Direct to the public: Science via media event

What if, someday, scientists discover life on another planet or researchers make a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment that can save millions of lives. How would the public find out about these? Could the discoverers keep their findings under wraps for very long? What if they announce these discoveries to the public and it turns out they are wrong? Recent examples of sensational news in the press got me thinking about how to present earthshaking news about nature to the public. The media loves a good story. The public wants to see visible progress from scientific endeavors. In examining the examples that follow, I can see that there is probably no perfect way to communicate big scientific discoveries, considering the whims and eagerness of the media and the hopefulness and gullibility of the public, but clearly there are WRONG ways to go about it.

Here be pterosaurs and zombies?

On December 6, I found a link directing me to a Sacramento Bee article from a researcher who claimed he had found the source of mysterious light displays around the world. It was not an article but a press release, via PR Newswire, without commentary, printed as issued from the source. <Pause> I pause to let that sink in a moment: they published a press release – no fact checking – as news. Wait…it gets better. The author of the item was the person quoted in the article. This confused piece of work continued by citing the author’s experiences in foreign lands with similar mystery light phenomena. He has concluded that these lights are caused by bioluminescent animals – perhaps bats (for which there is no biological evidence so far) or, as the author is convinced, living pterosaurs.

I’m just going to pause here again because at the moment where I read that in the original piece, my inner voice screamed various expletives. A few may have reached my outer voice as well.

It’s an outrageous claim supported by no evidence, total speculation and sensationalism. The author went on to promote his book in the press release.

With a cursory glance at the information, an average reader would be apt to miss the clues that identified this as a promotional piece for the author instead of a legitimate, verified news story. I followed up with the Sacramento Bee to inquire how often they just print interesting press releases word-for-word as “news”. I received no reply, but I have a suspicion that cash-strapped and staff-deficient news sites do this more frequently than they should (which is never).

In this case, the author was promoting his idea as an extraordinary zoological find – that pterosaurs (flying reptiles that inhabited the earth at the time of the dinosaurs) did not die out in the great extinction some 65 million years ago, but are alive and GLOWING in various places around the world. The act of arriving at this conclusion requires a person to make so many assumptions and leaps of faith, one would need to be a mental acrobat, or worse. This claim is simply not worth our time. I expect such an incredible claim to be supported by some evidence beyond eyewitness stories, and wild speculation. Meanwhile, I sure wish someone would actually find some plausible explanation for the mysterious lights. To do that, a scientific process would work best.

Aim to make a credible claim, not create a Internet sensation

If you are making a claim about a natural phenomena, science gives us the most accurate results. An important step in the method is submitting your results for access, discussion and critique. Your peers attempt to show you are wrong or they search for supporting evidence that you are correct. This step is accomplished through publishing in a journal.

Science doesn’t work via press release. To announce a discovery via press release is highly confusing to the American public who have little idea about how the process of establishing scientific knowledge works.

Science played out in the press is typically the avenue of those who can’t get their findings exposed in the established scientific channels for various reasons. The glowing pterosaur was an example.

But, the lure of instant worldwide attention is attractive to big institutions and credible researchers as well. This direct-to-the-public delivery system may be paved with good intentions but is fraught with hazards. There are no quality checks. No filters. The information (dressed up in the bias of the messenger) is delivered straight to the ears of the people who make their interpretations without necessary context or alternative viewpoints available for comparison. The public hears the headline and digests that message. Rarely do they ever hear the caveats, clarifications or retractions that will follow.

The media eats up a good story. They supply the bandwagon for everyone to jump on. Consider the recent Louisiana Swamp Monster Photo that was apparently posted first to a web forum and then made its way across the Internet. If I captured a photo of this zombie-like creature on my trail camera, I’m certain my first thought would not be to casually post it to my buddies online. A multitude of red flags go up on this story, which you can read about here, but the primary point is you don’t announce to the world that a zombie is prowling the backwoods by posting it to a web forum. No matter. With it’s fantastic visual, the local news station picked up the story and reported it in a completely uncritical manner. Another journalism fail.

Science by press conference

How can I not let this theme of cryptozoology go by without mentioning the 2008 Georgia Bigfoot hoax, when worldwide media pointed their cameras at a couple of guys who claimed to have a dead Bigfoot in a freezer and a promoter looking to capitalize on it.

I watched the press conference unfold on CNN where, even at that time, the story stunk like rotting possum guts. Still, they covered it. It was a good story. It just wasn’t a science story. There wasn’t a credible researcher in the room. It was a story about humans being human, trying to make a buck. Flim-flam, thank you ma’am. Now back to the regular program.

A better approach, but not foolproof, was followed by NASA in announcing their latest research finding in astrobiology. Just the announcement of the press conference prompted rampant speculation.

The press conference itself, held on December 4, coincided with the moment of the publishing of the results in the journal Science. In this case, these were real scientists, with real credentials and experience who followed the established procedure of peer review. Their paper had been subject to review and critique before being accepted for publication. However, the public and the scientific community at large was fed the news at the same time with much fanfare and hype but without the added translation from science-savvy reporters and bloggers.

Cue the backlash.

This was an example of “science by press conference” and it is severely frowned upon. The scientists announced interesting experimental results about arsenic-utilizing life forms but, two things went wonky. First, the hype, which prematurely buzzed around the discovery of alien life, did not match the actual announcements. Nothing likely could live up to several days of rampant speculation. I’m not sure if even a more carefully worded press conference announcement by NASA would have quelled the fantastic guesses put forth by those who write headlines and blogs. Second, the science is being questioned. Almost immediately, scientific peers criticized the study and its findings. This is actually how science works! Curiously, the study’s authors chose not to respond to the scientific criticism in public but will address it via the journal format of written critique and response. Fine. That’s as it should be, I guess. But, why trumpet your findings to the world and then close the door and cover your ears until it’s convenient to defend your position?

That’s not being fair. If you want to utilize the media, you have to stay and play through so the public can follow the volleys back and forth. That might make for some entertaining viewing and instructive (or maybe destructive) insight about the way science gets hashed out among experts. I’m doubtful that the public understood what was said in this announcement and they surely won’t follow the letters to the editor back and forth that will happen in the pages of a paid-only journal.

The case study of “science by press conference” was the cold fusion debacle from 1989. I’m not kidding, either. If you take a class related to science and society, you will get Pons and Fleischmann as your example of how to achieve the epic science fail. Cold fusion was such a hot button issue, a monumental discovery for our society, that all sorts of obfuscating factors – patents, rivalry, investment money, demand for needed raw materials, commercial benefits – influenced the path taken by these two researchers. It turned out to be a career disaster. The press conference to announce the discovery of the cold fusion method preceded the publishing of the journal paper. In fact, the paper was delayed and sidetracked off its intended schedule before finally being published in another outlet. Nevertheless, scientists all over the world immediately attempted to replicate the experiment with little to go on. They were soon finding serious flaws and disputing the claim. Considering the huge implications of the experiment, it could be argued that Pons and Fleischmann were ethically delinquent in not providing the details for others to verify their incredible claim at the time they announced it. It was a major claim – they weren’t prepared to back it up. (Reference: “The sun in a test tube: the story of cold fusion” in The Golem: What You Should Know About Science by Collins and Pinch, 1998)

So, how DO you present an exciting scientific find to the public?

Science news is fascinating to many people. The arguments surrounding a scientific claim are exciting, meaningful and instructional. Unfortunately, the deliberative process that makes scientific knowledge valuable goes really slow, is esoteric and dull, and is closed off to general viewing with the exception of insiders.

Press conferences/press releases serve different purposes for different parties. The researcher sees it as a way to get the exciting information out to the world without delay. When the finding is a time-sensitive issue, this may be necessary and justified. The scientific community may see a press announcement at the time of the publication as a way to direct attention to an idea the public is interested in and prepare to put it to the test. The public sees science by press as a rare, direct link to brand spanking new knowledge.

But, this direct to the public route comes at a cost to all. The reputation of science suffers. The public gets misinformed and/or distrustful. Examples of the mistakes and misteps are many: Clonaid, National Geographic’s Archaeoraptor fossil hoax,MMR causes autism and the Martian meteorite fossils.

These mistakes influence public decision-making down the line. They remember certain parts of the story, not the whole thing. It colors their impressions, it becomes part of what they “know”.

I have no idea how this can be fixed other than by getting the public to slow down, think critically and be more aware of how science works in contrast to how the news business works. So, that’s all we have to do… find a way to make media viewers more careful about the news they consume and more skeptical of the claims they hear. (We should get right on that!) The good news is, the internet and social media makes this a bit more achievable. Now we can ask the questions and pose the criticism quickly behind the announcement, while the idea is still fresh in the media mind. It’s critical to question. When these claims skim over the formal scientific scrutiny, an informed public must serve as the peer reviewers.

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.

0 thoughts on “Direct to the public: Science via media event

  1. Your assertions about cold fusion are completely incorrect. First, a peer-reviewed paper was in print before the press conference. Second, the effect was replicated by hundreds of major laboratories within a few years.

    I have a collection of 1,200 peer reviewed journal papers on cold fusion, copied from the library at Los Alamos, and 2,500 others from proceedings, national laboratories, EPRI and other sources. This literature describes thousands of positive replications of cold fusion. I suggest you review it before commenting on this research. See:

    You linked to the article on cold fusion in Wikipedia. Be advised that this article is totally at odds with the mainstream, peer-reviewed journal articles. I suggest you stick to conventional scientific information and avoid amateur and biased sources such as Wikipedia.

    1. I respectfully assert that your comments are at odds with the scientific mainstream. Please note that I did cite a reference other than wikipedia – which was linked in order to provide a broad background on the topic. I’ll include this 2009 update from Scientific American: that reiterates the position the 20 years later, cold fusion has not been vindicated. Perhaps one day it will be. We’re waiting. (I see you have also responded there with the same comments as here.) I do understand that there is a small group of researchers that remained working on this subject. The evidence produced has obviously not been enough to sway the consensus about the science. Until then, I’m not going to switch my opinion of it.

      I’m not claiming expertise in physics. The point of this blog was the presentation of science via the media. No matter what happens to cold fusion in the future, the Pons and Fleischmann example still stands.

  2. You wrote: “I respectfully assert that your comments are at odds with the scientific mainstream.”

    The scientific mainstream is defined by the weight of replicated experimental evidence in the peer-reviewed literature. That is the only standard of truth. Opinions do not count, even when they are widely shared. Science is about verified, replicated facts and signal to noise ratios; it is not a popularity contest.

    The experimental evidence is overwhelmingly positive. There were 20 failed experiments in 1989, each running 1 cathode. 20 tests in all. In that same year there were roughly 100 positive experiments, some of them with several hundred cathodes where roughly 30% worked. Subsequently, the effect has been observed ~14,000 times (estimated by the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences). Many of these tests have been at high signal to noise ratios. For example, heat is reported at 20 W with no input power, and tritium at several million times background. There is no possibility that such measurements are in error. Many different instrument types have been used, which eliminates the possibility of systematic effort. Blind tests in multiple institutions have been used to confirm helium, radiation and other long-lived effects, eliminating human error. These tests have been performed by hundreds of the world’s top experts in calorimetry, mass spectroscopy, tritium detection and other specialties.

    If such solid, widely replicated results could be wrong, then the experimental method itself would not work, science would not work, and we would still be living in caves.

    Also the number of researchers is not small. Roughly 2,000 have contributed papers. Many are now retired or dead, but in any case, 2,000 is a large number, and 14,000 experimental runs represents thousands of man-years of effort. Your description of the events surrounding the announcement may “stand” in some sense, but it is fictional. For example the “errors” described in the New York Times article you linked to were never in evidence. I suggest you view the actual press conference on YouTube and read history books describing these events. I also suggest you avoid the New York Times and other mass media, and stick to the J. Electroanal. Chem., reports from EPRI and the NSF and other legitimate, conventional sources of information.

  3. I have to agree with Mr. Rothwell the lumping cold fusion *results* in with items like the Bigfoot hoax is more than a bit unfair. That said, given the initial problems with replication, lack of an underpinning cohesive theory of the phenomenon (even today), etc., a lot more work should have been done prior to publication, let alone a press conference. What Mr. Rothwell is not fair on is that some of the observations he is citing were, I believe, detected long after the initial experiments, with the initial results lacking the detection of expected byproducts, and the author’s claim of problems with details and difficulty of replication is also correct.

    There have been several significant developments in cold fusion research by reputable researchers and covered by reputable sources to move it out of considering it a disaster, however:

    Of course, the two went off to France to work for a lab sponsored by Toyota that closed after six years with no signficant results, so that does weigh on the author’s side that, while others may have achieved greater reproducibility and at least some theoretical work later on, Pons and Fleischman, even given grant money and six years, weren’t able to advance things much further, which speaks to the state they were at when they first published.

    So… I think everybody’s right. 🙂 The general public perception is that cold fusion went away or was disproven (I’m sure Mr. Rockwell could elaborate more than I on the MIT experiment that proported to demonstrate null findings but was later found to have applied a transformation to a graph for no valid reason which distorted results and the scientists refused to turn over their lab notes during the review) but it has been continued, including by some important scientists/institutions and replication is much more readily achievable today. The author is correct in that Pons and Fleischman were not prepared for replication in the face of making an extraordinary claim and the result was indeed a disaster… the fracas tarnished the research in the eyes of the public and many scientists stay well away from it and regard it as a career-killer because of the negative reputation that was generated in the popular press.

    All that said, I know for a sad fact that if I ever produce anything of scientific importance, particularly if it’s unexpected and counter to mainstream theory, I will first secure economic protection for the idea by whatever means necessary, then proceed directly to a press conference, where I will lambast the established experts for not being as clever as I, and several unfortunate phrases like “In your face, Hawking!” will be delivered, and would probably be the first scientific press conference that would need to be covered with a ten second delay for censors to bleep out the naughty bits. If I ever got around to publishing a paper the Reference section would be titled “Those who failed to see what I saw”… who am I kidding, there’d never be a paper. I’d declare at the press conference that I would only be sharing details with those who hadn’t disagreed with me. 🙁 At least I am self-aware enough to know that a 38-year-old who still dreams on an underground base and an army of mole men should be never be allowed anywhere near a lab coat. 🙁

  4. Oh, I forgot… if you want to one-up your cold fusion example, why not Eugene Podkletnov’s gravity shielding claims and the hubbub that followed that? There’s been nothing close to cold fusion in terms or reputable claims of verification, Podkletnov disappeared for awhile, lots of rumors and denials about replication attempts, etc.

    And one other thing… being Christmas, now I can’t help but imagine Loren Coleman’s Christmas tree decorated with glowing Pterosaur lights! 🙂

  5. Ok, one more thought 🙂 – wasn’t the book you cited, The Golem, met rather critically by mainstream science as well in reviews? I recall a considerable amount of denial of its claim that every so often science faces and a crossroads and decides by consensus to interpret unclear results one way or another. You were right in saying that cold fusion is considered by many scientists outside the mainstream, but what the authors of the reference you used were claiming for each example/chapter of their book was that there were cases where the results were unclear and/or replication was difficult, and science *chose* to accept/deny the results without having experimentally settled the issue one way or another. I read the book quite some time ago, but if I recall correctly the claim that the Mitchelson-Morley experiment disproved an ether were incorrect. The reality was that after each experiment was published, peer review produced objections and other types of ether hypotheses needed to be considered, etc. It wasn’t until the 1970s until an experiment was finally performed that met every published objection to previous experiments, and this obtained a slight POSITIVE result. But by that time science had already *decided* relativity was correct and the ether did not exist, so the results were ignored.

    This sounds like what Mr. Rothwell was arguing (although it wasn’t the same as the main point you were trying to make): the mainstream has “moved on” without experimentally proving or disproving the reality of the cold fusion phenomenon claims and positive results have been ignored since. Different topic, I know, but I believe the authors of the book you cited would be more inclined to take a view more akin to Mr. Rothwell’s first reply and examine whether the issue was decided on the weight of scientific experiment or on a judgement call rather than simply accept consensus opinion.

  6. The point of this post was to point out science discovery that bypassed the primary channels and went straight to the public. My focus is on how the public sees science being done and the distortion that occurs. I am not well versed enough in the complexities of the Pons & Fleishman to argue about its merits or lack thereof.

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