Scientists And The Media: Flight Behavior?

At my childhood home in northern Michigan over the Christmas holidays, I curled up by our fireplace, watched the snow fall on the forest beyond our yard, and picked up a new book: “Flight Behavior,” by Barbara Kingsolver.  I had heard a little bit about the plot and the author in an interview on NPR.  It turns out Kingsolver, while being a critically acclaimed writer of award-winning fiction like the “Poisonwood Bible,” is also an environmentalist who lives off the land, and she trained as a scientist. She completed a Master’s in ecology at the University of Arizona and went most of the way through a PhD program before deciding she wanted to reach a broader audience than her thesis could. Perhaps as a result, “Flight Behavior,” though a work of fiction, has garnered praise  for its scientific accuracy and also sheds some light on the complicated interface between science and the media.

The plot features a scenario, terrifying in its plausibility (spoiler alert): The largest population of nesting Monarch butterflies migrates several hundred miles past its normal roosting ground in Mexico to settle for the winter in the forested back lot of an Appalachian farm.  The event causes quite a stir in the local community and a splash in the local media ­­– visitors come from near and far to see the hundreds of thousands of swirling butterflies illuminating the trees. But the excited visitors and media fail to grasp the full significance of the butterflies’ presence: When winter comes, the entire species could be lost.  But how could they know? No one was there to help them connect the dots.

Monarchs in their real roosting site in Mexico.  Photo courtesy of jndaycoulter via Flickr.

Monarchs in their real roosting site in Mexico.
Photo courtesy of jndaycoulter via Flickr.

The book’s title, “Flight Behavior,” reveals as much about the people as the butterflies. All of the characters seem to be running from something.  The farm is owned by the family of Dellarobia, a poor but spirited woman trapped in a fate she can’t accept (in fact, she discovers the butterflies while attempting to run away from home). Even visiting entomologist, Dr. Ovid Byron, who sets up a trailer near Dellarobia’s sheep pasture and an impromptu laboratory in her barn, is running from the reality of his results.  He could be witnessing the genetic apocalypse of his favorite species. He’s scared of all of the uncertainty and the list of unanswerable questions that arise while performing science under a looming deadline. And, he’s REALLY scared of the media.

After successfully avoiding reporters until the start of winter, Dellarobia brings a woman and her cameraman to talk to Dr. Byron in his barn lab. He hides, he dodges, he shoves the responsibility on Dellarobia, but the reporter begins to make the space “camera ready”– moving around little foils of butterfly wings and wiping off messes – and he’s cornered. She begins to ask ‘leading’ questions… to try to tell the story that she sees happening: “Dr. Byron, you’re one of the world’s leading experts on the monarch butterfly, so we’re looking to you for answers about this beautiful phenomenon.” She asks, “I understand these butterflies often flock together in Mexico for the winter. So tell me, in a nutshell, what brings them here?”

Something in Byron snaps… he offloads on the reporter a rant so epic – spewing information that he’s held bottled up for months, tearing into the reporter for not accepting the reality of climate change – that his response almost seems mean-spirited. A bystander clicks on their phone, records it, and posts it to YouTube.

Whoa. This could have been handled so much better!! Unfortunately, accompanying Ms. Kingsolver’s attention to scientific detail is the all-too-often accurate depiction of how many scientists feel about the media. Sadly, also, is the truth in the reporter’s character: Some reporters still maintain an insular focus on the story at hand, or story that’s comfortable, or that sells. Fortunately there are exceptions to both. Scientists who’ve ventured into the fray can attest that if Dr. Byron had shared his insight from the beginning, reaching out to instead of avoiding the media, he may not have felt backed up against a wall for answers as butterflies were falling out of the trees from the cold. This idea permeates throughout COMPASS communications trainings. If Dr. Byron had managed his message – that the butterflies’ presence was a sign of distress, not beauty – from the start, the whole story might have gone differently, and proved a learning opportunity.

The fact is, talking to the media can be scary – there’s a lot of pressure that comes with being an expert – but isn’t it better for people to know the truth, than to be kept in the dark?

About Meghan Miner

Meghan was a Science Outreach Specialist at COMPASS.

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