Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Scientists and communication

Michael Skapinker (Associate Editor of the FT and a columnist) writes: "Journalists often demand definitive answers. Scientists need to explain that they are not always possible."

Scientists must learn to talk to the media
By Michael Skapinker

Published: October 29 2007 17:53

I occasionally speak to school students about journalism and they usually ask the same questions. Have you interviewed anyone famous? (Richard Branson and John Cleese seem to pass muster.) What do you do if there is no news? (There is always news.) What should I study if I want to be a journalist?

I spend some time on the last one, advising them to study whatever they are most interested in, whether it is history, foreign languages or economics. The craft of journalism is something they can learn later. Far better to acquire some knowledge to bring to the job. And I tell them there is a desperate need for more scientists who can broadcast and write.

Science and the media have not always served each other well. Last week, the Royal Society of Arts and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism hosted a stimulating discussion on the theme “Do scientists get the media they deserve?” The speakers were Craig Venter, the genome research pioneer, and Niall Dickson, a former BBC journalist who is now chief executive of the King’s Fund, the independent health charity.

On the basis of his performance, Mr Venter, who was once described in The New Yorker as an “idiot”, does not get the press he deserves. He was amusing and quietly spoken. He was also easier on journalists than Mr Dickson, who worried about the media’s tendency to sensationalise, to oversimplify and to reduce the world to black and white.

On the other hand, Mr Venter said scientists, driven by their need for research grants, were guilty of exaggerating what they hoped to achieve. They were happy if they fell 50 per cent short of their stated goals. Business executives who fell even slightly short were adjudged failures.

Mr Dickson said he was not entirely pessimistic. Organisations such as the Science Media Centre, whose director, Fiona Fox, chaired the discussion, helped scientists explain themselves. (“Large numbers are very difficult to imagine,” the centre tells scientists. “Rather than 1 in 1,200, talk about one child in a large secondary school.”) The centre also helps journalists with “thumbnail sketches” entitled, for example: “What is peer review? Peer review is where scientists open their research to the scrutiny of other experts in the field.”

Based on my experience as a non-scientific journalist, occasionally writing about controversies such as mobile phone emissions, genetically modified food and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, here are a few other suggestions for scientists.

First, do not assert a certainty that science cannot sustain. Journalists often demand definitive answers. Scientists need to explain this is not always possible. This can work. The Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme last month issued a nuanced report on the health risks from mobile phones.

The programme, funded by the UK government and the industry, found no evidence of ill health in mobile phone users but added that “cancer symptoms are rarely detectable until 10 to 15 years after the cancer producing event and, since few people have used their phones that long, it is too early to say for certain whether mobile phones could lead to cancer or indeed to other diseases”.

The Daily Express reported it this way: “Scientists have admitted there may be long-term health risks from using mobile phones. A major study published on Monday found no evidence of a link between short-term use and brain cancer. But experts behind the research said it was too early to know what will happen in future.” Not bad.

Second, people, however well-meaning, generally make sacrifices for the wider good only if they can see benefits for themselves or their families. People may be prepared to buy hybrid cars because they can see that global warming might affect their loved ones.

But European consumers refused to set aside their suspicions about genetically modified food just because US companies claimed it would help farmers in the developing world. Consumers could see nothing in it for themselves and they suspected the alleged benefits would accrue mainly to the companies. Third, while people may be prepared to tolerate some risk for themselves, they are prepared to accept far less for their children.

When a lone British doctor claimed the MMR vaccine could cause autism (an assertion that has attracted no scientific support), public health officials violated all these suggestions.

They baldly asserted that the vaccine was safe, when people knew no vaccination was completely safe. They told parents who refused to vaccinate their children that they were risking the health of the community. Parents were not prepared to sacrifice their own children for the community.

With patient persuasion, and the discrediting of the alarmist research, immunisation rates in England are climbing again but, at 85 per cent, are still short of the 95 per cent needed to ensure widespread immunity.

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