Chinese Whispers, Truth and the Media

A couple of years ago, when I won the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science prize for Europe, L’Oreal asked me to prepare various bits of material for press releases and other publicity. Their initial brief press release mentioned both that I did work relevant to prosthetic devices (true in so far as I work on cell-substrate interactions) and that my research was relevant to Alzheimer’s Disease (true in so far as my work on protein aggregation has shown that similar states of supramolecular aggregation can be found in the milk protein beta-lactoglobulin and the protein fragment A beta 1-40). Both statements are therefore plausibly correct, although even at the time I would have liked to reduce the weight attached to them but was persuaded otherwise. By the time this was translated into the first publicity for the prize, in the Observer, it read

A British professor whose work in soft matter physics could lead to better hip replacements and early tests for Alzheimer’s disease has won one of five worldwide ‘laureates’ recognizing exceptional women scientists.

Since then, I have continued to be badged with these two applications of my research. This is of course somewhat my own fault. For instance the title of the talk I am giving at the end of the month at the IOP is ‘Alzheimer’s Disease and Yoghurt: a Physicist’s Exploration of Proteins’ and was the trigger for getting onto Start the Week (discussed at the end of a previous post). But note in that title, and in anything I will say in my talk, there is nothing to suggest I am working on early tests for Alzheimer’s Disease since it wouldn’t be accurate to say so. I’m not.

However, evolution of what I apparently do has continued. In this week’s Guardian it is said of me [that I am]

An expert in the structure of “soft” matter, Donald researches unconventional areas for a physicist – such as revolutionary treatments for Alzheimer’s.

So, by small but oh-so-important modifications I have gone from

• Doing some in vitro experiments which show a similar state of aggregation in very different proteins including one known to play a major role in Alzheimer’s Disease, coupled with a collaboration which has shown these aggregates are seen in the brain of patients who have died of Alzheimer’s (my version, and therefore ‘accurate’);
• working on early tests; (according to the Observer in 2008)
• researching revolutionary treatments for Alzheimer’s (this week in the Guardian).

This is deeply worrying. I am sure I have never laid claim to doing anything that might be a treatment for Alzheimer’s, revolutionary or otherwise, or even that I am thinking about working on early tests. If I had indeed made that progression since the first documentation was gathered for publicity in late 2008 to ‘revolutionary treatments’ it would be truly remarkable. But the newspapers simplify and want to make good copy. In the most recent case, I knew nothing about what the Guardian was planning and writing until I discovered from Twitter on the day itself that I was in the newspaper as part of their celebrations for International Women’s Day. Not much I can do to correct the inaccuracies in a case like that. However, it leaves me very uncomfortable that virtues and skills I do not possess are being attributed to me.

In so far as the media stories here are not really trying to talk about science per se it probably doesn’t actually matter. These were, for better or worse, stories about me as an individual, and more particularly me as a woman scientist, one who

is passionate about being a role model

(again from this week’s Guardian).

Even that is not entirely accurate. I am glad that by being a successful scientist who also happens to be a woman I can act as a role model for women, and I’m passionate about what I do (or I wouldn’t be doing it, even if, as I’ve said before, I am not a fan of the word passion), but I have not set out to be a role model, driven by that as my passion.

However, if these were articles about my science I am not sure that I would have confidence they would be any more accurate about what I do. Therein lies the problem. I, like many another scientist, have had bad experiences with the media. In my case this was many years ago when my attempt to put my science into simple language led to it being trivialized in a way I found far worse than annoying. It put me off trying to engage with the press for more than a decade. I am now a ‘reformed character’ who wishes to do my bit to demonstrate publicly that science is exciting, and to make the science I do seem relevant to the public’s general lives, because it is. But, even without these stories being hyped up so far as to make it look as if I’m going to cure Alzheimer’s tomorrow, they still jar with my sense of truth, and I always want to add a sentence or two of caution and precision so that what is written really does accord with what I’m doing.

Although I can write this post based only on my own personal experiences, I am sure it illustrates a larger issue that others will have encountered. There is an unfortunate tension between scientific accuracy and journalistic snippets. I suppose that is why I’ve come to believe media training is very important but what I am describing here cannot be solved by training the scientist. In my case this is a saga of propagation of inaccuracies by people who, I’m sure, are not and would not regard themselves as scientists: they are not aware that they are in essence playing Chinese Whispers with the facts.

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One Response to Chinese Whispers, Truth and the Media

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    Or according to George Cham of PhD Comics…..

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