• Not My Job

    A couple of months ago, I was at the biennial Astrobiology Science Conference. It was a busy day … I had just met up with a potential new collaborator who was interested in bringing some of the online modules we’ve been developing for our online astrobiology course, Habitable Worlds, to a South American audience (in particular, to a lay audience during a public event the following weekend). About half an hour later, I was due to meet up with my class via videochat for our “Ask a Scientist” videochat series that we had developed specifically for this conference so that students could talk to real scientists in the news and ask them about their life and work. I had wanted to sit in on a plenary session about communicating science to the public, but unfortunately, I was too busy communicating science to the public. The half hour I did watch, I got one message loud and clear … “You scientists are not communicating science to the public”.

    The journalist (whose name I don’t recall) who was lecturing scientists on how bad they are gave two examples of horrible, sensationalized, bad science. One example was the arsenic life story. The arsenic life story is, unfortunately, a good example of sensationalized science that did not hold up to scrutiny, and in general gave the astrobiology community a bit of a black eye. Fair point. But his other example, the faster-than-light neutrino story, is a different beast and undermined his argument so completely it made me question just what kind of journalist he was if he honestly thought this was an example of bad science. The scientists announcing the discovery made it explicitly and repeatedly clear that they did not believe their results but could not find the source of the error and wanted other people to run different tests (hence why they were going public with the result). Initial stories did indeed carry this “we don’t believe our own results, please double-check” disclaimer, but as the story percolated through the blogosphere to secondary and tertiary media outlets, I watched as that very clear disclaimer was trivialized to little more than a footnote and headlines started to read “Einstein Wrong?!” The implied point was that there had been a major discovery that had just upended physics, rather than a strange result that was shocking and needed to be confirmed. “Who cares if it hasn’t been confirmed … think of the implications!” the articles screamed. Several months later, the source of the error was discovered and the media lit up once again with “Einstein Not Wrong!”, with an implicit admonishing of scientists for ever believing such a silly idea. The problem is, the science worked exactly as designed. An unbelievable result was publicized, it took months of intense work to uncover the very subtle error, and the unbelievable result received a more plausible explanation in the end. Through bold headlines, the media wove an “Unbelievable discovery!” “No, the scientists are stupid!” narrative that barely resembled reality. Yet scientists are the ones who apparently don’t know how to communicate.

    Sources say (ie, my friends who were there, which is far more disclosure than you’ll see in most reporting these days) that journalists at this plenary session told scientists that the public isn’t interested in science and that scientists need to go the extra mile to explain their research and engage the audience. Some asked why … it’s not our job to do so. A scientist’s job (the one they’re usually hired to do) isn’t to entertain the public, it’s to make discoveries. That’s why we have laboratories, not speaking podiums. Scientists have already met the public halfway in explaining and publicizing their results. Why is it also their job to interest the public in those results? The answer given? Well, since the public isn’t going to meet you halfway, you’ll have to meet the public more than halfway … meet them 75% of the way there. After all, science is too hard for the public to understand and scientists are just going to have to work harder to convey the importance of their work to the disengaged public. But that raises an important question. If we as scientists are required to do 75% (and if that’s not enough, then what? 85%? 95%?) of the work in interesting the public in the work that we do (which some of us do indeed do) … what exactly do we need journalists for? Journalists are actually begging us to do their jobs for them, and not only that, boldly and proudly proclaim that informing the public is simply not their job. So why do we keep paying them?

    I’ve noticed this troubling trend in the media in the last decade and as a result, have mostly disengaged from it. In the race to beat the blogosphere and Twitter to the punch, journalists have mostly stopped doing any kind of journalism. Take CNN/Fox’s recent fiasco in reporting the healthcare ruling from the Supreme Court.  They were so desperate to scream “First!” that they didn’t bother reading past the first page!  This may also be a result of a collapse in money flowing into the journalism industry due to larger economic forces, but that is not my concern. My concern is that the general population is woefully uneducated in science (and world affairs and public policy …) and the people who are paid to inform the public have washed their hands of that responsibility (using those weasel words “I’m a pundit! I’m an entertainer!” or appending a question mark to any headline indicating that their guess as to what is going on is as good as anyone’s).  Instead, they shift blame for the nation’s ignorance to everyone but themselves. From the mantra of “We Report, You Decide” to telling scientists that they as journalists want no part in linking them to the public to actually stating flat out that their jobs are to talk and they shouldn’t be expected to be correct, journalists have done an excellent job of transforming their profession from curator of important information to dumb pipes channeling and redirecting any and all noise towards the audience, as if repeating what everyone else has said, no matter how stupid, is journalism. The question we should be asking, as a society, is whether this new function of “journalism” is of value to us. The fact that most US-based news services don’t get my clicks or my eyeballs goes to show how much I value this “service” they provide.

    Scientists got the message long ago … we don’t communicate well. We use big words and talk in uncertainties and wax poetic on esoteric concepts. We don’t connect well to laypeople. We get it. And we’re improving now. We’re young, we’re enthusiastic about our work, and we’re speaking. Maybe the rest of you need to do a better job listening.

    • Shawn Domagal-Goldman

      This is an auspicious start, Lev! Excellent piece. 

      You can watch the whole session, including much more positive messages from other speakers, at http://connect.arc.nasa.gov/p8vqd3n9ixt/. Mr Hotz takes the stage at about the 29 minute mark. 

      I was at the session. The speaker Lev is referring to is Robert Lee Hotz, the science writer for the Wall St. Journal and a former president of the President of the National Association of Science Writers.

      His overall message is one I wholeheartedly agree with – that as a whole, scientists need to be more engaged with the public. But his more specific request – that scientists need to better police ourselves for the sake of our reputation – struck me at best as overly generalizing the scientific community, and at worst as completely ignorant of the examples he used to support his position  Either way, I felt it was a shockingly bad presentation for a student, much less an esteemed science journalist. And that’s coming from somebody that fully supports Mr. Hotz’s point that we need to more effectively communicate science – in particular where controversial results are the topic!

      Let’s look at the examples Mr. Hotz cites. First, he talks about three major, public “errors” by scientists: “faster than light neutrinos,” “longevity genes,” and “arsenic-based DNA.” I’ll be honest that I don’t know much about the longevity genes story. But, as Lev points out, it is the media and NOT the scientists that were at fault in the neutrinos story. And whatever the resolution is of the arsenic-based DNA stories, anyone informed on the aftermath would acknowledge that scientists generated an immediate, harsh response to the claims in the paper. Basically, of the two stories that I know something about, the scientific community as a whole acted with reason and sobriety… and did so in a fashion that actively reached out to the public. So I don’t understand what his point is. Scientists will be wrong, especially for the most surprising results that are most likely to be picked up and repeated by major media outlets.

      The other data Mr. Hotz utilized were statistics related to the inaccuracies and irreproducabilities in biomedical research funded by pharmaceutical companies… and suggested that astrobiologists should be “policing” this sort of work so we can protect our own reputations and that of science as a whole. From a practical standpoint, this is an absurd suggestion. I understand the concern that comes with increased accuracy issues in peer-reviewed research, but the solution he proposes – that we go outside our disciplines to be the watchdogs of others – is both an inefficient expenditure of our time and an ineffective way to do the policing. It simply will not work in our current peer review structure. The analogy would be that we should hold Mr. Hotz accountable for the regular inaccuracies reported by Fox News as “besmirching the reputation of all media.” Even if he agrees with that point, what’s he going to do about it? Have strong words with Mr. Murdoch? At best, he’ll call news outlets out when they screw up. And guess what? Scientists are doing that, in a very public way, all the time. It’s just not getting reported as often as the original stories. 

      It would have been nice if he had suggested more aggressive changes to scientific culture, perhaps including more open publication standards and the opportunity for more scientists to read and openly critique each others’ work. But that was absent from his presentation. Instead, it was just “here are a bunch of problems *you scientists* are having – some of which I don’t understand very well and others were the sole creation os *us reporters*. Go fix them, because we’re starting to think you suck.

    • levhorodyskyj

      Since journalists are offering advice to scientists, it might be only fair to offer some advice in return.  Cut the noise.

      A recent example … my sister issued a press release on her Himalaya research back in December and gave a press conference.  She was instructed to use sound bites and analogies to help get the message across better.  I thought this was silly and that surely the reporters there would be able to translate low level science talk into something digestible for the public.  Nope.  The sound bites were sent out word for word over the wire with little additional value added.  In fact, some of the soundbites ended up *picking up* errors that she then had to go correct in the comments section.  What value is added if you can’t convey information correctly from point A to point B?  That was immediately after the press release.  Contrast that with a recent article in Cosmos (an Aussie publication) that not only correctly conveyed her work, but also put it into context in regards to the changes taking place in the Himalayas and other work that has been done in the area but the people who came before her.  The difference?  The first set went out immediately after the press release, and the other one took 6 months to put together.  One is gossip, the other is actual journalism.

      Maybe the media and journalists should be more honest with their labels.  Most of the “breaking news” and stuff that poses as “news” is little more than chatter and gossip and noise.  That’s fine.  Most people seem to like having instant access to the chatter stream.  But there definitely needs to be more actual “journalism,” where that noise is curated, information is cross-linked, and the current work is put into the proper context.  We definitely need a lot more of that.  But the lack of an attention-span seems to be a societal problem … it looks like everyone wants *anything* *now* rather than something good a little later.