See the bigger picture when reading media reports of new scientific findings

Think a new study touted by the media is too sensational? Take the long view of such reports, as sociologists and other researchers do:

One solution for reporters that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet, but should, is the value of talking to social scientists — historians of science and medicine, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists of science– in the process of reporting about research. Experts in these disciplines who examine the practice of scientific and medical research from outside of it are in a great position to give reporters, and by extension their readers, insight into where new scientific knowledge came from, what sort of agenda might be motivating the people involved, the cultural meanings attached to particular scientific findings, what questions were being asked—and what questions weren’t asked, but should have been.

To see how, take a look at a story from earlier this week that nicely illustrates the value a social scientist can bring to how a science story is reported: Did you hear that hurricanes with feminine names are deadlier than ones with male names because people’s sexist bias causes them not to take female storms as seriously? As Ed Yong reported in National Geographic’s “Phenomena”, it’s probably not true. Yong talked to a social scientist who helped break down the reasons why – from weaknesses of the methods to the context of other factors already known to affect the deadliness of storms. Check out the reporting and ensuing discussion here…

“Almost every time one of these studies comes out, it’s promoted as evidence that ‘X single factor’ is a decisive culprit,” said Chloe Silverman, PhD, a sociologist and historian of science in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology & Society, whose current project is focused on people’s approaches to understanding pollinator health. “But there’s plenty of evidence that a combination of factors contribute to honey bee health problems.”…

And journalists tend to follow particular narrative conventions, such as “the discovery just around the corner” or “the intractable mystery,” Silverman noted. “But social scientists who study science are in a better position than most to both identify those tendencies and offer more realistic descriptions of the pace and progress of scientific research.”

There is probably some irony here that Drexel’s media relations is pushing this point of view even as it is a helpful correction to the typical approach journalists take to the latest scientific findings. To be honest, it takes time in sociology and other fields to develop credible hypotheses, data, and theories. Researchers interact with other research to further their ideas and build upon the work that has already been done. Reaching consensus may take years or it may never completely happen.

I wonder how much social and natural scientists could do to better communicate the full scientific process. In a world that seems to be going faster, science still takes time.

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