Might scientists presenting expert advice on TV come across better if they take the position of a referee of the evidence, not a presenter of expert opinion?

Scientists are sometimes invited to present the position of science on a topic on television. Often the interviewer has clearly prepped the questions in advance and asks the same questions again during the show. In fact, we often see the interviewer practically putting the answer in the question, limiting the expert to the role of a “talking head” that spits back the answer that suits the interviewer’s plans.

A wider problem with the expert opinion or talking head position is that it’s easy to be presented as being in a debate. The expert’s opinion (as opposed to the balance of evidence or facts) against the opinion of, say, a concerned member of the public, a corporate representative or a purveyor of some non-scientific remedy.

This relates to a common complaint that media are wont to present a balance of opinion as opposed to a balance of the evidence. How might an expert invited to represent the science position mitigate this?

boxing_refereeWhat if these scientists insist that they take the position of being a referee of the evidence, not a presenter of an expert’s opinion of the evidence?

Not the kind of referee that rules over another, like the boxer being counted out. The neutral kind that balances evidence in a dispute, a judge of all sides. (Or, perhaps, the special referees used in some legal systems.)

Taking the stance of a neutral referee, it seems to me that potentially several problems are avoided:

  • It’s not their advice they’re presenting, which is too easily read or misconstrued as opinion (which advice is after all), but a summary of the evidence presented by others including those opposed to the scientific evidence.
  • If someone presents material in a “these are the facts” approach, they’re potentially setting up a debate. If, by contrast, they present “what’s out there” including material from all sides followed by summary, they’re pushing for a discussion and sidelining opportunities for their evidence to be treated as opinion.
  • It might be less readily perceived as arrogant, as they’re not trying to rule that their word is better (even if this would only be by implication).
  • They’re able to take a more controlling position in the interview, as they can more easily draw the other presenters views into their case, rather than act in opposition to them.

I’d welcome others’ thoughts.

Other science journalism posts in Code for life:

Best newspaper award, science

Note to science communicators–alleles, not “disease genes”

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis not debate

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science