The “Science and the Public” story of the year might just be Arsenic using bacteria. Certainly, Alex’s critique has been the most popular post on this blog since we started and has received quite a bit of attention from other bloggers as well as in conventional media.

This might be a teachable moment in science communication, but even though it’s clear that this wasn’t handled particularly well, it’s hard to see how things can be done better in the future. Heather’s follow-up post is a great summary of how science works in the real world, but I think it also illustrates a fundamental difference in how science goes about collecting knowledge compared to most people in their daily lives, and especially compared to how the media reports what is “news.”


Consider Heather’s first steps in the scientific process:

  1. Scientist thinks they have made major new discovery
  2. Scientists writes up said discovery and submits paper to peer-reviewed journal (the bigger the claim, the fancier the journal)
  3. If editors of journal like the paper, they send it off to 3 or so experts in the field who review it, and provide the editor with feedback as to whether they feel the work is valid or not.
  4. Eventually, lets say the paper makes its way through the reviewers and gets published.

Advancing science is a formal process, and it’s collaborative. In principal, it doesn’t fall sway to arguments from authority or many of the other fallacies that people often succumb to. Arguments are based on data, and rebuttals use data to refute claims. I think that’s been accurately reflected in this debate: Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues published a paper containing a great deal of data, which they interpreted in a particular way. Most of the criticism has focused on the data, their methods for collecting it, or the claims they made based on the data. As a scientist, attacks on your data can feel like personal attacks, and sometimes debates like this can get quite heated, but the currency is almost always the data itself.

As I said, this is how it works in principal, but scientists are human too. In reality, an established lab with lots of credibility will have an easier time publishing sketchy data than a freshly minted assistant professor, and people will look more critically at a paper that’s published by a fierce competitor, but in general, over time, these biases work themselves out. The critical piece is the process that happens after a paper is published:

  1. other scientists start to pick at the paper (again, the bigger the claim, the more criticism typically surfaces).
  2. Original author might perform additional experiments that address these claims.
  3. Other scientists might carry out experiments that disprove the claims.
  4. Original claim either does, or does not, stand the test of time.

Unfortunately, media rarely reports this part of the story. It’s no wonder really; it can take decades for a consensus to be reached. Science advances incrementally, in fits and starts, and the really fundamental breakthroughs often aren’t appreciated until years later. But this process is the key to the success of science: the process acknowledges the propensity for error. And because of that, we get incrementally closer to the right answer.

There’s more to say on this, but I wanted to throw this out and get some feed back. Do you think that there’s a way for science or science reporting to make this long slog interesting, or to make it seem like a good thing? In most other contexts, constantly getting things wrong would be seen as a bad thing, but I think it’s the greatest strength of science.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin R
    December 11, 2010

    We live in an idiocracy with the attention span of a hyperactive child.

    Still, science and discovery are inherently interesting. I hate to say this but science reporting needs celebrity. It needs people like Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, or James Burke who connect with the public. It needs people who can use science to inspire the imagination. It needs people who can translate data and discovery into a story that people respond to.

  2. #2 Kevin
    December 11, 2010

    I don’t entirely disagree. But that can’t be the only solution. I love Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, (I’m a bit ashamed to say I didn’t know of James Burke), and I wish there were thousands like them. And there are people doing great science journalism, and writing great science books for lay audiences.

    But most people are going to watch things like this on CNN or Fox, or on a blog like Gawker – how do we get those outlets up to snuff or at least counteract their influence?

  3. #3 OtherKevin
    December 11, 2010

    Let me start by saying that science via press conference is NOT the way to do it. Most scientists do not hold press conferences to announce their findings. Instead it is when a government agency wants to grab headlines, justify their existence and advance someone’s career ambitions. Off the top of my head all of the ones I can think of are tainted in some way, Gallo’s announcement of the HIV (HTLV-III) virus, martian meteorite, The Thai Vaccine Trial, and this current one.

    Unfortunately, most people see science as a declarative process rather than an ongoing discussion. There is a reason there are letters to nature, back in the day they used to start with “Dear Sirs.” I think we need to do more to teach the public about the scientific process.

    Most people do not have the education or the access to journal articles needed to personally weigh in. Instead, they must trust the science writers and bloggers opinions to form their own views. Many sources credentials are unknown. Like many things in our society there is little room more moderate voices. When people tend to openly question science more often than not you get non-scientific arguments like the, intelligent design, XMRV->CFS one on ERV, anti-vax movements, HIV denialists. For example, a person with CFS that has legitimate questions about XMRV could easily become alienated by scientists urging restraint and others encouraging immediate anti-retroviral treatment. Normally it is the kooks who escalate things.

    Last, our national attention span is like that of a gnat. Science moves too slow for it to be headline material. However,there may be hope since NASCAR is quite popular…..

  4. #4 Jared
    December 12, 2010

    All I have to say about this is “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Most of the science by press conference is done when they lack extraordinary evidence, but still want to make the extraordinary claims.

  5. #5 RBH
    December 12, 2010

    Most of the criticism has focused on the data, their methods for collecting it, or the claims they made based on the data.

    Actually, the most interesting criticisms from a ‘scientific method’ point of view have been concerned with the lack of appropriate experimental and methodological controls. For example, see here:

    There’s a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true. The authors have done some of the latter, but not the former.

    That’s a real important notion.

  6. #6 Kevin
    December 12, 2010

    @ OtherKevin – Agreed on most points. I don’t think press-conferences are inherently bad, it’s important to let people know that their tax dollars are being well spent when it comes to research. But we need to figure out how to get a more knowledgable and/or engaged press-core.

    @ Jared – I’m not sure “most” press conferences are to make extraordinary claims without the evidence to back them up, but I certainly concede there are too many that are. And the biggest issue is that most of the science press can’t tell the difference.

    @ RBH – I group “lack of proper controls” in with “claims made based on the data,” but your point is well taken. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to understand what controls are needed without an intimate knowledge of the field. I find it hard enough to design controlled experiments in my own field; I have no idea what’s necessary to claim you have DNA with an arsenic backbone (well, I have a better idea after Alex’s post, but I certainly didn’t a week ago).

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