science, that knows that one fact about the universe, and that delight of being the only person in the world that really knows that fact is really intoxicating.
What is the biggest problem right now with mainstream science reporting?
It’s this temptation to oversell a particular study, and so it makes for a little bit of whiplash. For instance, one study comes out that says coffee is good for you, and another comes out that says coffee is bad for you, and both are reported with a lot of fanfare — how can they both be true? . . . A single study about coffee, even if it involves a lot of people, is not proof positive of an answer, but we try to make it sound like it is.
You told me that you don’t have an opinion on Earth Day and the March on Science. Is that you just trying to remain neutral?
I have to report on contentious issues. In fact, most of the things I report on that are contentious in the public aren’t terribly contentious in the scientific community. For example . . . there is no controversy about climate change in the scientific community, there’s a huge consensus, there’s nothing to report on. If I’m going to report on what the government should do with that information, I’m agnostic about whether they use it or ignore it, but they can’t deny it. It’s there, the information is the information. I think that’s where reporters want to make sure that they stay neutral. . . . People make their decisions about the scientific evidence but they don’t get to pick the evidence; the evidence is what it is.
You’ve written on how Trump’s travel ban has affected science in the lab, but reporting on that is different from taking a side?
I’m not taking an opinion on whether President Trump’s travel ban is a good thing for America or a bad thing for America but I am allowed to say the consequences of it.
Does it bother you when people point at NPR and call it “fake news” in light of your mantra to report just the facts?
I think it’s insulting to suggest that I’m making stuff up. I can show you where my data comes from and where my facts are coming from and you can decide whether I’m right or wrong, I guess, but as someone who learned about the scientific methods in graduate school and who learned; about being a journalist from one of the greatest journalistic organizations in the country, I just don’t think there’s anything fake about what we do at all. . . . It’s very frustrating because I’ve devoted my career trying to explain science to the public, and then for people to turn around and say you’re just making all of that stuff up, it can cause existential despair, if you let it.
“KCLU presents Brunch and Conversation with Joe Palca” will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at California Lutheran University, Lundring Event Center in the Gilbert Sports and Fitness Arena, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $40 and include brunch. For more information, call 493-3900.
KCLU provides NPR and can be heard at 88.3 FM in Ventura County.