Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Book Review. Fiona Fox: Beyond the Hype

If you're a scientist reading this, you may well think, as I used to, that running a Science Media Centre (SMC) would be a worthy but rather dull existence. Surely, it's just a case of getting scientists to explain things clearly in non-technical language to journalists. The fact that the SMC was created in part as a response to the damaging debacle of the MMR scandal might suggest that it would be a straightforward job of providing journalists with input from experts rather than mavericks, and helping them distinguish between the two. 

I now know it's not like that, after being on the Science Media Centre's panel of experts for many years, and having also served on their advisory committee for a few of them. The reality is described in this book by SMC's Director, Fiona Fox, and it's riveting stuff.

In part this is because no science story is simple. People will disagree about the quality of the science, the meaning of the results, and the practical implications. Topics such as climate change, chronic fatigue syndrome/ME and therapeutic cloning elicit highly charged responses from those who are affected by the science. More recently, we have found that when a pandemic descends upon the world, some of the bitterest disagreements are not between scientists and the media, but between well-respected, expert scientists. The idea that scientists can hand down tablets of stone inscribed with the truth to the media is a fiction that is clearly exposed in this book.

Essentially, the SMC might be seen as acting like a therapist in the midst of a seriously dysfunctional family where everyone misunderstands everyone else, and everyone wants different things out of life. On the one hand we have the scientists. They get frustrated because they feel they should be able to make exciting new discoveries, with the media then helping communicate these to the world. Instead, they complain that the media has two responses: either they're not interested in the science, or they want to sensationalise it. If you find a mild impact of grains on sexual behaviour in rats, you'll find it translated into the headline 'Cornflakes make you impotent'.

On the other hand, we have the media. They want a good story, but find that the scientists are reluctant to talk to them, or want total control of how the story is presented. In the worst case, scientists are prima donnas who want days or weeks to prepare for a media interview and will then shower the journalist with detailed information that is incomprehensible, irrelevant, or both. When the public desperately needs a clear, simple message, the scientists will refuse to deliver it, hedging every statement.

Fox has worked over the years to challenge these stereotypes: journalists do want a good story, but the serious science journalists want a true story, and are glad of the opportunity to pose questions directly to scientists. And many scientists do a fantastic job of explaining their subject matter to a non-specialist audience. In the varied chapters of the book, Fox is an irrepressible optimist, who keeps coming back to the importance of having scientists communicating directly with the media. Her optimism is not founded in ignorance: she knows exactly how messy and complicated science can be. But she persists in believing that more good is done by communicating what we know, warts and all, rather than pretending that uncertainties and disagreements do not exist.

The role of the SMC is, however, complicated by further factions. The dramatis personae includes two other groups. First, there are science press officers, who are appointed by institutions to help scientists promote their work, and then there are government officials and civil servants, who are concerned with policy implications of science.

In her penultimate chapter, Fox bemoans the fact that the traditional press officer - passionate about science and viewing themselves as "purveyors of truth and accuracy" - is a dying breed. There remain notable exceptions, but all too often science communication has become conflated with a public relations role: pushing a corporate message, defending the institutional reputation, and even using scientific discoveries as a marketing tool. Fox notes a 2014 survey of exaggerated science reports in the media that concluded: "Exaggeration in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases." I had been one of those scientists who thought the media were mostly to blame for over-hyped science reporting, but this study showed that journalists are often recycling exaggerated accounts handed to them by those speaking for the scientists.

But the problems posed by scientists, journalists and press officers are trivial compared to the obstacles created by those involved in policy. They want to use science when convenient, but also want to exert control over which aspects of science policy gets talked about. Scientists working for government-funded organisations are often muzzled, with explicit instructions not to talk to the media. One can see that this cautious approach, attempting to control the message and keep things simple, puts many civil servants and government scientists on a collision course with Fox, whose view is: "Explaining preliminary and contradictory science is messy: that should not be seen as a failure of communications".

A refreshing aspect of Fox's account is that she does not brush aside the occasions when the SMC - or she personally - may have handled a situation badly. Of course, it's easy to point the finger of blame when something does go horribly wrong, and Fox has come under fire on many occasions. Rather than being defensive, she accepts that things might have been done differently, while at the same time explaining the logic of the decisions that were taken. This is in line with my memories of meetings of the SMC advisory committee, where there were frequent post mortems - "this is how we handled it; this is how it turned out; should we have done it differently?" - with frank discussions from the committee members. When you are working in contentious areas where things are bound to blow up every now and again, this is a sensible strategy that helps the organisation learn and develop. I'm glad that after 20 years, the ethos of the SMC is still very much on the side of open, transparent communication between scientists and the media.  

Fox, Fiona (2022) Beyond the Hype: The Inside Story of Science's Biggest Media Controversies. London: Elliott and Thompson Ltd.

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