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Is Science Communication Doomed?

x-posted at Skepchick…

Two recent news stories have perfectly illustrated the seemingly overwhelming gulf between working scientists and journalists – a gulf that ultimately (negatively) affects the public’s understanding of science. As it should happen, both of the stories focus on women. Joy!

First, have women evolved to enjoy shopping? This may be a question that none of you ever considered, because you’re smarter than that, but nonetheless it is a question that appealed greatly to one particular group of people: namely, the Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre. Certain corporations have learned that an easy way to get your name in the news is to pay a scientist of relatively low integrity to crunch some numbers, fudge some facts, and publicize some stupid bullshit made-up “research” that somehow benefits the client. It’s advertising, but with a sciencey glow.

It’s advertology.

Melissa Lafsky at the DiscoBlog skewered this particular example, calling it possibly the worst science article ever, which is really saying something. Melissa points out that while the “study” refers to “humans” evolving, the article makes it clear we’re talking about women, as evidenced by the headline (“throwback to days of cavewomen”), subhead, and accompanying photo (a woman gaping at a shop window). The errors in the short piece are numerous, including calling Neanderthals our ancestors and suggesting they somehow taught us something that is apparently instinctual.

Did you feel that? It was the intelligence of all humanity, dropping ever so slightly.

Though that article is shockingly terrible, more depressing yet is the buzz surrounding the recent New York Times article What do women want, about female sex researchers who study other women. The article was roundly criticized by many scientists due to its oversimplification of sex research and poorly supported conclusion, which hints that women as a whole are a giant bundle of mysterious inconsistencies – of course, as Neuroanthropology.net points out, the same conclusion could be drawn after seeking out the answer to the question “What do diners want?”

Go read the Neuroanthropology article for the full, excellent critique of the New York Times piece.

But here’s where it gets worse: many sex researchers openly criticized the Times article, and the popularity of the discussion prompted the UK’s Sunday Times to print a similar piece. A journalist with the Sunday Times reached out to local researchers for their input, including Dr. Petra Boynton, a social psychologist. Despite previous disappointments with journalists, Dr. Boynton enjoyed speaking with the media and was glad for the chance to correct the problems in the NY Times article. She took great pains to lay out her concerns, and invited her colleagues to send information to the journalist in the hopes that she might gain a comprehensive perspective on the issue.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. The Sunday Times printed a duplicate of the NY Times article, including nothing but a few sentences that completely misrepresented Dr. Boynton’s work and opinion.

Dr. Boynton was understandably upset. On her blog, she posted an excellent (yet ultimately heartbreaking) essay describing the events in detail, ending with a breakdown of how this hurts everyone: misquoting her and misrepresenting her research puts her job at risk, the public is misled about sex research, and scientists everywhere take note that in the future, they cannot trust journalists to do a thorough job, so why bother dealing with them at all?

This kills me:

What to do? All I want is the opportunity to share good sex science with the public in ways that helps them understand their lives. I have to do this with journalists a lot of the time, but each time something like this happens I wonder if my colleagues who don’t get involved with the press have a better idea.

I really feel the time has come for to stop trying to explain sex research to the press.

Dr. Boyle was and is exactly the kind of scientist the public needs: someone who is smart, savvy, and for ten years was willing to work with the media to convey a story. It’s tragic to lose someone like that due to journalistic incompetence.

Every day there are more layoffs at mainstream media outlets, making matters worse as good journalists are fired in favor of cheaper, less knowledgeable staff. Hell, a few months ago CNN cut their entire science and tech department.

So, is this where the Internet saves the day, with blogs picking up the slack and somehow informing the public despite the present lack of sustainable funding? Or are we doomed?

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