Anna Westland discusses how the media can provide the general public with a common misconception about a scientific issue by trying to create a ‘shock factor’, and how scientists and journals alike can alleviate the problem by becoming more understandable and accessible.
The science stories that attract the most attention are often the more controversial ones, but sometimes science is simply miscommunicated to the public. While most now realise that much of the research, like that linking MMR vaccines with autism, was fraudulent, people often still believe the views of the mainstream media. Topics such as genetically modified organisms and stem cell research are still painted in a negative light, as often the mainstream media prefers to concentrate on the more shocking aspects of research rather than actually asking scientists what the applications of their studies are. Scientists are infamous for not being able to communicate well, or simply not bothering to, but this is something that is now changing.
There is always the temptation to blow findings out of proportion for the sake of a good story, but occasionally science journalists are not professional scientists, and even those with good intentions seem to struggle to explain concepts to the public. Much of the general public, especially those without a scientific background, may not understand what they are looking at when presented with statistics, especially when these are manipulated to prove a particular point. People should be shown that just because research has been published it does not mean that it is good science, a common assumption we are all guilty of making.
Unfortunately, science journals and some magazines are not particularly accessible – or interesting – to those without a scientific background. But now there are many blogs online with articles directed at a non-specialist audience. Social media has become very important for public involvement, with the Facebook page I f***ing love science having nearly ten million likes. Many researchers have themselves followed the social media trend; unusually for archaeological research, a dig in South Africa has been keeping people up to date with their finds and even what their day-to-day job entails. Videos by astronaut Chris Hadfield have gone viral, and although his most popular video is a rendition of a David Bowie song, he also shows what its like to live aboard the space station, demonstrating with simple tasks like wringing out a towel in zero gravity. Other internet sources can be used to increase interest in science. For instance online game Eyewire allows people to help map neurons in the human brain, directly contributing to research and understanding.
Sparking people’s interest is the first and most important step, as only then will they care if they understand the science behind a discovery. It has never been easier to find out what real scientists are up to and even to get involved in research oneself. Hopefully, this will encourage the public to be more objective about science in the press – and not to believe everything they read!
Image: Dr Andrew Wakefield facing press regarding MMR Vaccinations