I recently took part in a fascinating debate at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, Annual Student Conference 2016 on Thursday 25 February. The theme of the day was ‘Science in Society’, aimed at placing scientific research into broader context, including how it is reported in the media.
The motion for debate was, ‘This house believes that science should only be reported by journalists with a scientific background’. I was speaking in favour of the motion, along with Dr Chris Milton, a post-doctoral researcher at the ICR. Speaking against the motion were the award-winning journalist Julian Rush and a fellow cancer researcher Dr David Robert Grimes, who also writes regularly for various newspapers.
At the start of the debate, the room was narrowly in favour of the motion (57% in favour, versus 43% against). I wonder how those of you reading this blog might vote if you were asked to do so right now?
I attempted to keep the audience on side by quoting myriad examples of science that had been sensationalised in the media, including many stories on cancer research. The absence of a scientific background, I argued, was hindering scientifically plausible, accurate and balanced reporting and preventing journalists from critically appraising the nuances and caveats inherent to science. This had the potential to seriously mislead the public, who, by and large, are not able to access the original research.
Dr Milton reminded the audience about the importance of accountability to the public for our research, using the fallout from the MMR scandal as an example. The relationship between scientist and journalist, he argued, was one of mutual co-dependence; responsibility needed to be taken on both sides to maintain public trust in science.
Dr Grimes pointed out that a scientific background did not necessarily equate to a proper understanding of the scientific method. “There are Nobel laurates that endorse homeopathy, and tenured physicists that deny the reality of climate-change,” he said.
Mr Rush added that human interest stories made science interesting for the public, even if built on less-than-solid scientific foundations. He argued that journalism was built around financial incentives, adding that even the most diligent journalist could find their carefully written and researched piece distorted by a headline-writer or editor to make it more likely to sell.
In the end, the devil was in the detail and despite the audience agreeing with the sentiment of the motion at the start, it had some fatal flaws.
Firstly, the word ‘only’ suggested an exclusive mandate that might lead to scientists becoming more insular and less accountable to the public.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the word ‘background’ was disingenuously vague, spawning questions regarding the prerequisite level of scientific educational attainment — school, University or beyond? Science was also made up of many fields – did the motion call for only scientific polymaths to contemplate entering the journalistic arena!
The final result saw a swing to 73% voting against the motion and only 27% remaining in support. I had to admit that, like a bad scientist, I had neglected to define my question more accurately, and despite some thought-provoking arguments on both sides, it was back to the drawing board.
So what do you think? Have your thoughts changed?
Dr Sabrina Talukdar is an NHS Registrar in Clinical Genetics, a PhD student at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and a member of the Voice of Young Science network.
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