Radio Freethinker

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Mind the Gap: Problems in Public Communication of Science

Posted by Jenna Capyk on September 19, 2011

Navigate to the homepage of any major news provider and you’re likely to see a tab for a science and technology news section on the site. At first glance, this might seem like great news for the public and scientists alike: current research science is being reported to the public! The general population has access to knowledge about the outcomes of publicly funded research! You can find info on your friendly neighbourhood scientist from the same place you get the rest of your news! The problem? Often times the reported findings and actual findings are as different as Nonna’s fettuccini Alfredo and mac ‘n cheese from a box. What’s really going on in mainstream science reporting? Is there a gap in scientific communication? What exactly gets lost in translation? Do we now have the putty (or the two-by-fours) to fill that gap?

Lets first establish that there are some fundamental differences between “scientific communication” and “public communication”. These tend to be strictly segregated in different venues with scientific communication happening in peer-reviewed journals, scientific meetings, scientific reports, etc. and public communication occurring in more publicly accessible venues. It’s worth noting, however, that you don’t need a member card to access the scientific venues; they are formally open to consumption by everyone. The accessibility of scientific communication is restricted by the communication style rather than by rules. As discussed earlier when we were talking about scientific jargon, the dense, precise, and technical nature of classical scientific communication renders it virtually indigestible to the general public, thus limiting access to the information.

The different venues and styles of public and scientific communication can become problematic for the public feeling as though they have access to what should be public information. As an example case, a BC government scientist, Kristi Miller, was recently in the news quite a bit for allegedly be “muzzled” by the government. Allegations in the press outlined that she was being prevented from publicly sharing her scientific findings because they were against the interests of current government policy making. The scientist herself was unable to contribute to the public media discussions about her until recently. According to her, however, there was no muzzle involved. Although she had been asked not to speak to the pres, she assserted that she had not been prevented from publically publishing her work in a scientific journal. She states that she had been asked not to speak to public press to reserve her comments for the Cohen Commission, a public and official channel to investigate practices and consequences associated with salmon farming. The bottom line is, the information from both the commission and the journal is publicly available but not open to the same types of “I sort of understand it” interpretation and sensationalization that science so often suffers on the evening news. The “muzzle” the government had been employing was to restrict dissemination of the scientists’ findings to venues for scientific rather than public communication. This is type of situation, however, is highly symptomatic of the scientific information gap, where the preferred communication venues of science providers and news consumers are decidedly different.

Some people might cry out that this reeks of elitism or a mistrust of those outside of the scientific community to understand science on a basic level. Surely it’s better to ask the general media to disseminate scientific information to a broader audience? In a world of no misunderstandings and without the need for eye-catching headlines, I would completely agree with this last statement. In our world, however, sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the mainstream media has a habit of reinterpreting scientific data to fit the story of the day. I would like to stress that this is not done, most of the time, with any nefarious intent, and probably often without the knowledge of the reporter who’s twisting the data. What I’m trying to say is that over-interpretation of data is very very easy, and so is slightly misinterpreting data. Scientists get this wrong too, but are constantly being reminded to only draw conclusions supported by the data. Reporters and editors without a scientific background, however, have myriad factors stacked up against staying within these very limited boundaries. In this way, the different training and conventions inherent in science and journalism can create basic misunderstandings in the way data is interpreted and presented.

To illustrate this point, lets look at a case where the press got it wrong. As many of you know, London, England, was recently rocked by a series of riots during which extensive damage was done to businesses and other property in the city. As we experienced after our own hockey-precipitated riot here in Vancouver, people start looking for the “why” after an occurrence like this. Thanks to on-the-fly journalistic interpretation of some recent science, many publications in Britain, and indeed around the world, found and reported a potential “why” purportedly backed up by solid science. The problem? The scientists don’t agree.

The real paper, from a group of scientists at Cardiff University, established a correlation (read correlation, not causation) between the neurotransmitter GABA and a certain type of impulsive personality. Basically they found that people who exhibited more rash impulsivity also had lower levels of GABA in their frontal lobes. After this interesting finding, the scientists wrote up the paper, and as was encouraged by their university, issued a press release. This is where things went south. Before long, the press was reporting stories with titles like: “Brain chemical lack “spurs rioting””. The “spurs rioting” is in quotation marks, insinuating that this conclusion was drawn by the scientists. Further, some members of the press actually invented a nasal spray to cure the deficiency, claiming a cure for rioting could be just around the corner based on this finding. Obviously this constitutes a major misappropriation, of the scientific data. Basically it is an example of horrible translation from the science to the public, leading to a sensational and false idea of the research. I also have some personal experience in this area as I was once interviewed for some research I was presenting in a scientific conference. I gave the interview, stating what we had found and its general relevance to the area of tuberculosis research. I would like to stress that I made no claims whatsoever about any cure for TB in the works. The evening news, however, had different ideas and painted me as a TB-curing researcher which I certainly am not.

In a Guardian article titled “Riot control: How can we stop newspapers distorting science?” some of the scientists involved in the research expressed their concerns about what had happened and asked some pretty important questions:

1) Why does the public lap up research like this (by which I assume they mean research linking chemicals and behaviour) and why is it so readily misunderstood?

2) How much damage is really done when science is distorted in the press?

3) What can we do, as a community including both scientific professionals and members of the press, to prevent this type of misinformation spread from happening?

Before discussing some of their views, and mine, on the answers to some of these questions, I’d like to point out that these specific questions are indicative of the fear the scientific community can hold of popular press. Many, including myself in some instances, would argue this fear is well warranted in the current journalistic climate, as evidenced by stories like this one. This is not to say that I think scientists should hunker down in the holes of their official communication channels, but rather that changes are needed throughout the communication network to create an environment where freedom of information is not hampered by fear of misinterpretation.

As far as the first question posed in this article, about why people are so interested in and so bad at understanding this type of research, lots of speculation can be made. This type of research is about how we, humans, tick. I don’t think it’s much of a surprise to anyone that we humans like to learn about ourselves. In any case, research linking brain chemicals to behaviour seems to be especially intriguing to people as, when misinterpreted, it seems to provide many of the same excuses as the idea of fate: we are not responsible for our actions. The chemicals made me do it. Problematically, chemicals make us do everything, and are also consequences of everything we do. Our bodies are bags of chemistry and to a brain chemical scientist, separating the “self” from the chemicals is a lot harder than for much of the public who may be more prone to see the “self” influenced by chemicals, rather than the chemicals being completely integrated into the biological (and mental and arguably spiritual) self. Although endlessly fascinating, this is obviously not the only kind of research that it is important for people to get accurate information about. Each discovery, in any scientific field, can be dangerous if misunderstood.

The second question may be the most important for this discussion: what types of damage are done when science is reported poorly? The Cardiff scientists behind this Guardian article posit that there are basically three things that can happen if science is misreported in the press. Firstly, people have the option to not believe the article and mistrust the reporting: that is they are skeptical of the article because they think the press got the science wrong. If the article really is misrepresenting the science, this is the objectively correct response. Unfortunately, according to the scientists in this article, this response was almost completely absent in the comments and blogs on articles misquoting their science; most people didn’t read it and say “the press got this wrong,” but rather responded in one of the two other ways.

A second way people respond is by believing the story, and spreading it. This is how stories of riot-curing nasal sprays made their way all the way around the globe. Obviously this causes harm to the public, depending on the severity of the mistake. I’m not sure we really have to go into why having the wrong information is a bad thing. I think everyone can pretty much think of their own examples here.

The third response is possibly the most dangerous. This is to not believe the article, but do so because you don’t believe the science or the researchers. Unfortunately, according to these authors, this is a very common response. This type of reaction is “why are scientists wasting public money studying this? They always say they’re going to cure something but they never do. This sound like bull-s$*!” When this happens, inaccurate reporting breaks down the confidence the public has in scientists, broadening the gap between scientific research and public knowledge. This is incredibly important and incredibly damaging. The reason that we have scientists and do spend public money on scientific research is to provide vital, dependable knowledge for public safety, etc. It’s when the trust in science breaks down that people ignor scientific research in areas such the realities of climate change, or the benefits of vaccines. Basically, when the public distrusts the scientific community about one issue, even when the misinformation didn’t originate from the science, they will distrust scientists on other issues as well.

Why does this happen? People from the different camps of scientists and journalists (which are for the most part, unfortunately, rather separate camps) can go back and fourth about who is to blame for this situation. For example, this Guardian article I’ve been talking about demonizes the press a bit, saying that scientists have to accept the realities that original sources are often being neglected in favour of simply repackaging press releases. This point has some merit, and I know I’ve heard Rebecca Watson of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe discuss this point repeatedly. In a terrifying twist to such laziness, I recently saw an article in the New York Times detailing how computer programs are already being used as journalist substitutes to write articles appearing in print. Right now these are sports articles, but it’s not hard to imagine a damaging leap to science reporting.

These authors also say that some members of the press “play fast and hard with the truth, with little regard for the reputations of scientists and no regard at all for the public.” I myself am not convinced that all of the blame lies on the journalistic side of the spectrum, but rather that all parties are culpable for the outcomes of chronic miscommunication. The financial realities of the news industry result in strong motivations for eye-catching headlines, but I think scientists are remiss if they negate the effects of an opposing motivation of journalistic integrity. The truth of the matter is that where many journalists do not have the time, interest, or energy to fully understand the scientific matter their reporting, many scientists make this no easier by assuming that understanding is the job of the journalist. A communication is a partnership, and both sides need to understand each other for effective information transfer to take place.

The misunderstood GABA authors also stress this point saying that engagement of scientists with the press is necessary, suggesting a couple of solutions. For example, they suggest that scientists are happily available for quick fact checking, and that info should be okayed with the scientists themselves before publication. I would contend that with so many media sources, this is probably an impractical solution. They also suggest more interaction between scientists and the press to foster an understanding of basic scientific methodology, such as hypothesis testing, uncertainty, and the vital difference between correlation and causation.

Personally, I would take this a bit further and suggest that having scientists engage with the press is a good idea, but not nearly enough. I would posit that it’s important to incorporate scientists as members of the press in a more widespread capacity, and that this could help effectively translate accurate interpretations of data into publicly digestible forms. Even further than this, instead of fostering understanding of scientific practices in the press, we should have our sights set on fostering this type of understanding in the public. I think as skeptics we can all agree that providing better tools to interpret information is better than giving these tools only to those disseminating the information. As one wise Saturday morning cartoon put it: “Knowledge is Power” (thank you school house rock).

Obviously filling the scientific knowledge gap is a complicated problem needing much dedication on the part of the scientific community and some innovative solutions. I plan to go into these issues, including some of the views of my friend and fellow science-blogger Matthew Hartings, published in a recent issue of Nature Chemistry, in future segments and blog posts.

One Response to “Mind the Gap: Problems in Public Communication of Science”

  1. Ethan Clow said

    I think it’s far to lay some blame at the feet of journalists, or perhaps more accurately, their employers who want a sensationalist headline over nuance and accuracy. Having more scientists as journalists might make for some higher quality journalism, like what you see in newspapers like the New York Times or the Guardian. But I still think that would miss part of the problem that newspapers are a business, they need to sell papers and science isn’t selling anything. Science is a process and methodology, the key for people to properly understand science is to view as a methodology and not a result-driven enterprise.

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