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, badscience.net. 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.