Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Bad – and maybe some Good – Science

Posted by Athene Donald on August 26, 2010

This week’s THE has an article about mainstream science reporting (Trial by Error) and the quality, or lack thereof, has been the subject of many recent discussions on many blogs and in the mainstream press.  It also ties into issues about Scientific Literacy , in other words what we can expect the average member of the public to understand.  However the issue about science reporting is slightly different from simple literacy, in that the former is both about what the journalist is able to grasp (and therefore to report accurately), and about what the drivers for their reporting may be; these drivers are not solely about accuracy but rather forcibly tied into selling newspapers.  For some newspapers the two may mesh (as Mark Henderson of the Times says in the THE article, “There are some newspapers that are very concerned about getting things right as far as possible while still presenting accessible reporting for a general audience – which is entirely possible to do – and there are other media outlets that may take a different approach as to how they attempt to sell themselves.” ), but not for all. The Times is a much more responsible organisation on this front than some other newspapers one could name, for which the two drivers may be poles apart.

I am a late convert to the idea that scientists cannot simply avoid talking to the media because they are worried their science may be misrepresented (see my recent comments on Hilary Sutcliffe’s blog), having previously been personally burnt by bad experiences. But I now realise that this isn’t a good enough excuse not to try to engage.  And I also accept the arguments in the THE article that the unremittingly negative tone of Ben Goldacre’s writing is by now backfiring, however instructive his deconstruction of much of the Bad Science he reports may be.  However, one of the challenges is to find ways of celebrating good science in ways that aren’t immediately spun as the sort of hype that we see so often as ‘scientists find X cures cancer ‘.  Perhaps my recent experiences have been fortunate in that I am now interviewed as a female scientist, not a scientist. This seems to allow me to talk about the broader context of  my science , and to be allowed to specify I am doing underpinning science rather than discovering the Answer to Everything.  Or maybe I really learnt something from media training!  Nevertheless it has given me an opportunity to explain why I enjoy science as well as why the science I do may be useful.  Opportunities  to demonstrate that scientists are people, and not dangerous nerds who can’t be trusted , is to be seized in my view.

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