Many science writers complain about the ability of scientists to explain their work to the general public. The latest example is from Susan Matheson, a science writer with a Masters degree in industrial engineering from Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA). She published the following article in Cell a leading journal in the field of cell biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology.
A Scientist and a Journalist Walk into a Bar…Mathesons begins with an anecdote about a science writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for writing about a 4-year-old boy with a rare genetic disease. She concludes,
by Susan Matheson, Cell 167: 1140–1143 (2016)[doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.10.051] [ScienceDirect PDF] [link from Susan Matheson]
Who are science journalists, and how can journalists and research scientists work together to improve science communication?
For which Pulitzer category did the journalists win? The one for explaining stuff. Because it ends up that accurately explaining stuff is difficult.I disagree. In my fields of expertise (biochemistry, molecular biology, molecular evolution) this is not what science journalist do regularly. They usually get it wrong.
Science journalists and science writers regularly do just that: they accurately and clearly explain stuff about science in a compelling way for the general public.
Later on in the article, Susan Matheson admits this obvious fact when she says ....
Explaining how science operates, describing relevant new findings, and bringing everyone into the conversation is a big job. Unfortunately, journalists regularly get the science wrong or they overdramatize an incremental discovery or they leave out the larger meaning of a discovery. Clearly, science writers can’t do this job alone. So, how can research scientists work with journalists to improve science communication to the general public? Here are some key ways that scientists can help.So, who's to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Is it the science journalists who regularly get the science wrong or is it the scientists who don't explain things properly?
Clearly, both have to accept some of the blame, especially scientists who also get the science wrong. However, it's the job of professional science writers to see through the hype and the exaggeration and make sure the public understands what's going on. They (science journalists) have to know that science is a human endeavor and, like all things done by fallible humans, mistakes are made. Scientists aren't always motivated by pure science and the need to be accurate.
Matheson offers some advice to scientists to help solve the problem. Here are her three suggestions ...
1. Spend Time with Science WritersThat's not realistic. Scientists have other things on their minds, like surviving in the cutthroat world of grant writing and peer review.
One way for scientists to engage in larger, public conversations is to simply spend time with science journalists. They can look for science writers who cover their area of research and connect with them by commenting on their articles publicly or by contacting them privately. To find science journalists, scientists can read STAT, Quanta Magazine, The Open Notebook, The Last Word on Nothing (a group blog), or Mosaic, a science magazine published by the Wellcome Trust. Scientists can offer to discuss their research specifically or the world of science more generally.
But there's another problem with that approach. It doesn't work. I have commented publicly on many articles to no avail. Elizabeth Pennisi, for example, pays no attention to scientists who tell her she is wrong. I wrote critiques of books by John Parrington (The Deeper Genome), Nessa Carey (Junk DNA), and Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Gene) and so did many other scientists. Those criticisms were accurate but none of those writers will admit they made mistakes.
I have a suggestion for science writers ... spend time with good scientists. Learn about the controversies in a field and cultivate friendships with skeptical scientists who will tell you the truth about a subject rather than just promote their own work.
2. Learn Some Storytelling Skills
Another way research scientists can collaborate with journalists to improve science communication is to learn the craft of storytelling themselves. Scientists can use storytelling tools—narration, a compelling conflict, a personal anecdote, and everyday language—to describe the excitement of a scientific discovery or the frustration of cancer cells “winning” a battle against experimental drugs to make the story memorable.
One of the biggest shocks when the human genome was completed in 2001 was the discovery that over 98 per cent of the DNA in a human cell is junk. It doesn't code for any proteins.... In genome terms, the ratio of gibberish to text is about four times as high as shown. There are over 50 letters of junk for every one letter of sense.Isn't that a lovely story? It's the sort of writing that may win praise and prizes from other science journalists. Trouble is, it's complete bullshit. The truth is far different than the nice story suggests. The truth is that 90% of our genome is junk and this was not a shock to knowledgeable scientists in 2001.
There are other ways of envisaging this. Let's imagine we visit a car factory, perhaps for something high-end like a Ferrari. We would be pretty surprised if for every two people who were building a shiny red sports car, there were another 98 who were sitting around doing nothing. This would be ridiculous, so why would it be reasonable in our genomes? ...
A much more likely scenario in our car factory would be that for every two people assembling a car, there are 98 others doing all the things that keep a business moving. Raising finance, keeping accounts, publicising the product, processing the pensions, cleaning the toilets, selling the cars etc. This is probably a much better model for the role of junk in our genome. We can think of proteins as the final end points for life, but they will never be properly produced and coordinated without the junk. Two people can build a car, but they can't maintain a company without selling it, and certainly can't turn it into a powerful and financially successful brand. Similarly, there's no point having 98 people mopping the floor and staffing the showrooms if there's nothing to sell. The whole organization only works when all the components are in place. And so it is with our genomes.
I've been trying to write an accurate account of the story for the past few months and I can assure you there are no simple storytelling ways to do it. The real story about junk DNA is complicated and counter-intuitive and it's hard to explain to the general public why 90% of our genome is completely useless DNA. My problem is complicated by the way science journalists have misrepresented the science over the past few decades. Their insistence on simple, but false, stories, means that the job of explaining the truth is much harder.
My advice to science writers is to keep in mind that the top three requirements for good science writing are: accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy. Never sacrifice accuracy for storytelling. And don't expect scientists to do that either.
3. Speak Directly to the PublicThat's interesting advice, isn't it? Imagine that all scientists became experts at explaining things in simple ways to the general public. Why would we need science writers in such a world?
To improve public communication of science, scientists can also speak directly to the public. Specter insists that all scientists should discuss their work with the public on a regular basis, even if it’s basic research. If the research is publicly funded, there needs to be much more openness, he says. “I regularly visit places like the Broad [Institute], Stanford, and NIH, where researchers are making remarkable discoveries, and [scientists] say, ‘Isn’t it enough that we’re doing these amazing things? Do we also have to explain to people why amazing things are good for them?’ And unfortunately, the answer is, ‘Yes, you do! It’s the same reason you have to explain why vaccines work.’”
Some scientists are good at talking to the general public—Carl Sagan was a good example. But most scientists have other skills that are far more important. It's incredibly naive to think that scientists are going to train themselves to become good public speakers.
What we can do, hopefully, is to educate science writers so they can do the job they're supposed to do. This means that the onus is on science writers to learn the science so they can present it accurately to the general public. So far, they are not doing a very good job.
Susan Matheson is referring in her article to Michael Specter who writes for The New Yorker. Apparently he's working on a book about CRISPR. She includes a quotation from him ...
He’s worried that there are not enough public conversations about science. “Technology moves faster than our ability to deal with it,” says Specter, “and now we’re…on the verge of being capable of doing really freaky things with genetics. Those freaky things are exciting, but they’re also scary. We need to have a way to talk about both the fear and the promise, without people…forming into factions. The only way that can happen is if lots of people are talking about it all the time.”
Here's a science writer who seems determined to make the new CRIPR technology sound "freaky" in order to sell lots of books. That's not an example of good science journalism, in my opinion.
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