Anti-ScienceScience

Is Science Communication Doomed?

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?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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44 Comments

  1. Doomed in the mainstream, but I find podcasts picking up some of the slack. Not slobber up the place too much, but Skepticast and others present science-backed information in an approachable way. I’ve also really been enjoying Planet Money, Astronomy Cast, Talk of the Nation Science Friday, and the CBC’s Quirks and Quarks. Can excellent podcasts make up for mainstream failures? I hope so.

  2. I would say that mainstream science reporting is doomed, and that good science reporting will find other outlets (like blogging). Clearly, it has an audience. Work needs to be done to expand that audience, but my eternal optimism does not allow for many “doomed” scenarios, certainly not here.

  3. This very morning I read some “news” about the Kepler Mission. What in reality is a space telescope that will revolve around the Sun for 3.5 years looking for Earth-like planets, in the fictional world of news reporting is an inter-galactic spacecraft leaving in a 3.5-year-long journey looking for alien life.

    But again, I learned long ago that trying to learn science from the mainstream press is like trying to learn history from a Dan Brown novel. And I editorialized about it some time ago.

  4. Funny this should come up. I was looking at a SciAm article yesterday and, at first glance, it looked reasonable. A certain entomologist pointed out, though, that the article confuses genetic research involving fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) with pest research on olive fruit flies (Bactrocera oleae). Also, the insect pictured is a Mexican fruit fly (Anastrepha ludens) and that doesn’t look like an olive, either.

    The spirit of the article is correct. The Paris-based research Palin ridiculed involved olive fruit flies and is closely linked to the USDA research on olive crop spoilage. It’s just they got all the details wrong.

  5. My crystal ball tells me that the future will look much like the past and present.
    -We will continue to have a small group of science enthusiasts who try to parse out the real meaning of research.
    -We will have a group of journalists who want to write good articles, but don’t really have the time to go past the abstract.
    -There will be a bunch of editors who don’t think think that it is stretching the point too far to go from “tomatoes may be good for you” to “pizza cures cancer”.
    -There will continue to be a vast citizenry who don’t think that they can trust any research because scientists are always changing their minds.
    -Behind it all, there will be a small group of people who are doing research and publishing results. Some are trying to change the world. Some are obsessed with their own hypothesis. Others are trying to get anything published to keep their jobs.

    In the meantime, I will keep reading the Sci Blogs and applying pizza to my freckles.

  6. 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?

    I’m glad to see so many great science blogs picking up the slack, but I’m always concerned about limited audience reach. I don’t know if there is any analysis out there, but I suspect that people who read science and skepticism blogs are people who are already interested in science and skepticism. When science/skeptical topics are reported on by the mainstream media, we reach a much wider audience; we can reach people who wouldn’t normally go looking for science articles.

    This mirrors my own recent frustration with outreach in astronomy. This year (for those who don’t know) is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) and there are so many opportunities out there for citizen science and education. But very little of it has reached “wide appeal media”. I asked someone at the last meeting of the American Astronomical Society about efforts to publicize the IYA and he told me about articles in Nature and Science and NASA web pages….and while that’s all great, it misses the greater theme of IYA by reaching out to an audience who isn’t otherwise involved.

    I’ve been wanting to start a regular feature in our local paper reporting on what’s up in the night sky. I’ve gotten nowhere and experienced nothing but unreturned emails, phone calls, and visits. I could start a blog – but would miss the point of leveraging the diverse audience of a newspaper!

    Science blogs are great and they are a much needed voice of reason above the din of confusion. But how can we improve science education and understanding if we don’t reach the people who need it most – the people who don’t read science blogs.

    Do the Skepchicks have any insight as to who reads this blog? Is it predominately the already existing skeptic community or is there a wider appeal than the regular commenters suggests? I don’t even know how you would go about measuring that, but just curious if you’ve been able to tease out these sort of figures.

    I guess that means I’m leaning towards doomed.

    Cheers.

  7. There’s plenty of good science writing out there—just don’t go to the mainstream media for it (in general; there are some great exceptions). For example, if you want medical news that distinguishes a phase I trial from a phase III trial or that notes the inherent caveats of epidemiologic studies, look for media that is aimed at physicians (this is what I do for a living, as a matter of fact). As for explaining science to the average Joe or Josephine and doing it well, it can be done but it’s a rare skill.

  8. The media (popular or otherwise) is a lost cause because money is its raison d’etre. Media found out there was more profit to be made in screwing society than serving society.
    We will never get them back; the kool-aide is green and there is lots of it.

    Primary education may be the last battleground in the fight for reason. If we overcome the IDers, fix the lame funding, and stop treating schools like long-term day care, if we instill in our society the concept that education is a civic obligation members of a democratic society owe each other for the common good, then reason can gain ground.

    (Please picture that last paragraph with a flag waving behind me.)

    Disclaimer: if you are a good parent or teacher, these comments were not directed towards you. If you are not a media shill striving to rot your society’s soul, these comments were not directed towards you. However, you may find kool-aide is offered in your company’s commissary if you get thirsty.

  9. Is Science Communication Doomed?

    No, I don’t think so. We have always had bad stories written on bad research that was commisioned by companies wanting some sexy science to make their crap seem good for us. The Center for Tobacco Reseach.

    But we still have Neil Degrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, James Randi, Issac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Mythbusters and its many clones, and many others that I’m not thinking of right now.

    So no it isn’t doomed but it won’t be a straight line improvement. It will be a hard dirty fight and we might still lose. But we don’t only pick fights we know we can win. We don’t only do the easy things. We do the hard things. We fail. We get beat up. But then we dust ourselves off get the cuts stiched up and go back to the fight.

  10. So your saying the shopping thing is advertizing? That women are being conditioned to go shopping. BUT wait one minute that would mean we guys are being programed to be beer drinking, sports loving, sexually deficient truck driving….oh wait a minute…Nevermind.

  11. Very interesting comments, thanks all. Interesting to see how many optimists we have . . . I tend to be optimistic, myself, but I do have to disagree with @Gabrielbrawley. As @Blake Stacey said, three of those named are dead and, wonderful as their contributions have been, we need people who are currently addressing scientific advances and translating them. People who are able to actively inspire others.

    Also, the point of my post is that those who are currently engaged with that goal are being turned away.

  12. @Rebecca:
    we need people who are currently addressing scientific advances and translating them. People who are able to actively inspire others.

    I swear I’m trying!! There are some of us fighting the good fight – it just seems such an uphill battle at times that it’s easy to get discouraged.

  13. We must be aware that science communication takes place at different levels. It is not the same to communicate some results to a co-worker in order to design new experiments than to communicate an ended work through a paper or a poster. Simmilarly, it is not the same to communicate a peer-reviewed research in a paper session, in a university classroom or to high schooler. For me it is good that tabloids include distorted news about peer-reviewed research. My only condition is that they quote correctly the paper in order to let readers to see themselves. The worst of all is when tabloids tend to use scientific research to promote their own bigotry: but it is bigotry and not distorted research the problem here.

  14. The trend is clear – traditional print media is dying. The new media is quick “twitter” bites – although some E-readers, Kindle, etc. — may be around.

    Gupta is not the answer, nor are many of the sound bite physicians and “scientists” that the news outlets cover.

    Because there is a market for those who are interested in good science, there will be an outlet, and someone will find there way there.

    What not to expect — that this will ever be mainstream. Public wants woo woo – -easier to believe hocus pocus than it is to explain real science. So Oprah will rule the day, as well others– but they always have.

    Will the web work – -yes- it will, and it is good that there are a number of blogs out there working to explain different aspects of science. We keep trying – and it will catch on.

  15. I don’t think this is anything new and I don’t think there is any winning this in the media.

    The real battle is in the classroom. When the average person receives a good basic education in science and critical thinking, then the media will follow because it will be those same kids who become the journalists.

  16. I am just so damned negative today.

    @TheCzech: “The real battle is in the classroom. When the average person receives a good basic education in science and critical thinking, then the media will follow because it will be those same kids who become the journalists.”

    The kids will not become journalists if there are no good jobs for them left. See: CNN cutting their entire science department.

  17. @Rebecca:

    Exactly. Being dead tends to put a crimp in one’s responsiveness to new developments.

    @Didac:

    For me it is good that tabloids include distorted news about peer-reviewed research. My only condition is that they quote correctly the paper in order to let readers to see [for] themselves.

    Most readers won’t. Most of those who try will fail. They’ll be gobsmacked by jargon, and, fatally, they won’t have the requisite training in mathematics.

  18. At this point, I think the only way to get real science into the public consciousness is to slip it into viral videos and LOLcats.
    “2 Girls, 1 Stem Cell Line”
    “i’m in ur spaze telescope, lookin for erth-like planits”

  19. @rebecca – it will never be in mainstream – never, never, never – -unless someone is not only good, but terribly entertaining.

    Journalism is evolving, just going somewhere else- people always want news, but it can be done more efficiently, and less costly than is being done.

    We need a major science project to entice the world – when I was a kid we had sputnik and we went to the moon — we need something more, then people will become more interested.

    But yes- – mainstream media has never been, nor ever will be an outlet for good science. That is not negative — it never has been.

    While it is good to have great science in the classroom — those individuals who go into education are generally not the most analytical individuals.

    Science is a passion – the method can be taught — adolescents are natural skeptics — so Rebecca, it is your job. Go forth and multiply the teen skeptics in the world. Do it so when I get older there are smart people out there who will take care of me — I can see it now, I am in an ER and the doctor will want to manage my chi, and say Riki prayers

  20. @Rebecca: Yeah, and it was among the first divisions to go because nobody cares, and they don’t care because the average person wasn’t taught the value of science.

    Plus, if everyone receives a good basic science education, a lot of front-line journalists outside of special science and technology divisions will be better equipped to cover science stories.

    It doesn’t matter what we say to people who don’t have the tools to listen to what we say. Those tools are most easily learned in school.

  21. @Theczech – not meaning to be mean here – but anyone ever see those who become teachers. I don’t think many of them can be taught. You can teach a teenager better than the high school teacher (again, that will be Rebecca’s job).

  22. @Merkuto: Zombie Carl Sagan would be great. Maybe someone could dress up like that and do videos of him “attacking” anti-science. I’m thinking things like a stock clip of Jenny McCarthy doing her antivax song and dance, spliced with a clip of Zombie Carl Sagan attacking a look-alike (or mannequin). “If only she’d taken her zombie vaccine!”

  23. @TerrySimpson: If the contest here is who can be the most cynical, you have me beat. So just give up on schools because we are in an irredeemable educational wasteland except for the faint light that the luminary few like ourselves emit? Really?

    I have an admittedly high opinion of myself, but not that high.

  24. @TheCzech – while education should be the answer, it should be the silver bullet, often it is not. The results are clear. We have fewer going into math, science, engineering – and the skill levels of the majority who graduate from high school are not improving with time. So, education as it is now – no, not good enough.

    I don’t expect to be any faint light, or luminary – again, that’s Rebecca’s job, perhaps yours.

    But we do need them – and I expect that they will come – I anticipate we will see interesting people in science come forward and fill the media gaps – but I do not believe they will be universal, they cannot be – they are special people who can both communicate with others in an entertaining and provocative manner and be a nerd. We do need those who can inspire.

    You are right, being analytical is a skill – -it can be taught, and it should be. I think it is easier to teach the high school student, than the high school teacher (and more fun, because the junior skeptic loves to take pot shots at the teachers)

    So – -I am not optimistic about our current public school system. I am optimistic that we will have individuals coming forth and bringing science to the masses – -but doubt it will be mainstream media. But it is our job to find that rare person and promote them. That person might be in a university somewhere, or in a lab — and has a bit of personality. If we find someone like them – then we should follow their blogs, promote them to media outlets, and do all we can to enhance their visibility.

  25. “Is Science Communication Doomed?”

    Well, in as much as affective communication overall is doomed.

    Whether there are good science journalists left in the world is almost a secondary issue when consumers of the communication are either incapable of understanding the message, or are incapable of being inspired by it, or are simply apathetic to it.

    Email and chat rooms essentially killed lingusitic communication. And text messages and Twitter shoved its body into a wood chipper. When it comes to communication, in general terms, the trend is toward homoginization, where there are no ideas, no thoughts, nothing beyond the words. And even the words themselves are lifeless, and often truncated to save time.

    If there are science writers left that are masters of depth and nuance — you know, those journalists and communicators that, historically, could inspire readers and other consumers because there was more going on than just words — their work may be wasted because readers won’t get it. A deaf person may feel the beat of the drums, but he sadly can’t fully understand the beauty of the symphony, no matter how well the band plays.

    The best that journalists can do these days is present the drumbeats, the facts. Make sure that what they write about, or otherwise present, is in fact what science has discovered.

  26. I also know what we “enjoy” is a product of evolution. Therefore anything we enjoy, including shopping, for either sex, is a product of that evolution. So I have no problem with the title, but I did not read the study, and find no reason to single out women.

    I guess this wasnt the point of the post :p

    being lame,

    :p

  27. I’ll go one step further and say I have real concerns about the future of objective reporting of any kind-not that news has not always been a morass of misunderstanding reporters and lowest-denominator owners, but the core, democracy-enabling element of paid, full-time professionals willing and able to root actively and patiently through disinformation and confusion, in meatspace, is dying, and blogging both cannot replace it, and I suspect is helping to dig the hole. I’ve seen stats pointing to 90% of blog news arising in print sources, and a majority of the rising generations gaining their info second hand from said sources, out of their revenue stream, and generally sorted in narrow streams of interest and viewpoint. From that perspective, blogs are parasitical, and they are killing their host. Not that I think this is anyone’s fault, or that the sudden proliferation of user content is a bad thing- it’s just after a few millenia of a pile of text and the paper it is written on being the same, easy-to-pay-for good, we still seem to have no idea of how do anything in a world where data breeds and most people can get to it for free.

    It’s unsurprising, then, that science reporting, an inevitably niche interest appealing to those with longer horizons of interest and demanding more understanding from those reporting it, is suffering more in the print and TV attempt to produce content faster and cheaper than it can be passed the Web-or ignored altogether.

    The only version of genuine reportage, science or otherwise, that I have heard that I think might have some chance of survival is something akin to a university-drawing operating costs from the interest on an endowment, supplemented by whatever advertising, subscription, and public support in the name of shoring up democracy it can manage to drum up. But I think the freerider problem, and the counterproductive death spirals it produces in those who deliver the news, means far more dire things for us than closing papers and idiot pop-sci articles.

  28. Not only do I not think it is broken I think it is better than ever. There are so many more venues than there used to be. I can remember when I was a kid that we went months sometimes even longer without any kind of science show. One of the reasons that Cosmos was suc a huge hit was because something like that just never came on. Now we have stuff like this on a regular basis. Planet Earth, Universe, Walking with Dinasaurs, Walking with Cavemen, Nature, Nova, Nova Science Now. Scientific American, Nature, National Geographic. The National Geographic Channel, Science Channel, Mythbusters, Food Detectives, Good Eats, Blue Planet and a whole lot more that I can’t think of. There are so many science podcasts that I can’t keep up with them all and there seems to be a new one everyday. Sure, everything isn’t perfect and it never will be but it used to be a lot worse. Once upon a time television tried to claim that the Jetsons were educational science programing.

  29. Most of my family members are teachers, so I hear alot of stories. Frankly, the problems with our education system run very deep. Yes, there are alot of poor teachers, many of whom were only given credentials because it’s cheaper to hire someone half trained than someone fully trained.

    The real problems are in administration. Most administators have no educational training. Most prinicpals are coaches. They push a never ending series of teaching fads, none of which are any good, but no-one upstairs has the understanding to know what’s good and what’s not. For exmaple: My mother specialized in reading, both remedial and advanced. Her position was closed, and she was sent to basic kindergarten, because “the kids will learn to read on computers now, and won’t need any help.”

    And of course you can’t even hint the earth’s more than 6000 years old without parents coming in and yelling at you.

    More money is necessary, but frankly it never gets to where it’s needed. It all goes to raises and perks for adminitrators.

  30. Stephen Colbert, actually did a pretty funny piece on just this issue on his show tonight, referencing the whole beer-pong gives you herpes hoax story that was widely reported by… everyone. Fire up the Hulu tomorrow and check it out.
    Also, there is bacteria on my ball.

  31. I think Sam, @Sam Ogden, has a pretty darn good point, sad as it is.

    I am daily amazed by the types of near-illiteracy one can find online. Even here at Skepchick we regularily see posts showing a serious lack of knowledge and skills in correct punctuation, proper capitalization, basic sentence structure, and so forth. Even that cherry old chestnut, the incorrect use of your and you’re pops up here.

    These are skills that are, or at least once were, taught in early grade school for crying out loud. I understand the general excuse is something along the lines of the “new culture” of electronic devices and the need for speed man!, but that’s just so much molly-coddly hooey.

    And to further gray-down, I’d add a comment on the kinds of sources people talk about as where they get their news. I’ve heard/seen people all over the place, even here at Skepchick, say, in all seriousness, that they get their news from such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Stephent Colbert’s show.

    That’s just too sad for words. You might as well base your world-view on the back of a General Mills cereal box.

    However, and on the other hand, I think good ol’ Gabriel, @Gabrielbrawley, has a valid point. The number of science shows, good science shows, available for view on TV is, in comparison with say the 60’s or 70’s simply astounding.

  32. H0ld on, there, Babalouie! There was a study that came out of a university in Indiana (I think it was there) that did a content analysis of The Daily Show and network news. The content of the former was as good as, or even better, than the latter.

    And, when one is nitpicking grammar, one should be sure not to make any errors oneself. Like, say, misplace apostrophes.

    Not that I’m nitpicking. ;-)

  33. Oh man, I was hoping you’d talk about the second article. I wrote about it myself after I read it at the time.

    Just a minor point, though, it was printed in NY Magazine, which of course comes bundled with the Sunday Times, but is distinct in that it’s largely a lifestyle rag for the NY elite. Or maybe that’s just my unfavourable opinion of it showing through.

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