Communicating controversial science in context

By Grant Jacobs 08/04/2015

Over the years I’ve spoken out about a number of issues through this blog, some controversial.

(Well, at least some people think they are controversial. But that’s often the point: the issue is often not considered controversial to most scientists, but is to others.)

There’s a lot of things you could consider about speaking out on controversial issues. Here I’d like to mostly look at how giving correct context is important. It’s one mark of good communication of a topical issue that has attracted public attention, and not just science issues. Conversely lack of context is one feature distinguishing those who are acting as advocates rather than science communicators. I also touch on distinguishing communication and advocacy.

The topic of scientists speaking out on difficult issues is getting an airing in New Zealand twice this week. Once at the New Zealand Association for Scientists meeting Going Public: Scientists speaking out on difficult issues on Friday April 10th[1] and in an on-line discussion for SciCommNZ, Communicating controversial science on twitter on tonight at 8:30pm[2]. Part of this is targeted at plans to development a ‘code’ for science communication in New Zealand.[3]

This issue was also aired on Saturday March 21st in an Otago Daily Times piece by Emeritus Professor Gerry CarringtonEthics and advocacy tricks.[4] He took up identifying advocacy from communication, distinguishing those that publish through scientific channels, with it’s “disciplined process where they must demonstrate integrity and leave feelings and politics at the door” and the “few, claiming to be the true skeptics, [who] disregard these conventions.” In addition to those who you can clearly distinguish this way there are also a (very) small number of scientists who try straddle both science and advocacy of positions. These people sometimes offer positions that are considered at odds with the current science or air views that are not yet well-established.

Carrington sketches out some of the approaches used by advocates, which he suggests readers should be wary of: “false dichotomy, generalising from the particular and selective use of the evidence. […] categorical claims without providing reliable evidence.”[5] He suggests these tactics interfere with pubic discussions on topical issues.

He goes on to write, “It is also unethical for recognised scientists or professionals to use such methods while implying that their conduct is justified by their professional standing.”

One question might be who they speak for: do they speak for science, as in the scientific community as a whole, or a particular view they favour that is not yet considered well-established? Along with this is if the information is in it’s full context, or is a particular context being given that ‘spins’ the message. At an extreme a few have presented to media statements that their own research doesn’t show, touting their wares beyond the reach of their own evidence.[6]

When we communicate a topic for public consumption I’d like to think that we are hoping to help people development a perspective on a topic, a perspective characterised by a balanced view of the issues at hand for that topic.

One element of context is the state of play of the research being presented.

‘Controversial science’ can be about new results that have just been presented.

Research is initially presented as data gathered and a case for what that data might say.

Initial reports don’t actually mean that much. They’re a starting point, not an end-point. Over time independent lines of evidence back, or as the case may be, oppose the earlier case for the data collected. The end-point, if there is one, is when the issue is considered well understood and accepted from a range of scientific studies. It’s important to relate where each thing stands in this.

A few thoughts about scientists presenting their understanding to media. You’ll want to present what the general standing on the topic is (the ‘scientific consensus’), irrespective of your own views on them. If you present your own views, they’ll want to be placed in the context of the current understanding, how science considers your views regardless of your personal views on how science views your views.

This wants to be done explicitly: it’s not reasonable for a scientist to expect a journalist (e.g. your interviewer) or the audience to have to deduce how your statements relate to science as a whole.

This wants to be done honestly. I’ve seen a few say words to the effect that ‘science is coming around to understanding that …’ when that is, in fact, a wishful reading of the state of play, one that favours their own view.

Most scientists have little trouble with this. A thought I’ve previously suggested is if asked for an opinion, defer and explain what is known, rather than what you ‘believe’.

Frequently we see media scrambling to report the latest reports from the scientific literature, particularly if they relate to a controversial topic.

Why the rush? Do these results really need to be presented today, tomorrow?

New results take time to digest and dissect: the ‘real’ examination of a new research report follows in the weeks, more usually months and perhaps years after it’s publication. As I alluded to earlier, initial reports in and of themselves often don’t mean that much: it’s what follows within the scientific community that does.

I’m going to keep a few thoughts about this for a later post as it’s a large and on-going problem for science communication.[7] For this piece, this context is important too – that something is an initial report and the caveats that go with that will want to be pointed out.[8]

Context includes previous research and can include non-science elements.

Actions that move positions and accounts that people can move to… It’s often pointed out that it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to move those ‘committed’ to a cause by presenting data alone. Similarly, people have suggested to how to interact with and address people holding other points of view.[9] I like the notion that many different types of communication can contribute in their way, whether they are different types of media, formats or styles,[10] but at some point people need material they can take in quietly on their own.[11]

I’ve read of a few accounts of people shifting from tightly-held positions, for example: creationism, climate change ‘denial’, opposition to genetically-engineered plants. For me, a common element is their once having been encouraged to review ‘the evidence’, having had had some material they can take up in their own time. It’s not all of what is involved, but it seems a key element.


This is more lightly sketched than I’d like, but I’m limited in time for tonight – partly as this wants to be out before the SciChatNZ session tonight. My apologies for the limited discussion then.

1. I would like to have attended this, but unfortunately it’s now sold out. A PDF copy of the programme is available on-line. Attending from Dunedin for these things isn’t cheap, especially as items like this come out of my pocket. Currently return airfares start at ~$600.

2. Details are on the SciCommNZ website – basically follow tweets with the hashtag #SciCommNZ from 8:30pm on 8th April. Announcements will be presented by @scicommnz.

3. To keep this focused, I’ve put this aside but there is plenty of material on-line to get a feeling for stances and issues with the idea of a ‘code’ for science communication. Here are a few starter articles:

4. Unfortunately there appears to be no on-line copy of this article. He also writes at Energy Cultures.

5. Probably one of the better examples of this at the present time might be the self-titled ‘Food Babe’, Vani Hari. Fellow blogger Alison Campbell has written a little about some of her claims.

6. Andrew Wakefield suggesting a link between multivalent MMR vaccines and autism to journalists is probably the best known example, but there are other examples.

7. This is another large topic that I have hoped to write on for some time. Among other things, I’d like to see the embargo system change to improve science communication.

8. It’s worth noting that ‘expert opinion’ statements are often too limited, as it take times to read and digest a research paper, particular if the researcher isn’t working in the exact same line of research. (Most of these statements are from people working in the same broad area of science, but who have their own, different, research interests.)

9. Alison has a recent post on this, warmth, empathy – and science communication.

10. Aggressive tit-for-tat lacking context excepted, understandably. There can be a place for being quite firm about core figures who promote unsound views (e.g. ‘The Food Babe’, Andrew Wakefield, etc.), but I’m not of the opinion this helps for those that would be considered ‘followers’ or those simply are trying to figure out what the fuss is all about.

11. Or a space where they can ask questions without feeling ‘threatened’ by others reading them – something hard to do in most of the present social media contexts that wider communication occurs in.

Other articles on Code for life:

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Media now only report on public ignorance

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Hyperbole from university press offices

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Media reporting of subsequent findings

0 Responses to “Communicating controversial science in context”

  • Quick a note for those wanting to join tonight’s SciCommNZ discussion on this topic on twitter, from their website:

    “questions will be posted to the #SciCommNZQ hashtag – make sure your answer includes the #SciCommNZ hashtag! If you’re unsure of how to participate, check out our handy guide, tweet us at @scicommnz”