IN MEDIA RES: NEWS AND THE PUBLIC (MIS)UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst ere full of passionate intensity.”
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
“Scientists identify gene that influences quality of person’s empathy”… “Earth ‘heading for 6ºC’ of warming”… “From the lab, a New Weapon Against Cholesterol”. These three headlines were taken from three leading and reputable media outlets: the Times of London, the BBC and the New York Times. Apart from their provenance, these headlines share another, arguably less desirable, trait. All massively simplify the scientific primary sources they are reporting. But why would such erudite news sources feel the need to simplify so much? One oft offered answer is that this is a necessary step in making science comprehensible for the general public. Yet, as the British physician and writer Dr. Ben Goldacre points out, ‘Nobody dumbs down the finance pages…[but]…imagine the fuss if I tried to stick the word “biophoton” on a science page without explaining what it meant.’ In his many articles on this subject Ben Goldacre often points to the over-representation of Arts majors in editorial positions as a cause for the over-simplification of science in the media suggesting that they simplify science because they themselves are unable – or unwilling – to understand it. While this may be a slightly uncharitable view of our good friends with tweed and corduroy and Penguin paperbacks, the results of this over-simplification are undeniable. Rather than seeing an increased public understanding we see an increased public misunderstanding. The inaccuracies and simplifications of journalism science lead to pertinent pieces of information being left out. Also, overconfident language that does not allow for the possibility of incorrectness or incompleteness in the primary research leads to even more confusion and mistrust of science. While there are many positive aspects of science reporting, the negative aspects indicate that there is also much room for improvement.
One can say, without fear of contradiction or dissent, that Science (and I intend the capital ‘S’) is an altogether overwhelming topic. It comprises fields of study that range from the taxonomy of soil bacteria to the birth of the universe and its three traditional (within universities at least) subtopics of Biology, Chemistry and Physics are outdated and inadequate in the ever-deepening and evermore interconnected pursuit of scientific knowledge. Thus it expects too much of someone, even a trained scientist let alone a layperson, to possess an understanding of everything to do with Science. However it is not too much to ask that the layperson should understand the complexity and subtlety of Science. It is here that the way in which the media covers Science first lets us down. In the age of the Internet, 24-hour cable news and satellite TV there is more news space to be filled than ever before. Additionally, there is much more competition to attract viewers and readers. This leads to a pressure to sensationalize scientific discovery, to make it more ‘sexy’. While this may aid TV ratings or website visit counts, it does nothing for the quality of the reporting, turning carefully worded conclusions into short, inaccurate sentence fragments. Currently, one of the most important fields of scientific inquiry is climate science. However, it is also one of the most susceptible to over-simplification and inaccuracy. Hardly a day goes by without another study or report being announced that contains a prediction regarding global temperature changes, sea level or emission levels. In addition, each report arrives it usually contains slightly contradictory or different conclusions than those that preceded it. By simplifying the contents of these studies to a simple phrase about temperature increase, such as the headline of the BBC story at the beginning of this essay, the story seems to indicate that the study is sure of its claims. In actuality, just like any other scientific report, the authors make, state and defend a set of assumptions that they used in their model or calculation. These assumptions get no mention in the news story, leading to one of the most common causes of misunderstanding: contradiction. If two news reports appear about two separate studies, the first from a respected climate scientist and published in Nature Geoscience and the second from the United Nations, that respectively predict global temperature increases of 6ºC and of anywhere between 1.4 to 3.8ºC a hypothetical reader of both would conclude that either both are wrong (and that perhaps this whole climate change thingy is a load of hooey) or that one is wrong and the other right. This is a false choice as if presented with a full set of the facts, our reader would be in a position to conclude that both had elements of truth and be able to make a rational, informed decision about what to believe. However, this is rarely the case unless the reader makes a concerted effort to dig into the primary literature which unless they are either very rich or have access to a university library is very hard, though the issue of open source scientific literature is another story altogether.
One of the cornerstones of science and scientific thought is the acceptance of fallibility and the acknowledgement that one may be wrong. It is this acknowledgement of fallibility that allows for scientific progress. It allowed Nicolas Copernicus to question Ptolemy’s astronomical model of the Solar System, replacing the Earth with the Sun as the centre. It allowed for Albert Einstein to revolutionize Newtonian physics. Yet, more often than not, scientific discoveries are portrayed in the media as being absolute and infallible. This presentation of scientific results as being completely true gives readers the idea that if a scientist is reported says it is true than it must be. That other scientists might refute the presented ideas, while a perfectly normal occurrence in scientific circles, is reported as controversial. The upshot is generally a mistrust of science in general. A good example of this was the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine scare in Britain in the late 1990s. A paper in the respected medical journal the Lancet that posited a link between the MMR vaccine and autism sparked the media frenzy. The article’s findings were highly controversial, but the media coverage made no mention of this and the public largely accepted the findings. When the rest of the scientific establishment countered the findings, the news coverage gave equal weight to both sides of the argument. While it is a generally laudable trait to be objective when writing the news, it is misleading when one side of the story is almost certainly incorrect. As with the previous example about climate science, the result was a confused public, left unsure of what to believe in by inaccurate media coverage.
Of course, not all reporting of science is bad and at the very least it is a necessary evil. While one may decry the over-simplification and blanket statements, the public has a right to know just what is going on behind the locked doors and safety glasses, it is after all their tax dollars that are being spent and it would be arrogant in the extreme to assume that the Average Joe doesn’t care about science. On balance, more good is done than harm and there are many excellent sources for excellently written science news. The Guardian website has very good coverage, as does the New York Times though it was criticized at the beginning of the essay. Nonetheless, the bulk of news stories that one reads about science are either incorrect or inaccurate. If media coverage of science is inaccurate due to a belief that science is too complicated for the general public to understand, that is an excusable but incorrect assumption that should be changed. However, in some cases, it seems as if the media coverage of science is intentionally perverted to make the story more controversial or exciting. This insidious altering of the facts is inexcusable and must be done away with.
We live in a surprisingly credulous age and it behooves those that write about science to be very careful with how the report the scientific advances of the day. They must be constantly aware that their reports are in media res: the readers are arriving at the story in the middle without any knowledge of what research came before this latest study. Thus, science stories must be placed in context, much like a book review references the author’s previous work and other contemporary writers of the same genre. In our example concerning differing projections for global temperature rise; it would have improved the BBC story greatly to include a mention of other studies and predictions. All to often it appears that these contextualizing facts and reservations are excluded in favour of the more dramatic elements of the story. It is also necessary that the reporters and editors that cover science have more faith in the intellectual ability of their readership. The idea that science must be simplified to be comprehensible demeans the reader and, as we have seen, can lead to confusion, mistrust and misunderstanding.
While it would be ludicrous to publish unadulterated scientific articles in major newspapers or news websites, the complex, subtle and fallible nature of science must be embraced and acknowledged in news stories about science. To return to Dr. Ben Goldacre’s contention, we should be putting words like biophoton into the news for while we may not live in an age where one can know everything, we do live in an age where – through the Internet – one can find out anything they wish to know.
“Don’t dumb me down”, Ben Goldacre, The Guardian: link [accessed 16 November]
“Earth ‘heading for 6C’ of warming”, Richard Black, BBC News: link [accessed 18 November, 2009]
“From the lab, a New Weapon Against Cholesterol”, Anne Eisenberg, The New York Times: link [accessed 21 November, 2009]
“MMR vaccine controversy”, Wikipedia: link, [last upated 23 October, 2009; accessed 19 November, 2009]
“Scientists identify gene that influences quality of person’s empathy”, Mark Henderson, The Times Online: link [accessed 17 November, 2009]
“The UN Global Warming Report: Facts and Predictions”, reviewed by Thilo Kunzemann for Allianz Knowledge: link [accessed 18 November, 2009]