Is sensationalism in the media creating public distrust in science?

Oliver Wylde.

There is little doubt amongst the scientific community that engagement with the wider public is important. In fact, one could argue that it’s one of the most important parts of the process – after all, the policy-makers who pull the strings in the research community are at the beck and call of the government, and therefore ultimately the public and the media. This is reflected by more and more research grants requiring some effort towards public engagement as a stipulation, if not only to promote the science, but also to straighten out the discrepancies that are created when scientists interact with an often sensationalist media. Fear of misrepresentation is what one would hope drives this need for engagement, but how much is the media really at fault?

Whilst there are many examples of unnecessary hype and just flat out wrong science in articles across the internet, there can sometimes be spin on both sides of the line. There are several well-known examples of scientists being too hasty with publication – the “faster than light neutrino” discovered by physicists at CERN in 2012[1] certainly kicked up a storm in the tabloids, but was eventually attributed to a faulty connector handling GPS data. In May 2013, a team of stem cell researchers from around the world announced that they had succeeded in producing personalised human embryonic stem cells, which in theory could be used to grow any feature of the human body [2]. After a few days it was found that several figures in the paper were simply cropped versions of each other, and that the same image had been used twice with a different labelling convention, amongst other irregularities.

This list could go on and on, and would certainly include the “train-wreck” of 2012, where psychologists were called on to clean up their act after failed attempts to replicate the results of classic social priming studies [3]. In the same year, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper reported, after the review of thousands of biomedical and life-sciences journal entries, that around two-thirds “were attributable to misconduct, fraud, duplicate publication or plagiarism”[1]. These examples of hype and systematic misconduct in science do nothing to aid its image in the public’s eyes, and in my view only create more distrust in peer-review and the scientific method, which can only be a bad thing. After all, it is the peer-review process which should look to expose and verify outlandish claims made by scientists – preferably before a story-hungry media comes along and distorts the truth. This apparent lust for new science coverage in the media is all the more reason for engagement.

Whilst “data fiddling” and un-replicability certainly pose threats to the public’s trust, it is the absence of data altogether which has recently caused worry amongst scientists and the media alike. In 2014 an argument was made by a group of researchers calling for a change in the way fundamental theoretical physics is done: that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it does not need to be tested experimentally. Many would argue that this breaks centuries of philosophical tradition in science, and even counters the basis of science itself – Karl Popper would no doubt have an issue with the falsifiability of this physics. The argument from the theorists is that ideas like string theory and the multiverse are the “only games in town” when it comes to explaining deep questions that we have about the universe, such as pre-Big Bang physics and the hunt for a Theory Of Everything. In addition, some argue that both of the theories are inherently untestable anyway, for example some parts of string theory rely on the existence of extra dimensions that a human could never hope to observe[4], and the “many-worlds” hypothesis poses a similar problem.

It’s for reasons like these that scientists look to the elegancy of the theory to discern its validity, rather than its ability to be empirically proven.  But most of those at the research level would not like this to become a running trend – when all that is required to claim that your theory is valid is elegancy and the lack of any other significant theory in the field, theoretical physics risks falling so far away from anything testable in the real world that it would become almost pointless in the first place, let alone alienate an already distrusting public. The image of several hair-brained theoreticians sitting in a dark room concocting a mathematical framework of something that doesn’t further our understanding of the real world is not one that science needs. When there are no limitations to what you can theorize and call science, you eventually end up with bad science, and in turn a bad image of science. From this viewpoint, it is clear the rife sensationalism of things like multiverse and string theory in the media is not just the fault of the media, but of the scientists as well.

In the end it is down to science to police itself. There is no doubt that the most ambitious modern science can seem at odds with the empiricality that has historically given the field its credibility, and that this often creates friction between the worlds of science and journalism. Despite this, many accept that to quell a sceptical media science must sort out the problems it faces from within. Without tackling the problems that peer-review and theoretical physics present, for example, public perception of science will surely take a turn for the worse. That is not to say, however, that it is totally the fault of science. Science media coverage will always look to seek out and expose sensational stories, and it is down to scientists to try and combat this. It is when they allow sensationalism and spin to happen for the sake of notoriety and funding that the problem only gets worse – misrepresentation of science eventually hurts its public image in the long run, even if the initial boon is tempting. In reality, the blame cannot be laid solely upon science, the media or the public – and one promising outlook is that an increase science sensationalism can only mean an increase in the interest in science in general. Even if the science that is being consumed is likely to be sensationalist.

References

[1] http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/news/10.1063/PT.5.8119

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/scientific-research_b_3340682.html

[3] http://www.nature.com/news/nobel-laureate-challenges-psychologists-to-clean-up-their-act-1.11535

[4] http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

[5] http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/post-empirical-science-is-oxymoron.html

 

Is sensationalism in the media creating public distrust in science?

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