Received Wisdom – Who do you trust?

Science met the Media on Tuesday at the Royal Institution. It was an interesting event where science journalism was discussed between scientists and journalists. To me, the discussion was mostly journalists talking to journalists – more than scientists and journalists, and I am not sure anyone got much of anywhere but discussions are often like that and its always good to chat.

On the whole there were a lot of good questions/points from the audience, from Nicola Davis passionately speaking in favour of science journalists reading original sources, to a woman who asserted the MMR scandal was scientists’ fault because it was scientists that let this terrible story get through peer review.

The Twitter #riscimedia feed was also intriguing:

@NicolaKSDavis: Should science journalists use scientists’ blogs as sources? Or are they an unregulated medium which could cause mischief?

@JacquelynGill: Journalists could equally cultivate relationships with scientists they trust to help with jargon and context in papers.

While all of these things are seemingly unrelated, there is a central thread that unites them all. Who do you trust?

When do you seek sources? Do we all need to go and read the original literature on everything just to be sure? Do we trust blogs?

Life is too busy for everyone – scientists, journalists, economists, mums, dads – to read all of the original sources all of the time, it is just not possible. I like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog where I trust him to read the sources so I don’t have to, then (mostly) I believe what he says. When I peer-review a scientific paper, I assume that the researchers aren’t just creating their data out of thin air. I assume they did the actual experiment they are showing me the data for. Usually when scientists out and out lie they don’t present the data they are lying about. Bold face lying in science is rare, most of the controversial science isn’t a matter of dishonesty, rather an over-interpretation of results.

Yes, blogs are unregulated, but blogs also give the opportunity to speak out, in their field of expertise, and give evidence-based counter-points to some particular science story which has appeared in the media. This is a good thing. So that anyone can observe scientific debate. This used to go on in peer-reviewed journals, but now it is in the public eye. This too is a good thing. I think this is such a good thing I wrote another post just about this a few weeks ago. Not to mention if it is really true that science journalists don’t really fact check their data, or only do “24% of the time” (as the #riscimedia feed indicates), isn’t media essentially unregulated too?

I think Jacquelyn Gill is spot on. Journalists could equally cultivate relationships with scientists they trust to help with jargon and context in papers.

I have jumped scientific field many times from Zoology to Evolutionary Biology to Chemistry to Physics and each time I am confronted with scientific publications I don’t necessarily understand. So I go and find someone in the field I can trust, to help me work my way through the jargon and context.

While we all have to be aware of received wisdom, it is valid to have a modicum of trust in your sources and to seek professional relationships with experts who can help you weave your way through new concepts. It’s why we have universities and schools and don’t just go read books or the internet in complete isolation.

All told, I thought it was an excellent event and certainly made me think about many issues. It is good to have discussion. I will end with my favourite tweet from the event:

@Stephen_Curry *sharp intake of breath* MT @Mariocracy wouldn’t scientists rather spend time writing a paper, instead of wasting time on blogs?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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9 Responses to Received Wisdom – Who do you trust?

  1. Pete langman says:

    It is interesting that you talk about received wisdom and who to trust – though not particularly how to trust – at the Royal Institution, when its near neighbour the Royal Society spent much of its early years attempting to ascertain how one was to evaluate the trustworthiness of a source.

    The questions which need asking, and many of the answers, are to be found in the writings of Francis Bacon, whose obsession with how to evaluate the trustworthiness of a source was trumped only by his mistrust of authority and his love for the trappings of success.

    Bacon was primarily concerned with how to communicate his particular take on how humanity was to advance through the intelligent application of natural philosophy. He was in many ways a blogger rather than a paper writer.

    I could quote innumerable things in support, but it’s late, and you’d all get bored.

  2. Pete langman says:

    Not particularly, his obsession with received wisdom permeated his entire canon, from Valerius Terminus and Redargutio philosophiarum through the Advancement of Learning, Novum organum and even Sylva sylvarum and its piggy-back book New Atlantis.

    ‘I contend not for the palm of wit nor for the sceptre of authority. I detract nothing from the genius of the ancients, nor from their eminence, or capacity. But I do criticise the very nature of their work, the road they took, the goal they pursued, their authority, and their findings. This is inevitable. Our belief in the riches we have inherited from them is the supreme cause of our poverty. No man can measure the extent of the injury they do to progress.’ Redargutio philosophiarum

  3. Nicely articulated, Sylvia. This is a problem I constantly face (as all scientists do, I suspect) in trying to stay on top of the literature. I’ll cop to taking a way out that could legitimately be seen as lazy – reading review articles. We all do it, and there, again, we’re trusting the authors, and to some extent the journal editors, to have correctly read and summarized the relevant primary publications.

    • Yes me too, the problem is I think there is alot of stuff out there I don’t necessarily see because there are so many articles on things I am interested in. Sometimes even in my own research area I find papers particularly oblique as well. This does not help matters.

  4. Adam Smith says:

    I was one of the journalists who argued that it’s a waste of time reading scientific papers. Within the constraints of the debate, I couldn’t explain my position fully. But I had a go in the pub afterwards with the scientists I spoke to. Incidentally, the pub was the location of a thorough dialogue between journos and researchers.

    And, Sylvia, you’ve done a good job of making my point for me. The journalist who, like me, does not have a science background or has a science background in another field from the one they’re writing about, would waste their time reading the paper. They’re not likely to understand enough of the paper for it to help with their journalism. In that sense, it’s not a trustworthy source (rather, the journalist shouldn’t trust him/herself to understand it).

    The thing to do is to speak to the scientists. As in the pub on Tuesday. And as in the emails and calls I put in to scientists when I’m working on a story. I’d much rather speak to a human than read a paper.

    I’m trained and experienced at extracting information and stories from people, not technical papers.

    • Niklas says:

      “The journalist who, like me, does not have a science background…”

      “I’m trained and experienced at extracting information and stories from people, not technical papers.”

      Science will in all probability not get less complex or intellectual demanding. So I wonder if this does not create a mounting pressure and strain on journalist without rigorous scientific training and their ability to understand, relate and translate new concept and ideas?

  5. karldcollins says:

    @Stephen_Curry *sharp intake of breath* MT @Mariocracy wouldn’t scientists rather spend time writing a paper, instead of wasting time on blogs?

    I think a little bit inside everybody who has any interest in science communication dies when they read that. 🙁

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