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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"The Perils of Public Outreach"

Julia Shaw is a forensic psychologist. She is currently a senior lecturer in criminology at the London South Bank University (London, UK). Shaw is concerned that we are creating a culture where public outreach is being unfairly attacked. Read her Scientific American post at: The Perils of Public Outreach.

Shaw's point is rather interesting. She believes that scientists who participate in public outreach are being unfairly criticized. Let's look closely at her argument.
What scientists write in academic publications is generally intended for a scientific community, full of nuance and precise language. Instead, what scientists say and write in public forums is intended for lay audiences, almost invariably losing nuance but gaining impact and social relevance. This makes statements made in public forums particularly ripe for attack.
I agree that what scientists say in public forums will often stimulate debate. But isn't that the point? Of course it's true that public statements are ripe for attack because that's often why you make public statements. I don't see this as a serious problem. If you can't stand the heat then stay out of the kitchen. I hope Shaw won't mind if I treat some of her public statements as ripe for attack. :-)

But there's another point that troubles me. Shaw claims that scientific publications are full of nuance and precise language. Presumably this makes them more accurate. Public outreach, on the other hand, is less precise and that makes it an easy target for attack.

I strongly disagree with her claim that the scientific literature is more accurate.
We find ourselves in a complicated space. On the one hand scientists are professionals, and want to keep the profession reputable. We want to make sure that ideas conveyed by scientists are accurate. On the other hand, if we censor the simplified or creative speech of scientists in public arenas, we have the potential to stifle important communication and debate.
There's no great danger that we are censoring public debate by attacking public statements. Shaw might be confused about the difference between rigorous healthy debate and censorship.

It's true that scientists are professionals but their attempt to keep the profession "reputable" often involves criticizing anyone who engages in public outreach especially if they are critical of the scientific literature. I don't think this is what Shaw means.

In my experience, the most serious attempts at censorship are not aimed at the style (e.g. lack of nuance) of those writing for a wide audience but instead are aimed at the forum they have chosen. For example, much of the criticism of scientific papers can be found on blogs. The authors of the papers often claim that the criticism is unfair— it should have been published in scientific journals and not in a public forum. That's what we saw when ENCODE was criticised, for example.

The point in this case is to claim that the scientific literature is "professional" and accurate but blogs aren't. Therefore the "attack" is unfair because it wasn't peer reviewed. That's a very real attempt at censorship.
Academic articles often take years to craft into something that colleagues and editors agree is worthy of being published. An interview for the media can take minutes, and is often an improvised attempt to convey a very complex issue on the spot.

If you put these two types of communications next to each other, “real” science is likely to slaughter popular science. It’s like taking a pen to a gunfight. And, it can be difficult for scientists who read each other’s comments in popular outlets to remember that an informal discussion of science should not, and cannot, stand on the same ground as a formal one.
This is complicated. I strongly disagree with the implication that scientific papers are well-crafted and accurate, especially when it comes to conclusions and interpretation of data. We have tons of examples of papers in reputable journals that make outrageous and inaccurate claims. Peer review isn't working.

When bloggers or journalists take on a recent paper it's very likely that the scientific paper will be the loser. The "real" science will not win the fight in spite of what Shaw might think.

I'm not sure if she is specifically referring to media interviews in this article. In my experience, when the authors of scientific papers are interviewed by the press they often reveal what we only suspected when we read the paper. We learn the real motives and conclusions from the press interview and not from the obtuse language in the paper. I think the informal communication is far more revealing, and more truthful, than the formal one.

Is Shaw worried about people who criticize what scientists say in press releases? Is she defending press releases because they are supposed to be less accurate and precise than the actual paper?
Scientists must be careful to not police other scientists in a way that makes critical discussion impossible, and that dissuades dissemination.

Only then can we ensure that we can have real impact and continue to make science accessible.
I'm confused. Are we supposed to stop criticizing scientific papers that make ridiculous claims? Is the scientific literature the ultimate example of precision, nuance, and accuracy compared to public forums? Are we supposed to avoid criticism of public statements by scientists because we need to cut them a bit of slack when they speak in public? That doesn't make sense.

I'm confused about what this scientist (Julia Shaw) is saying in a public forum. I hope she won't think I'm trying to censor her. :-)


  1. Public criticisms after publication are just an extension of peer review, in my opinion. No one accepts a paper as undeniably true just because it has been looked at by 3 or so reviewers and subsequently published. It is understood that pre-publication peer review is just the first step for any scientific findings.

    There is also a balancing act between getting scientific findings out into the public eye and rigorous peer review. It could be argued that just getting data out into the larger scientific community is a good thing, even if it entails flawed methodology, lack of controls, poor data analysis, or poorly supported conclusions. Others argue for conclusions that are supported by tons of data from multiple methods and analyses. As always, the sweet spot is probably somewhere in the middle.

    I can't say that I agree with it, but I was rather intrigued by the idea of no pre-publication peer review. Simply publish the paper online, and then open it up to comments. Perhaps even allow additions to the paper as more data comes in, with appropriate annotations to show when the changes were made.

  2. I don't think you quite get what she's saying, although I also think you do get the implication of what she's saying. She's saying that non-journal (or academic book or talk, presumably) statements are more open to misrepresentation because they aren't precise and in jargon.

    The thing is, as you say, so what. If the statements made aren't clear or are wrong, they should be criticized no matter what venue they were presented in. She's also saying that criticizing is an attack (a favorite claim of pseudoscience and fringe science proponents, which should have given her pause before using that approach - I suspect she would object to me saying that, which she shouldn't do because that's censorship. :) sarcasm mode off). You're saying it's normal back and forth, and I agree. She's looking, IMO, for a way to make statements but not have them critiqued, only accepted, or to have an "it's not my fault I said what I said" out for any wrong statement. Again, that's something you see all the time in pseudoscience and fringe science.

  3. She seems to be complaining that "scientists" are addressing/attacking other scientists in public forums after just reading "off the cuff" comments by the scientists being attacked. Hurt feelings and a "culture' of being super careful about what you say is the complaint.

    Its a criticism towards other scientists and not the non scientist public. i'm off the hook! I guess say whatever i want. Her point would be it doesn't matter what i say!(This is a rumour to crush, everyone I hope agrees).
    Yes she wants scientists to keep it AT HOME. not out in the street.
    Conclusions in science, origin pugilists know, is a contact sport.
    It shouldn't make a culture of censorship or intimidation.
    As the great DON CHERRY says YOU have to take a few punches in the corners of the rink.
    I hope she is not saying scientists can't be questioned by anyone iin public IF scientists can't question each other in public?!
    making a priesthood here. Hopefully not.

  4. This sounds like the modern version of ‘play nice’.

    It seems she is concerned some ‘social justice warriors’ will fall victim to ’schoolyard-style bullying’.
    After all, ‘scientists are taught to look for problems in arguments, not to praise them.’

    I think the people at University are being trained to be easily offended (micro-aggression?).
    If one finds the critique offensive, then that might make ‘critical discussion impossible.’

    I believe the probability of response in this case would be proportional to (the amount of praise engaged in) over (the amount of fault finding).