Traditional media is no longer required for science communication…

If you’re reading this here – on a blog – then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s start with a bold statement – a statement, not a question: traditional media is no longer required for science communication. In fact, its time to draw a line underneath it all and say so long and thanks for all the fish.

In light of this bold new statement I propose a change to the antiquated term “science communication”. Let’s keep it untitled and just call it “science” for now. On the face of it, the term “science communication” seems so pedestrian. What does it actually mean? As term it’s a bit of a misnomer. The way traditional media communicates science sometimes bears no similarity to how science is discussed and debated within academic circles. The same way a three-tiered wedding cake bears no resemblance to eggs, flour, milk and butter. Science isn’t conducive to a journalistic style of reporting. Compare and contrast this and this. Same story, but one more informative than the other. One is science, the other is a wedding cake.

In the UK, recent months have called into question the accuracy of science reported in the media. From time to time, we all like to bemoan the state of science communication by traditional media… climate change, vaccines, not being able to tell the difference between a peptide and a protein, or a virus and a parasite (the original version of this article referred to malaria as a virus – I know because I emailed in to get it corrected). All this is nothing new. We’ve been bemoaning it for a long time. But now there’s some interesting examples. There was Ben Goldacre’s co-authored study into the quality of newspaper reports advocating dietary intake in terms of scientific accuracy. The authors coming to the conclusion that their results indicated that most claims made in UK newspapers had no credible scientific basis, with the broadsheets getting off only slightly better than the tabloid papers with their share of the blame.

July saw the release of a report into the BBC’s science coverage – being deemed not as impartial or accurate as it could be – giving too much weight to fringe opinions and not taking heed to distinguish opinion from well established scientific consensus. That was what most news outlets got from the report, and what most reported. But a distinct lack in ability to communicate science as science communicates itself was probably the most interesting part that no one talked about. Namely, that the corporation’s lack of knowledge on the basics of the scientific inner-workings like using free online peer-reviewed journals, or at the very least citing them. Putting it another way – providing context.

The public looks primarily to the media for its science information. As true as this is, perhaps it’s time for a change. As the internet is doing its best to get rid of newspapers and journalism once and for all, it seems to be doing wonders for the scientific community (albeit with one or two problems); mainly by cutting out the middle man.

The abundance of blogs, blogged by active scientists, science writers, and open-access publishing offers a portal into the scientific world that anyone can access. If we are to raise the level of scientific literacy we should boldly wade into the deep end. Cautionary tales of the scientific world being too opaque should be left at the door. Steering away from the grander themes, big technical words, and towards over-simplification leads to misleading outcomes.

The “cult of irrelevance” among the academic elite is slowly becoming a thing of the past. The gap between scientific consensus in published papers and policy changes from that consensus is bridging at an unprecedented rate. Stephen M Walt’s essay on how academics in the international arena should drive to play their part in public discourse can be applied for any and all academics.

“If scholars working on global affairs are content with having little to say to their fellow citizens and public officials and little to contribute to solving public problems, then we can expect even less attention and fewer resources over time (and to be frank, we won’t deserve either). By contrast, if the academic community decides to use its privileged position and professional expertise to address an overcrowded global agenda in a useful way, then it will have taken a large step toward fulfilling its true social purpose. ”

Scientists are involving themselves more and more in matters that concern them on the public landscape, if for no other reason that our science is bleeding more and more into public life. The scientific elite can start and steer the conversation, debate, and discourse on science – the science that is actually happening, not the science that happens below the fold. In fact, in economic circles, it has already begun. “…blogs are doing more than just providing a new source of procrastination for writers and readers.” Changing the world, one abstract at a time.


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