The Challenges of Science Communication

In an article on Vox, Brian Resnick talks about what journalists get wrong about science. His summary of the twenty responses he received from actual scientists reveal the disconnects. For example:

  • Journalists often want clear answers to life and social problems. Individual studies rarely deliver that
  • Journalists are obsessed with what's new. But it's better to focus on what's old
  • There's a difference between real-world significance and statistical significance
  • Journalists should also be skeptical of studies based on self-reporting
  • Always direct readers to the original research
  • Correlation is not causation

Overall, the article calls a higher degree of skepticism, for looking into things like percentages, self-reporting, unpublished research studies a bit more carefully.

Steven Novella at NeuroLogica comments further on the tension between journalism and science. He says:

Science proceeds slowly and cautiously, is very conservative in its claims, and is skeptical toward any new finding (or at least it should be.)

Journalists, however, want an exciting new and simple story. In fact bad science journalism is much closer to self-help gurus than to actual science –- “do X and you will be happy.” I know that journalists often do not write their own headlines, and that there is a circle in skeptical hell dedicated to headline writers where they are tormented by the twin demons, Hype and Sensationalism.

To be fair, I also understand that we live in the real world where ratings and clicks matter to the bottom line.


It is possible, but very challenging, to present interesting science news items in a compelling way that sparks interest without compromising scientific or skeptical integrity. The fact is – science is damn exciting. You can convey this excitement, while putting a story into a proper scientific perspective.

The whole article is worth a read, and Novella's site should be on the radar of many interested in logical reasoning and science. His argument is a good reminder that it becomes easier and much more interesting to communicate even complex information when we take the time to understand it first, then look to context for help in transferring that knowledge to readers.

Skepticism is good. It means requiring reality to explain itself. Making sense of what happened/is going on, and looking to sources that can both prove and potentially disprove a thesis. Good reasoning seeks to find that place where we learn something.

In a compelling essay, Isaac Asimov, who was a prolific American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, says right and wrong are not absolutes. It takes time and more work to communicate complex information with clarity, but the payoff becomes a better informed reader.

Quality is important to business and personal communication. When we do our homework, clarity, sincerity, and some modicum of context go a long way in building credibility and earning trust. Trust is a form of transparency, a goal worth pursuing.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

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