April 19, 2013 6:46 pm

Soundbites versus serious science

Many of the difficulties in communication between scientists and the media are tonal

The Rolex-sponsored “Scientists Meet the Media” event I attended not long ago in the grand surroundings of the Royal Society in London was full of good intentions. I suppose, “Why haven’t we met before?” and “We should meet more often” were potential conversational gambits, in a sort of matchmaking way. But beneath the good intentions was a fair amount of mutual suspicion.

This was voiced most openly by Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, in his address towards the end, after the Michael Faraday Prize lecture by the physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox.

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Harry Eyres

Nurse, a man of great scientific distinction (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology in 2001) and somewhat blunt and idiosyncratic humour, clearly harbours no great love for the media. His speech began with a recitation of inaccurate or innumerate science stories culled from large-scale media organisations, among which the Daily Mail featured prominently. It was all quite amusing but not, I thought, the most tactful way of re-establishing a fraught relationship. A terse summary might have been: “You media people are scientific ignoramuses.”

If Nurse doesn’t love the media, then it would be fair to say that the media in general do not love science or scientists. The standard explanation for this would be that much science and most scientists are seen as deadly boring, or incomprehensible without a grasp of higher mathematics. Only very obviously dramatic “breakthroughs” tend to get reported. Medical stories are favoured, for understandable reasons; organ transplants attract an inordinate amount of attention, in relation to their impact on the overall health of society. These stories feed into a fundamentally magical kind of thinking which believes that science is on the brink of solving all the problems of existence and bringing immortality to humans.

On the whole, scientists tend to be measured and cautious, not because they are that way by nature but because the scientific method and the process of peer review enjoin them to be so. Soundbites are anathema to serious scientists and, in a media world increasingly dominated by soundbites, that is something of a problem.

Brian Cox took a different line in his lecture. Cox strikes me as a starry-eyed enthusiast and optimist. On the one hand he communicates an infectious wonder at the mysteries of the universe, including his own rather abstruse area of particle physics; and on the other a conviction that this should be shared by everyone, not least government ministers. He is an evangelist for the excellence of British science in particular – with good reason, for the UK certainly punches above its weight in this area – and suggested blithely that the best way of tackling our economic woes would be to invest twice as much in science. It would probably do no harm.

One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that many of the difficulties in communication between scientists and the media are tonal. To say that many scientists display a certain lack of tonal sophistication is not exactly a criticism; another way of putting it is that people in the arts and media world share a world-weary irony, or even cynicism, which is foreign to the spirit of science.

I came away from the event feeling that the achievements of science are underreported, as well as misreported, in the media. There are lots of good stories out there and reporters with arts backgrounds should not be deterred. At the reception following Brian Cox’s lecture I was approached by two scientists with interesting tales to tell. One, Zhang Xiang, is firmly embedded within industry – he is head of medical materials at the materials testing company Ceram. He wanted to spread the word about a model of innovation as encompassing not just invention but the whole industrial process, from concept to commercialisation, and about how this could help the depressed city of Stoke-on-Trent transform itself from a manufacturer of pottery into one of advanced materials.

The other, the marine biologist Richard Kirby from Plymouth University, could hardly have been more different. He and his colleagues have come up with a mobile phone app that will enable sailors to contribute to a global, citizen science study of phytoplankton, the all-important micro-organisms that underpin the ocean’s food chain, and which seem to be in steep decline. A simple white “Secchi” disc – named after its inventor the Italian astronomer Pietro Angelo Secchi – is lowered over the side of the boat and the depth at which it becomes invisible shows the density of plankton in the water. The information is then uploaded to a database using the app.

Science can feel like a monolith or a juggernaut. But it might be better viewed as a richly teeming world of investigations into the nature of things, sometimes proceeding in quite opposing directions. Maybe we would do better to speak, not of science, but of sciences.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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