Zurawski makes science a public conversation

Science journalist Richard Zurawski stresses the importance of science in the media.

By Grace Kennedy

Zurawski on the Science Files
Richard Zurawski broadcasting the Science Files on March 10 with Rick Howe. (Grace Kennedy/Peninsula News)

Richard Zurawski, Skype open on his laptop and headphones on, settles in for an hour of banter and science at Monday’s Rick Howe Show for the Science Files.

Waiting while Howe introduces the hour and who he calls “our science brainiac,” Zurawski types to fellow science journalist Minako Takizawa. Then the show begins. Howe and Zurawksi exchange morning pleasantries, and delve into the weather.

The topics on the March 10 show ranged from bitcoins and unearthed microbes to water heaters and daylight savings, some brought up by Howe, others from callers in.

The questions he answers are “dirt simple,” he says – why the sky is blue, why bubble gum doesn’t stick to teeth, how a mirror works, the age of the universe and how we can be sure – but they represent an avenue for science education that Zurawski thinks is missing in the media.

The process of Zurawski’s career

A radio personality, speaker, author, meteorologist, science expert for the Rogers radio network, and documentary producer, Zurawski seems thoroughly embedded in the world of science communication. How he came to that spot, however, he sums up as “serendipity.”

“Somebody just said, ‘Would you like to do this on television?’ and I thought, no. I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be a weather boy on television. And then they paid me a lot of money, and I thought, ‘oh OK,’” he says.

From here, hired at the CBET-TV in Windsor, Ont., as the chief meteorologist and science specialist in 1981, he continued to work in television for 14 years before moving to radio.

“Once I was there, I thought, ‘how boring to just talk about weather systems in such a mundane way when the entire body of science is there to be talked about.’ So I started doing science stories.”

He has been both a meteorologist and science journalist at CBET-TV, ATV Halifax, and Rogers Radio Maritimes. It is with Rogers that Zurawski has done his work on the Science Files, first on Maritime Morning with Jodi Morgan, then on the Rick Howe show after nationwide Rogers layoffs in November. Science Files is also broadcast as a bimonthly segment on Kitchener-Waterloo Rogers station.

Interesting Science

“I don’t make science interesting. Science is what it is.”

This is how Zurawski answers questions on the Science Files. Although he says that in order to get people interested in the program they require a “shtick” – in this case, the interaction of Zurawski and Howe’s personalities – he doesn’t make the science more than it is.

He says that the questions he receives on the Science Files are often the things people learned in high school and have forgotten. Most of them, he says, can be found on Google, but the process of dialogue and interaction that people are looking for when they call in.

“It’s not about the answer,” he says. “What I’m trying to talk about is that it’s a process of dialogue and I learn something out of it. Somebody’s question will tweak something else, like why did they ask the question? Why is it of interest, how did it happen? You find that science intrudes everywhere.”

These sorts of questions prompted Zurawski’s rejoining of academia, with his masters of arts degree in research, where he studied “how people learn, and what works for them and what doesn’t work for them as far as information goes.” Zurawski is currently working on his PhD in the same field.

His thesis for his masters degree – how television represents science – formed the basis for his third book, Media Mediocrity – The Media War Against Science … How Television makes you Stoopid!.

This book sums up Zurawski’s criticism of traditional journalism: that the media have “been waging a relentless campaign against science with a deluge of false facts, distorted information and editorial opinions.”

Science in the media

Most science journalism, according to Zurawski, is “flash over substance.” This contributes to what Zurawski sees as the anti-science bias prominent in North America.

“The media has to recognize that the bottom line isn’t ratings, that the bottom line should be veracity, truth, and the correct skewing of information so that you’re not pandering to biases and big business.”

This “correct skewing,” he says, has to make sure that the science in the media is right in the scientific sense. Controversies about climate change and evolution, as well as anti-vaccination and tobacco lobbies should have no place in the media.

Essentially, “the educational systems have to infiltrate communications PR and the media.”

To do this, Zurawski advocates for science journalists to have a background in post-secondary science.

“I met five women, sort of a clutch of Asian women at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki back in June of 2013,” he says, “and (Takizawa) was the least educated of all of them. She only had a Masters of astrophysics.

“All the other four – and these were Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Korean women – all had PhDs in the hard core sciences. And they were all journalists. And most of the people I met from the UK and from Europe were Masters and PhDs in science and deeply interested. Nobody from North America had any background at all.”

This claim is perhaps hyperbolic; according to the 2013 Global Science Journalism Report, 26 per cent of science journalists have a university degree with a specialist science journalism training and 31 per cent have either a masters or doctorate degree, though the report doesn’t specify in what area. As well, PhDs are more common in Europe and in North America than they are elsewhere.

Although Zurawski says that “there are lots of educational PhD’s out there” – David Suzuki from The Nature of Things and Jay Ingram from Daily Planet – he notes that “even the CBC chooses not to go to them.” Bob McDonald, host of Quirks and Quarks, who Zurawski describes at CBC’s “go-to person,” does not have any post-secondary education in science, although he has received several honorary science degrees.

According to Zurawski, in order for science to thrive it needs the accuracy and dialogue of people who understand both the media and the scientific method.

“Since I’ve been straddling media and science – it’s been a dual tract for me for such a long time – I have a visceral understanding of both,” he says.

“I can speak to scientists and understand what they do, and I’m a working scientist – I’m in the middle of research doing a doctorate in a scientific pursuit. So I understand the rigour, and I also understand the need for conversation and the need for dialogue.”