Science vs. the Media

27 February 2012to29 February 2012

The relationship between scientists and the media can be difficult at best – and the disagreement over who is to blame for any difficulties seems endless. How fortunate for people on all sides that the ASC 2012 Conference offers so many opportunities to work through the differences and learn from each other!

In a recent blog post for The Guardian, Ananyo Bhattacharya, online editor of Nature, said that scientists simply don’t understand the principles of (good) journalism.

Different standards of caution and scepticism are one reason for this, suggest Stephan Lewandowsky and Steve Sherwood, both scientists themselves (find their article here). While science is “built on weeding out bad ideas”, they argue, “the media thrive on conflict” – leading journalists to over-zealously represent opposing views in their coverage of science.

And this, it appears, is a main point of criticism by many researchers.

A large number of responses to Bhattacharya’s post complain that the “habit of injecting ‘balance’ into everything” puts solid scientific results on an equal footing with the opinions of a “handful of crackpots”. Without clear statements of the cited people’s expertise on the topic, readers find it difficult to distinguish between the experts and the crackpots.

The debates about global warming or the anti-vaccination campaigns are mentioned frequently as examples of this problem.

There is also frustration among scientists due to the lack of specialist knowledge among those reporting their discoveries. This often results in misunderstanding and misrepresentation and is one major reason why many scientists are so reluctant to engage with the media in the first place (as discussed at the Science Online 2012 conference in Raleigh, USA).

But what can be done about this? Rather than just complaining about each other, scientists and journalists could get together and discuss their issues with each other. How convenient that an excellent opportunity for just that is no more than three weeks away: ASC2012, the national conference of the Australian Science Communicators in Sydney, February 27 – 29.

Members of all factions will be there, learning and discussing the latest trends in science communication. A multitude of professional development sessions will help scientists and journalists alike when communicating scientific results.

ASC2012
Getting science where it’s needed
Sydney Masonic Centre
27 to 29 February

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About Achim Eberhart

Achim Eberhart holds a degree in Biology from the University of Tübingen, Germany and a PhD in Zoology from The University of Melbourne. He has always been enthusiastic about communicating science to a general audience and currently works as a freelance science writer.