2 October 2013

Scientists vs science journalists

The difference between science journalists and communicators? Journalists don't smile.

I had a fun evening last night at a debating festival called the Battle of Ideas, as one segment of a roundtable discussion on science and society, with a distinguished panel of writers, journalists and thinkers. I don't know how the organisers do it, but they always manage to pick the ideal mix of participants to get a heated argument going. And last night, ours revolved around whether the public can trust science. As usual, when this topic rolls around, the media got a good ole bashing (it's not scientists' fault that we're misinformed, it's the media's!). I take great exception to this. Having met and interviewed my fair share of researchers, I can tell you, they can be as manipulative, money-grubbing and dishonest as the rest of us. I'm not sure why we would expect them to be anything else. Those hyped-up press releases that get sent out by universities aren't pulled out of thin air.

One problem is that science journalism and science communication are conflated. Communicators (TV and radio stars like Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khaili and Alice Roberts, for instance) are a friendly conduit between scientists and the public, essentially working on behalf of researchers (and often from within the scientific establishment) to help people understand science better. Journalists are supposed to be more adversarial, interrogating scientists' claims and motives, and any policy responses, with the aim of finding truth and clarity. Sometimes, as the Association of British Science Writers' Connie St Louis has pointed out many times, the press and broadcasters are so busy communicating, they lose the point. We science journalists should be no more on the side of scientists than political journalists are on the side of politicians.

The merry band of science communicators, bloggers and skeptics who cheerlead for science don't always understand that scientific truths are provisional, and that they're only alienating the public by bolstering divisions between science and the rest. When researchers turn out to be wrong (Andrew Wakefield, who started the MMR vaccine controversy, for example), they're dismissed in hindsight as "bad scientists". Well then, how is the public to know who the good ones are? It's easy to think of the scientific method as perfect. It is, after all, the best system we have for understanding the universe. But so long as humans are the ones practising it, it never will be. Scientists do deserve our respect, but they also require us to constantly challenge them. That's my job, and I really do wish it was more valued.


cromercrox said...

So, why, when I said the same in the Grauniad recently, did I get royally shat on?

Angela Saini said...

Because of the victim culture amongst scientists.

MiketheScribe said...

Well, Angela, I value you. As a science communicator working at a university, there are things you can do that I cannot. You can talk to other researchers for example, to see if our guy's stuff holds up among his peers. This is beyond the scope of my mandate, but absolutely essential to make sure balanced coverage gets out there.
One thing I might suggest, from my own experience: is it possible to share your story with the researcher before you file it? I do this as a matter of course with my material, and saved myself from embarrassing errors in translation. I'm very clear that I'm asking them to check for accuracy, not to write it for me, though! (I do have to sometimes be quite firm about this.) A common fear among the researchers I work with is they or their science will be misrepresented in a public forum, so this might help your relationship with them.
Keep up the good fight. Your work is important.

Angela Saini said...

Thanks very much, Mike. Much appreciated! I understand the value in sharing articles with researchers, but ethically I think it is just too fraught with risks. I've written another blog post on this topic, to explain why.

And just to add, your work is very important, too.

Sandeep Ahire said...

Really nice...!!!

Anonymous said...

Mike -- I think you are correct to have your researchers check your work in your job as a communicator, but as a journalist Angela is correct in not doing so.

Different roles.