An alternative perspective on the challenges facing science today
Lessons from the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop in london organised by Sense About Science
Do you know what the following claims have in common?
I hope you have realised that none of these claims have any substantial evidence to support them, so we can safely assume they are false [1,2]. Everyday we are bombarded by adverts and stories in the news detailing the latest scientific advances and companies selling their newest health and beauty products. How can us scientists ensure the wrong information does not reach the public?
The mainstream media is often criticised for biased reporting of current affairs. They have also angered many scientists for dumbing down the science when reporting about newly published studies, or even distorting the main findings to support one’s agenda, perhaps politically motivated. Quite unexpectedly tabloid newspapers can be more accurate at reporting science stories than broadsheet newspapers. While hyping up a study, as “the next miracle cure for cancer” will undoubtedly garner attention and increase newspaper sales, their intentions are not always so covetous. Newsrooms are incredibly competitive environments, so the pressure to release an attractive story can be so immense that erroneous reporting can slip through. Journalists actually do welcome help to interpret the latest studies, after all they are not trained scientists, so how can we expect them to critically analyse data from a study like a trained scientist can! And it is incredibly damaging for a journalist in the long term if they become known for misreporting a study, as scientists will not trust them if they receive a request for interview. Journalists often use #journorequest on Twitter to find experts to help them on a story.
How can you ensure the main message of your study doesn’t get lost in the media hype? If your study gains massive media attention, be prepared for interviews, and have three clear messages that you can repeat. Learn to speak in repeated sound bites, as you generally do not have much time to have your say. As you are the expert of the study, be prepared to engage with people with all levels of intellect. If you believe your study is not receiving the attention it deserves, then get your word out there. Practice writing about your study in a short but interpretable manner, as if it were a newspaper headline. Even try writing and circulating press releases to get yourself known and trusted in the media as an expert in your field of research. When writing your press release, target it towards a journalist specialising in scientific reporting. It also pays to go to your university press office and talk about your research; they like to hear from active researchers. However it is interesting to note that journalists do not always trust university press releases, as they have been known to exaggerate the impact of a study, due to their reliance on publicity to obtain further funding.
The terminology you use is extremely important, as words can have different meanings in different disciplines. For example the word ‘significance’ to a scientist means that the p-value obtained from a statistical analysis is small enough that the null hypothesis can be rejected. For example a treatment is shown to significantly reduce cell death in comparison to administering water, the null hypothesis in this case would be that the treatment does not affect cell death. But to the general public or a journalist, significance means something that is important and worthy of attention. So to relay your message, it is important to use simpler and understandable terms, and speak in the journalist’s language. This does not necessarily mean dumbing down the science; you just need to disseminate the core message. You cannot expect the public as non-scientists to understand all of the hard-core science.
So there is plenty a scientist can do to help the media report science accurately. But as a member of the public, what can you actually believe? If you see an advertisement or news story and you are not quite sure if there is any evidence to back it up, there is something you can do about it – ask for evidence! Sense About Science has launched a brand new website: www.askforevidence.org, which gives guidance on how you can ask for evidence. You can directly email the company/journalist/publication and request to see evidence behind the claim, or you can fill in a form on the Ask For Evidence website. Companies have already been forced to withdraw products or advertisements, and change policies as a result of being asked for evidence they could not provide to support their claims. Sense About Science also regularly teams up with scientists in the Voice of Young Science network to examine the evidence behind suspicious claims, for example the use of homeopathy in developing countries, and the promotion of detox diets and products. You can see more about their campaigns here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/voys-campaigns-64.html. So put your critical thinking hat on and ask for evidence the next time you see something a little dodgy. The more people ask for evidence, the more people will expect to be asked, thus we can create a huge culture change.
 Book by Ben Goldacre (2009) Bad Science, Harper Perennial, UK.
Dr. Anusha Seneviratne
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