Nonscience Returns: You can get away with anything on TV
2 Nov 2020
Biologist and broadcaster Professor Brian J Ford’s satire on science has just been updated as Nonscience Returns. Here he offers light-hearted advice to scientists about to appear on television.
Have you been on television? You may well do so—these days the broadcast media are always keen to find new spokespersons from the scientific world. Be ready for it, and remember these useful rules.
Studios are spacious so there’s plenty of room for social distancing. Your chair may be lower than the interviewer’s since they like to look down at you. Smile and beam affably at the camera (the one with the red light). Sit up straight, because it conveys authority. It is fashionable to start by saying: ‘Thank you for having me on your programme.’ This is ridiculous—it isn’t the presenter’s programme anyway. They are just hired as the presenter. The programme is the producer’s baby, and it was the producer or their researcher who invited you. Presenters can’t do that. Indeed, they should be thanking you. After all, you have given up valuable time to appear. The reason producers ask you on their show is to benefit them—they haven’t invited you because it will help you. If the interview is online, make sure the background is free from interruptions and you’re properly set up. Last month someone was playing with Snap Camera enabled in Zoom, and couldn’t turn it off; she ended up addressing the whole meeting as a potato. If you do it at the lab have lots going on quietly in the background with plenty of twinkling LEDs.
Always start every sentence with the word ‘So …’ even when it has no grammatical significance. Have a couple of juicy stories to quote, and if you’re ever asked about an embarrassing example you don’t want to admit, just say ‘Obviously I cannot discuss individual cases.’ If you utter those magic words the questioning will stop. If asked to explain some controversial topic you know nothing about, start your answer with ‘Totally’ then explain that, since this is outside your area of expertise, you cannot possibly comment. Never say you have ‘been in contact with’ somebody; always say you have ‘reached out to’ them instead. Don’t say ‘from the start’, it should be ‘from the get-go’; rather than ‘twice’, always say ‘two times’. Any success must be ‘awesome’ and, rather than being gratifying, it should ‘blow you away’. Never say what you’re planning to do ‘in the future’, it must be ‘moving ahead’ instead. This is trendy talk that you need to embrace.
Don’t pay attention to the questions, since they will always be inane. Because interviewers don’t know about science, they’ll accept anything you say. Instead, memorise a few great statements or anecdotes that emphasise the crucial nature of your work (this will be important when the next round of grants comes up for grabs) and include them. When a new project is raised, or someone asks about a novel technique you’ve devised, make sure you describe it as ‘world-beating’. If you are being asked to explain a serious problem about which nothing constructive is actually being done, always say: ‘We are working to find a solution day and night,’ or ’we are labouring round the clock (or twenty-four seven) to find an answer’. Interviewers are always happy with that, so you can go home and relax with a coffee.
If they contact you for a follow-up interview, have them told to call back later as you are busy. Obviously you are, if it’s a big problem. Should you be asked why some specific measure hasn’t been taken, it is best not to admit that you can’t be bothered to do it. Just reply that you cannot because of Health and Safety, and that ends the matter. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was brought in to make sure that people didn’t take unnecessary risks, and not to interfere with everyday activities or traditional pastimes. But the public don’t realise that. Remember, if you utter the words ‘Health and Safety’, you can get away with any nonsense you like. These are the three most hated words in the English language, but they save your skin whenever something controversial comes along.
The questioning of ordinary people, like politicians, is often so aggressive that they cannot say a complete sentence before the interviewer cuts across them with an interruption. As a result, Boris Johnson, even before he became Prime Minister, refused to appear on the BBC’s Today programme. Many other politicians have the same attitude. If you are appearing as a scientist, you can get away with anything. You can say whatever you want, you will be allowed to finish every sentence (unlike politicians), you can easily evade every difficult question (which politicians do all the time, but nobody will realise when you’re doing it), and people won’t ever doubt your motives. Interviewers are such an ignorant and uneducated lot that being on a programme offers an open microphone for you to say anything you like.
Then, at the end, always say again: ‘Thank you so much for having me on your programme,’ and give a smile at the camera to claim the loyalty of the viewer. But remember, don’t talk casually to people when you have a microphone clipped to your clothes or someone will put the recording out on social media. Don’t walk into the lavatory with a live microphone, and do make sure it is unplugged before you walk away. If the interview was online do make sure that you have closed it down properly. Everyone will see what you’re doing; it could be something embarrassing (I won’t list examples, though one recent case involved a distinct deficiency of underwear).
I was going to say: ‘Good luck,’ but you won’t need it. Remember those rules and you’re home and dry.
Pick up the next edition of Lab News this November and check out Science Allsorts for the opportunity to win the a signed copy of the updated book, Nonscience Returns.
Author: Professor Brian J Ford is an independent research biologist, author, and lecturer, who publishes on scientific issues for the general public.