I'm a data scientist working at the intersection of technology and design. Reformed astrophysicist & former e-Research/data consultant.

convergence science network

Earlier this I attended the Convergence Science Network's May Event – Trust in the TIme of Skepticism. This was hands down my favourite @ConverSci event yet.  A visual feast of science communication and storytelling by Emmy Award winning and four-time winner of the Eureka Award for Science Journalism, Sonya Pemberton. Needless to say it was a packed house and it was fantastic. If you haven't yet discovered GENE(POOL) Productions  check out their 2016 showreel. An incredibly impressive and talented team of film makers. 

Based in Melbourne Australia, Genepool Productions specialises in creating quality science documentaries for international audiences. Sonya Pemberton, 2012 Emmy award winner and record breaking four-time winner of the prestigious Eureka Award for Science Journalism, leads the company. 

Sonya began by talking about her own experiences from film making, the processes of finding a compelling story that's also newsworthy, the challenges along the way, both logistical and financial and often political and scientific intricacies of pos-production and final release. What I found most interesting was the pre-screening feedback and review process. This is far more involved and important process than you might think and it can have a significant impact on final editing and subsequently the essence of a film. The event gave us a fantastic insight into how controversial science is communicated and the effect is has on communities. 

Convergence Science Network event - Trust in the time of Skepticism.  Sonya Pemberton, Emmy Award  (bottom left) winning science communicatory and documentarian.  Creative Director of GENE(POOL) Productions


Some things I learned from her talk: 

  • The average lifespan of a film is 10 years, after which time the sciences becomes outdated.
  • How we move beyond preaching to the choir is a challenge. Engaging with the well-educated yet undecided is a good strategy. Regardless of their position, this audience is likely to see your film and engage in lively debate.
  • Pre-screenings are  incredibly important for gauging audience reaction and for helping to maintain an unbiased view.
  • Acknowledging uncertainty makes you are more credible journalist. You need to question what you think you know.
  • More information is not the key to changing perspectives. It only hardens people's position.
  • Complicated terminology and jargon acts like a brick wall. 
  • In making the Jabbed – Love, Fear, and Vaccines, those against vaccines fell into three general categories; the skeptics, the hesitant, and those fervently against vaccines. Surprisingly, different communities and countries fear vaccine use for very different reasons. Americans are primarily fearful about suspected links to autism.  
  • Nuances are different in different countries, as are the forums for discussion debate. For example PBS Nova, the long-running, award-winning documentary series (inspired by the BBC documentary program Horizons) is pro-science. Often issues may arise during the pre-screening and editing process that will affect release agreements.
  • Highlighting anecdotal evidence throughout history can break down barriers and initiate dialogue with anti-vaxers. For example, in India the notion of popular resistance to smallpox was practised, via inoculation, by the Brahmans over 100 years ago.
  • Caching Cancer played on audience fear, mystery and controversy. These are some of the elements that make such documentaries compelling. It's also the most illegally downloaded show in the history of PBS Nova. 
  • Harry Panagiotidis, Genepool's Associate Producer and Director of Photography, is utterly brilliant.. 

Sonja's five "take homes" for science communicators

  1. Embrace complexity
  2. Acknowledge uncertainty
  3. Check for bias especially your own
  4. Try and discover the gist or essence to the story
  5. Be useful, the public needs clarity and care; stories and sources and science that can be trusted.

Bonus take home:

How do you keep politics out of the science? This can be tricky. 
Focus on the science. What is the story? What do we know? What don't we know?

cocktail reception 

Following the event I attended the cocktail reception at University House. I have Prof. Sally McArthur to thank for this opportunity. Sally is actively involved in the Convergence Science Network as the partner representative for Swinburne University of Technology and has invited me to several of these soirees. Representing Swinburne were Samara Neilson from Swinburne Research and Dr. Alan Duffy from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet researchers from other universities, and to meet Sonja and Harry and to hear some very entertaining behind the scenes tales. Of course the food and wine was lovely too. A thoroughly good night.









OzGrav Centre of Excellence presentation finished.

OzGrav Centre of Excellence - Mock Interview