by Jasper Manning, Ph.D.
Each day large amounts of scientific information is disseminated from mass media to the general public. This includes healthy-related studies and novel scientific breakthroughs with the aim of educating, informing and improving the quality of life. Much of this information comes from pundits and medical reporters who support their ideas with well researched facts. However, in some instances, facts are misconstrued in order to support a specific agenda(s) of a political lobby or industry i.e. global warming or endangered species lists. In addition, the summary of published information by medical writers sometimes is erroneous due to lack of available print space and/or time set aside for an article or misinterpreted perhaps due to a lack of knowledge about a topic. In the end, an article that is unable to convey to laypersons the benefits or detriments of a study defeats the intended purpose of the article. Howy Jacobs, a distinguished professor of molecular biology at the Institute of Medical Technology (IMT), University of Tampere and senior editor at EMBO Reports recently suggested that a miseducation of the masses through mass media is due to the misconnection between science and the media (Jacobs, 2012) and believes that the responsibility of educating medical writers falls on scientists. Once this can occur, the reader, has a better chance of receiving complete and concise information.
Jacobs illustrates the lack of clearly presented information to the general population by relating a recent conversation that he had with a southern Alaskan Bed and Breakfast owner. The owner espoused that climate change was not a reality and had no affect on wildlife specifically in the case of the polar bear. Jacobs notes that after some fact-checking, he found published data of comparative mitochondrial DNA sequence of polar bears and brown bears that supported that environmental stress (Edwards, et al, 2011) may have influenced a recent introgression between the two species. Dr. Jacobs chose not to challenge the beliefs of the owner (perhaps many scientist choose to sit out these arguments), but realized that the scientific data is available although public awareness is lacking. This is a plus for lobbying groups and others since a uninformed public can be easily influenced by those who have a vested interest in exploiting the environment. He astutely points out that science should not support political argument/agenda, nor “prove” a hypothesis but accumulate, interpret data and form a predictive model based on the interpretation. In his opinion, the media should explain this process used by scientists and report the findings legibly or risk painting a picture of science as a confusing and perhaps dishonest profession as in the case of global warming.
All in all, the take home message of the Jacob's editorial is that scientists must be able to better convey scientific results to the media in a clear and comprehensible way. On the other side of the coin, the media has a responsibility to become more knowledgeable in basic science and the aspects of the scientific method. He believes that miscommunication is the primary problem and scientist must learn to better explain interpreted data to the world and correct poorly presented interpretations that are published in the media.
It is refreshing that scientists such as Howy Jacobs understands that scientist are the key to explaining the latest breakthroughs and correcting errors in summarized studies that are published in the public domain. Blogs such as N3science communications is a good starting point as well. Take a read and pass it along. Scientists are trying to educate, now it is your turn to read and understand what is happening with science around you.
Howy Jacobs EMBO reports (2012) 13, 471;doi:10.1038/embor.2012.56
Edwards CJ et al 2011) Curr Biol 21:1251-1258