(Science) communication breakdown

Today in science communication class, we were lucky enough to be visited by Felice Freyer, Medical writer at the Providence Journal.  She brought up an interesting point: should journalists as science translators for the public really be reporting on individual papers that are published?  Obviously journalists try to only report papers that have some sort of significance to the public that people connect with, but should we redefine what “news story” means so that it depicts more general studies or projects rather than highly specific experiments or results?

People care about stories that matter to them.  As much as I hate to admit it, just because I am deeply fascinated by the expression of meiotic genes during echinoderm embryogenesis doesn’t mean everyone else is.  This makes sense.  People are busy, and they only want to hear about stuff that will affect them and the things they care about.

only theoretical importance

Unfortunately, the way science works is simply not conducive to intriguing people other than… well, scientists.  Not every paper published warrants the words “important discovery” in its corresponding news story headline, and not every finding made in a laboratory can be applied to the real world.  That’s just the way it is.

Science is an iterative process.  Here’s an analogy:  each finding is a brick we stick in a wall in its proper place, and as you go along over time building up new findings, the wall’s gaps begin to close and details are filled in.  Scientists have to work from specific to general because that’s the only way they are able to perform carefully controlled experiments and obtain objective results.

brick-wall

I know it can be frustrating to see science as it is portrayed in social media.  Many times the meaning can be lost – or worse, twisted until it is inaccurate – by the time it has gone through multiple translations and summarizations to get to the average American reader’s eyes.  It is frustrating to the public to see news stories depicting scientists as “changing their minds” over and over again, but really what is happening is all those small findings are being layered on top of each other and giving the scientists a clearer, more informed picture of what is actually happening.

Cartoon science communication

Think of it as trying to measure the right amount of water into a cup.  You pour too much, then take too much out, then add a little, etc. until you finally get it just right.  Scientists may dance back and forth across the “just right” line because that’s what the science is telling them, but they are always getting closer to the right answer.  My question is: should science reporters refrain from telling the public each time a finding occurs and instead focus on relaying the more general conclusions scientists make at the end of a series of experiments?  Basically, the final final point?

I’m not sure what the answer is.  Sometimes, individual studies can have a high impact, and sometimes it’s just nice to know what the science world is up to.  Other times, perhaps this is not the case.  It’s especially difficult for scientists to know what the public would be interested in, because typically they’re interested in science in general.  But here’s some advice in the meantime:

Be a critical reader.  If you see the word “groundbreaking,” it usually means the journalist is exaggerating.  Take everything with a grain of salt, and do not become discouraged by the capriciousness that seems to come with scientific findings.  Keep in mind that science is a process and that a “discovery” is, 99 times out of 100, a small piece of a very large puzzle.

As for me, I’ll try my best to portray science as accurately as possible, knowing that I have a responsibility as a budding scientist to make science accessible – and hopefully, interesting – to the community.

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