Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert's opinion?

By Grant Jacobs 06/12/2009 11

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

11 Responses to “Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert's opinion?”

  • Bora Zivkovic on twitter (@BoraZ, A blog around the clock at offered this comment via twitter, which he has allowed me to pass on here:

    @BioinfoTools MSM is far too post-modern to allow anyone but themselves to be referees. Only they can possibly be “objective”#$%^& Priests!

    (For the uninitiated, MSM = mainstream media.)

  • Hmm. I guess you’ve watched or heard something that’s struck a chord! As a professional giver-of-facts-don’t-try-to-put-words-in-my-mouth, I of course agree with you – but it’s a tough road to travel, remaining impartial and keeping control of something as unpredictable as an interview. Personally, I think the only way to mitigate these problems is to either train oneself or receive training from people who know how to counter inaccurate suggestions and push things back on track if they’re being shoved in another more controversial (i.e. increased ratings) direction. The problems seem to arise when the interviewer is trying to make an issue from something that really shouldn’t be an issue. The obvious way forward as the scientist is to correct and re-frame the matter – it runs the risk of becoming boring viewing or listening but that’s the interviewer’s fault, not the scientist.

  • Sounds like the introduction and discussion sections of a paper, rather than just the conclusions. Sounds good to me. I’d also like to see it done more in court settings. I anticipate it working in Environment Court, though I am yet to see first hand; perhaps Anna could compare and contrast for criminal court?

  • In my opinion (there’s a great giving-evidence opening line if ever there was one…) the court setting doesn’t matter, the manner in which evidence (or, more correctly, scientific findings) are presented should be the same, regardless of the forensic setting. The things that distinguish how findings are presented are the rules that relate to individual courts. As there’s too much detail to go into here, I’ll put up a post about it….

  • Anna,

    I guess you’ve watched or heard something that’s struck a chord!

    Actually I was just thinking about how to mitigate presented as if in a debate! (Debates aren’t about the substance of the material usually, but about winning over the audience.) There will be times when you want to present opinion too, so I wouldn’t want this to be read as some sort of a one-fix-for-all solution.

    I have to admit I find interesting how different people take away different things from a post.

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