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.