When I was a board member of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, my colleagues and I used to give little seminars to scientists at universities and foundations about how to speak to the media. Some scientists came mostly to throw metaphorical tomatoes at us, because they’d had bad experiences with the press. And some came because they wanted to know how to help the press get the story right, to avoid wildly erroneous and career-busting catastrophes.
But we all shared the same assumption: Relations between the press and scientists are bumpy, neither side likes the other very much, and scientists don’t trust reporters to disclose their real agendas.
Now, it turns out, we were wrong. Or at least the authors of a new study in the journal Science would have us believe. In a report published in the July 11 issue, researchers surveyed 1,354 scientists in five countries and discovered that “interactions between scientists and journalists are more frequent and smooth than previously thought.”
And it went on. While 42 percent said they feared critical reactions from their peers for talking to the press, almost as many (39 percent) said that news stories “enhanced personal reputation among peers.”
Nearly half of the scientists said their encounters with the media had had a mostly positive effect on their careers, and only 3 percent said it had had a mostly negative impact. And more than half said they were “mostly pleased” with their latest appearance in the media.
All of which tells me: We may not be doing our jobs.
Think, for a moment, about how theater critics do their job. They go to an opening, decide whether the play is entertaining or not, and let fly. Most theater critics presumably think theater is a worthwhile thing, or they would have become — who knows? — science writers.
Most theater critics want to see good plays, rather than bad. So you could say it’s in their interest to be gentle with first-time playwrights, and to go easy on non-profit theaters that could be put out of business by a bad review.
But what theater critics ought to be doing—and the evidence is pretty good that they’re doing it—is giving me the real lowdown on whether I ought to spend $200 on a Broadway show for me and my wife. That’s a substantial investment, and I expect a critic to help me make a good investment—to wave me away from the junk and point me toward the shows that are going to make me laugh, or cry, or better understand something about the human condition.
Why shouldn’t we, as science writers, be doing the same thing?
We want to let people know about new research that can help them, or entertain them, or help them better understand something about the human condition. And we probably do a pretty good job of that.
But we also want to warn them away from the junk. And in science, there’s plenty of that, too, along with misuse of scientific findings and commingling of results with opinion, which lead to stories that claim far more than the research can support.
I’m not proposing that we should go to war with scientists. But let’s think of ourselves more as science critics.
Journalists and scientists have different interests. The job of scientists is to raise money for research, do that research, and promote their results. We can probably all agree that’s a good thing. But the job of journalists is not to promote research, or to encourage the government or anyone else to devote more money to it.
The job of journalists is to shine a light on what’s going on, and make sure that the money is going where it’s supposed to go, that studies are done correctly, and that results are not over-stated or under-stated. If researchers stand to personally profit from their research—through ownership in a private company, for example—we need to find that out and say so.