Monday, November 15, 2010

Mangling Science

A researcher recently spoke out about the way the media have mangled the science being done on the Gulf oil spill.

Dr. Christopher Reddy of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution describes his experiences with reporters and how they skewed information to tell a story unintended by the scientists.

He co-authored a paper published in Science (August) that reported the existence of a subsurface plume of oil in the Gulf.  The media were naturally interested in their findings and sought interviews with Reddy and members of his team.  However, the science story got turned into a soap opera when reporters tried to make more out of the disagreements between the findings of different groups of researchers.

Reddy especially took issue with reporters who interpreted his team's findings as challenging the Obama administration's (NOAA) report on how much oil remains in the Gulf.  His essay posted on CNN Opinion describes how his work should not be taken as evidence for or against the government's or other researchers' findings, but an incremental piece of a scientific puzzle that may take years to ultimately solve.  He draws a nice comparison with the Exxon Valdez spill, which took many years and dozens of studies before a complete oil budget was finalized and accepted by the scientific community. 

The description of his experiences with reporters is not unusual.  I've also been interviewed about the spill and potential impacts to the environment--and other issues in the past.  Some reporters get it right and some don't.  In some cases, what I see in the newspaper bears no resemblance to what I said.  Part of it is a lack of understanding by the reporter (and sometimes can be the scientist's fault for not explaining scientific points well).  Some colleagues doing research on the oil spill have stopped talking to reporters altogether because they have been repeatedly misquoted or because the information they provided was deliberately misinterpreted.

I've talked about this conundrum in past posts (see science communication) and why I think it's important to talk to the media--even if there are mistakes on occasion.  If the media cannot get a scientist for their information, they'll turn to people who are less qualified and who may have some agenda to push.

Anyway, it's unusual to see a scientist bothering to correct inappropriate/inaccurate reports made by the media.      

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