Eschew the Scientific Sound Bite

A response to the oil plume paradox

As the lead author on a recent paper published in Science Express, describing subsurface plumes from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I find remarkable the tempo of press coverage and its keen speculation. Open discourse is a healthy process strengthening both the press and scientific research. Yet the relationship between science and journalism is evolving as electronic communications amplify tension between timeliness and accuracy. Science has remained largely unchanged in its pace of discourse, but journalism is straining to adapt to a more rapid and democratic sourcing of information.

This trend appears as a subtext within Curtis Brainard’s article, “The Oil Plume Paradox.” In it, Rebecca Boyle from Popular Science points out that “the Web leaves us little choice,” encapsulating this journalistic dilemma while hinting that deadline pressures can conflict with reporting principles. I was surprised when I read that some journalists supported an idea that Science should have delayed publishing our paper. This form of self-censorship would be counterproductive to both the ongoing Deepwater Horizon investigation and First Amendment principles. I am relieved that Dr. Brooks Hanson, deputy editor of Science, articulated such clear policy supporting the scientific process and our freedom of speech, regardless of media conveniences.

First Amendment issues aside, I also question Greenwire’s Paul Voosen for his notion that ‘strong’ wording is necessary to counter what he perceived to be ‘poor coverage.’ Upon what basis does he assert this claim? Does this suggest that reporting must intertwine an editorial component to yield a ‘fair and balanced’ approach?

Sometimes the truth hurts, but mostly it remains hidden. Scientific peer review has evolved so that authors must present evidence in much the same way that evidence is presented in a court of law. Evidence that is deemed admissible is considered for the record; hearsay and conjecture are not. Our scientific findings and assertions are bound by a requirement of evidence, and if evidence contravenes an assertion then that assertion must be modified or abandoned. Unlike legal matters, the scientific method requires that a skeptical jury of peers maintain the presumption of guilt—that the defendant is guilty of being in error. The term ‘defense’ is actually used to describe the process by which Ph.D. candidates present their research. This is not to say that the process is perfect or swift, but unlike many other approaches to understanding, the scientific method contains an inherently powerful mechanism for self-correction.

In his book Emergence, Steven Johnson writes, “There are far more agents in the system (twenty-four-hour news networks, headline pagers, newsweeklies, Websites), and far more repackagings and repurposings of source materials, along with an alarming new willingness to relay uncritically other outlets’ reporting.” We might equate the modern twenty-four-hour news cycle to an echo chamber, except that sound within an echo chamber attenuates with time and generally is reflected without distortion. Indeed, while reading some news stories I have noticed how aspects of the Woods Hole findings have, by excessive simplification and inference, become so unfocused that key information is lost. Controversy sells copy, and as the adage goes, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

The Deepwater Horizon investigation is not complete, but I remain optimistic that scientific assessment will provide fundamental insight into the transport and eventual fate of these subsurface hydrocarbon plumes. In comparing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab findings recently published in Science Express, we should consider the wisdom of Heraclitus, who observed that “you cannot step twice into the same river.” Subsurface hydrocarbon plumes are undoubtedly dynamic. The studies described within the two papers overlap neither spatially nor temporally. Perhaps more importantly, their range and scope were vastly different. The Woods Hole team focused on using experimental robotic techniques to map a subsurface plume. In contrast, the Lawrence Berkeley team used advanced genetic techniques to identify specific organisms responsible for hydrocarbon biodegradation.

Regarding Georgia Institute of Technology microbiologist Dr. Jim Spain’s comment in The Wall Street Journal that “there is real disagreement here,” I would caution that the data sets are fairly orthogonal and we need more information to determine if the papers’ findings are substantively different or not. The research process is ongoing, and I look forward to clarification from forthcoming peer reviewed scientific publications. As for Margaret Munro’s suggestion in the Montreal Gazette that I was ‘downplaying’ contradictions between the two papers in question, I am satisfied with the work that my colleagues and I published. I have no interest in making the Woods Hole Oceanographic findings appear any more or less congruent with the Lawrence Berkeley findings than actually is the case.

Although we should not expect journalists to undertake the years or decades of study required of experts on these matters, the scientific and technical literacy typically exhibited by the popular press leaves room for improvement. As an advocate for improved accuracy in reporting, I encourage journalists to abstain from the sensational sound bite or controversial headline and instead dig deeper for the truth. I applaud those journalists who have done so. This approach enables journalism to represent the nuance of complex issues while simultaneously increasing society’s technical literacy. Both are essential for an informed modern society.Eschew the Scientific Sound Bite

Richard Camilli is an associate scientist in the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is a faculty member for the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Applied Ocean Science & Engineering.