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29/08/2014

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Sounding off: Direct our rage!

Don’t be disillusioned, urges Daniel MacArthur

There is a peculiar kind of incendiary rage that many scientists (and indeed other academics) are intimately familiar with. It comes with reading an article in the mainstream press that spectacularly misrepresents your particular field of research, typically taking a fairly innocuous or dubious finding and dramatically exaggerating its significance. A single study weakly linking a genetic variation with sleep length becomes ‘the Thatcher gene’, for instance, just to name one particularly egregious example from my own field.

Don’t be disillusioned, urges Daniel MacArthur

There is a peculiar kind of incendiary rage that many scientists (and indeed other academics) are intimately familiar with. It comes with reading an article in the mainstream press that spectacularly misrepresents your particular field of research, typically taking a fairly innocuous or dubious finding and dramatically exaggerating its significance. A single study weakly linking a genetic variation with sleep length becomes ‘the Thatcher gene’, for instance, just to name one particularly egregious example from my own field.

Most of our colleagues are similarly disbelieving. We are reassured that nobody could possibly believe such transparent nonsense, and return to academic life. But each over-hyped ‘breakthrough’ that fails to translate into actual cures for cancer further erodes public trust in science, and every ill-informed rant in an opinion column about the money wasted on a certain field of research shifts the public mind against further funding of our discipline. The damage is incremental, but it is most certainly real.

Even when we understand the damage that is being done, we often feel helpless to prevent it: scientists have small voices against the blaring headlines and mammoth readerships of the mainstream media. In fact our position is more hopeful than many scientists appreciate.

Death throes
Mainstream science writing is currently in turmoil. Science reporting in many traditional media outlets is in ugly death throes: slashed budgets and the increasingly frenetic pace of information flow have led to an increasingly disillusioned core of traditional science writers, many of whom do little more than regurgitate press releases with an added veneer of hype and drama.

However, this does not spell the death of public understanding of science. In fact quality science reporting is still thriving, but often in venues outside the traditional press: on online news sites, science blogs, and even amidst the buzz on social media venues such as Twitter.

In fact, the slow death of mainstream science writing means that scientists now have more avenues than ever before to communicate their science to a general audience, and I would argue that we have an obligation to take advantage of them.

Different outlets
We need to go out and build relationships with good science writers. Identify the writers who consistently write balanced, well-informed stories about your field. If you know of a scientific story that you think might appeal to a broader audience, let them know about it well in advance of the story breaking, and tell them why they should care.

We must also become science writers ourselves. Blogging provides a free, easy way to communicate your own research, and your informed opinions about advances in your field, to the wider world. Your regular readership might be small, but quality posts about science can often reach a far wider audience if picked up by a more popular blog or a news aggregator like Reddit. If you don’t have a blog, and you’re incensed by a current story in the press, write to the more popular blogs in your field proposing a guest article on that topic.

Finally, we must seize every chance to stand up to bad science and bad science writing. If a story is over-hyped or ill-informed, call it out. In general, writing a letter to the publication that hosted the story is relatively ineffective. Take advantage of the good science reporters and self-publishing avenues to disseminate corrective information as quickly as possible.

It’s easy to be disillusioned about the decay of quality science writing in the traditional press, but we must remember that all change brings opportunities. In fact there has never been a better time for scientists interested in communicating their work to the world: we just need to direct our rage constructively.


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Dr Daniel MacArthur
Dr Daniel MacArthur is a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA, and blogs about genetics at Genomes Unzipped (www.genomesunzipped.org).
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