Accurate Representations of Science: Whose Responsibility Is It?

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind lately:

Whose job is it to make sure that the non-scientist consumers of science get it right?

I’ve had a few discussions with various psychologists about this lately and they frequently bring up two answers to this question:

(1) It’s the consumer’s job. I heard from a few of the psychologists I spoke to that they are frustrated that non-scientists who read science and then use it (i.e., your dad when he listens to the evening news and then tells you about it) don’t take enough time and put in enough effort to understand it accurately. This leads to misrepresentations of the results and, even worse, a misuse of the findings. The summary of this argument is that “people are too lazy/uninformed to do anything more than read headlines and then run with it.”  The implication there is that non-scientists should be more motivated to go the extra mile and try to understand what scientists are doing.

While I do think that all people should be educated in scientific method and interpretation, I think it’s important that scientists remember that non-scientist consumers of science are busy. People have their own jobs to worry about and, furthermore, have families, hobbies, and their health to think about, among other things. If we scientists can’t be bothered to know the intricacies of, for example, high finance, why should we expect non-scientists to know how to perfectly interpret our own findings?

(2) It’s the media’s job. It is very common for scientists to complain about the media/journalists completely misrepresenting their studies. The feeling seems to be that journalists are just out to make headlines and will say anything they need to in order to do that – even if it misrepresents the truth.

Similarly to my earlier point, journalists have other priorities. It might not be so much about saying anything to get a headline – they might just need to say things in such a way that people can understand; they might need to simplify what scientists often explain in very complex terms that are difficult to understand.

I think the option that is often missing from this discussion is that it’s the scientist’s job to make sure that their research is understood correctly. Who better to take on that responsibility than someone who has had 6+ years of training in scientific method and an intimate familiarity with the study in question? Writing journal articles that are often dense and jargony and read mostly by other scientists is simply not enough. No one can expect scientists to become part-time scientist, part-time media rep, but I think we can do the following:

-Learn how to speak clearly and simply about our work so that anyone can understand

-Get involved in educating adults and children about science and how it works

-Write science blogs (*nudge nudge*)

-Start a science podcast

I’m not saying that all the responsibility lies on any of these three groups alone, but simply that the three need to work together so that the science that we spend so much money and time on can be used correctly and to the greatest benefit of all.

I’d love to hear thoughts anyone else – non-scientist, scientist, or media-person – has about this topic.

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One thought on “Accurate Representations of Science: Whose Responsibility Is It?

  1. Hi Mariana, am so glad you wrote this post, I just had such an interesting experience with the study we published. CNN wrote it up, COMPLETELY WRONG! It was shocking, the comments even pointed how badly the article botched it. Then, another journalist for another big magazine must have seen it and wrote up our study correctly, perhaps trying to point out that good journalists can get it right. Meanwhile, the CNN post had many more tweets, facebook likes and comments than the accurate coverage! I am not sure how the CNN reporter got it so wrong, she may have misunderstood my co-author who spoke to her, or she may have just not cared. Not sure what lesson I should learn from all this, but very informative experience.

    I guess the lesson is, it is important to monitor this stuff and to write about your work, hopefully you can get the word out widely enough for people to listen to the real results rather than sensationalistic headlines…?

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