Sensationalism in Science, Part II
By Gabrielle Rabinowitz, @GabrielleRab
In Part I of this post I explained the harm that can result from over-hyped science reporting. But what if scientists’ own enthusiasm for their work is what sparks the hype? As Rob O’ Sullivan of Dar-winning pointed out in a comment on Part I, scientists in poorly funded fields sometimes rely on hype to raise funds. As science funding is increasingly threatened by federal cutbacks, scientists need to reach out to the public to explain why their research is exciting and important. As we reach out, we need to be careful that our sincere enthusiasm doesn’t feed the hype machine. Every scientist needs to consider the consequences of their words.
Hype on Mars
No one knows better about shrinking funds and the need to excite the public than NASA. I’ve already mentioned the “arsenic life” incident of 2010, where NASA scientists did nothing to stop the overexcited press from exaggerating their findings. Last November a much more cautious NASA research team unwittingly let their enthusiasm become the source of hype. The senior scientist from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, John Grotzinger, told NPR that he and his team had discovered something in a soil sample from Curiosity that was “gonna be one for the history books.” Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent added that according to his sneak peek at some of the data, the finding was “earth shaking.”
Inevitably, people started to get curious. What had NASA found? Was it a fossil? Organic molecules? Life?
But the scientists wouldn’t talk. Having learned their lesson from the “arsenic life” fiasco, Grotzinger and his team waited until their data was confirmed before they made an official statement.# In the meantime, the media ran wild with speculation. When the official announcement finally came, people were shocked to discover… that the Curiosity rover was fully functional. That was it. The rover had found perchlorate, an oxygen and chlorine compound which formed organic compounds when heated in the analysis chamber. But as the press release was careful to express, “We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point.”
So what happened to the “earth shaking” finding? Well, this result was very exciting to the NASA scientists. It was the first time a rover had ever scooped and analyzed a Martian soil sample. But, as is often the case with science, the data were inconclusive and required further study. Maybe Grotzinger shouldn’t have said “one for the history books,” but “one for the history of science textbooks.”
Some think that John Grotzinger should have just kept silent until the official announcement. For example, Jeffrey Kluger over at Time believes that the “verbal high-fiving” shown by Grotzinger “might have been better shared with other scientists who understand the limitations of the finding… The lesson for JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratories] and NASA is straightforward: scientists should be circumspect when outsiders are present.”
Kluger paints a bleak picture of the current state of scientific communication in the public sphere. Not only does he think that scientists should suppress their excitement to avoid overreactions, but he reinforces the stereotype of science as a secret club that is inaccessible to non-academic “outsiders.”
I strongly disagree.
We need clear, enthusiastic discourse between scientists and the public in order to increase scientific literacy, raise support for research, and inspire the next generation. If people cannot “understand the limitations” of a scientist’s research, it is the duty of that scientist (and the journalist who conducts the interview) to equip them with the knowledge necessary to do so.
So how can scientists start the discourse? In blogs and on Twitter, some scientists are already engaged in direct communication with the public. They are PhD educated science writers, researchers looking for funding, or just scientists interested in sharing their knowledge and passion. They aren’t free of the threat of hype. Any one of them could accidentally be the next John Grotzinger. But they are willing to take that risk in the name of open communication. Curious as to how different scientists navigated those risks, I turned to Twitter to hear from them directly.
Have your own question for scientists? As always, feel free to contact any of us at The Incubator, but also check out this list of scientists on Twitter. Talk to them about their research, your ideas, or anything else. It’s a lot harder to be mislead by hype when you can directly follow up on the science news yourself.
Read Part I of this post here
Follow Gabrielle on Twitter (@GabrielleRab)
 Although the team at NASA subjected their results to their own critical analysis, the results have yet to be published.
These views are the work of individual authors, do not necessarily represent the views and opinions The Rockefeller University, and are not approved or endorsed by The Rockefeller University.
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10 thoughts on “Sensationalism in Science, Part II”
“We need clear, enthusiastic discourse between scientists and the public in order to increase scientific literacy, raise support for research, and inspire the next generation. If people cannot “understand the limitations” of a scientist’s research, it is the duty of that scientist (and the journalist who conducts the interview) to equip them with the knowledge necessary to do so.”
Excellent point.I couldn’t agree more.
I also agree wholeheartedly with Ethan Perlstein’s thoughts on the importance of open feedback.
Nipping sensationalism in the bud is very important. This is particularly true when the research plays a part in swaying opinions on polarised issues such as climate change.
It can be tempting to overstate the significance of findings in such areas to drive home the need for action, but in so doing you leave yourself vulnerable to accusations of scaremongering. In the absence of convincing evidence that climate change is not anthropogenically exacerbated, the deniers can still gain ground by attacking the research of the opposition.
Even when hype has positive outcomes, it can lead to a disproportionate response. In my own field, the successful demonisation of many invasive species has forced management bodies to allocate inordinate resources towards trying to remove them (in many cases, an obviously futile effort),when the same resources could be put to more effective use preventing the introduction of novel invasives or successfully tackling invasives with less of a stigma.
I’m not suggesting the management bodies are ill-informed in any way, but they have a responsibility to placate stakeholders, many of whom have bough into all the hype. As such, their hand has been forced in many cases.
Again, while it irritates me to see such resources divvied up disproportionately, I’m convinced that in the absence of hype, those resources would not have been made available at all, or at least would be far less significant. I hate to say it, but it really is difficult to berate sensationalism in a world where the next set of financial cuts could mean the end of your job, if not the dissolution of your entire organisation.
Thanks again Rob for continuing the discussion! You make a number of excellent points.
I’m “into” social science or “human nature science” and my interest is in “applying” research findings in ways that are understandable or applicable to daily “life effectiveness” for any human beings interested.
I’m not into “hype” or “sensationalism”, but I’m interested in how to effectively “translate” social science, cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary science, etc. research findings in ways that can help people in their daily lives. There’s a fine line here too between “sensationalism” (eg. “pop psychology” or “easy answers”) and applying research findings to everyday life and every day people’s daily problem that are effective and in integrity with the justifiable implications of the research. I’d love an article focused on the challenge of applying “human nature science” findings effectively and responsibly if that’s something you’re interested in.
I know responsible “human nature researchers” are justifiably/rightfully hesitant to make any jump to the possible implications beyond the specific research findings, but what’s the point of research if it can’t be applied to improve “the human experience”?
I really like your style of writing.
(P.S. My website is in preliminary development and not ready for “prime time” or even “pre-prime time”)
Thanks for your interest, Tom. The challenge with the direct-to-life applications of research is that the pace of scientific inquiry doesn’t tend to match the demands of the public. No one wants to hear that your results “may one day influence the construction of medical devices,” they want something that helps their life right away. When you move from basic biomedical research to something like psychology, the applications become more apparent, but the science also becomes harder to quantify and support (The best psychology studies are going to be just as incremental and cautious as basic science research).
I think the best application of science to everyday life is less about the individual scientific results (which will influence people’s lives whether they know it or not) and more about the mix of genuine wonder and critical reasoning that scientists use to view the world. A sense of respect for the world around us and a healthy dose of curiosity about what makes it all work is something that I think anyone can benefit from. It’s that enthusiastically inquisitive mindset that I think scientists can best impart to the public if they take the time to talk to them.
Of course, you can also look back and see what scientific discoveries have allowed us to attain the quality of life we enjoy today- it’s a lot easier to see how science influences our lives in hindsight, once the testing and retesting has been carried out and the applications have been made.
I can think about expanding these ideas into a full post, but if you have more specific suggestions for a post, feel free to explain in a comment or shoot The Incubator an email here: http://incubator.rockefeller.edu/?page_id=5.
Thanks, Gabrielle. Yes, I agree with your goal to encourage “A sense of respect for the world around us and a healthy dose of curiosity about what makes it all work is something that I think anyone can benefit from. It’s that enthusiastically inquisitive mindset that I think scientists can best impart to the public if they take the time to talk to them.”
The problems are legion, though, since on the one hand most of our most powerful cultural institutions don’t encourage “a healthy dose of curiosity about what makes it all work,” such as our basic education institutions, religions, politicians, and “the Media.” They want simple, easy, “sensationalist” answers, which encourages “closed mindedness”, rather than an “inquisitive mindset.”
Scientists are really at a disadvantage against the forces that encourage easy answers. I’m cheering you on in your efforts.
Here’s a recent article in the Guardian that looks at the communicating science problem from another viewpoint:
Here’s a link to article on research about another problem with effective science communication: Rude Blog Comments