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Monday, August 4, 2008

Science and Society: The pendulum phenomenon

When research and findings touch on issues of public interest the news media and commentators of all stripes dig in. Under incessant comment and analysis, contradictory conclusions can cause news coverage and reporting to swing from one extreme to another, creating a kind of journalistic pendulum for the reading public.

This has been true for decades in the coverage of HIV/AIDS and other globally significant health concerns. But more recently this pendulum phenomenon has been glaringly manifested in the climate change and global warming debate.

Incongruent findings have been generated in multitudes. However, scientists see disputation as the path to discovery and knowledge. What is worrisome is the haemorrhage of publication of inchoate findings in highly visible and accessible media. Each new paper seems to repudiate something that was emphatically asserted in a previous paper.

The general public does not view this as the hard and narrow road that leads inevitably to dispassionate scientific understanding but as a proliferation of contradictory opinions.

There is growing evidence that the general public is divided and confused over what is happening and what action is needed. But scientists have pointed a finger elsewhere. They have blamed energy-dependent industries and the popular media for the paralysis on climate policy. But more often than not, the science community fails to differentiate between what is well understood and what is tentative.

Part of the problem also is that news media reports are often marred with reinforcing loops of sound bites that often oversimplify complex findings. What is needed is for scientists to work with journalists to report, with clarity, the evidence-base behind new advances.

Reporters have also been blamed for sacrificing accuracy for impact. Words that scientists use to express uncertainty are often omitted to give stories more sting. At a time when specialized reporting is declining and instant opinion is growing, scientist must take responsibility for communicating.

Scientist must take their message straight to the public. To dampen the pendulum phenomenon, scientist must address the implication or “so what? of their findings, instead of “farming” this out to reporters and politicians.

Momentous scientific issues of should be explored in an on-going fashion rather than in response press releases and peer reviewed journal publications. The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for the scientific community to re-take and guide science communication.

One would hope that an argument back with solid scientific evidence and communicated will clarity will prevail.

But ultimately, the general public must rise to the occasion with regard to policy and scientific literacy. This must be demonstrated in terms of commitment to education and strong and a listening political leadership.

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