Joe Palca: ‘Science is not a set of discoveries, but a process of understanding’

March 09, 2015


UC Santa Cruz alum Joe Palca (Psychology ’82) came to campus recently to talk about science communication.

How do you engage broad audiences with complex scientific research? And how do you it when you have only minutes, if not seconds, of air time?

In a recent event hosted by UC Santa Cruz’s Science & Justice Research Center, UC Santa Cruz alum and NPR science correspondent Joe Palca (Psychology ’82), joined by fellow journalist and Science and Justice professor from Santa Clara University Sally Lehrman, spoke about how to communicate science. Communicating about science is about ideas, connections and spontaneity.

Science communication is about ideas

Palca shared that he approaches science by reporting on the people who study it. “Science is not a set of discoveries, but a process of understanding,” Palca said. Delving into the process is what gives Palca his signature style: inquisitive, curious, tenacious.  Palca will ask scientists about their drive and inspiration. He is interested in conviction and context instead of conclusions, he shared.

“I want to know why they do what they do,” he said about he interviews his subjects. This approach is reflected in “Joe’s Big Idea” a special series that explores the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors.  

Science is about retrospective, Palca reminded the audience. Because scientific research is about looking ahead and a culmination of projects, it is only in retrospect that one can see accomplishments and achievements in scientific advancement.

Science communication is about connections

While some of Palca’s features might come across as “cute little stories,” he uses this playfulness to develop personal connections between his subject and audience.  He shows how one discipline could have application in another. Lehrman points to a recent piece Palca produced called ‘Why Ants Handle Traffic Better Than You Do,’ a quirky story that really examines how a finding in physics could hold relevance outside of the lab. By using scientific method to better understand everyday experience, Palca is able to transform a complex subject into something accessible to a broader audience.

Science communication is about spontaneity

Palca reveals how storyboarding, a journalistic practice of sequencing and planning shots ahead of time, is something he never does. “I just want to talk,” Palca said

Through the “just talking” approach, Palca finds the moving and compelling moments to put in his features. It is about finding those visceral, compelling moments. For example, in a story about genetic research (‘In Hopes Of Fixing Faulty Genes, One Scientist Starts With The Basics’), Palca opens with description of designated parking spots for Nobel laureates at UC Berkeley.

Getting people to listen to the high points of a story require a set up, Palca shared. For example, the setup of a parking allocation at a research university offered listeners a context for understanding what the working atmosphere is like.

Andrew Mathews, Acting Director of the Science and Justice Research Center comments, “Joe Palca helped us to think about how we might communicate the complexity of scientific practice to broader audiences and about what kinds of simplifications are necessary to achieve this goal. Interdisciplinarity is a long standing tradition at UCSC, and a particular goal of the Science and Justice Research Center, where we train graduate students to communicate across disciplines and to the general public.”

Between offering context, showing process, and making cross discipline connections, Palca is able to communicate the ideas and insights that science provides.

In conclusion, pay attention to the men and women behind the curtain.

Palca, received a Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Cruz in 1982 and in 2012 was the recipient of the Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award.

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