The Relationship Between Scientists and the Media

Crystal Leonard's picture

The Relationship Between Scientists and the Media

 

"We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces"  Carl Sagan, A Demon Haunted World, 1996

 

In our previous discussion about the disconnect between the scientific community and the public we agreed that one possible solution is an increase in collaboration between scientists and the media. Today I would like to explore the current state of the relationship between scientists and the media. I would like to address the following questions:

  1. Why does the scientific community shy away from interacting with the media?

  2. Are the scientific community and the media as different as scientists claim?

  3. How could increased collaboration be accomplished?

1. Why does the scientific community shy away from interacting with the media?

Many scientists dislike interacting with the media because they are worried about:

  • Inaccuracy/misrepresentation of findings

  • Negative effects of going outside traditional, well-accepted scientific communication channels (journals, conferences, etc)

    • "Climate scientists withdraw journal claims of rising sea levels" http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/21/sea-level-geoscience-retract-siddall

  • Backlash if findings are later refuted or retracted

    • "Cell Researcher's Retraction Leaves Vexing Questions" http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/17/science/17research.html

  • Having words twisted in support of one point of view over another

    • "Newspapers Retract 'Climategate' Claims, but Damage Still Done" http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/the-gaggle/2010/06/25/newspapers-retract-climategate-claims-but-damage-still-done.html

  • Loss of control over what and how information is presented

2. Are the scientific community and the media as different as scientists claim?

Science and journalism differences:

  • Journalists attempt to present all sides of a story regardless of scientific legitimacy. Scientists attempt to present only scientifically legitimate information.

  • Goal of journalism: keep the public informed. Goal of science: attempt to explain natural phenomena through use of empirical evidence.

Science and journalism similarities:

  • Both recognize the importance of skepticism and objectivity.

  • Both acquire evidence to support their claims.

  • Both believe their findings should be publicly available.

3. How could increased collaboration between the two be accomplished?

  • Science journalism programs in graduate schools

    • NYU 's Journalism Institute has a Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting curriculum, http://journalism.nyu.edu/graduate/courses-of-study/science-health-and-environmental-reporting/

    • Trains journalists in how science works

    • Gives journalists some understanding of scientific principles

  • Train scientists in communicating with media

    • Undergraduate and graduate level educational reform

    • Professional-level seminars and conferences

    • Make scientists more comfortable with interacting with media

    • Gives scientists skills to effectively communicate to media the most important points of topic

  • Some system in which journalists can easily contact experts in various scientific fields

  • Other ideas?

Class session summary (collette)

Crystal’s presentation began with an admonition from Charles Segan, “…mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” We then had a quick recap of her topic “Science and the Media.” In our last discussion, we concluded that increased collaboration of science and the media would be beneficial. We also were in inconclusive about why the scientific community shies away from interacting with the media. We re-opened this discussion and explored several possibilities as to why scientists shy away from the media.

It was suggested that many scientists assume that people will not be interested in what they are doing. This led us to wonder if this was actually a way for them to cover the doubts they had about their own work, since it seems that they themselves are not even sure if it is true. We also talked about how the lingo used may be a way for scientists to make things seem more important than they actually are.  This then extended to the field of science in general. It seemed that many people were entering science for the wrong reasons and that society would be the ones to change it. If society appreciated everyone doing science collectively for the common good perhaps communication about science would be better.

The rest of the discussion focused on ideas on how to integrate science and the media. Crystal explained new programs that were developing and how scholars who focused on writing about scientific literature could be recruited another suggestion was that making your research understandable by the public should be the ultimate goal and not just getting published. We then came to the conclusion that before scientists and the media would be able to communicate, we would first have to do at a lower level. So, Dakota suggested that for our thesis evaluation, we not invite someone from a related department, but someone from a completely different department. This would allow scientists to test their knowledge and communication skills with non-science majors.

Another step that society must consider is the way success is valued. Today, it seems that success is based on the individual and what he/she can achieve for him or herself. Perhaps society should recognize those who better society.  I thought Dakota’s idea of making scientific discoveries known to the public as the goal was genius! This too could help not only integrate science and the media but also the public!

Conversation and Implications to Date

“It seems that society perceives science and the media to be completely incompatible but this is not the case. The problem could be approached by figuring out what their similarities are and building from that… One step is to have journalists observe how things are done in the laboratory and then aid in writing up the analysis.” Colette

“I think a scientist's success should not only include his/her contribution to science, but also his/her ability to communicate ideas to the general public. I think it would be beneficial to broaden how we think about success in science. I think one valuable way to communicate with the public is through popular science books…Perhaps, scientists should measure success by publishing popular science books, in addition to journal articles.” lbonnell

“Among things I want to think further about is the notion that we need to better teach science as a collective rather than individual enterprise, that science journalism might better focus on observations as opposed to people and "conclusions", and that there are some intriguing similarities between the principles of good journalism and of good science.” Paul Grobstein

  •  To increase the ability of scientists and journalists to communicate with one another, there should be increased opportunities for each group to experience first hand what the other group does
  • Journalists could sit in on experiments as they are performed to both better understand how science works and to shift journalistic focus from "conclusions" to actual observations
  • Scientists should be expected to attempt public outreach

Comments

smaley's picture

 I think that one thing

 I think that one thing scientists need to focus on, in order to improve the communication between science and the media, is to focus on not only publishing articles in scientific journals, but also in mainstream news sources.  While not all research is directly relevant to the public, by encouraging scientists to present their research to a broader audience, this could hopefully change.  By making scientists accountable to the public, and not just other scientists, communication will hopefully improve between scientists and the media.  As colette suggested, by getting the media to see how scientists work, and vice versa, they will hopefully get more comfortable talking with each other, which in turn will lead with greater communication between scientists and the general public. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on science/public communication

Lots of interesting discussion in class session and below, including several quite intriguing suggestions about local steps that might be taken to improve communication across the biology/public boundary in the long run.

Among things I want to think further about is the notion that we need to better teach science as a collective rather than individual enterprise, that science journalism might better focus on observations as opposed to people and "conclusions", and that there are some intriguing similarities between the principles of good journalism and of good science. 

lbonnell's picture

Measuring success

 I think a scientist's success should not only include his/her contribution to science, but also his/her ability to communicate ideas to the general public. I think it would be beneficial to broaden how we think about success in science. I think one valuable way to communicate with the public is through popular science books. Figures like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkinge can reach a wide range of nonscientists. Maybe books like these are a good way to be make science and scientists part of mainstream culture. Pop culture science books tend to be easy to understand and interesting. Perhaps, scientists should measure success by publishing popular science books, in addition to journal articles. 

Colette's picture

It seems that society

It seems that society perceives science and the media to be completely incompatible, but as Crystal pointed out in her presentation, this is not the case. The problem could be approached by figuring out what their similarities are and building from that. Once these two fields figure out what those similarities are, they will be able to effectively communicate with society. One stop is to have journalists observe how things are done in the laboratory and then aid in writing up the analysis. This would allow scientists to organize valid experiments while allowing an outside party who is not as scientifically oriented formulate an analysis in terms which others who are also not science minded can better understand.

 

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