Fixing Science Communication

Jones, Graphical Abstract

Abstract
The media, scientists, and the public all bear some responsibility for failures in science communication – and there are ways each can and should change. Scientists should have communication classes as part of their normal research training; the media needs to be reminded of the importance of expertise, and to work towards a new financial model that supports responsible journalism; and everyone would benefit from a school-level emphasis on critical thinking.


Introduction
It is easy to identify times when the science communication system has failed society: a few recent examples include mis-information spread about the uncertainty surrounding climate change, and panic stirred about vaccines causing autism. Scientists look on such events in scandalized horror, usually blaming the media for failing to get the facts across, or the public for leaping to uneducated conclusions. Journalists blame scientists for burying their conclusions in piles of incomprehensible details and qualifiers, or their editors for forcing them to pound out more stories in a day than they have time to research. The public blames the media for being uncritical or biased, and scientists for proving untrustworthy.

To help understand the roots of these problems and perhaps even attempt to fix them, I can offer my perspective as a science journalist, on the relationship between the media and the scientific community. During my decade of experience at New Scientist magazine and Nature, following a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of British Columbia and a Bachelor of Science at the same institution, I have been repeatedly struck by some stark differences between the two. Most journalists see their role as providing critical analysis of events of importance and interest to their readership. It is not their job, as some scientists seem to think, to educate the public from scratch (news stories are not textbooks), nor to serve as an uncritical cheerleader (news stories are not press releases). It is their job to inform and enthrall readers with new scientific findings, and also to hold up the practice of science for public scrutiny. This is why a science journalist would no more pass a story by a scientist for fact checking before publication than a political reporter would hand over their piece to a politician.

For journalists, the important part of a work of science is its broadest conclusion and its implications for how the world ought to change. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained to emphasize the limits of their conclusions, and are hesitant about making policy recommendations. Journalists are interested in the motivations of the scientists, since readers find personalities compelling; scientists are trained to take their personalities out of their work, since facts are facts, no matter who discovers them. These differences can sometimes lead to conflict.

Scientists: Toppling the Ivory Tower
When I was a reporter for New Scientist magazine I routinely called junior scientists to discuss some of the odder miscellany reported in smaller journals. A distressing number of them were ill-prepared to answer questions such as why they did their research, why it was important or interesting, and how it fit into the broader world of knowledge. Many did not even understand why they should be asked such questions: wasn’t it enough to do science for science’s sake?

To be fair, most senior scientists have a better grasp on such things. But the attitude that science should be supported purely for its own sake is pervasive at all levels. I am not arguing that there is only value in applied, rather than basic, science. But scientists must appreciate that their work has to hold up to public scrutiny – they are funded by tax dollars, and as such have a responsibility to both believe that their research truly matters, and be able to communicate that to the public in a clear way. Too many scientists get carried away in pursuing trivial matters rather than those of substance, or forget to consider the broader implications of their work, and are surprised or insulted when asked to justify their activities – whether to journalists or to grant-giving agencies.

In instances where research results clearly do matter and need to be heard by policy makers, the need for good, clear communication is critical. There is a fine line between developing a simple, clear message about science that isn’t bogged down by qualifiers, and over-stating certainty (which can erode public trust). Scientists need to be taught how to tread that line.

At the same time, scientists need to remember that scientific advice is not the only relevant advice; the advice of economists, religious leaders and so forth on matters such as genetically modified foods or stem cell research will (and should) be taken into account by policy makers. Scientists should not be startled, offended, or put off by this. They must also remember that politicians, and the public, are not usually convinced of an argument by facts alone. People put faith in those they deem trustworthy, and this depends on an assessment of character. As scientists learned to their detriment during ‘ClimateGate’ – the release of emails from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia that apparently showed scientists discussing how to ‘spin’ their results and prevent those with dissenting voices from publishing – the appearance of personal integrity is as important as the integrity of the data itself.

One way to help hammer many of these messages home would be to require high-quality communications training for scientists, preferably while they are still in graduate school. Some companies have popped up in recent years to provide such training, including one co-founded by a former Nature journalist in the UK (http://www.sciconnect.co.uk/).

There is a healthy appetite at most universities for media training, and many university press offices provide such services (though many faculty are uninformed of this availability). At my alma matter of UBC, the press office says they provide training to about 100 faculty and graduate students a year. They have also noticed a recent trend of professors signing their graduate students up for media training – something I consider an encouraging sign. Teaching scientists to think critically, and early in their careers, about what they are doing and why it matters, would not just make them better communicators – it would make them better scientists. It also helps to protect them against abuse from less competent news reporters.

Media: Rethinking the System
Traditionally, a journalist seeks to be a disinterested observer who reports both sides of a story. In many cases these different sides are simply different personal opinions – she says it’s fantastic that Vancouver is hosting the Olympics; he says it’s a waste of money. But when those opinions are actually scientific facts – she says the world is getting warmer; he says it isn’t – then there should be more at play than just parroting different views (see Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/publications/downloads/boykoff04-gec.pdf). A reporter needs to be in a position to assess the validity of different arguments. She needs to account for the expertise of the person involved, and to ask a community of experts to examine why some particular view is likely to be right or wrong. This is something which can be taught (and is taught at UBC, where I have contributed to the science journalism programme) but it takes an ongoing commitment of time from professional journalists: both many years of experience in the field to get a sense for the players involved, and longer than an hour or two to investigate any given story. Jobs that allow for this time commitment are sadly in short supply (positions at Nature and other specialty publications are notable exceptions).

It is a common complaint by scientists that the media gets things ‘wrong’. Often they are referring to specific details, which I would argue are usually (though not always) relatively harmless errors. Sometimes they object to the overall framing of the story, saying it is wrong because it emphasizes the ‘wrong’ parts of the tale, such as the personality of the scientist – that, I would argue, is sometimes the right thing for a journalist to do in order to best serve their audience. But often they complain that the reporter ‘got the wrong end of the stick’, and that is indeed problematic. Oversimplifying conclusions to the point where they are wrong, leaving out important context, or putting too much faith in inappropriate sources, are common and justified complaints. Having specialist journalists who are used to dealing with scientific papers, and who remember previous findings in the field, is key to preventing these errors. Again, these are in short supply.

Some efforts have been made to help time-pressed reporters navigate the difficulties of science stories. Most notably the Science Media Centres of England, Australia and Canada act as press offices for the venture of science as a whole, working to gather informed comments about breaking science news stories and hot topics and feeding these to harried reporters. While this helps to avoid misunderstandings in the press, it can also breed lazy reporting habits, and fool editors into thinking they can manage without specialist reporters.

Newspapers and magazines are reliant on advertising dollars for their profits, and in tight financial times (like now) advertising budgets shrink. Newspapers cut back on staff, ditching specialists they can do without first, and leaning on the remaining staff to produce ever more copy per day. Many reporters are pressed into uncritically rehashing press releases in order to simply churn out enough words. Whole US newspapers have gone bust, and others have hosted buyout packages — more than 100 staff left the Washington Post in 2008, for example, including health and science reporters.

Some argue that the internet will make up the difference. There are blogs today providing incredibly well-written, intelligent, insider commentary on important science topics (RealClimate.org is a good example; http://scienceblogs.com hosts many more). Blogs do not always, however, employ the usual checks and balances imposed by a responsible media outlet; nor are the bloggers usually paid for their efforts. Meanwhile, many reporters on the paid newsdesks don’t have the time to make use of their professional training.

The challenge within media today is to find a new financial model whereby more professionals who are good at their jobs can have the time to do it and be paid well for it. How exactly this can happen is unclear: perhaps it will involve readers donating cash to specific topics to fund investigative journalism, or devoting more tax dollars to public media services. In Canada, the federal funding body called the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has a programme, now in its second year, to fund investigative journalism into health issues. In March 2010 they awarded $300,000, disbursed between 18 reporters (see http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/41346.html). Such programmes may become a critical part of how good journalism is done in future.

Conclusion
The reading public can spot if a story is thinly argued or spouting a biased view. But it is harder to detect when a spokesperson isn’t as qualified as they might seem, and hard to avoid forming a mass opinion when the whole world’s media bashes them over the head with it. I would argue that everyone (from scientists to journalists to the voting public alike) would benefit from a better base-level of education in critical thinking – instilling the skills required to know who and what to trust, and why. Along the same lines, our education dollars for high-school level science would, in my opinion, be better spent on teaching philosophy and methodology of the scientific method, which is in itself a form of critical thinking, rather than focusing on rote memorization of facts. But this is already a topic of much debate amongst educators, and I will leave it in their capable hands.

The communication of science through the media can go wrong in many ways. But it can also go right. There has been a trend of more and more science stories getting onto newspaper front pages, thanks to the emerging importance of climate change, environmental issues and health scares like pandemic flu, which rope political and business reporters into the realm of science. The public cannot help but become more informed on these issues as a result, and the ties between science, money and power are being explored more thoroughly in the media.

The trick is to promote a better mutual understanding between scientists and the media of each others’ views and practices, and a healthier critical analysis of both. The result will hopefully be both less blind acceptance, and less conspiratorial doubt, of the practice of science – and a better informed public.

Further Reading
Nature’s special on science journalism (subscription or payment required)
(http://www.nature.com/news/specials/sciencejournalism/index.html)

Knight science journalism tracker (media critique) http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/

Science education for the 21st century: using the insights of science to teach/learn science
http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1734263.1734333

UK National Newspaper Coverage of Hybrid Embryos: Source strategies and struggles, Cardiff research group (2009)
http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/resources/hybridembryosreport.pdf

Nicola Jones is the science journalist in residence at the University of British Columbia, a freelance journalist and part-time commissioning editor for the opinion section of Nature. She occasionally participates in media training courses for scientists. She works from her home in Pemberton, near Vancouver BC.

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