Media coverage alters understanding of scientific issues

Credit: Louise Zhou/ Credit: Louise Zhou/

When you hear about a scientific discovery, it usually comes to you second- or even third-hand through various news sources. The media serves as a middleman between scientists and the public, and this week, Pugwash discussed that connection.

The meeting started with the question of whether we thought there were problems in the current way the media handles science. Members were quick to point out that there are many cases in which the media takes a stronger stance, exaggerates the results of certain studies, or neglects to report on inconclusive results.

For example, in 2011 a team of scientists reported that they seemed to observe subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light. This result was highly anomalous and unexpected, as it contradicted Einstein’s laws of special relativity. In their own publication, the researchers reported that they were looking for an error in their equipment. However, mainstream news sources spread the news that special relativity was on the rocks. Headlines announced that “Particles break light-speed limit,” a much stronger assertion than the scientists themselves made. It turned out the equipment was faulty after all, but the media had already spread the (false) news that there were faster-than-light particles.

A member of Pugwash brought up that news sources can’t be expected to be experts in every field, and they only have a limited amount of space to represent new scientific discoveries. A 15-second sound bite might not be enough to explain all the nuances, and the public should rely on long-form journalism to give a more accurate picture, instead of the morning news roundup.

Something else that makes portraying scientific results accurately difficult is the statistical idea of certainty. Most studies are held with 95 percent certainty, which sounds pretty good. However, that five percent can cause problems. If you do 20 studies on the same problem, and each study is done at 95 percent certainty, then one study (one-twentieth, or 5 percent) will generally report faulty results.

In a field like climate science, there are enough studies being done that some are showing that there is no climate change. It is generally accepted in the scientific community that these results are part of the 5 percent, because there are many other studies. However, because news stories are usually about single studies, they often miss the larger picture, and do not cover the entire body of research that has been done on the topic. It is more interesting to report on a controversy or an outlier, even if it isn’t statistically significant.

Some of the issues of media portrayal of science also come from the media’s mission: Is it truth, or is it entertainment? If it is truth, then they have a responsibility to dig into the reasons why outlying studies might be mistaken, and to always report on new and exciting studies in the context of the past work that has been done in the field.

However, most members felt that problems arise when the media’s goal shifts towards entertainment, which means results are exaggerated and given more weight than they may actually have.

One final topic revolved around the portrayal of scientists themselves, instead of their studies. In many cases, scientists are shown as a separate class who are unable to connect with regular people. Shows like The Big Bang Theory reinforce the idea that the scientists are all socially inept geniuses.

It is true that teaching or communicating is a separate skill from actually doing science, and that some really great researchers are terrible professors. However, there are people who can do both, like Neil deGrasse Tyson. If the scientific community wants their image to improve and for science to be communicated more accurately, it is up to the community to make those changes.