Science is Social

I got the chance to attend a panel discussion about science and the media presented by the UK-based charity Sense About Science. The audience was primarily scientists, many of whom were angry about how science is presented in the media: the outlandish claims, the hype, presenting "both sides" of stories where there is clear scientific consensus. The panel included a professional scientist who teaches about communicating with the public, an editor at the journal Cell, and a science reporter for the Boston Globe.

The panel was mostly about "traditional" media, with a little shout-out to blogs that show the inner life of scientists and "take out the middle man" and "translate" the science for regular people. What was clear to me after the discussion wasn't anything about how awesome blogs are and how terrible news reporting of science is, but that all media is social media, and we (scientists, writers, bloggers, readers, commenters, tweeters, re-tweeters, gossipers, taxpayers, walk-for-the curers, teach, policy-makers, grant-funders) are all people and we are all responsible for the quality and content of science reporting and, importantly, of science (apologies to my media scholar and/or STS friends for obviousness and simplifications).

News reports about wonder cures and miracle diets, how much exercise we should or shouldn't be getting, what new thing will kill us next, these stories don't just get pulled out of the air by reporters with wild imaginations. The headlines may sometimes sensationalize and universalize weak statistical results, but they come from the abstracts and discussion sections of papers done by scientists, often funded by taxpayers like you and me. The results are often spurious and can be influenced by cultural perceptions and political and economic forces (just look at the saturated fat story unfolding). Taken all together the back-and-forth peer reviewed journal articles and the back-and-forth commentary in the media tell the story of how our understanding of our bodies and the natural world unfolds within a complex social framework. Conflicts and scandals are interesting not just for selling newspapers but for showing how science is done, by people interacting with each other, reading the news, being influenced and affecting what is perceived to be necessary to get grants.

Good science stories (in journals, in newspapers, in blogs) come from real people and can spark our curiosity about how the world works, teach us something new and interesting, and often show us how the process of science works. New tools in the lab and on the web can change the stories and how they are told, but the fundamental story remains the same: all science and all media is social. As blogs like this one are an explicitly social space to talk about science and how it's presented, I look forward to your thoughts in the comments!

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Thanks for this blog - food for thought! I think, speaking from a layperson's perspective, a lot of problems with science reporting arise because we're going to need some kind of scenario to understand the potential applications or ramifications, hopefully starring Russell Crowe. I recently read (paraphrasing shamelessly here)âT cells have been successfully engineered to produce their own cytokines.â Well, okay. But it followed up with âThese T cells can one day be programmed to target a specific disease - cytokine is their kill order.â Interested! Unless you're writing for a small, in-the-know audience, analogies and fictionalized scenarios have to come into play, I think, and any kind of fictionalization could probably be considered sensationalizing the subject matter. Itâs a fine line, extrapolating responsibly.