Scientists, the media and society: where are we now?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Group of business people sitting in a line at a panel.

Scientists have long used media to create interest in their work for a variety of reasons. Until recently this has often been for reasons of profile enhancement, fundraising or the promotion of institutional interests. But until about 20 years ago, scientists who had a high media profile tended to be regarded somewhat disparagingly by their colleagues. But much has now changed. It is now recognised that science is essential to addressing the many challenges all societies face. Indeed, rather than being somehow separated from society, science is now seen as an integral part of the social context – both shaping it and being shaped by it. Additionally funding agencies want to see the activities they fund promoted in the media. After all, much of the cost is covered by taxpayer money and the taxpayers, by rights, should see where their dollars go. Not coincidentally, we now see an increasing focus on issues of science literacy for all members of society (for an interesting view from across the Tasman, read ‘Does science literacy matter? Yes, and here’s why’ on The Conversation website). So the central question now becomes: How does the science community engage with the broader community in which it lives in a way that is effective and trustworthy?

The challenges of science communication

Despite the rapprochement between science and media over recent years, there are still major challenges in using the mainstream media for science communication – for all said and done, most media sustain their audiences on a mixture of scientific breakthroughs and controversy. Indeed many scientists feel uncomfortably pressured to over-hype their stories, which are all too often presented as major breakthroughs to get media attention. Thus an early stage biomedical scientific finding is presented as an almost immediate cure for disease X. Although conscientious scientists will go to great lengths to qualify their findings and be explicit about the many inherent uncertainties, the mainstream media rarely can convey such caveats sufficiently.

This hyperbolic approach persists, despite editors of offshore broadsheets telling me that some of the most frequently read stories on the print media’s websites are long-form science journalism. That is, the provision of in-depth scientific background stories and explanatory pieces presented in an accessible fashion. Of course, this approach requires fulltime science journalists, which are an increasingly rare resource in media outlets struggling to compete in a changing market.

Consequently, Science Media Centres have become valued intermediaries in helping to provide media with access to science stories of interest and with commentary that is independent of institutions or government. To this effect Peter Griffin and his staff of the Science Media Centre in Wellington deserve kudos for developing rapidly this critical and effective resource for the New Zealand media. Quality-controlled science blogging that follows high standards of both scientific and journalistic integrity is another interesting innovation in this space. For example, Australia’s The Conversation website provides science and academic stories directly to the public and a few postings of New Zealand origin are starting to appear on it.

Achieving clarity of message is still a challenge

Despite these trends, much of the media still tend to prefer controversies. We have seen how such a situation leads to the promotion of false debate when there is in fact, largely scientific consensus. Considered analysis of issues such as climate change has been bedeviled by this very problem.

Often what is known and what is not known in such circumstances get conflated with other causes of discord. For example, it is now difficult to disentangle issues of the safety of food produced through the technology of genetic modification (either directly or indirectly) from the concerns many people have over corporate influences within the food system. Another example is seen in the water fluoridation debate and why it persists (I have written about this issue previously, see my blog post ‘what is in the water’).

Other current examples include vaccination and, of special concern for New Zealand, the use of 1080 for the control of mammalian pests.

These conflated issues have some common elements and, when we stop to parse them, we find that better science communication could go some way to resolving such confused debates. Public perceptions of risk, trust in authorities, and the general discomfort with uncertainty need to be addressed with openness, integrity and professionalism.

The influence of perceptions: risk and trust

As with the issues mentioned above, ‘hot topics’ at the science-and-society interface often involve the balancing and interpreting of perceived risks against the perceived benefits of the use of certain technologies. Indeed, it is inevitable and natural that different people have different biases in reaching their own points of equilibrium based on what trade-offs they are willing to accept.

For instance, a review by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (see Evaluating the use of 1080:Predators, poisons and silent forests and the update to this report) has shown that 1080 remains the most effective approach we have to suppressing or even eliminating mammalian pests from parts of New Zealand – a long-term goal that is widely supported by New Zealanders and given prominence by the late Sir Paul Callaghan. But the use of 1080 involves the dropping of poisons in the natural environment, however, and this makes many people feel uneasy. This is despite the fact that, when used properly, 1080 poses effectively no risk to humans and only a very low risk of poisoning domestic animals. Of course, embedded in all of this is the issue of trust in the Regulator for which the public default – sometimes encouraged by lobby groups– is often to mistrust (see: Lofstedt, R. 2005, Risk Management in Post-Trust Societies, p. 129). This requires considerable open communication and public engagement to re-balance.

These and other examples shine light on the inevitable and innate biases that people have against those trade-offs where individuals perceive risks as being personal while perceiving that it is others who ultimately benefit. We also see such trade-offs in many public health issues such as water fluoridation or with vaccination, where population immunity benefits us all but individuals personalise the risk over concerns about rare adverse reactions.

This creates a situation where there can be misuse of science as a ‘proxy’ for other kinds of values and emotion-laden conflicts (I have written about this previously, see my blogpost ‘science, values and policy’).

A tragic and ongoing example has been the promulgation of the assertion that preservatives used in vaccines are associated with autism when this link has been clearly discounted.

Explaining (and living with) uncertainty

For all the clarity that good science can provide, however, it must also deal with very complex systems and thus uncertainty. Whether it is about seismic activity, projected climate change scenarios or the impact of a social policy, science can never be absolute. Rather what it offers is a process of ascertaining knowledge about the world by which uncertainty, subjectivity and bias are reduced.

As I have previously discussed (see my discussion paper ‘Interpreting science’) such uncertainty of results can lead some to cherry-pick what they find understandable or useful. This unintentional or intentional misinterpretation of results, as well as the failure to understand the processes of gradual scientific consensus-building and the failure to grasp how scientific data should and must be interpreted, all lead to confused messages to the public and other end-users such as policy makers. The examples just given are the types of issues where science must assist society. The challenge is: how should scientists provide advice on such matters?

The role of scientists in the public arena

I have written previously on the different roles that scientists may take on as advocates or as knowledge brokers (see my discussion paper ‘Towards Better Use of Evidence in Policy Formation’). These very different models were highlighted by Roger Piekle in his book, The Honest Broker (Cambridge 2007); I have found them to be most useful in thinking through the role of a public scientist such as myself.

Individual scientists working in a field of high public interest are almost inevitably going to become passionate about their work and there can be a blurred boundary between stating the case for their scientific knowledge and becoming lobbyists for a cause. In general, public scientists are very conscious of this difficulty and work hard to position themselves as sources of unbiased scientific knowledge. However, to maintain such a position is complicated for scientists with exposure to the public. For one thing, university researchers are under the expectation to be the “critics and conscience of society”, secondly there are the ever-present pressures imposed by the media for ‘a good story’. Where the boundaries become blurred, for example in some cases where scientists assist an advocacy organization but it is not clear they are acting as a lobbyist or an expert, there is a risk that the conflation between scientifically derived knowledge and values-based biases can undermine trust in the entire scientific enterprise.

This conflation issue is becoming more current, more obvious and indeed more urgent for at least two reasons. Firstly, the rise of non-traditional media makes unfiltered communication easy. In many domains, this is a welcome opportunity for public engagement and input. However, it also has the effect of eliminating the critical moderating role of peer review processes and/or journalistic integrity. Secondly there are increasingly mixed expectations on publically funded scientists; They are expected to undertake research that end-users value, while limiting undue influence of those end-users and remaining true to the standardised and rigorous processes of scientific knowledge creation. Traditional boundaries, established to avoid any conflicts of interest, are becoming less clear, making good research governance and communication practices all the more important (see my previous musings on this topic ‘A modern ‘two cultures’?’).

The solution to these challenges is not easy. But key to progress are skilled, knowledgeable and principled ‘knowledge brokers’. Their development can be bolstered on at least two fronts: First, increasing the use of independent science advisors or advisory committees in the policy process and of national academies (such as the Royal Society of New Zealand) to help to ensure that the results and limitations of scientific enquiry can be fully grasped by those who need to act on the knowledge. Second, organisations like the Science Media Centre are of increasing importance. They help ensure that communicators in the traditional and new media have access to accurate information and know how to convey it.

But such approaches do not come close to resolving fully the responsibilities that fall on individual scientists and the pressures that they feel will remain. Yet, the scientific community per se has been rather slow in confronting these complex and nuanced communication challenges.

A step in the right direction

In considering these issues, we might look to the example recently set by Japan. In January this year, the Science Council of Japan, which is Japan’s National Academy, revised its Code of Conduct for Scientists in light of reflections on the Fukushima disaster. The revised document considers in-depth the “issue of the social responsibility of scientists regarding how they might return those research results to society”. I quote a few sections from it.

“Science and scientific research exist both with and for society. Therefore, research activities based on scientific freedom and the subjective judgments of scientists only gain social recognition once they are premised upon public trust and the mandate of the people. Here, the word “scientists” refers to researchers and specialists engaged in activities that create new knowledge, or in the use and application of scientific knowledge, in all academic fields ranging from humanities and social sciences to natural sciences, regardless of which institution they belong to. While scientists engaged in such intellectual activities enjoy the prerogative to pursue truth under academic freedom based on their own expert judgments, independent of the interests of specific authorities or organizations, as experts they also bear a grave responsibility to respond to the mandate given to them by society at large. Especially in the modern world, where scientific activities and their results exert a vast and profound influence on all humanity, society demands that scientists always make ethical judgments and engage in ethical actions. There are also societal demands for the role that should be played by science in the development process for policy and public opinion.”

Dialogue with Society
“Scientists shall participate actively in dialogue and exchange with citizens, for better mutual understanding between society and the scientific community. As well, in order to resolve various issues and realize welfare in society, they shall also work to provide scientific advice effective for policy making to persons involved in the planning and determination of policies. On such occasions, scientists shall aim to give advice based on consensus among scientists, and, when differences of opinion exist, shall offer explanations that are easy to understand”.

Scientific Advice
“Scientists shall conduct research activities with the objective of contributing to public welfare, and offer fair advice based on objective and scientific evidence. At that time, they shall be aware of the gravity of the impact and of their responsibility that their statements may make on public opinion building and policy making, and shall not abuse their authority. As well, scientists shall make maximum efforts to ensure quality in their scientific advice, and at the same time clearly explain the uncertainty associated with scientific knowledge as well as the diversity of opinions”.

This revised code of conduct is timely and in many ways, innovative, courageous and challenging. Certainly the code is worth reading in full. It shows a depth of reflection and insight from which the global scientific community including our own, could learn a great deal. Whether we are scientists, journalists or part of the interested public, there is much to reflect upon in the changing relationship between science and society, and in the role of skilled and principled communicators.

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