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How Can You Make Science News Better? Ask a Historian or Sociologist of Science

June 5, 2014


Bee carrying a pollen basket 

Red wine is bad for you again. Pesticides are killing the bees. Wait a few days, and the bees are doing better than we thought.

If you weren’t paying attention to the news a few weeks back, you might have missed all that. If you were paying attention, you’re probably confused.

The nuanced reality of scientific and medical research is almost always a little more complicated than the attention-grabbing headlines claim. Even experienced health and science journalists struggle with how to balance reporting the news of the day with the broader context of what scientists really know so far.

Journalists are working in the public interest, but health stories conveying messages that cause confusion and unjustified fears aren’t doing anyone much good. Nor is the overall impression left by the ebb and flow of conflicting reports – that science is capricious, changing seemingly at random as different ideas come into favor from week to week.

As evidenced by the discussion ensuing from science writer Virginia Hughes bringing up exactly these issues following the aforementioned red wine study, a lot of journalists are troubled by these tendencies in their field and are seeking ways to do better – by making smarter choices about which studies to cover, asking better questions about context, and refuting shoddier reporting, among the proposed solutions.

Others propose ignoring any individual studies for which the opposite finding would not have been reported. That should cut down on the most egregious “cats cause cancer” headlines, but may do little to slow the see-saw of studies that seem to report opposite, news-ready results from week to week.

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.

The bees provide another excellent example – and they can illustrate exactly how social scientists can weigh in to help reporters get the story right. Let’s take a closer look.

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