Why I Want To Hit Academics On The Nose With A Rolled-Up Newspaper
Bad professors. No!
Note: this article is about bad science communication. If you are a researcher who is having trouble communicating their science, send me a message on twitter, or better yet email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll help you write/say something about it!
There’s a curious phenomenon in science. It’s how a boring finding, say for example “coffee may reduce the occurrence of cancer in a certain breed of mouse” can turn into “drink coffee 5 times a day to live until the universe explodes”.
It’s not that complicated. Scientific findings are hard to communicate. So hard, in fact, that there’s an entire field dedicated to improving the way that we get the news about scientific findings out to the general population.
And because scientists can be wonderfully literal sometimes, it’s called “science communication”.
Unsurprisingly, many — if not most — scientists aren’t great at science communication. Which means that somewhere between “coffee for mice” and “eternal life”, there’s a gap where a bunch of non-scientists are trying to interpret what a researcher means in their study.
Often, they get it wrong.
And it’s important to remember that science communication isn’t just a meaningless term. When scientists don’t communicate properly, us normal people get the facts wrong.
And in health, getting the facts wrong means people die.
The Path Of Bad Science Comms
This is where the Path Of Bad Science Comms comes in.
There’s been a finding. Let’s say it’s something simple: people who eat oysters have 5% more attractive hair, as rated by a group of 50 volunteers. This is a pretty uninteresting finding; not only is 5% not a big difference in attractiveness-rating, but 50 people is a tiny sample. Add to that the fact that there’s no biologically plausible reason for oysters making hair look better, and it’s basically the type of finding that’s destined to be ignored by scientists the world over.
Let’s look at how most people hear about the oyster-hair phenomenon.
There’s a pretty well-defined path:
- Scientist makes finding. People who eat oysters are slightly prettier than those who don’t.
- Scientist publishes finding in a journal. This is read by 5 people (including their 4 co-authors and one confused oyster-lover).
- Media team in scientist’s university notices finding. Writes press release with a slightly embellished summary: “Oysters shown to improve hair, make people more attractive, [university] scientists say”. Remember, they are trying to garner media attention for the university, not get the facts 100% correct — this is literally their job.
- Media picks up slightly embellished summary. Runs a story that headlines: “Men, eat oysters to spice up your sex life: scientists find this slimy shellfish holds the answer to your hairy problems”. Gets the science 90% wrong, except the bit that they stole word-for-word from the university media team, who themselves nicked it off the scientist’s paper.
- You read the media article, think oysters are the cure, and start cramming the disgusting things into your mouth at every opportunity, even though you’re mostly just eating mollusk guts and sex organs.
We go from a simple, boring finding — oysters and nice hair being somehow related, to a small extent — to this piece of science being intimately connected to your life.
And the worst part? The Path rewards everybody involved. The scientist gets acclaim for an experiment that would otherwise have quickly been forgotten. The university gets featured in the news. And the media organisation gets a viral story that everybody is going to love.
The only person losing here is you. Me. Us.
Don’t believe it happens?
Here’s a study that found no clear evidence one way or the other for artificial sweeteners that was presented as evidence that Splenda was killing thousands. Here’s another that found evidence that acupuncture was ineffective at treating pain but was extolled by newspapers across the globe as proof that acupuncture worked. One more: a study that found that for every 300 women who took the pill, one more would get depression that was painted as the contraceptive pill being deathly bad for you.
It happens all the time.
And this is where we get to the whacking professors on the nose part of our trip. Because all of this confusion, all of this chaos about what is right, what is wrong, and how many eggs you should eat to avoid Alzheimer's*, could be avoided if scientists were better at telling people the results of their work.
That’s not to say it’s all scientists’ fault — we average people aid and abet a broken system by not listening to less-than-amazing research results, and by demanding scare stories from the media. When was the last time you read an article about science that was interesting but not particularly important?
For most people it’s never, because if it’s not important, why bother? Which means that every scientific finding has to be presented as important, otherwise we won’t read it.
And the Path gets trodden once more.
But scientists are also to blame. It turns out that it’s not just important to do the science, it’s important to make sure that people get it right as well. What’s the point of finding something out if the rest of humanity is convinced of the exact opposite by a tabloid newspaper? Why bother finding out medical facts if media sources convince people that they are basically dying anyway?
Why spend decades developing a cure just for people to get the message wrong and never take it?
I know what I would choose. And it’s not yelling “That’s not my job!” at a computer screen.
Science Comms 101
There are millions of ways to get the message out about your science. If you’ve dedicated your life to something, it’s probably interesting enough to enthrall people if you just set about it the right way.
But there are a few simple things you can do to fix the communication of your science:
- Talk to your media/comms department. Yes, you have one. Yes, they would love to hear from you.
- Start a blog/instagram feed/twitter account/youtube etc. Social media is the ultimate leveler when it comes to communication, and makes getting your message out super easy.
- Include plain-language abstracts in your articles. This is harder, because it is often up to the journal, but where possible a plain-language summary is really helpful. It makes it far, far easier for everyone to get the science right at every point in the Path.
None of these are going to overhaul the problem of bad science communication overnight. But they are small, easy steps that anyone can take.
It’s our responsibility as scientists to communicate properly. Because the consequences of not communicating can be really shocking. Remember all those stories about statins being bad for you? They are part of an ongoing fight in public health about who exactly should be taking these medications. But since most media sources just picked up the message “Take statins and die”, millions of people went off their medication.
Some of them probably died.
Because we didn’t communicate well.
Science communication isn’t just a fun foray into social media. It can absolutely be that as well, but fundamentally it’s about making sure that when you discover facts, you make sure people know about them.
It’s time to start getting science comms right.
*Hint: somewhere between “none” and “slightly more none”