This week, I read two thought-provoking pieces on the issue of scientific misinformation. In his piece, Colin Schultz discusses three studies that help illustrate that “[s]cience journalists do not work in isolation, and sometimes errors start further—much further—up the chain.” He quotes from David DiSalvo’s piece, which explores why scientists and journalists mistrust one another and what we can do to repair that trust.
So what happens when a scientist decides to cross the big divide… and become a writer herself? Problem solved, right?
Not really. It’s still not easy. At the risk of being a little too honest here, let me point out some of the challenges I’ve run into as a scientist-turned-writer.
I empathize with the scientists. I know first-hand how difficult research can be and how much work/time/blood/sweat/tears goes into any scientific study. As a young editor for a top-tier journal, I often struggled with papers in which I recognized that the authors had done a TON of work, yet the findings were less than exciting. Given the interests/standards of the journal, these were studies that would eventually be turned down, but the decisions were not always clear-cut or easy for me. As a writer, empathy is less of a “problem” – no matter the impact or findings of the study, there is always something interesting about the science into which I can sink my teeth. But I always need to be mindful of context – make sure I am accurately conveying what we have learned from the study and what there is yet to do – and not oversell a story just because I know the scientists worked really hard at it.
I am obsessed with accuracy and precision. As a scientist, you learn to formulate all of your assertions with a dozen modifiers and disclaimers: “Protein X interacts with protein Y, but only in this cell type, under these conditions, and when there’s a full moon.” We don’t do this for fun – we need to think this way when considering a study in a critical manner. In fact, one of the things I looked out for as an editor – and which has carried over into my work as a writer – is overstatement of claims. I need to distinguish between what is clearly supported by data and what is speculation and extrapolation. I rely on the specific nitty-gritty details to tease out what has actually been shown in a study. Detail and specificity builds precision, but unfortunately can sometimes obscure clear communication. When writing up the study, I need to decide which nitty-gritty details are actually important in conveying the central message of the study (while preserving context) and which are extraneous and need to be left out.
I spend so much time getting the science right that I forget about the “angle”. I know I need to get your attention. But I don’t write as fast as my more experienced colleagues, and having spent most of my time making sure I’ve got the science right, I sometimes rush through the process of crafting a compelling introduction or hopeful/dramatic conclusion – elements that make the science more relevant. It can be tempting – when I am writer-blocked or running headlong into a deadline – to say the hell with it and conclude a story with “Therefore, X causes Y, and now that we know this, we’re going to cure cancer.” Schultz and DiSalvo both touch on the issue of oversimplification in their respective articles. Luckily, my obsession with accuracy and precision (as mentioned above) generally prevents me from making such statements. Yes, I need to write compellingly, but I also can’t toss accuracy out the window. I need to spend time thinking, “Why should anyone read this?” and provide a good answer in my piece.
In closing, I wholeheartedly agree with this paragraph from DiSalvo:
Thankfully, there is an attainable middle ground. Some scientists and journalists have chosen, to use a Reaganism, to “trust but verify,” and I think this is the healthiest outcome of the debate we can hope for. Scientists have every right to be concerned about how their work is represented to the world. If they choose to extend their trust to a journalist to handle the subject well, the journalist should also be willing to reciprocate by making every effort to tell the story appealingly, but without reckless embellishment. That means checking and double checking the facts and making sure that the scientists’ reservations are honored.
It is important to me that the scientists about whose study I’ve written has a chance to read my article. I want to make sure I’ve understood the nuances of the study and that I’ve represented the central take-home message accurately. I also strive to make my articles accessible to the desired audience – and hope they will be able to read it, understand it, find it interesting, and derive something from it. Finally, I seek the approval of – or at least seek to avoid ridicule from – other science writers and communicators. I want to know I am producing good quality work. I am still learning. I seem to be headed in the right general direction.
The take-home message of this blog post, in combination with Schultz and DiSalvo’s pieces? We all have a part to play in good, accurate science reporting, whether we are scientists, editors, writers, journalists, PR practitioners, etc. We must keep working at it.