Breaking

Monday, December 12, 2016

Science is poorly communicated to the public


"If I could change one thing about science, I would change the way it is communicated to the public by scientists, by journalists, and by celebrities," writes Clare Malone, a postdoctoral researcher in a cancer genetics lab at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
She wasn't alone. Quite a few respondents in our survey expressed frustration at how science gets relayed to the public. They were distressed by the fact that so many laypeople hold on to completely unscientific ideas or have a crude view of how science works.
They griped that misinformed celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow have an outsize influence over public perceptions about health and nutrition. (As the University of Alberta's Timothy Caulfield once told us, "It’s incredible how much she is wrong about.")
They have a point. Science journalism is often full of exaggerated, conflicting, or outright misleading claims. If you ever want to see a perfect example of this, check out "Kill or Cure," a site where Paul Battley meticulously documents all the times the Daily Mail reported that various items — from antacids to yogurt — either cause cancer, prevent cancer, or sometimes do both.
Sometimes bad stories are peddled by university press shops. In 2015, the University of Maryland issued a press release claiming that a single brand of chocolate milk could improve concussion recovery. It was an absurd case of science hype.
Indeed, one review in BMJ found that one-third of university press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.
But not everyone blamed the media and publicists alone. Other respondents pointed out that scientists themselves often oversell their work, even if it's preliminary, because funding is competitive and everyone wants to portray their work as big and important and game-changing.
"You have this toxic dynamic where journalists and scientists enable each other in a way that massively inflates the certainty and generality of how scientific findings are communicated and the promises that are made to the public," writes Daniel Molden, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. "When these findings prove to be less certain and the promises are not realized, this just further erodes the respect that scientists get and further fuels scientists desire for appreciation."

Fixes for better science communication

Opinions differed on how to improve this sorry state of affairs — some pointed to the media, some to press offices, others to scientists themselves.
Plenty of our respondents wished that more science journalists would move away from hyping single studies. Instead, they said, reporters ought to put new research findings in context, and pay more attention to the rigor of a study's methodology than to the splashiness of the end results.
"On a given subject, there are often dozens of studies that examine the issue," writes Brian Stacy of the US Department of Agriculture. "It is very rare for a single study to conclusively resolve an important research question, but many times the results of a study are reported as if they do."
But it’s not just reporters who will need to shape up. The "toxic dynamic" of journalists,academic press offices, and scientists enabling one another to hype research can be tough to change, and many of our respondents pointed out that there were no easy fixes — though recognition was an important first step.
Some suggested the creation of credible referees that could rigorously distill the strengths and weaknesses of research. (Some variations of this are starting to pop up: The Genetic Expert News Service solicits outside experts to weigh in on big new studies in genetics and biotechnology.) Other respondents suggested that making research free to all might help tamp down media misrepresentations.
Still other respondents noted that scientists themselves should spend more time learning how to communicate with the public — a skill that tends to be under-rewarded in the current system.
"Being able to explain your work to a non-scientific audience is just as important as publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, in my opinion, but currently the incentive structure has no place for engaging the public," writes Crystal Steltenpohl, a graduate assistant at DePaul University.
Reducing the perverse incentives around scientific research itself could also help reduce overhype. "If we reward research based on how noteworthy the results are, this will create pressure to exaggerate the results (through exploiting flexibility in data analysis, misrepresenting results, or outright fraud)," writes UC Davis's Simine Vazire. "We should reward research based on how rigorous the methods and design are."
Or perhaps we should focus on improving science literacy. Jeremy Johnson, a project coordinator at the Broad Institute, argued that bolstering science education could help ameliorate a lot of these problems. "Science literacy should be a top priority for our educational policy," he said, "not an elective."

No comments:

Post a Comment

loading...