Hyping the Science

I’ve mentioned here before how big claims made in news reports of science can be misleading. Here’s a news report on hype in science as a pernicious — and growing — trend.

ELEANOR HALL: In the modern world of mass communication it seems no one is immune, not even those in the normally staid world of science. The language of marketing and public relations is everywhere, and it’s increasingly being used by research scientists attempting to sell their stories to newspapers and broadcasters.

This is partly driven by the scientists’ pursuit of research funds. But some in the field are now warning that talking up research is damaging the image of the profession, and giving the public a false impression of the value of scientific work.

The usual suspects appear: competition among scientists for limited sources of funding, recognition, or even fame. Yes, scientists are human.

And the story has a bit about how some countries address the issue of hype in science:

PETER YATES: In the UK, the media centre has established a database of a thousand scientists across multiple disciplines. They’ve all been trained in communication, and once the topic, a particular science topic emerges, then the centre calls them and quickly puts together a panel of scientist who can then respond, there and then, providing different types of views on a particular science topic when it moves into mainstream media.

By making sure that there is one centre where all news desks can go to ā€“ if they choose to ā€“ we can ensure that the timeliness, the quality and the balance of science reporting is improved. This is exactly what happened in the UK.

I can see some pros and cons here. In general, having a pool of scientist-commentators who can respond to media requests for information is a good thing. But then this bit about scientists being humans leads one to wonder if placement on such panels would itself become part of the competitive equation, giving certain cliques the power to naysay research that doesn’t come from within their group. It seems to me that the critical element is to have the individual researcher take the responsibility for assuring that his or her own statements to the press do not mislead. Perhaps a history of misleading press statements needs to be part of the evaluation of the performance of scientists, such that those who engage in those behaviors find that there are penalties as well as payoffs for having the gift of blarney in talking up their own work.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.