20 June 2006

Chemistry and its image problem

It is bad enough having scientists complaining about their public image, as it if they are somehow different from any other arcane professions in being misunderstood, but when it gets down to the problems that chemists face you wonder if the world of Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) has gone too far. Still, if you are a chemist worrying about being loved by the public, you might do well to read this Special Issue of a journal called HYLE, which somehow stands for the International Journal For Philosophy Of Chemistry, on "The Public Image of Chemistry".

The editorial in this issue points out that "chemists have always been complaining about their low prestige, the lack of public acknowledgment of their achievements, and the misguiding popular associations with chemistry, such that we now have a long record of complaints of almost two centuries".

The piece then goes on to say that there isn't much research out there on chemistry and its image. "Even the recent boost of academic research in Public Understanding of Science (PUS) has virtually excluded chemistry and, instead, focused on topics such as 'Frankenfood' and genetic engineering."

What next? Do we need a conference on the public perception of amino acids?

09 June 2006

Medical journalism and meetings of the mindless

As someone who believes that science journalists spend too much time following press releases and papers, and that they should attend research conferences for real stories, I naturally leapt on a press release proclaiming Important study facts often missing in media reports about medical research. This goes with a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia which, the release tells us, warns that "News stories about medical research, often based on initial findings presented at professional conferences, frequently omit basic facts about the study and fail to highlight important limitations".

Steven Woloshin and Lisa M Schwartz of the "VA Outcomes Group" at Dartmouth Medical School wrote the paper. Their bottom line is that because of the journalists' failure to hedge their bets "the public may be misled about the validity and relevance of the science presented".

There's any number of comments that a media observer could make about this. First there is the fact that there just isn't room to go into all of the fine details in a short newspaper story. Then there is the fact that the people who present the papers hardly shout from the rooftops about the possibility that their findings may be a load of tosh.

You also have to wonder what world these people inhabit. For example, they assert that "there are many anecdotal complaints about how well the media cover scientific meetings". Really? Most scientists of my acquaintance, and there are some, reckon that the media do a poor job of covering meetings other than those at which there are serried ranks of PR folks pushing their researchers into the limelight.

Here is what the researchers in this project found:

"Basic study facts were often missing. About a third of reports failed to mention study size, and 53% did not mention study design or were so ambiguous that expert readers could not determine the design with any certainty.

"Forty per cent of stories did not quantify the main result. Twenty-one per cent quantified the main result, but used only relative change statistics without a base rate — a format known to exaggerate the perceived magnitude of findings."

In other words, these people seem to want newspaper reports to be as thorough as scientific papers in reporting the details of a conference presentation. Tell that to the news desk, an animal that is probably unknown to Woloshin and Schwartz.

Actually, it would seem that they just do not want us to get into this territory. "The most direct way to improve the media coverage of scientific meetings," they say, "would be to have less of it."

This is because "Work presented at scientific meetings is generally not ready for public consumption: results change, fatal problems emerge, and hypotheses fail to pan out."

Woloshin and Schwartz don't have much idea of how the media works. For example, they admit that their study "has two limitations". The first is that they looked at just five meetings. They reject this as an issue on the grounds that "these are extremely prominent meetings and the coverage appeared in well known media outlets".

That's just the problem. They looked at events where the media machine operates in top gear. They just might find that the reporters who go to conferences that don't come with this hype do a better job.

Another point is that this is all very patronising. While the public does not know all of the intricacies of how science works, there are so many reports of early medical research that you have to be wilfully ignorant to believe that a newspaper report of a conference is a guarantee that miracle cures will appear the day after tomorrow.

Yes, medical journalists should get their facts right, but every story cannot offer a potted introduction to how science works.

My own complaint about a lot of medical reporting is that it is the same boring stuff churned out again and again. It gets into print only because, as Woloshin and Schwartz admit, "the public has a strong appetite for medical news –‚ particularly about new, 'breakthrough' treatments and technologies". And that is down to the medics trying to con the world into believing that they can solve the world's health problems, if only we would throw more money at them. Tell them to tone down their conference papers before fingering the media for any alleged shortcomings.

Chinese Academy goes popular

Interesting to see that the The Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a Panel on popular science & publication .

This announcement tells us that "The functions of the Committee are to exercise overall leadership of science popularization and publication of CASAD; to organize major academic activities and symposia for the exchanges and cooperation with learned bodies at home and abroad; to disseminate scientific knowledge so as to promote S&T development and literacy of the entire nation; and to be responsible for editing, publishing and managing the publications of CASAD so as to give a full play to its publicity work."

China is churning out scientists like there is no tomorrow. Now, it seems, the rest of the populace is going to get a dose of science. Pity this initiative is unlikely to be a source of income for freelance science writers in the UK, where linguistic skills rarely stretch to Chinese.

05 June 2006

Journalism does matter, despite the web

The Scobleizer blog often strays from the IT straight and narrow, rarely to much effect. So we have to applaud his hitching a ride on another blog about journalism.

Mark Cuban got the ball rolling in a piece Why Journalism Matters. Cuban makes some interesting observations, but it isn't clear from his piece why he thinks that journalism matters.

Scoble's message is more succinct. Most bloggers, he suggests, "aren't really here to do journalistic work, but rather to tell the world what we think (the two are different)".

One thing that gets missed in the continuing debate about blogging versus journalism is the role of the "back office". Few bloggers have a news editor asking them why their story is important, and demanding evidence to they back up all those assertions. And the idea that you have a subeditor knocking copy into shape is an alien concept. That's why you see so many typos and grammatical howlers even in "professional" blogs, where the writers are paid for their input.