Thursday, October 22, 2009

Darwinius Revisited

An interesting post on Not Exactly Rocket Science caught our attention earlier this week: apparently Ida - our Darwinius ancestor or missing link - is no such thing. This is shocking because it was only a few months ago when the media storm took over and wrote over some of what we thought we knew about human evolution and knocked Lucy from her place in history.

This poses an interesting question for those of us interested in science communication: Should new scientific findings be immediately publicized or should there be some sort of process for releasing scientific data - especially revolutionary research - so that the general public doesn't get mixed messages about scientific "facts"?

A PR Perspective
by: Heather

The scientific community potentially has the worst public relations system around; meaning there doesn't seem to be one at all. So much of the exciting research going on in science never gets explained to people outside of a specific field, better yet to the public.

When a chance comes along to really publicize something that people can sink their teeth into, building up a media storm is a great idea. First, because it engages the public. That increased interest may help build public support and perhaps funding for future research. Plus, if celebrities and politicians can vacillate on positions in the news, why shouldn't scientists do the same? Science is a fluid field where things change, so it just makes sense.

However, as a PR professional, it would be irresponsible to not mention the other side of that argument: not all press is good press. Look at the Large Hadron Collider. Everyone knew about it, everyone was watching, and it didn't work. Most of the public (and the media for that matter) will never check back in and see that the whole project wasn't a waste.

The American school system teaches science as a series of facts or rules that everything works in. Now, if you pursue science beyond the basics, you learn that those rules can bent, but the majority of the public thinks of science as something hard, fast, and sure. Which is why when a group of astronomers decides that Pluto is no longer a planet, there's a loss of faith in the whole system.

No wonder people question the value of vaccines when they're told, "This'll work" and then it doesn't - or worse. Unless the scientific community can pull their communications together and develop a crisis plan for when things don't pan out, it should be a fact before it gets out there.

Or, you can just hope for good press.

The View from the Bench
by: Jackie

My gut response to this is to shrug it off with the understanding that this is how science works. Science is a dynamic process. It’s about discovery, and the ability to build on this discovery. In some cases, this means supporting and expanding the initial hypothesis; in others, it means challenging your finding and modifying your hypothesis. It’s this constant irony of science that makes it both exciting and frustrating at any given moment.

My next response is to ask why the story was handled so irresponsibly. And it’s not just this. There are a number of examples of findings that are pushed out the door and stated as fact from the get-go. That’s not how the scientific process works! Think back to some of the big names in science---Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Francesco Redi. They were responsible for the theory of evolution, genetic inheritance, and germ theory, respectively. It took the scientific community years to accept their hypotheses as theories. The initial experiments that they performed paved the way for more experiments that eventually led to this. There was no mass media frenzy the day after Mendel did his first pea-experiment saying, “Hey look, we now know inheritance happens---it’s a known fact.” It was through long-term evidence-based discovery that this happened.

My point is that in the case of Darwinius, the finding was certainly valid in terms of how the researchers interpreted the data, but it should not have been presented as fact. It was and is the responsibility of the scientists, science journals, and media to make sure that scientific findings are presented at face value. As a scientist, it is exciting to, after years of work, finally experience an “AHA” moment, but we need to stay true to the scientific process, and accept it for what it is---not an overnight phenomenon, but rather an extended process.

From the Eyes of an Educated Public
by: Ilse

There are many reasons why major scientific findings should be reported to the public soon after the results are published, but the coverage of such discoveries must be responsible.

Reporting landmark discoveries is important because it generates greater enthusiasm and support for scientific research, and members of the public often have a direct stake in research that entitles them to such knowledge. Many member of the public may be directly impacted by such findings at some point. For instance, research on heart disease may lead to new treatment options in the future. The public is furthermore entitled to know about such work because a significant portion of research is funded by taxpayer dollars.

Announcing findings too soon however—without reasonable verification of the results and without giving journalists time to do adequate research prior to writing their article—is irresponsible and misleading. Premature or incomplete reports can be confusing: if one study suggests that a certain food is beneficial to health and another suggests that the same thing is harmful, the public will be left unsure about what is “true.” Sensationalizing research can also create a false sense of progress and unrealistic expectations which may lead to disappointment.

The best approach is to encourage the best science possible, reasonable verification of results to the extent allowed by funding and time restraints, and journalism that contextualizes discoveries in prior findings, allowing readers to better understand the progress being made without creating a disproportionate sense of progress.

Your thoughts?

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