“You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” – quote attributed to Albert Einstein
As a scientist, we often find that people have a hard time understanding what we do. Family and friends may expect that we make giant strides in our work everyday, making important breakthroughs or discoveries left and right. They may not understanding how slow science is or why our research is important or even what our research is about.
So why the disparity between what scientists do and what the public thinks we do?
For today, I will focus on two issues: (1) Scientists don’t often encourage public understanding and (2) Inaccurate reporting and sensationalization in the popular media.
Scientists don’t help the public understand their science
As graduate students, postdocs, and PIs, we write often for scientific audiences. Manuscripts that are read by others in our field, dissertations that may actually be read by no one aside from your lab mates, and grants that are reviewed by maybe a more diverse set of scientists. We present our work at conferences filled with people that actually care about the intricacies of our research or work on other closely related research areas. But how often do we write to convey our research to a non-scientist audience?
Much of the interface we have with the general public is translated through press releases and other popular media outlets intended to bring science news to the general public. However, things often go awry during this process leading which brings me to my next discussion point…
The media doesn’t always help
Many news outlets do not have reporters with in-depth scientific training. Thus proper scrutiny of the reported studies may not take place. Despite the best efforts of the writers, many science stories in the news may just be loosely based on the realities of the research itself. Let’s look at the recent reports of colistin resistant bacterial infections I discussed previously. The media reported that this was the first case of colistin resistant bacteria in the United States (not true) and that this bacteria was a carbapenem resistant bacteria (also not true). While true that both of these drugs are considered “last resort” treatment options and is dangerous if a bacterial infection is resistant to both of these drugs, most of the media has not mentioned that the recent colistin resistant bacteria identified was unique because the resistance element was is carried on mobile pieces of DNA (plasmids) easily capable of transfer to other bacteria.
Furthermore, news in any sort of context has focused on the most riveting stories that are intended to draw broad audiences. In terms of science, the general public would rather see captivating, attention grabbing headlines (x causes cancer, x prevents cancer, we will all die from x bacteria, etc.) rather than stories about the average day in science (x regulates y gene, function of x protein, etc). The public wants to know how science directly impacts them. Thus, news outlets have an incentive to make their stories flashy but sometimes, this means overembellished or even totally inaccurate reporting.
To make matters worse, scientists may (unintentionally or intentionally) overinflate their results
Many times in graduate school, I have been told to be careful when drawing conclusions from my results. Make sure that you are not making a bigger deal out of your results than they really are, my advisor would say. However, overstatements are common in the sciences. In the blog “The Tree of Life”, Dr. Jonathan Eisen discusses a microbiome paper and the disastrous outcomes that occur after publication. The paper provides evidence that antibiotics altered the gut microbiome and inflammatory markers in the blood of mice. Additionally, they showed that antibiotic treated mice have reduced AB plaque deposition (AB plaques are characteristic of Alzheimer’s). One may intuitively think that the reduction in AB plaques is due to the antibiotics but correlation is not causality; the authors did not demonstrate how this link could occur. The authors even point this out in their paper, yet their title is misleading and an overstatement. This then leads to the flashy headlines in the popular media claiming that antibiotics prevent Alzheimer’s (try Googling Alzheimer’s and antibiotics).
I would like to end with a few interesting and related discussions on science journalism:
Communicating science is an aspect of research that scientists (myself included) often overlook. Since much of our research is federally funded and is impacted by public perception of science, it is important that the public not only understands the science through accurate depictions, but also find science exciting and accessible.