Sunday 13 June 2010
Journalists and the "scientific breakthrough"
There has been some animated discussion about science journalism by journalists and bloggers relating to the Fish Oil story that featured in my 1st June blog on the Orwellian prize. In summary, Ben Goldacre wrote a piece criticising the lax journalism behind the story, and was then roundly criticised himself by Jeremy Laurance of the Independent, who felt Ben was going too far in attacking hard-pressed journalists. There is a good piece by Ed Yong that gives the background and offers a cogent analysis. Here I don't want to rehearse the arguments – I've already added a comment to Yong's blog underlining my support for Ben Goldacre. Instead I have a constructive suggestion from a scientist to science journalists about how they might do things differently when handling science stories. This is prompted by my experiences when attending meetings of the British Science Festival. The British Science Association, which runs the festival, has a distinguished track record: founded in 1831 as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, its meetings included highlights such the first use of the term 'dinosaur' (1841), the debate on Darwinism between Huxley and Wilberforce (1860), Joule’s experiments (1840s) and the first demonstration of wireless transmission (1894). Times, however, have changed. Science has become increasingly specialised. The British Science Festival plays a key role in fulfilling the stated goals of the Association: "connecting science with people: promoting openness about science in society and affirming science as a prime cultural force through engaging and inspiring adults and young people directly with science and technology, and their implications". It is, however, not a venue where scientists reveal to the world a hitherto unreported "breakthrough". In general, the material that is reported at the Festival will either be already published in specialist journals, or will be "work in progress". In fact, most scientists find the whole concept of the "breakthrough" suspect: most research proceeds incrementally rather than by a sudden leap forward. The media, however, don't seem to grasp this essential point. They descend on the meeting in droves where they summon presenters to press conferences based on the one-paragraph press releases that the scientists are encouraged to supply. They don't attend the lectures. If my experience is anything to go by, they focus on at most 5% of the presentations, selecting those that they judge will make a good story of interest to the general public. Then during the week of the Festival, there is a plethora of newspaper articles which report on the selected presentations, inevitably talking about them as if the work is entirely new. Scientists then get uncomfortable as they feel their research has been "talked up" to make it into a newsworthy "breakthrough". The following week, the newspaper coverage of science reverts to its previous low level. Now, while I can understand some of the reasons for this, it seems to me a terrific waste of an opportunity. Gathered at the Festival is a subset of Britain's scientific elite, selected in large measure because they are doing interesting research and can communicate their science to a general audience. (Inevitably there are some who are hopeless at doing this and misunderstand the nature of the audience, but they are a minority). Their work doesn't stop when the Festival comes to an end. They will return to their labs and continue doing the interesting research. So if I were a science journalist, I would go to the Festival not to frenetically write stories to be published that week, but to make contacts with researchers who could supply me with good science stories for the rest of the year. I'm sure most journalists don't have time to tour the country interviewing scientists, but if they could make a personal contact with a scientist and persuade them they want to write a serious piece, they would find most would be amenable to a future telephone interview. And instead of having to respond rapidly to a press release, journalists could take a more relaxed approach, which would reduce their stress levels and give them time to check things carefully. I suspect that many journalists will reply to say this is all very well, but it's not news and so editors would not stand for it. Their job is not to provide the public with a general science education, but to tell people about breakthroughs. I disagree. There is far too much science for any one person to grasp, and so most scientific research will be novel to the majority of readers. The difficulty is to explain what is often technical and complex material to a lay readership. We have some excellent science journalists who are good at doing exactly that. If they could build up a network of relationships with scientists, they'd find a great many fascinating stories out there that are currently appreciated by only a minority of specialists.