Do we need a kitemark for good science reporting?

As part of my job I occasionally get emails from young people (well, younger than me) who want to know this or that about science communication.  I don't know why they ask me, I feel I know about as much about the subject as they do, but that's the way it is.  (They also ask for career advice, which I'm even less qualified to answer.)

So this guy has an essay he's writing, on the role of the science journalist in the 21st century, and his opening question stops me dead:

Why do you think it's important to have good public communicators of science?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn't know the answer to that.  Why do we get so wound up about the state of science journalism in the UK?  Why do we rest the science literacy of the public on the over-burdened shoulders of men and women who simply write the news?  I don't see anyone on a soapbox blaming the writers of the finance pages for the eye-watering level of personal debt in this country.  I don't hear of anyone losing sleep over the lack of column inches that philosophy generates.  Why do we need good public communicators of science?

The classic reply is that the public, mewling kitten that it is, makes important health decisions based upon what it has read in the latest newspapers.  I'm a touch skeptical of this claim.  I think the latest round of headlines probably feeds into a nebulous, muddled view on the role of coffee and tomatoes in cancer, sure, but people swearing off either entirely?  Even the MMR controversy, held up as the bête noire of UK science journalism, failed to push measles notifications above their 1990 peak (but then, immunisation rates are still recovering, so perhaps we're overdue a epidemic. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong about this).  Secondly, this reply only covers health, which is a fraction of the science covered daily in newspapers.

Naturally I don't want to believe that our constant harrying of the press is borne out of naked self interest, which is why the essay question above is so important.  Why does it matter if the proverbial man on the street has a cock-eyed view of science?  Does it really have a substantially detrimental impact on his life?  If he makes life-changing decisions based on what he read in a newspaper, without consulting a GP, is he just an idiot?

Writing in the Guardian, Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner discuss the various ideas for improving science coverage raised at the recent ABSW conference.  One of these is for a "kitemark" that would distinguish the best quality science writing.  I have reservations that such a badge would work. As Chambers points out, creating a system, convincing newspapers to join it, and policing it are likely impossible goals.  To filter out all the bad science in our media, the badge would also have to cover the health, lifestyle,  opinion and op-ed pages.  The real stone in my shoe, though, is the creeping suspicion that accuracy is far more important to us science nerds than it is to readers.  Indeed, the entire UK media was recently called out by our cousins over the Atlantic for its enthusiastic churnalising of transparently bullshit PR-led fluff.  Put simply, accuracy and truth when it comes to science reporting just doesn't seem to rate very highly to most people.  It feels like this badge is there more for us science nerds than the general public - a kind of opaque snobbish review.  Excellent journalism is its own kitemark, surely?

So, I'll push that question over to you.   Is it important to have good public communicators of science? Or is it just important to us?

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As you say, good science communication in health aspects is important (let's say my grandmother is going into hospital for a hip operation and has to be screened for MRSA, most of her knowledge of the subject comes from press coverage so bad coverage of the subject will make her panic - not helpful). I don't think she would pay much attention to a kitemark though...

As for why good science communication is important for other types of science? Well putting myself in the 'general publics' shoes for the moment and using history instead of science: I think I know stuff about history. It may not dramatically affect my day to day life, but that doesn't stop me from reading things about history and then thinking that I know 'such and such' about a subject. I really hope that what I think I know is actually really the case and not just fiction. In the same way I think if we are telling people about science we owe it to them to do it properly. (Does that make any sense - possibly what I am showing is that I am not very good at communicating here!)

Finally, a lot of scientific research is paid for by the general public in one way or another (government grants, charities etc.). I think this means that scientists have a duty to tell the public what they have found out with their money, and that they have a duty to do it in a way that the public understand. Now not every scientist will be a good enough communicator to do this and so we need good public communicators of science to translate what they have learned into something everyone understands.

By zoonotica (not verified) on 12 Jul 2012 #permalink

I think two questions are being conflated:

1) Is good communication of science to the public important?

Yes, because as "zoonotica" points out, it's the public who pays the scientists' salaries and subsidises their toys. I've lost count of the number of web surveys (ostensibly part of a research project) from people working in the soft sciences in rebranded polytechnics, where the answer to the first question is either "define your terms" or "none of the above" an progress to the rest of the survey is impossible. Such research, while expensive, would appear to be both useless and worthless. I'd like to understand better what justifies these people's salaries....

2) Do we need _specialist_ science communicators?

Absolutely not. Unless every wire service is to be expected to retain dozens of different science journalists, the phrase is essentially meaningless. Even a Nobel laureate physicist can't be expected to write a sensible article about economics (this, you'll recall, is credited as one of the factors in the 2008 economic crisis), so, at in one sense, every science journalist, no matter how talented, is doomed to be little better than a hack dragged in off the street.

What we want is scientists who, like George Gamow say, know how to communicate their work. But that sounds like a really hard problem....

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 13 Jul 2012 #permalink

I would tend to disagree with Ian. I strongly believe that we DO need specialist science communicators, particularly in areas that receive a lot of media attention and where misinformation is dangerous. Presently, I still have my scientific training wheels on and therefore am not in a position to comment as a climate expert. However I will say that the way climate science is represented in the media is often appalling. And I'm not just talking about the bias that stems from political persuasion (although that is prolific). The science should influence government policy, but it is the people who elect the politicians. When the sceince is miscommunicated/denied then the actions of governments (or inaction depending on where you are from) can seem unnecessary and public opinion is swayed.
Here in Australia climate denialism is on the rise. There is now a price on carbon and the general popultaion is finding this quite inconvenient even though we are the largest polluters per capita in the world. More and more people are quoting studies that were NOT peer reviewed, or people who have no business making comment as they have no understanding of the fundamental science.
What I really appreciate is journalism that makes the science accessible to the masses so that they can make informed desicions. And what I like even more is when it is funny.
Nice blog Frank.

By Kelly Strzepek (not verified) on 15 Jul 2012 #permalink