Thursday, 19 August 2010

What are we scientists trying to achieve in our interactions with the media?

I've never written a blog before, and despite writing being one of the things I do for a living in my job as a scientist, I'm somewhat daunted by the prospect.  Part of the reason I'm daunted is that blogging is a different form of expression than I'm used to, but I imagine that most new bloggers share the same fear.  Another reason, though, is that I'm starting by writing about some of my fellow scientists, whom I generally admire greatly, but who I fear exhibited some of their less desirable qualities earlier this week.  What happened upset me so much that I feel I need to write something down.

A summary: on 16th August, the Channel 4 News anchor Samira Ahmed used her Twitter account (@SamiraAhmedC4) to ask for advice on how to read out a complicated formula: p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr, adding that it's "the formula to explain how Blackpool (like Bath before it) is becoming classier."

Within a few minutes, Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) had become involved.  Most people interested in science and the media will be aware of Ben, perhaps through his regular Guardian columns or his blog,  He somehow manages to combine a full-time job as a doctor with what must be an almost full-time hobby of challenging what he calls "dodgy scientific claims made by scaremongering journalists, dodgy government reports, evil pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies and quacks."  The aspect of Ben's hobby that I most admire him for, because it relates most to my work as a scientist, is regularly reminding science journalists (and university PR people, and scientists) to be careful, and skeptical, and evidence-based, in the way they communicate science to the public.  This is something that none of those groups of people can honestly say they do well enough often enough, and I think that Ben, and bloggers like him, should be applauded for continuing to stress its importance.

However, on 16th August, I felt that Ben, and some of his more than 50,000 followers on Twitter let down the cause of science and good science reporting by the way in which they treated Samira Ahmed.  After reading Samira's tweet asking for advice about the formula, Ben replied "no, you just have to say 'by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist'."  He then tweeted to his followers to "pre-mock C4 News, looks like theyre covering this bullshit" [referring to the Blackpool formula story].  There followed a torrent of sarcastic, pitying and abusive (and these are just a few examples of many) tweets from a number of different individuals to @SamiraAhmedC4.  Being the subject of such a backlash must have been an extremely unpleasant experience, which Samira likened at the time to being "savaged ... by hounds".

Some minutes later, a peer-reviewed academic paper came to light, from which the Blackpool equation had been derived.  Ben Goldacre immediately apologised to Samira, several times, and wrote a quick blog about the incident, saying that he had been "wrong" in his assumption that Samira's original tweet had been about "another bullshit equation story", and that "the formula was actually a serious piece of work from a real academic paper."  Following this acknowledgement by Ben of his mistake, and a request from Samira, several others tweeted apologies to her.

So, this episode could simply be characterised as a bit of an online spat, which ended quickly with apologies all round, no harm done.  Both main protagonists are seasoned, thick-skinned media operators, with years of experience in the way the world works.  Science, and particularly, "skeptical science", is tough and critical and adversarial, and if you can't stand the heat, you should stay away from Twitter.

However, that view would miss the important and, it seems to me, highly undesirable consequence of "flaming" incidents such as this for the relationship between scientists and journalists.  And this comes back to the question I posed in the title of this blog-post: what are we scientists trying to achieve in our interactions with the media?  Are we seeking to use Twitter, and other online networks, as new and potentially valuable means of communicating with those journalists brave enough to go online, hopefully answering their questions and providing information and advice about the scientific evidence, and in doing so, helping them to write better stories?  Or are we allowing our desire to impart "skepticism" to the media to cloud our judgement, leading us to a tendency to jump to false conclusions, assume journalists are all lazy, press-release copying dimwits, and to respond without thinking or checking the facts, sending sarcastic or abusive messages, chastising them for wasting their time on such rubbish, and so on and so forth.  Because it would only be human nature if a journalist who asked scientists for advice and received a torrent of abuse in return, would be less likely next time to want to repeat the experience.

This morning, Samira Ahmed wrote a piece in the Independent, in which she made the point that she has in the past used Twitter to follow "a range of scientists ... to engage directly with people who might know more about the details of a complex issue."  But, she says, "I just hope instances like this don't limit the potential of these social networks.  It would be a pity to return to the old way of doing things: journalists only ringing up people they know well to sound out stories ... the same old faces."

This is an opinion that has since been repeated by several other journalists on Twitter this morning.  For example, @edpmary tweeted "As a journo, if I can expect to have my publication mocked for asking basic q of scientists, I'll stop asking."

As a scientist, I think it would be a tragedy if the behaviour of some inadvertently led to journalists withdrawing from interacting with us, because the only result would be poorer science reporting and the public being even less informed about science than they already are.  There is still such a high level of scientific ignorance amongst the public and, while this is not helped by some of the pseudo-scientific rubbish that does appear every day in the media, some journalists are trying to use new technology, such as Twitter, to engage with scientists and by so doing, to improve the quality of their science journalism.  This gives us, as scientists, an invaluable opportunity to help to influence and guide science reporting towards greater consideration of evidence, questioning of unlikely claims, etc., and perhaps gradually to address the level of scientific illiteracy that remains so prevalent.  We scientists should keep in mind that we are privileged to have the knowledge and expertise that we have worked hard to achieve, and that if we are interested in using them to improve the quality of science reporting and, thus, the public understanding of science, a constructive rather than antagonistic approach may be more fruitful.


  1. I think it's possible to question why a journalist might need to know the answer to a question without assuming that they're writing a "bad science" story. I also think Twitter is one of the best ways for journalists to access knowledgeable sources - including journalists who don't know about or can't tell the difference between evidence-based science and "evidence"-based mumbo-jumbo.

    This is a one-off incident and Ben's apologised, which is great. But this sort of behaviour could put some journalists off asking the questions that sceptics want us to ask. Those of us who are committed to decent science reporting won't stop trying to find the answers, but it'll be the same faces, the same safe people we ask, as Samira suggests.

  2. Some very interesting points there and I have to say I really wasn't that aware of the exchange at the time. Glad you've started blogging!

    I'm sure, in context, receiving any of those tweets mentioned along with a barrage of others would be really unpleasant but having viewed them for the first time out of context - they didn't seem so bad.

    I thought the first one was genuinely funny (although I wouldn't like it if it was directed at me to poke fun) and the second actually seems supportive rather than pitying. The third comment seems slightly more unpleasantly sarcastic and the fourth, while delivered unpleasantly, is technically true (wouldn't be a great idea to read out an equation without explanation but I don't think for a minute that Samira would have).

    I'm not disagreeing with you because I think having lots of snippy tweets coming at you would be a horrible experience and it's certainly not pleasant to reflect on the speed at which Ben can mobilise negative comments.

    The only cheering thing seems to be that apologies were immediately forthcoming, and we seem to have got some new bloggers out of it plus a number of people thinking it's a good idea to speak out when others have gone a bit far.

    Hey, I'm all about the positive :)


  3. The context here is that there have been dozens of stories based around a "formula" for something, which is entirely meaningless, and which exist only to promote some product: these regularly appear as "science" journalism. Examples. Ben Goldacre devoted a chapter of his book to these if I recall.

    Now in this case, the formula wasn't one of those, but from the original Twitter post it did look like one, so Ben et al's reaction was understandable if rash.

  4. Very much agree with "a constructive rather than antagonistic approach". @scienpunk's point "if the formula had been bollocks, would this behaviour have been any more acceptable?" rang quite true to me.

  5. Thanks, all, for your comments. A couple of quick responses:

    @Jo - I deliberately didn't link to some of the more unpleasant and, to my mind, abusive tweets and maybe as a result underplayed the sense of how horrible the experience must've been (bear in mind this whole episode played out very rapidly).

    @Neuroskeptic - Thanks for adding the context; you're right, I absolutely should have included it. However, my feeling is that the reaction was still not justified, irrespective of the content of Samira's original tweet (as @alicebell mentions). As I wrote, I think healthy skepticism about science is an entirely good thing, but when it is expressed by "the mob" in such a manner, our goal of improving science reporting only becomes harder.

  6. You should blog more often! A really good blog post and I agree with your points.
    We definitely don’t want to scare journalists away from talking to the scientific and skeptical community.

    The reaction to the question posed by Samira was wrong, and it was good to see the apologies come in.

    I’m not going to defend any of the over the top reactions. However, If Samira’s original tweet had included a link to the press release, rather than just the formula, I hope the result would have been different. I may be wrong, but that’s my hope.
    Of course, she wasn’t to know about the recent skeptical publicity about “Bad PR” and nonsense equations.
    Everyone just saw another meaningless equation and assumed it was another publicity stunt.

    There are many examples here:
    When I finally saw the press release, I fully expected to see a sentence such as “the research was sponsored by ”.
    My tweets tried to explain, to the obviously bewildered Samira, why “the hounds had been unleashed”.

    Yes, Ben should have fact checked before tweeting. Everyone trusted that Ben had found another nonsense equation and went to action.

    I’m sure, and I hope, that lessons have been learnt by this episode.
    If any journalists read this, don’t go away! I’m sure everyone will play nicely next time. We want you to talk to scientists before reporting! :)

  7. Excellent post - and looking forward to seeing many more like it!

    In this case I can see where both Ben and Samira are coming from. Like Ben I've been driven to distraction by the seemingly never ending stream of fake formula stories the media happily cover. One of the downsides of these stories hitting the headlines is we may well miss when genuine research is being presented.

    Twitter is a new means of communication for many of us and while we may want to rightly engage in robust criticism of the media (or other problematic practices) it becomes an issue if we deliberately or accidentally incite followers to be unpleasant. Scientists aren't the only people to do this - journalists also have done it too.

    In several recent cases what began as reasonable questioning by scientists/skeptics became overly personal with a minority of people resorting to name calling and personally threatening remarks. Gillian McKeith is one example. Anyone involved in sharing social/science be they a scientist, skeptic or other does need to reflect on how they engage. If we're coming across as aloof, bullying or arrogant we simply play into the stereotypes of our profession that allow others to dismiss us.

    Until recently the media has been able to remain relatively unaccountable. And I suspect many media outlets saw twitter simply as a means to further broadcast and self promote. However twitter does make them more accessible and accountable and for that I am glad. If journalists are engaged in sharing bad science (or ignoring/misrepresenting key issues) then they should expect twitter to be used to challenge them. It's how we make those challenges that's important to continually reflect on.

    This doesn't mean we can't question or criticise, but there needs to be a way of doing that effectively. Holding journalists accountable if they promote fake studies (or misrepresent science generally) is very much what our role should involve. Calling said journalist names or encouraging others to abuse them is not. (I'm not saying this happened here, but am raising where boundaries should lie).

    Rather than being defensive and deciding who we feel was to blame in this story (or only limiting our discussions to this case) it may be better to focus on several issues:
    - encouraging journalists to engage more with scientists
    - putting pressure on editors to allow accurate evidence to be shared
    - challenging the overuse of fake formula and shoddy surveys in the media
    - making journalists more aware where they can get good research stories from
    - reflecting on how we as scientists engage with the media
    - attempting more collaborative working practices
    - finding ways to hold editors, publishers and journalists more accountable for bad science reporting

    If something good can come from this then surely it's an invitation for everyone involved in sharing science via the media to reflect on how we can all do it better and work more closely together.

  8. There are two warnings in this episode.

    For the sceptic and scientific communities we have to interact constructively with journalists. . If we don’t, if we try to influence the debate by launching viscous attacks on neutrals we run the risk of alienating our audience. Worse, we become seen as a community which is dangerous and unpleasant to interact with and which only gets what it wants by bullying, ranting and threatening.

    There are people who make money by deliberately touting bad science, deceiving and harming their customers. These people are the proper targets of sceptical ire; not a journalist who may, or may not, have been about to report a piece of PR fluffery.

    We need to pick our targets with more care, more humility and less often.

    There is also a warning for old media struggling with falling revenues and audiences. The economic value of media is either as a pure entertainment or a finder and conveyor of economically useful information. People turn to media for information that helps them make decisions that affect their life, livelihoods and health. The value of that information is, in part, the trust that can be placed on it. If new media are better at conveying science to those who value it and start to expose the poor service mainstream media provides to consumers of scientific journalism revenues will divert from old media to new media. I have a relative with a chronic condition. Correct information about effective treatments is very valuable to me. If I can’t trust old media to provide it I will go somewhere else to find it and take my valuable eyeballs with me.

    There is value on both sides of this coin. A constructive working relationship between sceptics and journalists can benefit both sides. Sceptics and scientists gain better reporting of their work and view point, journalist continue to earn a living by doing good journalism that is valued by their customers for its accuracy and reliability when making important decisions.

  9. Hmm. Maybe Ben, and others like him, should do much more of what they continually exhort journalists to do - check their facts!