dusting off an old article…

A while back I wrote an article for a science communication competition. Nothing came of it and to be honest I had completely forgotten about it. Recently, however, I rediscovered it and thought that this might be a fairly decently place to put. let me know what you think.

When’s a bull not a bull?

Science (noun, pronounced: sʌɪəns) from the Latin word Scientia meaning knowledge. Science is something that the majority of us read about daily, even if we don’t notice it. Most of us take for granted that what we are reading is well researched and truthfully conveyed. I used to believe this was the case until, quite recently, I turned my hand to a bit of light science communication myself. When I began the process of research I noticed that mainstream science articles are plagued with varying levels of… something… a word I probably shouldn’t use in press. (A word defined as vulgar slang meaning “stupid or untrue; nonsense”.) Instead of using this slang, I will refer to it by another word, maybe we should paint a picture of it, perhaps a feisty animal, let’s say a bull. Science communication in the modern age is, unfortunately, riddled with varying levels of bull. (It has a nice ring to it wouldn’t you say?)

"I've told you before. Stay out of that shop and away from science!"

Here’s a light example. This story is based in fact and is not entirely incorrect. What you see is a slight twisting of facts, but it is this distortion that is about as welcome as our bull running free in a china shop named truth.

The piece is centred on a story reported by many newspapers as; “scientists keep beer fresher for longer”. Many papers stated that if you drank beer, you could now take your time over it, savour it, enjoy it, safe in the knowledge that science will keep it from going stale. All that scientists had to do was make it less acidic and keep it cool. The problem with this piece was its over sensationalised nature, by anyone’s standards it was probably a ‘non-story’. It suggested that once your pint was poured you had hours to drink it. This inaccuracy lets our bull charge through the entire article leaving the misinterpretation of poorly conveyed facts in its wake. The scientific paper was concerned with the analytical profiling of the compounds that made beer taste stale. They did suggest that if they made the beer more acidic it would go off faster. However the converse wasn’t mentioned, making the newspapers’ hypothesis speculative at best. The paper was actually providing scientists with a method to measure and follow the ‘freshness’ of beer whilst it was being stored; it was an analytical tool.

Keeping it cold keeps it fresh... who knew?

You may be thinking that there is no harm in a mild misrepresentation of facts because it was just a harmless little article about beer. However that’s entirely against the point of science and its communication; it’s an insidious problem. Our bull has a temper and he snaps in the blink of an eye. There are people who don’t question everything they read and to them the written word is sacrosanct. If the media lies or even accidentally misrepresent the truth, it won’t be long before these people stop believing anything scientists and communicators have to say. Remember the words “MMR vaccine“?

How do we deal with our bull? First-of-all, we need to identify the cause of this problem. Communicators are too concerned with writing a story that sells papers. Perhaps those who are genuinely concerned with relating the truth are just too far removed from modern science to properly grasp some ideas – even former scientists themselves. Understanding science is like any skill set, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Scientists are also at fault and all too often only have to inform their funding bodies that their science is actually being communicated (thus hopefully securing more funding) regardless of how truthfully it was conveyed. We rarely take the time to report outside of peer reviewed journals or make any effort to even engage the masses. When we see our work mildly misrepresented, too few of us actually do something about it. We just frown at our ill-informed press office.

It appears that the attitudes of a few key people need to change. Scientists need to adopt a more long term view and vigorously defend the truth of their research, even if it impacts on how wide its reach is. Whilst science communicators need to realise their own short comings and admit that, sometimes, they need the help of the scientific community to fully understand what’s going on. Perhaps both should train the next generation of budding researchers to engage the public effectively? Both need to talk to their press office.  Above all, both parties need to ensure that what’s being communicated is 100% accurate. We need to cut out this nonsense, we need to eradicate public doubt, we need to focus on the truth… our bull needs the snip!

Reference news articles here, here and here

Pictures by; Malcolm Morely and Kozzmo

For those that don’t know, a bull isn’t a bull when its been castrated

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