Standing up for Science

A few weeks ago I received email notification that Sense About Science and Voice of Young Science were going to be hosting their annual ‘Standing up for Science’ workshop. Forty seats (oooh, competitive), lunch (excellent) and an opportunity to speak with journalists (re-eally now?). I was all for the small group and free food, but wasn’t sure I still qualified as someone who stands up for science. I mean, I still fight the good fight on Facebook and my twitter account is almost exclusively dedicated to everything new and geeky. However, the last time I donned my gumboots for this site was nearly 18 months ago. And this is where I’m supposed to speak up about my own work, rather than simply arguing with people who aren’t scientifically rigorous on Facebook (you post it, I correct it – not even sorry) or re-tweeting cool stuff that other scientists do.

But I’ve been busy. Doing cool science and becoming more informed on interesting topics, sure… but I really should be sharing. I’m committed to doing that again because of what I learned yesterday.

Before the workshop, I didn’t like most ‘science’ articles that made it to me through online and print sources. I nursed vague unease about journalists who weren’t my uncle or my friends. But this has changed. NOW, I’m absolutely certain I do not like the average journalist (uncle and friends, you guys are still fine).

The thing is, I had a fantastic experience at Standing up for Science. To kick off, we had a participant discussion on the role of scientists in the public domain. Dr Eleanor Gilroy spoke honestly and inspiringly about her experiences in outreach and the field of genetic modification, my favourite not-my-own-work fight. Professor Miles Padgett described his very positive experiences with the media. Finally, Professor Sergio Della Sala had us laughing along at his stories about his campaign against his arch-enemy pseudo-scientist. We asked a few questions, made a few salient comments. The organisers then herded the students into smaller groups to discuss positive and negative points about science reporting in the media. Despite the energised “YAY team” start to the morning, this very quickly felt like group therapy where we effortlessly filled a page with negatives and stuttered over the few positives.

But that was okay. We were about to take part in the second participant discussion, this time with Jeremy Armstrong from the Daily Mirror (the intelligent tabloid…), Peter Ranscombe from the Business section of The Scotsman and the lovely Anne McNaught from BBC Scotland. I’m not going to sling mud, but I will say that I am pretty sure that certain newspapers and science are not destined to live happily ever after. My reasons?

Firstly: A newspaper is a business. In order to sell papers to a readership increasingly turning to online resources, those headlines had better grab people by the throat. Science rarely sells stories like that, mainly because science isn’t often very good at yes/no answers. Good scientists are also not shy to say “I don’t know”, making room for less reliable sources to fill in the uncertainties with untruths or half-truths or extrapolations or conjectures. Because THAT is more likely to sell a story. Where does the responsibility then lie? I say with the journalist who knowingly chooses an unworthy source over one who is less interesting simply because they can’t or won’t give a sexy quote. And if that journalist honestly doesn’t know the difference? Then WHY are they reporting on the story in the first place? Which leads me to my second point…
I asked Peter from The Scotsman why they don’t have a dedicated science reporter on the team, and he said they did in the past. But newspapers aren’t selling like they used to, so they’re not replacing the one who left. I certainly don’t think the written word is dead, or that newspapers are redundant… but I see his point. When Jeremy from The Daily Mirror asked how many people in the room had bought a newspaper that day, very few hands went up. I don’t anticipate that life will get much easier for certain newspapers… but equally, I anticipate a drop in standard of the science reporting.

A standard I feel is already too low, on the whole.

Enough with the sensationalist headlines. Enough with the promises of cures to incurable diseases. Stop the fear-mongering, already. And for crying in a bucket, STOP giving equal airtime to skeptics and pseudo-scientists. My final appeal is for us to stop pretending the average person is so limited in intelligence that everything must be dumbed down. Surely, we can give the public a little more credit? Surely, by continually dumbing content down, newspapers are creating a dumber readership?

If I had magical powers to change the way the media reports science, I would get them to educate readers on variability, how misleading correlation is, what the error means and why it’s so important, how results can change with new data or new techniques, the process of peer-review, why results must be replicable, and where the burden of proof should lie in ‘polarised’ arguments. Finally: that scientists are people too. We like stupid cartoons and websites about cats in boxes and we also watch series until 3am, burn supper, lose keys, have good hair days, get drunk, become obsessed about being fit and skinny and, just like everybody else, we sometimes make mistakes at work. We also sometimes read the newspaper and get depressed or angry or frustrated about the state of the world. Often, more so than the average reader because of the way our science is reported.

But because there is no such thing as magic, I have returned to this blog. If my results are ever awesome enough to warrant being spread wider than my circle of colleagues and friends, I will call Anne McNaught from BBC Scotland and beg her to give me airtime. I’ll also continue to enjoy reading the Guardian and a few select others, and hope they call me one day to say “hey, we saw you found something incredible using tagged seals, would you like to tell us more about it?”

In closing, Nature comment has put together an excellent article titled Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims. It’s far more coherent and useful than mine:

One thought on “Standing up for Science

  1. You inspire me La! In honour of you, I am going to somehow work this into my final lecture this year (well how people refuse to see and try and understand what they don’t want to see because the world culture is positioned to value certain things etc etc)

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