Dan Riskin, co-host of the The Daily Planet aired daily on Discovery Channel Canada, host of the popular documentary Monster Inside Me, and author of Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You, was invited to UTM before Reading Week by the biology department to give a workshop on communication and professional development in life sciences. The workshop was geared towards students in “BioPath”, a two-year professional development program directed by the department.
During his academic research on the biomechanics of bats, first for his master’s at York and then his PhD at Cornell, Riskin was pulled into the TV world after a sudden phone call.
“I was sitting in my basement when the phone rang,” he said. “A production company was doing a show about evolution called Evolve for the History Channel and they needed ‘an evolutionary biologist who is not an old man’. They’d gotten my name from someone who had seen me give talks at conferences.”
Riskin spoke about his approach to portraying science on TV and how it differs from expression in the scientific community. “In scientific conferences, almost everyone in attendance is playing a game called ‘How can what that person’s saying be wrong?’ and if they find a flaw, they will stand up at the end of your talk and announce it to everyone in the form of a question,” he said. “That’s not the case on TV. […] There is much less scrutiny. Besides, your fellow scientists most likely don’t watch TV.”
The public success of scientists such as American astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author Neil deGrasse Tyson of NOVA ScienceNow and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey derives from the passion and curiosity they project, said Riskin, who calls it “role-modelling curiosity”.
“If you make people grossed out and intrigued, they are more likely to ask questions that they wouldn’t have asked otherwise,” he said.
He also emphasized the point that science is a “process and not a body of knowledge”. The public and scientific community alike care more about the yet unexplainable and the incomplete.
Much of the workshop was dedicated to language. The scientist, said Riskin, wants to solemnly and accurately inform, and the host wants to entertain. “You should radiate as much energy at the start of your talk as the end; there should be no waiting for the punchline, otherwise you just lost 5,000 viewers.”
This was one of four golden rules Riskin listed as the ideal way to go through interviews for scientists and non-scientists alike: “You should smile early on, lean in, start with high energy, and be excessively passionate.” According to him, the language level should be at Grade 8. “They are bright, but they don’t know the scientific jargon,” he said. “Give them concepts.”
Riskin also asked why we should publicize science through TV in the first place.
“Publicizing science has two purposes: get kids interested, and make voters appreciate science and scientists,” he said. “This makes them less likely to elect anti-science governments. […] Television is an effective way to reach people outside the ivory tower.”
Riskin also shared his adventures stalking sucker-footed bats in Madagascar. He talked about the procedures behind his most influential published paper yet, which involved putting a vampire bat on a treadmill and making it run. This led to the discovery of a previously unrecorded gait that the bat uses to chase its fidgety prey.
When Riskin leaned back in his chair and wildly thrashed his limbs to mimic the bat’s gait, I immediately agreed with Craig Ferguson, ex-host of The Late Late Show, on which the scientist appeared more than six times, that Riskin is perhaps “the sexiest evolutionary biologist I know”.