I had my 10 minutes of fame last week as I was powdered up and thrust before the cameras for TVNZ7’s Media7 special on science and the media. A really fun experience, but there was some kind of weird time-absorbing phenomenon going on in the TVNZ studio that seemed to reduce my time to about 10 seconds.
Before I went up to Auckland for the filming I dutifully did my research and went around talking to some scientists I know that have had a fair bit of media coverage. I asked them about their experiences, and why they think it is that journalists sometimes struggle with reporting science, and some scientists struggle with talking to the media. I got so much great information. And then managed to blather away my precious screen time talking about a potential market for hagfish-skin t-shirts. Seriously, where does this stuff come from?! Shudder.
So, here is my chance to say what I should have said. I particularly want to share with you an analogy that my doctoral supervisor shared with me (that he had in turn been told by a mentor in the US). He likened science to law. As scientists, we prepare a theory, and then test it by gathering evidence — much as lawyers do. Our evidence (data) varies in the weight that can be placed upon it: we have qualitative studies and observations (think of this as circumstantial evidence), and we have quantitative data (cold hard facts). But – and herein lies the difference — when a scientist’s ’case’ is reported in the media, there is no standard framework or rules around how those different kinds of evidence are presented. More often than not, science stories are reported with little concept of the weighting that can be given to a particular piece of scientific information. And so we end up with the risk of the scientific conclusions being overstated or taken out of context.
If a reporter of a criminal law trial treated circumstantial evidence (’Suspect X was seen outside the crime scene at 4:55 am, 5 minutes before the victim is believed to have died…’) as cold hard facts (’…and is therefore the murderer’), they would likely be sued/reprimanded/sacked. Were that same reporter to overstate the bounds of scientific data, they would probably just end up looking a little lazy.
So, how do scientists cope with this? They adopt their own internal framework for presenting their data. You’ve seen this before: excessive use of ’maybes’ and ’possiblys’ and ’likelys’ and ’coulds’. The result: quite often a dithering, indecisive, dispassionate stuffy scientist. I hate to say it but it’s true!
It all comes down to how scientists present the uncertainty and caveats that surround their research. There has to be a way for scientists to do this without turning it into a dry sleep-inducing event. For some, the ability to do this comes very naturally, and for the others — well, practise practise practise!
Perhaps if more scientists can perfect the skill of presenting their science whilst dealing with scientific uncertainty, it might lead to more captivating science stories in the media.