Sunday 16 May 2010

Science in the News

A Blog Entry by Tulpesh Patel

The relationship between science and the media is a complicated one. The former is concerned with communicating evidence-based knowledge, the latter with providing 'infotainment' to the public. There is the worrying perception, especially among those working in science fields, that science reporting in the media is doing more harm than good; deliberate dumbing down and endless stories that have been misreported, misrepresented, or that over-played the significance of research findings. There's the MMR-vaccine-causing–autism scare, wonder cures for cancer which turn into nightmarish causes of cancer the next week, the Hadron Collider bringing about the End Times and Facebook causing syphilis, to name a few off the top of my head.

It's easy to lump journalists together in one group and demonise them as scoundrels who deliberately go out of their way to sensationalise every news story, so I was looking forward to hearing the other side of the story from David Gregory, the BBC Midlands science and environment correspondent, who was invited as guest speaker for the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub meeting. David was refreshingly candid about the inner workings of television and was keen to stress its quick-fire and superficial nature. He did his best to reassure us that most journalists do their upmost to present accurate and objective stories, but whilst scientists and journalists could do a better job of communicating science, it's nearly impossible to say anything of note in the two minutes and 100 words afforded to science coverage on the evening news.

A running thread through the discussion was that the media just gives the public what they want: something that grabs their attention, that they feel is directly relevant to them, and, apparently most importantly, nothing too complicated. As a scientist I find it hard not to be disheartened by this pervasive idea that the general public are too dumb or disinterested to engage with science stories – it always is hard to see how other people aren't interested when you really are!

In an environment where editors and the audience want to know whether it's worth paying attention to the story within five seconds, attention-grabbing sound-bites are what it's all about. There is a fine line between making a story accessible and losing the science amongst the wackiness, but if the story doesn't have an eye-catching hook (or if the presenter's clothes or hair are too eye-catching), there is little chance of the scientific message being communicated.

The task for scientists is to perform sound research, report findings and share opinions with due care, accuracy and diligence. For the journalist it is to engage the public with exciting, but easily digestible, science stories; it is obviously not the responsibility of the media to explain the intricacies of every science story. Within science there is the expectation that the media should reflect the scientific concern for the provisional nature of knowledge; nothing is ever set in stone, progress and facts are achieved incrementally and only very rarely through the 'scientific breakthroughs' we often see on the news. It's easy to see how this translates into "scientists" change their minds from week to week, it's hard believe a word they say" in the public mind.

Making stories easily digestible also means that the media cannot spend too much time in the grey area inhabited by science. Stories often necessarily have to be presented as black or white and this leads to the thorny topic of presenting a 'balanced' argument. David expressed the problem that in a democratic organisation like the BBC, everyone who pays the license fee is, in theory, entitled to express their view, however wrong or damaging it may be. It's balance like
this that often leads to one emotive individual having more impact than a panel of scientists – how can you argue with a woman with breast cancer who is convinced it was caused by a nearby phonemast? The question of whether you should always present the other side of the argument, especially when it is unscientific, was one that some of the skeptics in the room got quite heated about, but had no real, workable answer for.

There is cause to be positive, though. With the help of charming, media-friendly personalities like Professor Brian Cox and Dr Ben Goldacre, it seems that science is undergoing a welcome resurgence ('How science became cool', More importantly, the limitless space and reach of the internet now means that viewers can be directed to follow up two-minute news stories on news sites, blogs and Twitter, and get as much science as they can handle – but only if they want it in the first place of course.

The public's perception of scientists and the science being conducted is vitally important. It is up to scientists, skeptics and sympathetic journalists like David Gregory to collaborate and do their level best to maximise the communicate of good science to the general public.

Tulpesh Patel is a Neurosciences PhD student at Aston University, working in collaboration with the Birmingham Children's Hospital. He is also founder and Chair of the Aston Humanist Society. A copy of this entry is also on his personal webpage,

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