SPECIAL CASES: THE ADVERSARIAL INTERVIEW
- Think of possible, tough questions
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
- Case study: Animal research
Most of your interactions with the mass media and the public will be friendly, or at least civil. Still, it’s a common nightmare: you’re ambushed by “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace in his heyday, wanting to know where the money went or how your project is harming the public.
Facing an inquisition can definitely drive up your blood pressure, whether the questions come from a reporter during an interview or a 7th-grader during a school outreach visit. But as with interviewing in general, practice and preparation will give you the confidence and ready responses you need to field hostile questions like a pro.
Granted, if you unexpectedly find a camera in your face and a reporter yelling questions at you, you’ve got to think quickly. But in most cases, you’ll have some advance warning that the media, or other listeners, might be on your case.
For neuroscientists, a hot-button topic you should always be prepared to encounter is the use of animals in research. In the last decade, activist groups have challenged the value and ethics of medical research involving vertebrate animals – sometimes violently. While all researchers are subject to attack, those who work with non-human primates tend to draw the heaviest fire.
Animal extremists work against a backdrop of general public approval for animal medical research. But approval that is not as solid as scientists might prefer. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans told Gallup Poll in 2009 that they find medical testing on animals “morally acceptable" -- that's down from 62% on the same poll in 2003.
Public support for animal research is clearly not a slam-dunk. Scientists who talk with the media have the opportunity to educate the public on the value of this work.
The goal here is not to change the mind of a dedicated animal-research opponent - we know that's unrealistic. The goal is to help the average citizen understand both intellectually and emotionally why you think the pros of animal research outweigh the cons.
You may be giving a talk at a public venue and be asked about use of animals in your work. Or, for reasons unrelated to your research, your institution may draw protests from groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and you may have reporters calling you for comment. In any case, it's critical that you have an appropriate response ready to go!
A note on violence
This section assumes you're having an interview or conversation with someone who's interested in genuine dialogue, even if contentious. Some scientists, on the other hand, find themselves in situations where no dialogue is happening -- instead, they're being harassed, shouted down, or physically threatened.
In this case, your own safety and the security of your colleagues and lab are the number-one priority. Your first calls should be to campus security, law enforcement, and your institutional research office.
Preparing your message
Preparing for an adversarial interview or appearance is like preparing for any interview, but times 10. The same methods apply: analyzing the audience, thinking about the big picture, preparing pithy statements. But you’ll want to be extra-sure you’ve covered the bases.
As with many contentious issues, animal research draws a spectrum of viewpoints. There are people at both extremes: some who think that animal research is absolutely wrong and should never take place, and others who think use of animals should be unlimited and unconditional.
As you can imagine, most people fall in the middle. They may be uneasy with some parts of animal research, but support it when the benefits outweigh the negatives. Your job is to explain how the use of animals in your lab or institution maximizes the pros while minimizing the cons.
Frequently, animal research opponents bring up two basic points: (1) Scientists cause animals to suffer, and (2) animal use is not justified by any necessity -- scientific, moral, or otherwise. You need to have counterarguments prepared for both these assertions.
If your audience views an issue emotionally, you need the sinceritye of conviction when you respond to questions. This means there’s no one ideal canned answer to questions like those on animal research. You’ll need to do some reflecting and come up with the response that’s true for you.
Tips on preparing your messages
1. Do your homework to know the common questions
As attacks (verbal and otherwise) on biomedical researchers have increased, groups have rallied to promote public education and to support scientists who use animals.
These groups offer excellent resources for preparing your talking points before an interview. A half-hour spent reading through their materials will leave you feeling much better “briefed” for any encounter with the media. You will find information on the history of animal research, lists of frequently-asked questions (and answers), and lists of major research achievements that involved animals. A few suggested groups:
- Understanding Animal Research (has a timeline of biomedical research accomplishments using animals)
- Society for Neuroscience
- Foundation for Biomedical Research
- Americans for Medical Progress
- UCLA Pro-Test
- The American Physiological Society
- Speaking of Research
According to the Society for Neuroscience, commonly asked questions include the following:
- Is animal research really that necessary? Why can’t animal research be replaced by modeling and simulation?
- Why are so many animals used in research?
- Is there any oversight of researchers using animals?
- Don’t you care about the well-being of animals?
- Does your research cause pain?
- Do the animals come from shelters or from people’s homes?
You'll want to have answers prepared for these questions at any time, any place.
2. Point out common ground with your questioner
In general, you’re likely to get a more receptive response to your message if you point out areas where your views intersect with the audience’s. The audience cares about animals; chances are you do, too. You can connect by pointing this out:
“I agree with you that all creatures deserve humane treatment, and that animals should be used in research only when we can’t approach important topics in any other way.”
“I care about animals too, and I would not use them in research unless I felt they were being well treated and there was no other way to find a cure for this serious disease.”
3. Keep your focus on the “big picture”
Remember your “big picture” messages we talked about earlier? These are your common-language explanations of what your research is trying to achieve. No matter how technically minute your work is, if you’ve received funding you’ve had to show a review board somewhere how it contributes to the public good.
What you need to do here is state that public good in terms so the public “gets” its value not just intellectually, but at gut level. If you’re defending use of animals, you use the big picture not just of your own work, but of medical science overall to state your case, using examples of treatments we now take for granted that exist only due to animal work.
“I realize that many people have concerns about using animals in research, and I respect that. But let’s talk for a minute about all the treatments we have available that we owe to animal research.”
4. Don’t be afraid to meet emotion with emotion
One thing that differs about some adversarial questions compared with most interview questions is their emotional content. This is certainly true about most questions that deal with animal research.
While scientists tend toward logical answers and explanations, these may not adequately address the emotional context of questioner. They can make you sound evasive or insensitive. Thus, it’s essential that you come up with a response that comfortable for you, but also addresses the questioner’s emotions.
For example, if you’re asked about the pain or discomfort that mice could feel in an experiment – for example, injections – you could explain that your experiments are designed to minimize the animals’ discomfort, or that your work has been approved by your institutional IACUC.
This might be a great intellectual answer, but it might not address the emotional content of the interviewer’s question. So you could also respond at a similar level:
“Alcoholism is a horrible disease. It takes promising individuals and destroys their lives. It tears apart families and kills innocent people who happen to be driving their cars at the wrong time. It would be wonderful if we could do our research without mice, but that is the only way we can answer important questions about behavior.”
If you have a personal anecdote or story that demonstrates the importance of research, and you are comfortable sharing it, this can be a powerful tool for connecting with the audience.
“A friend’s 7-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia last year. He received a bone-marrow transplant and is still alive today. The surgery he had was developed with research on animals. Without it, he wouldn’t have survived. How would you feel if that were your child, or your niece or nephew or grandkid? Would you want that treatment to be available?”
This is a place where the “intensity” part of “relaxed intensity” really comes into play. Don’t hesitate to use some emotional force to counter a question! We’re not talking about losing your temper or getting out of control. But the debate on these issues is central not only to your career, but to science and medicine as well. If you’re passionate about it, let it show!
5. Pay attention to language
The term “animal model” may be stock-in-trade among research scientists, but it will draw a blank look from the general public. The same goes for terms such as “cell line” and “culture.” “Vertebrate,” “invertebrate,” and “primate” are a little less obscure, but still ill-advised for a lay audience.
Using scientific terminology will at best confuse your listener, and at worst convince them that you are trying to distance yourself from the subject.
Bring the discussion into everyday language. If your audience is thinking in terms of cute fuzzy mice or human-like monkeys, talk about mice and monkeys. It will help you communicate more effectively, and will let your audience know you can reach outside the ivory tower.
If you do want to use the term “animal model” and are willing to explain it, use it as an educational moment and establish your expertise. Explain the rationale for scientists using animals, and the thinking that goes behind decisions on experimental design.
All-purpose tips for adversarial situations
During the interview, don't be afraid to say, "Your premise is wrong" or "I disagree with the premise of your question." Again, think offensively, not defensively. Get your information and expertise out there by being confident and forceful.
If you see the conversation heading in a direction where you anticipate a challenge from the interviewer, and you're comfortable being "pre-emptive," you can jump in and grab the bull by the horns. Just make sure you can back up your messages.
But it goes without saying that not being truthful will come back to haunt you. There may be information you're not at liberty to divulge and you may not want to offer it anyway, but be forthright and truthful. And don't leave the wrong impression with anything you say.
And whatever you do, never, ever say "No comment." There's always something you CAN say.
The preparation that's essential for any interview or public appearance is extra-critical if you anticipate an adversarial interaction.
Prepare and rehearse. Prepare and rehearse. Practice your "lines" over and over until you can call them up and deliver them without hesitation. It's like taking a CPR refresher course: you hope you'll never need it. But if you do, you'll be very glad you had it.