Why is science communication important?
Science communication is, in general, very poorly accomplished in our society. Newspapers like snappy headlines because they’re catchy, and they sell papers. The public likes snappy headlines because they’re eye-catching, and easy to digest. But what if that’s all you see? What if you don’t have time to read the paper, but catch sight of the headline? A recent example is the news story that “Frozen chips are a cause of cancer“, as reported by The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Metro and the Daily Express. If you just saw that headline you’d probably be frightened, although if you read the articles you might be comforted to some extent. It turns out they’re reporting the results of a study that found that frozen chips can contain a chemical called acrylamide, which is known to cause cancer in mice.
Or worse than just reading the headline, what if you read the whole article in the Telegraph, which doesn’t point out that there are uncertainties around the cancer-causing properties of acrylamide.
That’s just one recent example, taken from the excellent Behind the Headlines section of NHS Choices (if ever you see a medical story in the press that you find disturbing, or if you just want to know more, it’s always worth checking Behind the Headlines for a balanced write-up of the story). But hopefully that example illustrates why good science communication is important. If you only get part of the story, or you get a distorted version of it, there is a very real risk of harm. In this example the harms are pretty minor – you might not get to eat as many chips as you’d like (and it’s very easy to argue that that’s a benefit, not a harm), and you may suffer some anxiety or stress over chips already eaten.
But what if the story’s more important. What if you read the headline about a link between deafness and painkillers, and stopped taking your pain medication (when actually it’s only regular use, and hearing impairment rather than deafness)? Or if you read that altered sleep patterns are a warning sign of Alzheimer’s and started to self-diagnose and panic (when actually this study looked only at mice, and not humans) ? The possibilities for harm are very real.
And that’s why good science communication is so important. One of the things I hope to do with this blog is take a leaf out of Behind the Headlines’ book, and try to present important scientific research in a reader-friendly way. I’ll be starting with the recent story that genetically modified corn causes cancer in rats; there’s been a lot of coverage on that, but because it’s something I feel strongly about I thought I’d stick my oar in too. It might take a couple of days (the paper is complex) but watch this space!