Jan 25 2016

The Challenges of Science Communication

Brian Resnick has written an interesting article on Vox in which he relates 11 common journalistic errors in reporting social science news, according to 20 social scientists that he spoke to. The points are good ones, and most of them apply to communicating all science, not just the social sciences.

The core of the issue is the essential tension between science and journalism. Science proceeds slowly and cautiously, is very conservative in its claims, and is skeptical toward any new finding (or at least it should be).

Journalists, however, want an exciting new and simple story. In fact bad science journalism is much closer to self-help gurus than to actual science – “do X and you will be happy.” I know that journalists often do not write their own headlines, and that there is a circle in skeptical hell dedicated to headline writers where they are tormented by the twin demons, Hype and Sensationalism.

To be fair, I also understand that we live in the real world where ratings and clicks matter to the bottom line. This has been made very clear to me since I have been running my own science Facebook page (The Skeptics’ Guide page). This gave me the experience of posting 6-8 science and skeptical news items per day, adjusting variables, and seeing directly how much reach each post gets.

What is absolutely clear is that there is a direct relationship between the number of clicks and likes an item gets and several variables: how controversial or emotional the subject matter is, how exciting the news item is, how “click baity” the headline is, how simplistic the message is, and the presence of cats in any form.

Memes do the best – an interesting picture with a punchy sentiment. Infographics are also popular, as are lists. These are all ways to make information bite-sized and easily consumable in a fast-paced world, in a medium with a lot of competition for eyeballs.

Don’t worry – I have not succumbed to the dark side. My light saber glows a reassuring hue of arctic blue. The purpose of my Facebook page is not just to be popular, but to promote science and critical thinking. I have also discovered there is another way to be successful, but it takes a lot of thoughtful hard work.

It is possible, but very challenging, to present interesting science news items in a compelling way that sparks interest without compromising scientific or skeptical integrity. The fact is – science is damn exciting. You can convey this excitement, while putting a story into a proper scientific perspective.

Take the recent new items of a possible ninth planet discovered. What is more exciting than that – another planet in our solar system, 10 times the mass of Earth. This has not yet been confirmed. The claim is based on a computer model of the gravitational effects of known objects in the Kuiper belt.

The real challenge comes on slow news days, or when reports wonky articles that are fairly dense and esoteric.

Journalists are trained to ask certain questions, like, “why is this important, and why should people care.” When reporting science this leads them to common tropes. Every basic science advance dealing with cells apparently might one day lead to a cure for cancer. Every tiny bit of knowledge about viruses might cure the common cold. Apparently now every metamaterial discovery will result in an invisibility cloak. When in doubt, make the closest analogy to some iconic science-fiction technology, or in a pinch a superhero power.

Sometimes, a scientific discovery is interesting because it is a new discovery, not because it will lead directly to some tangential technology.

In addition to the points that Brian makes (I won’t repeat them here, just read his article), there are some additional bits of advice I would give science communicators.

Don’t focus on the tiny bit of speculation at the end of a study and run with that. Researchers will often include comments about directions for future research, or possible implications of their research. Don’t present that as if it is the result of the study.

Rather, ask the question – what does the data in this study actually say? If you don’t fully understand that, then you cannot competently report on the science.

Put science news stories into context. Is this a mainstream or minority opinion? What is the power of this one study? Are there other studies that come to different results? Does this actually change our thinking in this area? What are critics saying about the results?

In other words – every event or study in science is part of an unfolding messy process. Report the process. Don’t report the study in isolation, as if all by itself it fully establishes its conclusions.

Resist the urge to exaggerate our prior ignorance or the impact of the study.

And of course, be skeptical. Readers do appreciate skepticism. It makes them feel empowered to have some insight into what a bit of science actually means, and to have tools to understand what is and is not going on. This includes the ability to make sense of possibly misleading reporting on a story.

This takes time, and work, to slowly build a brand out of trust. Skepticism is not a wet blanket, it is empowering and exciting in its own way. It is also how science progresses, by removing the chaff. Another way to look at this is – how we know something is as (or even more) interesting than what we know.

Conclusion

Science journalism and science communication are extremely interesting and challenges endeavors. They also follow the general rule – 90% of everything is crap, or at least mediocre.

As an aside, this is almost trivially true. Our sensibilities, our calibration, is set by the best of something, the top 10%. The other 90% fails in comparison.

The real question is, is there any quality control or are there standards that maintain a reasonable quality for the average individual? You would’t want 90% of doctors to be incompetent. We also don’t want 90% of science journalists to be hacks.

While there are excellent science journalists out there, I do think we need greater quality control for the average or typical science journalist. In addition to simple quality control, there is also a system of perverse incentives. The system rewards (at least in the immediate term) sensational journalism and click-baity headlines. It takes true dedication to quality to eschew these quick tactics for a more lofty long-term goal.

There may never be a real solution to this inherent problem. However, the more consumers demand quality, the better that balance of incentives will be. In turn, that demand for quality is driven by quality journalism itself. Supply and demand feed off of each other.

It is my hope that scientist bloggers using social media to communicate quality science reporting will move the entire system in the direction of higher quality.

 

 

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