Monday, April 16, 2007

Reporting Science: Who Is Interested, Who Is Offended?

Black and white image of a revolving door: text on the floor reads, 'I'm afraid of revolving doors'
Blogs that covers scientific or medical matters frequently criticise both the inadequate and uninformed coverage of these issues in mainstream media while despairing at the ready coverage given to (say) anti-scientific or pro-CAM topics. Too often, science or health journalists seem to reproduce a press release about a study uncritically and make no attempt to check the underlying science, hypotheses or results of the studies or trials.

We rely upon journalists of various media to read and understand studies that are of general interest and to report upon them accurately. However, as Goldacre expresses it, although:
newspapers like to fantasise that they are mediators between specialist tricky knowledge and the wider public...I wouldn’t be so flattering. In fact, if you have access to the original journals, you can see just how rubbish things can get.
I have much sympathy with Goldacre's view however I am mindful that the Royal Society does place some of the blame with scientists:
A problem arises though when controversial research designed to provoke a debate within the scientific community is reported as gospel by the general media.

At best, it reduces trust in scientists and the media; at worst, it can lead to people making poor choices and harming their health...
Recently, there have been discussions as to whether scientists fail to understand the necessity of framing their knowledge and arguments so that they can be understood by their audience.
Frames are a model used in communication studies to try and explain how people interpret information, and also to explain why sometimes the information itself seems to be irrelevant to the final opinion people have of an issue.That is because the same facts, when presented from different point of views (because that is really what cultural, political, religious etc influences create - a point of view) generate different reactions from different people. Framing theory explains how how people process information; and a better understanding of that process can help us make communication more efficient.
Nisbet and Mooney have taken the argument further with the April 15 publication of Thanks for the Facts. Now Sell Them. They illustrate the debate about the commincation of science by highlighting the raging controversy around the public discussion of evolution, Intelligent Design and creationism.
We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don't enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists' failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It's here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society -- even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don't work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn't pore over explanations of President Bush's policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

So in today's America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public. Data dumping -- about, say, the technical details of embryology -- is dull and off-putting to most people. And the Dawkins-inspired "science vs. religion" way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public's beliefs? Can't science and religion just get along?
I don't accept that scientists don't know how to frame complex issues or write for a general audience (both Ben Goldacre of Bad Science and the contributors to Scienceblogs are evidence of this).

There does seem to be a dearth of mainstream media outlets for good science. Health and science journalists argue that editors are unwilling to devote extensive feature space to science and health despite the vast amounts of newsprint that are given over to mis-reporting of these issues. Some journalists argue that they are discouraged from publicising criticism about some self-tests for fear of alienating advertisers (however, as there is comparatively little money in CAM for individual practitioners unless they are media superstars and even well-known purveyors of self-tests such as YorkTest say that they spend little on advertising, this seems rather specious). Writing about dubious allergy tests, Dr. Adrian Morris claims that:
It is the author’s and Warner’s experience that health journalists are unlikely to investigate or expose these pseudo-scientific tests as fallacious for fear of alienating their “complementary medicine” readership [ref]. [The Warner reference is to his editorial on Allergy and the Media.]
Articles that debunk the poor science behind various CAM and self-tests might attract criticism from an audience that is in sympathy with them but I would be surprised if that is sufficient to deter any interested editors or commissioners. However, it seems as if Orac is in agreement with the Morris and Warner viewpoint. He describes:
the script for most TV news stories about "alternative" therapies: lots of testimonials, no studies, and a brief blurb from the token skeptic whose words are overwhelmed by those of the credulous...If you wonder why people believe in woo so much and have so little clue about evidence-based medicine, you have but to look at how these issues are reported in the media to see one major reason why. Between credulous producers who believe despite published medical studies saying otherwise that [insert your favourite woo or CAM and] bubble-headed physicians willing to report whatever such producers think the audience wants to hear, it's a wonder that evidence-based medicine ever gets reported at all.

On occasion, I've been known to daydream about being one of these talking head physicians doing these stories, leaving aside the fact that I'm not telegenic and that I have a face perfect for radio and a voice that's best for blogging...Of course, even if those obstacles were overcome, I wouldn't last past one or two segments about any alternative medicine. Even if I could tone down my skepticism considerably, to the point of nonsarcastic wishy-washy-ness, that wouldn't be enough. If I expressed a skeptical, strictly evidence-based viewpoint, the audience would soon be calling up the station demanding my firing, and I'd be tossed out of there on my behind.
Perhaps unreasonably, I like Goldacre's more optimistic view of the public:
Alongside the best efforts to empower patients, misleading information conveyed with hyperbole is paradoxically disempowering; and it’s fair to say that the media don’t have an absolutely brilliant track record in faithfully reporting medical news...

Only those who have never met the full range of people in their community will ever claim that the public are stupid: in most doctors’ experience, people are almost universally sharp witted. Where they are misled, someone has worked hard at the job.
Unfortunately, once a bad idea has attained universal currency it becomes part of the frame by which we interpret subsequent information. E.g., both Patrick Holford and Gillian McKeith promote the use of self-tests as a means of empowering people. However, it is not empowering to be able to mis-diagnose yourself and follow needless allergen-avoidance techniques. More generally, it seems harmful that people are being encouraged to believe that modern life is harmful rather than safer and healthier than even comparatively recent history.

Although he was writing about research on guns, Dezhbakhsh famously wrote:
The academic survival of a flawed study may not be of much consequence. But, unfortunately, the ill-effects of a bad policy, influenced by flawed research, may hurt generations.
Frequently, I think Dezhbakhsh's insight when I read Junk Food Science (see, e.g., Baby Fat Fears or any of the articles that address the general hysteria about the obesity epidemic). I think about it when I read about parents who are still terrified when they vaccinate their children because of the MMR-autism reporting.
...deciding to go with MMR, and taking my son to be vaccinated was still one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I think there is little that is more horrifying to a parent than the idea that your own actions could directly and irreperably harm your child. I am a rational individual, and a strong proponent of the scientific method, and all that I had read on this subject could still not completely eradicate that fear.
It seems that mainstream media has a lot of influence in perpetuating flawed science and little interest in disseminating robust criticism of what passes for science even when it has an adverse affect on spending policies or matter of public health and interest.

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