WEDNESDAY, 3 OCTOBER 2012
Sita Dinanauth reveals why it is important to fight against bad science
For years, mainstream media has held sway over our lives, directing the opinions of the public and biasing their views on the issue of the day. There have been several high-profile cases where the media driven opinion has clashed with scientific advancements and generally science has lost out. As a result, the majority of bench scientists I have come across, believe that when it comes to the reporting of science stories, sensation is what captures the non-scientist’s attention and what sells newspapers. As one biochemist put it, “when you consider the media from the perspective of a scientist, whose mind is quietly calmed by facts and detailed technical descriptions while being equally repulsed by emotive opinion and polarised arguments, you see why many are reluctant to interact with a machine they consider sensationalist, unbalanced and inaccurate.”As the very public interrogation of the Murdochs and the libel reform campaign demonstrate the mainstream media are now being held accountable for their tactics and their ability to report on correct information. However, biased reporting and sensationalism continue to be a problem when it comes to the reporting of science stories.
One of the greatest barriers between academic science and the general public is the restriction on access to peer reviewed publications. In Cambridge, those not employed by the University can expect to pay around ten pounds for a copy of this months Nature magazine, or a similarly inflated amount to access articles online.
Until access to science journals is changed, scientifically accurate, engaging reporting in paramount. Science writers act as an interpreter relaying first hand published data to the masses, so it is important that present data in an accurate, balanced way. The aim is to translate something fairly technical to a non-specialist audience but not to just recycle facts or impress the reader with extensive vocabulary and colourful metaphors. Brilliant science writers are able to marry the passionate curiosity that made them interested in science in the first place with theory and vivid explanations about the fundamentals. Oliver Sacks does this with neurology, Lawrence Krauss with physics, Vilayanur Ramachnadran with neuroscience Ben Goladacre with medicine and David Attenborough with nature.
Science writing is not about ‘dumbing down,’ nor is it about filtering out the complicated parts of peer-reviewed publications. The best science writers assume that what applies to all other media disciplines applies to science: your readers are intelligent enough to want to find sources, view your argument from several, balanced angles and decide whether they believe the evidence supporting the facts. They don’t need to be told what to think.
A new emerging challenge in the modern world of smartphones, social media and the Internet, is the hunt for the truth. When it comes to science in a society like this how can we ensure that people are exposed to informed opinions and hear truths supported by research and evidence? In a world where everyone has a voice, who do we listen to? Now that the public are able to challenge the media and blogging and social media have opened up more avenues for communicating than ever before, it is a great time to produce an opinion or voice backed up by logic.
But in an endless sea of voices, the voice of scientific reason and logic can only be heard if all scientists get more involved in public communication. This is why Not-Sci was founded. To give young scientists in Cambridge a strong and reliable voice that can stand against unsupported claims, false treatments and empty promises and share the joys of good science with everyone.
Sita Dinanauth is finishing her PhD in the Department of Biochemistry. She created Not-Sci in 2009 and was head of BlueSci Film until 2011.
Not-Sci is written by BlueSci members for Varsity. You can find them all on the Varsity blog online at varsity. co.uk. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.