How to be Bob McDonald

Published April 11, 2012 by the Martlet

Bob McDonald outside the Solstice Cafe - Photo credit: Anna Gerrard

“I’m a dropout,” Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio’s science-focused Quirks & Quarks, admits over the background noise. He smiles proudly as he reclines against the wall of the Solstice Café. It’s early afternoon, and the busy coffee shop is full of clinking glasses, grinding coffee and quiet chatter. He’s explaining the two routes to take in order to get his job: go to school, or have an idea. He chose the latter, pitching his idea for a story — a NASA mission to Venus — to the Globe & Mail. That story started him on a new career path that would eventually earn him a future at the apex of Canadian science journalism.

“[The editor] never said, ‘What school did you go to, what are your grades,”’ he recalls, “because I went to him with an idea.”

Great ideas aren’t always rooted in far-off outer space, either. Interesting science can be found close to home. McDonald points to the NEPTUNE Project (NorthEast Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments Project), a UVic-led initiative to monitor the ocean floor.

“It’s unique in the world,” he says, “We should be proud of that.”

Instead, he says, mainstream media is ignoring an ongoing, local story in favour of a sensational one.

“[Recently], James Cameron got a lot of publicity for diving to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Well, yay, it was a great stunt, but he didn’t do any science down there. The science is being done by NEPTUNE, it’s all being done by robots,” says McDonald. “So it bothered me that Cameron got all this publicity, and people across Canada are going, ‘Wow, they’re exploring the bottom of the ocean,’ and most of them don’t know about the NEPTUNE Project.”

Fortunately, McDonald can discuss NEPTUNE and any other scientific advances that take his fancy on Quirks & Quarks. He may have used creativity and guts to find a place in science journalism, but he is not opposed to formal education. The other path to science journalism that he recommends is the traditional approach: go to school because, as he explains, “they will teach you the art of storytelling. That’s really what [science journalists] do. And they will show you the tricks of the trade.”

He advises young people who want to work, for example, for Quirks & Quarks, that they had better be ready to “hit the ground running,” and that includes knowledge of how the studio technology works. If McDonald isn’t strictly opposed to formal education, he is certainly skeptical of the way that it is administered; easy access to facts and data has yielded little in the way of knowledge development, he argues.

“I’m seeing a phenomenon that I’ve been witnessing for a few years among young people,” he says. “There’s a term called ‘information-rich, knowledge-poor.’ For example, if I’m asked to judge a science fair, I’ll see these great projects … and [the students] will be able to spit back what’s written on the board, or whatever they’ve got on their computer screen, but when I start asking them about the fundamentals behind that project, I find they don’t know. They don’t know the basics. The information is there, because you can get it now on your phone.”

People are “awash” in information, he claims, yet that information isn’t necessarily being translated into knowledge. But there is an answer.

To build knowledge, rather than just to find information, McDonald suggests getting back to basics.

“I think we need to get away from our computers, away from our radios and our televisions,” he says, “and we need to spend more time out there, walking in the woods, sticking your face in a river, jumping into the ocean, going someplace, and just looking at the world.”

There are consequences to this “information-rich, knowledge-poor” phenomenon besides the missed opportunities for understanding.

“Climate change deniers come out and say, ‘No, it’s not climate change. There’s a huge debate in the scientific community,’” he laments. “There is not a huge debate in the scientific community. There are people out there confusing the public, and if you don’t understand the fundamentals, you will get confused, and you might make a wrong decision.”

He adds, bluntly, “I’m worried about our ability to make intelligent decisions.”

This is where science journalists come in. They filter information, providing the background knowledge lacking in the public domain, clarifying what is science and what is belief.

“A science journalist has to stand on the truth,” McDonald explains. “The facts don’t lie, and the truth doesn’t let you down. If you have someone who says, ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’ or ‘I don’t believe in Darwin,’ — well, who [cares] what you believe? You have your belief, I’ve got my scientific facts, and I will stand on those facts … Science is simply trying to understand how the universe works, not why.”

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