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?