I stared out to sea, shielding my eyes from the glare. Three orcas surfaced less than fifty metres away. Next thing we knew they were underneath the boat: their beautifully sleek bodies passed within arm’s reach of the prow. “That was awesome” said our guide, thumping his chest, “the best sighting I’ve had all summer”. But during our trip back to the harbour he explained how falling salmon stocks are sadly placing these magnificent pods of orcas in severe danger: “they’re such picky eaters”, he said.
When I returned to my relatives’ apartment in Vancouver that evening I switched on the news. “Record salmon run of the last hundred years,” announced the newsreader. Had our guide been lying? Were the orcas actually doing fine?
Sockeye salmon, the orcas’ preferred cuisine, live out at sea, returning to precisely the same spot on the same river roughly every five years to breed. Therefore it is a different batch of individuals that migrate up North America’s rivers each year; salmon stocks naturally follow a cyclic pattern. Furthermore, weather, currents, storm frequencies, nutrient cycles and overfishing are all likely to play a role in dictating sockeye salmon populations. In fact, scientists believe that the eruption of Kasatochi, an Alaskan volcano, was responsible for fertilising parts of the North Pacific leading to a plankton bloom and the anomalously high salmon run this year.
However, such measured explanations are rare in the media world of attention-grabbing sound bites. Ben Goldacre, a UK journalist, explains in his book Bad Science that “for an experimental result to be newsworthy it must be new, unexpected and change what we previously thought”, in other words, “a single lone piece of information which contradicts a large amount of pre-existing experimental evidence”. Granted, a headline reading: “The anomalously high salmon run this year should not be over-exaggerated since salmon stocks follow cyclic patterns and the overall trend is still one of decline” would have resulted in most people turning off the television. Aiming to get the public interested in science is laudable, but it is no excuse for only telling half of the story.
The very nature of science is not conducive to the “breakthrough” ethos of media stories; paradigm shifts are rare in science. Rather, numerous scientists work away at their research: collecting new evidence, modifying existing theories and occasionally proposing new ideas for unexplained phenomena. Scientists use lines of best fit and come up with models of reality that fit the majority of the evidence available at the time. These models are then peer-reviewed and further refined.
If any one individual observation is overemphasised, as in the case of the salmon, then a distorted message is communicated to the rest of society. Such misrepresentation is irresponsible given that many of our biggest global challenges today are rooted in science. For example, climate change is a very real threat to the human race. The science is there to read in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports, but a disproportionate number of the headlines are concerned with alternative views, held by a minority of scientists. Journalists jump to the controversies and the scandals with barely a nod at the bulk of well respected research on the topic.
Exaggeration of anomalies and misplaced emphases are one thing, but blatant falsehoods are another. Take, for example, the case of the publicity that surrounded the switch on of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008. Journalists gleefully recanted the tale of Walter Wagner, a ‘former nuclear safety officer’, who filed a lawsuit to try and prevent the LHC being switched on. Others claimed that black holes created in the experiment would “eat the earth from the inside”. However, Vitaly Ginzburg, Russian Physics Nobel Laureate, made clear that “such rumours were spread by unqualified people seeking sensation or publicity”. The LHC Safety Assessment Group reported that black holes could never be created according to Einstein’s theory of gravity. Even the wildly speculative theories that did predict the formation of black holes showed that they would disintegrate instantaneously. And yet many people out on the streets were excitedly talking about the end of the world.
All of this is very dangerous. Non-scientists often possess a blind and reverent faith for the science they are presented with in the media. Ben Goldacre explains how science is viewed by society as “a monolith, a mystery, and an authority, rather than a method”. For example, in the UK, scientific techniques don’t have to undergo any sort of formal scrutiny before being allowed in court. Similarly, no professional qualification is required to act as a “scientific expert” on the witness stand. The reliability of science is left to the discretion of the judge.
Science holds a powerful position within our society. The phrase “scientific research has shown” carries unprecedented weight. What research? How big are the error bars? Which are the anomalies? What do other scientists in this field believe? And is this research being communicated fairly in the particular article you’re reading?
The challenge for science communicators is to tell the whole story.
Featured image credit: Doptis via Shutterstock
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