Let’s help journalists to convey science

As scientists we have a responsibility to get our results out there, and this manifests itself in various forms. For the good of our careers and egos we publish in peer-reviewed journals, but arguably more important is the imperative to get the information out to the public who are paying for us to have such an awesome time doing science. How best to do this though?

Universities and research institutes encourage their research staff to participate in public engagement activities, and these are excellent in giving first hand experience of science -and scientists- to the public. Public enthusiasm for the activities of scientists is improved, the scientists get a nice warm glow, and the funding bodies can tick some important boxes. But when it comes to the dissemination of the results of science which are pertinent to how we live our lives- there is a bottle neck in the flow of information of science from scientists to the people whose lives it affects. There just aren’t enough scientists with enough time on their hands to address this through direct interaction with the public.

A particularly important example is the confusion surrounding precisely which foods are good for us, and which are bad for us (because, of course, all food fits neatly into one or the other group). I’m thinking in particular about the chemicals which are made by plants (because that’s what I spend a lot of time thinking about), and whether they’re good for us, or not, or both. There’s such a vast body of research in this area and rightly so because we’re talking about health and well-being here. So why are so many people confused about whether a diet of chocolate and red wine will protect them from cancer, or give them cardio-vascular disease, or both? Yes, journalists, I’m having a dig at you.

It’s not fair to put the blame at the feet of journalists. Despite the rantings of many science bloggers, the vast majority of health and science journalism is good, accurate and responsible. But mistakes and misinterpretations do creep in, and some journalists and newspaper editors are prone to trying to fit stories to their own world views. Is it fair to expect accurate unbiased reporting of science stories in the media? Journalists are under greater time and financial pressure, and are not often equipped with specialist scientific training.

We (scientists) could address this by engaging with journalists and equipping them with some of our analytical armoury. Rather than trying to pass on specialist knowledge of our subject, which would be next to useless to a journalist who is expected to report across all sciences, we should pass on elements of our ability to critically and objectively appraise data.

A journalist with an understanding of the basics of scientific method would be a dangerous beast indeed. Able to probe beyond the press release and asses for themselves the primary literature, seeing for themselves how many replicates you used, what P-value you obtained, and finding out the impact factor of the journal you published in (and being able to tell the difference between something that has been published in a peer reviewed journal, and something on a press release from a pressure group).

If you can get a journalist to understand one thing, let it be the nature of uncertainty in science. Most journalists understand that scientists are cautious and rigorous, and can’t tell you that your genetically modified banana absolutely, definitely, won’t kill you. What is often overlooked is the varying and different sources of this sort of uncertainty. Think about the difference in the uncertainty in the statements “The combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine probably does not cause autism” and “The Higgs boson probably confers mass upon matter”.  Most journalists seem not to appreciate the drastically different reasons for the appearance of the word ‘probably’ in these two sentences.

The major flux of information from scientists to the public is through the mainstream media. So if we want a better informed public, lets get to work and improve the fidelity and flux-control coefficients. Let’s give journalists an appreciation of the reasons why empiricism is the best route to truth- compared, for example, to deconstructionism (science may be a social construct, but its our social construct), or to plain old common sense. Let’s target them young and equip them with tools they can use to get to the truth behind any story, not just a science story.

Dr. Sam Mugford, John Innes Centre, UK

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