Kathy Sykes on science and the media: quit bitching


Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society at Bristol University has written a provocative article in the latest New Scientist entitled "Science in the media: Put up or shut up"


The star of Rough Science argues that while science communication often leaves a lot to be desired, scientists themselves need to be less rabid in their attacks on the media:

Does ranting do any good? In some cases it does, especially if science is being carelessly mangled or deliberately distorted. But in many cases communicators are passionate about science and are simply trying to communicate it as clearly as they can to as large an audience as possible. We risk drowning out what's good with a stream of public bickering. We also risk discouraging a new generation of communicators.

Having worked in a role trying to bridge the gap between scientists and journalists, I think Sykes has a point. Scientists can be incredibly intolerant of any kind of simplification of their work, often because they don't appreciate the depth of their knowledge compared to the ubiquitous 'man on the street'. It's always going to be be frustrating to be told that glaring omissions and simplifications are "irrelevant" to the wider understanding of a story - but a newspaper isn't an academic journal and it's foolish to expect the same standards of reporting in both.

However, it might surprise some scientists to discover that often the journalists and film-makers themselves wish they could cover science in more depth. The sad fact is that boosting the level of intellectualism is met with diminishing returns with regards to the audience reached (though often the media grossly underestimate the public appetite for solid, informative science). This is in no way a carte blanche for the media to be outright misleading in the name of reaching an audience, and New Scientist itself has come under much-deserved criticism for it's summation of horizontal gene transfer:


Touching upon this, Sykes seems to argue that in this case the ends justified the means - if it was a cheap trick to sell magazines, it worked, and ultimately more people gained a better understanding of evolution (and that Darwin wasn't wrong at all). Meanwhile, T. Ryan Gregory at Geonomicron argues that the cover gives ammunition to Darwin's detractors. I disagree with both: I doubt the cover made a meaningful impact on either side of the evolutionary debate (if it can be called that) simply because: it's a cover. If you expect to see accurate reportage in a single three-word sentence on the front cover of a popular science magazine, you're in dreamland.

Like a black-and-white photo of a Rothko painting, science passed through the media lens is never going to be reproduced perfectly - and journalists already know this. Rather than despatching lab-coated lynch mobs every time a less-than-perfect article appears in print, scientists would be better placed to attack with full venom the wilfully ignorant, and those who set out to intentionally distort science. Sykes herself was embroiled in just such a case where she presented a patient undergoing open-heart surgery with only acupuncture to stop the pain. It was later revealed that the patient was also benefiting from a barrage of more conventional treatments:

in addition to acupuncture, the patient had a combination of three very powerful sedatives (midazolam, droperidol, fentanyl) and large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into the chest.

Did Sykes know? Probably not. But someone involved in the program did, and chose instead to present an entirely misleading view of acupuncture. In times like this, the full scorn of the scientific establishment isn't just justified, it's to be encouraged.

Science in the media can be glib, but it should never be misleading.

Hat tip to Genomicron for blogging Sykes' article

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Actually, I'm going to have to disagree on the New Scientist cover. That actually did some meaningful damage over here in the US; it is regularly held up as supporting the belief that "many scientists disagree with evolution" and "evolution is a theory in crisis" that are regularly pushed in school board meetings by those seeking to water down or eliminate the teaching of evolution in US schools. Successfully, in many cases.

...it worked, and ultimately more people gained a better understanding of evolution (and that Darwin wasn't wrong at all).

Yikes. From my perspective over here (I'm a Brit, but I live in the US) this is incredibly wishful thinking. The target audience that this is being used on never saw anything except the cover, and took away only the conclusion that is being pushed by the presenter, namely, that "many scientists think Darwin was wrong". That's all they needed to hear.

As you note, in communicating to a non-expert general audience, pithy and simple arguments always win over complex and in depth discussion. When faced with trying to counter "Darwin was wrong" with "...but they're talking about horizontal gene transfer" you're going to lose every time, and that's why so many in the US are pretty upset about this stunt by NS. It may have helped them sell copy, but It wasn't helpful at all in terms of the very real issue of what happens in US schools. Be under no illusion of the issue here; the creationists are winning the argument. Increasingly the subject of evolution is being self-censored in science classrooms, and high school level science textbooks frequently make almost no reference to it.

By Brain Hertz (not verified) on 26 Apr 2009 #permalink

While I appreciate that it's a fine line and that scientists are probably too keen on detail, I do think there's a systematic tendency to "dumb down" rather than to "smart up".

Look at it this way. A lot of people complain about dumbing down. Do you ever see anyone complaining about science in the media being too complicated? I don't...

I've cancelled nearly all of my scientific and technical magazines for that (#2's) very reason. I get so tired of things being dumbed down, over simplified, made "splashier" or "sexier" (have you looked at a Psychology Today cover lately?) that I just don't have the heart to sort through all the crap anymore looking for the science. You know...that stuff that they forgot to put in? And as #1 said...over here, it's not so cut and dried as to the meaning and agenda behind a statement the like of "Darwin was Wrong". There is a vested interest of a small segment of our society in keeping the rest of us ignorant. It's bad enough that the teachers are under educated when it comes to science, now the opportunity for them to educate themselvs is disappearing into diminishing column-inch hell.

I was at Bristol with Kathy. She's really really nice.

By Mojojo Jojo (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

I know I'm months late but I just found this entry this morning. I love it. Thanks for writing. I agree with both Sykes and you that the ranting (not just by T. Ryan Gregory but others as well, like Larry Moran) does no good. They attack people who are passionate and knowledgeable about science, lumping them together with people who are (for lack of a better term) "anti-science." In the end, they do science a huge disservice.

I think you underestimate the "dreamland" that creationists live in. They're never going to look past the cover of a copy of The New Scientist anyway. It was a cheap shot by a publication that really ought to have known better.

I've only just found your blog. Nice one. Keep up the good work.

Dear sirs
May i have a email address from Professor Kathy Sykes
Best Regards

By ali zolfaghari (not verified) on 13 Oct 2010 #permalink