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.