Friday, August 6, 2010

Chicken Little

You’ve all heard the story of Chicken Little. She’s hit on the head by an acorn one day while walking the woods and concludes that the sky is falling. She runs to tell the lion and along the way convinces Henny Penny and Ducky Lucky to go with her to spread the word. They meet up with Foxey Loxey who claims to know the way to the lion. He leads them to his den instead and invites them inside. They never come out.

I’ve talked previously about the need for scientists to communicate their work and its significance to the public. One situation in which scientists are sought out by the media is the environmental emergency. A recent example is the Gulf oil spill. You may have noticed that scientists’ opinions are published alongside those of self-appointed “experts”, politicians, and various colorful members of the public as being equally relevant. The media also greatly hype these events.  Such events may have serious consequences, but are not necessarily the “end of the world as we know it”. There is a lot of wild speculation by people with no expertise, which gets the media’s attention. The more cautious scientists say let’s wait until we get all the facts before making predictions or taking actions that may result in more damage in the long-run than the event itself.  No surprise that the latter message gets minimized or ignored in the public debate.

The media, for the most part, however, do want the opinions of scientists and seek it. Scientists can play a role here by providing information that does not overinflate the issues and, more importantly, can convey the point that complex problems are not going to be solved by simple, quick solutions—and then proceed to explain the options and their pros and cons.

There can be a downside to expressing an opinion in the public eye, however, as an article in Research Trends suggests. The author provides three examples of science communication gone wrong.

The first example describes the experience of a physicist who wrote an opinion piece in a newspaper in which he criticized chiropractic therapy. His article prompted a lawsuit (libel) by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Although the BCA did not win, the case focused attention on the risks involved when scientists engage in public debate. Most scientists are accustomed to criticism of their work and ideas and simply respond by publishing a refutation. The BCA could have responded by refuting the physicist’s claims in a letter to the editor or an article, but instead sued. A libel suit is certainly a departure from the normal practice taken by the scientific community to debate a topic. It avoids having to provide a reasoned response to criticism and stifles legitimate debate.

The second example was the leak of internal emails written by scientists at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The emails were used by climate change skeptics and the media to suggest that these researchers had manipulated data. These scientists were ultimately absolved of any scientific fraud, but that news has never been widely reported. Instead, the public still has the impression that climate scientists are biased.

The Parliamentary Inquiry that investigated the case did, however, criticize the scientific culture of withholding information.

The Research Trends article asks to what extent scientists’ communications, data, and sources be open to public scrutiny. There are two issues here: private communications and release of scientific information.  I'm not sure the public needs to have access to private communications between scientists, which may be misinterpreted, taken out of context, etc.; the potential for abuse is huge.  It's quite easy to use people's own words to send quite a different message than intended---as we've just seen in the case of Shirley Sherrod.  The release of scientific information is complicated by the conflict between the public's need to know and the scientist's needs.  The public likely does not understand that scientists should have time to ensure their data are accurate before release. Also, scientists should have a reasonable amount of time to publish their work before the data are released. There are examples of scientists who were forced to post their data on the internet (by the funding agency), and a competitor took the data and published it before the scientist who did the work could.

The third example relates recent work on evolutionary theory. The media sensationalized the results of a recent study showing that behavioral changes in chickens caused by stress could be passed on to offspring but without changes in DNA sequence. Although the body of the article did not question current evolutionary theory, the headlines of news articles sensationalized the results as evidence supporting Lamarckism and questioning Darwinism. I imagine the scientists whose work was misconstrued were appalled and will be reticent in the future to talk to the media.

Part of the problem here is the essential difference between science and the media. Science is a process of discovery, testing, confirmation, and reasoned debate—gradually developing a body of knowledge that will continue to change as more information is acquired. The media want immediate, black and white answers to questions and entertaining or controversial stories. Neither is right or wrong, just different. I don’t think this means, however, that scientists should not engage the media. If scientists are not participating in the public debate about science, there will be others who will fill the gap—who are less knowledgeable or have ulterior motives.

Should scientists stay in their ivory towers and let the Chicken Littles and Foxy Loxeys control the public debate involving scientific matters? Or should scientists participate in the conversation and promote reasoned discourse?

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