Science for the Public and more…

Archive for March, 2009

Science for the Public


            It’s all about accuracy. Have you heard or read something where you’ve thought, “That can’t be right!”? Maybe on the network news or in the local newspaper, either or both are very possibly inaccurate. It happens in all areas and we have come to expect it in advertising and politics, but it is most disconcerting when it involves a science topic. There is a substantial quantity of misunderstanding and even misinformation when science is discussed by communicators who do not have a scientific background and must depend on “informed sources”.  What if the background information they obtain is merely conventional wisdom and cannot be validated and verified? Where does this leave the writer, who probably is intelligent but untrained in  scientific methods and interpretation of data? The writer must identify sources that he/she not only trusts, but whose accuracy can be verified. If sources are trustworthy and provide scientifically valid information, the communication will be accurate and the communicator will achieve a level of trust with the audience.  The communicator should not write or speak like a scientist (often pretty boring stuff), but she/he must develop the tools of skeptical inquiry that are used by scientists.  How do you do this?

            “Think locally,” advises David Periman of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Get to know your local biologist at nearby universities.” Learn their areas of expertise.  Establishing these relationships is important; when an important story comes up on deadline, a researcher who has met you is more likely to call you back. As in any beat, maintain an exhaustive list of sources, organized by topic on a computer where it can be easily searched, include home and cell phone numbers if you can. Be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred.  And always remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist.  Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise.  Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.

            Another, but related issue is risk reporting. Over the past three decades, issue-oriented organizations and the media have bombarded the public with a seemingly endless array of risks, from the familiar to the exotic: anthrax, West Nile virus, radon, asbestos, or mad cow disease. In writing about scientific research and numbers, it is important to understand how strong the study is, the scientific credibility of those who conducted it, and the degree of uncertainty.  Real science should include numbers.  Junk science is full of words such as “may, might, could”. Writers should look for both relative and absolute risk information. Relative risk can be misleading if you have no idea what the level of risk was in the first place. Comparing a new risk with more familiar risks can sometimes be helpful, such as the irony of the pregnant woman who was protesting against air pollution from a West Virginia power plant while smoking a cigarette that obviously put her and her unborn child at far greater risk.

            Conventional wisdom may be an even greater problem when presenting science to the public.  Yes, even scientists can be guilty of accepting something as fact when it is not fact, or is an interpretation of facts that still have substantial uncertainty related to them.  This problem has become particularly troublesome with respect to environmental issues.  Ecology and environmental issues related to ecological matters generally involve greater uncertainty than the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry).  An example is the statement that “fire is an ecological necessity”.  This statement is accurate only if a particular stage of ecological succession must be maintained.  In the absence of fire, succession will proceed in a different direction.  It is more accurate to say, “Fire is natural, but it is not absolutely necessary”.  Finding reliable sources that can and will distinguish between organizational policy or conventional wisdom and scientifically valid information may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.

            The credibility of the communicator, the media and, ultimately, the scientific enterprise itself, is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks that we face and how to deal with them. Sometimes the best that we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer, so we need to learn to live with uncertainty. This fact, in itself, is not easy to communicate. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced risk reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right, and that they interpret these facts appropriately!

            Outdoor communicators are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife, and environmental issues. The writer has a responsibility to be accurate, as well as interesting and entertaining.  If you are expressing your opinion, or the opinion of an “expert”, say so.  Opinions are important, but they should not be presented as scientific fact. The credibility of the writer will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of his/her work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.  

            A session entitled “Science, the public and the Outdoor Communicator” with a panel of five writers experienced in science communication will be presented at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Roanoke, VA in June, 2007.


Published in Outdoors Unlimited


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