Chinese Whispers

Ben Goldacre: There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well ... [and] until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon.

Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

amoebic vodka
: As for scientists taking responsiblilty for communicating science to the public, we have to ask why? In most cases companies and government bodies don’t expect the people responsible for decision making and doing the job to talk to the media. They employ spokespeople or entire PR departments to do that for them.

MostlySunny: What you have quite rightly highlighted in your column is the powerful effect the
media has on society in shaping popular “opinion” and “morality”. The media defines for society “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”.

John A: I have often read both scientific papers and the newspaper reports and have found that the reporter has completely misunderstood the paper and even added conclusions that just didn't hold. If a factually false and conceptually misleading article is written concisely and clearly is that good science reporting?

Disseminating knowledge from the scientific community to a scientifically undereducated public requires effort on the part of all those involved. Scientists communicate all the time at conferences, in papers and indeed to anyone who shows the remotest interest (as many have learned to their cost at parties). It is the media's job to inform and educate the public, not the front-line scientist's. If the media is incapable of understanding scientists and unwilling to employ those who can, it is lazy and unfair to demand that scientists should come to them while they remain resolutely fixed.

amoebic vodka:
We disagree that it is the job of the media to educate and inform. it is the job of the media to sell more copies, get more viewers or whatever it is the company in question needs to make money. In most cases this means the purpose of the media is to entertain (the exception perhaps being the BBC).
It’s not just science, the media misinterpretation of statistics in particular affects other subjects too. The annual ‘exams are getting easier’ stories for example.

Debate taken from 'Bad Science' blog, see here

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  1. Implicit here is the idea that advanced artists (and Lenins and Maos) see things ordinary people cannot, and therefore have a right to lead - or at least to special autonomy. So: "Avant-gardism is grounded in the dangerous notion that there exists an elite class possessing enlightened consciousness."

    This is blunder number two, and it leads to the hoarding, rather than sharing, of information; to obfuscation and dissimulation, rather than openness and transparency; and to the deliberate blockage of autonomy and mutual self-empowerment.

    [Gene Ray]
    Art Schools Burning & Other Songs of Love and War, Chap. IV, para. 12

  2. Scientists are generally a complex bunch who are extremely introverted but also love talking about their work to anyone who is interested. That's the problem. The 'public' aren't interested unless there's a 'sexy' conclusion or headline that can be given in the 20 second slot they'll allocate you on the evening news - at a workshop I attended (entitled something like 'communicating with a non-science audience and the media') I was told this about my own research by someone who used to be the editor of the financial times, and someone who used to be the news editor for Radio 4 (our supposed 'high brow' radio station)and apparently a well known presenter of Watchdog in the 80s.

    The man from radio 4 was putting words into my mouth and drawing false conclusions from my work within 30 seconds.

    Not sure about any 'deliberate blockage of autonomy' - maybe we don't communicate because we can't, in the conventional channels anyway. At least, we are blocked from communicating by a select few who choose what is and what is not interesting..

    Further, there's the adjunct issue that everyone has different brains which are expert in different areas and interested in different areas. I have great difficulty digesting any engineering papers - this prevents me from bulding bridges and complex metal structures, but do I really want to anyway? The issue there is co-operation and collaboration. We can't do it all ourselves, so we need community to capitalise on those who are experts in those areas to help us fulfil our own goals.

  3. What are the conventions for communicating certain information? Are these outdated? Are there other ways, not quite as accepted or conventional?

    How is it decided if information is of 'public importance'?

    Is engineering of public importance? As opposed to, for example, psychological research on the effects of tall bridges, or tall buildings?

  4. Critical social theory is, in contrast, a form of self-reflective knowledge involving both understanding and theoretical explanation to reduce entrapment in systems of domination or dependence, obeying the emancipatory interest in expanding the scope of autonomy and reducing the scope of domination.

    Taken from Wikipedia entry on Critical Theory:

  5. Adorno is allergic to the power-relations involved in propaganda and commercialism. For him, to countenance using something as imbalanced as the mass media to put over a "progressive message" is to agree with manipulation, setting up the artist in a hierarchy above the audience.

    'Theodor Adorno and Mass Culture', here:

  6. In October 1999 [Bourdieu] spoke to some 70 leading patrons of the audio-visual arts in Paris. "Masters of the world, do you know what you are doing?" was his question. His answer was that, since they obeyed the law of maximum profits in the shortest possible time, they were killing culture.


  7. In 2004 Marxist sociologist Michael Burawoy's presidential address to The American Sociological Association called for a public sociology. Burawoy considers the point that sociology has a role to play in the public domain and suggests that the academic sociologist should be more involved in public debate.

    One of the main differences between the role of the critical sociologist and public intellectual is the ability to have a relationship with popular media resources outside the academic realm.

    Pierre Bourdieu:

  8. [...] it seems to me valuable for workers to cross the boundaries from time to time, provided that they realize (as I do indeed) that their remarks must inevitably appear naïve to those who know the relevant literature and who are accustomed to a professional language of which the intruder is ignorant.

    [D.W. Winnicott]
    'Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Democracy' in Home is Where We Start From, p.239

  9. No alliance exists between hackers and specific political organisations. In spite of the fact that each would benefit through interaction and cooperation, the alienating structure of a complex division of labour keeps these two social segments separated more successfully than could the best police force.

    Here are two groups motivated to accomplish similar anti-authoritarian ends, but which cannot seem to find a point of intersection [...] The schism between knowledge and technical skill has to be closed, to eliminate the prejudices held by each side 9hacker intolerance for the technologically impaired, and activist intolerance for those who are not politically correct).

    Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas, p.19-20

    Is the artist the point of intersection?

    Inasmuch as the State relies on alienated relations to maintain power, the artist, in remaining immanent and in-between, works against the State simply through existing.

  10. When Mr. Smith enters the board room of his company, he is expected to limit his thinking narrowly to the specific purposes of the company or to those of that part of the company which he "represents."

    Mercifully it is not entirely possible for him to do this and some company decisions are influenced by considerations which spring from wider and wiser parts of the mind. But ideally, Mr. Smith is expected to act as a pure, uncorrected consciousness - a dehumanized creature.

    [Gregory Bateson]
    Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('The Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation'), p.452