The science of understanding

July 4, 2003

Use simple journalistic principles to spread the word about complex topics, says Ian Hargreaves

How can we do a better job of informing the public about science? This is a question that has become an increasing obsession with that brotherhood of the misunderstood, our scientists.

To the professional journalist the answer is obvious: make yourself available; write or talk simply and if possible vividly; persist with your message; and choose your moment. There is, for example, no point trying to talk about, say, genetically modified foods on the day allied troops invade Iraq. There is every point in highlighting the public health issues around vaccination during a scare about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab.

But this is precisely the sort of tricky moment when scientists seem inclined to keep their heads down.

I am well aware that scientists find this type of advice at the same time plausible and irritating. After all, science is more complicated than a tabloid headline and, in any case, where is the evidence that this approach works?

I have conducted research with colleagues at Cardiff University centred on three topical science subjects: global warming, the MMR vaccine, and human and animal biotechnology. We surveyed a representative sample of the public on two occasions, with a six-month gap, and analysed print and broadcast media coverage of the three themes during the period. Our purpose was to find out what people know and think about scientific questions and what impact the news media have on that.

We found that the media have a significant influence on both knowledge and opinion but that people's confidence in their own knowledge and opinions has relatively little to do with detailed understanding of the science involved. The way the public understands science issues is not through scientific fact and detail, but via what social scientists call "frameworks" or themes.

So, on the MMR issue, people tended to believe scientific opinion on the public health risks of the vaccination was evenly balanced, because that is the way the news media presented it: as two, equally loud sets of claims.

On cloning, merely altering the order of questions in a survey, thereby suggesting a contextual framework of either "medical breakthrough" or "ethical dilemma", significantly altered a respondent's stated level of concern about genetic research.

What appeared to matter most on an issue such as global warming was not so much the science of climate change but the ability to develop building blocks of useful understanding around a practical question such as: what are the potential consequences of my own actions to this problem?

Our broad conclusion is that a democratically viable engagement of public interest in science needs to proceed from a clear idea of where that public interest lies. The relevant questions are: what are the points of contestability and what is the scope for collective and individual decision? These are more important, and certainly more achievable, than trying to "educate" people about the science.

It follows from this that the journalistic emphasis on manner and timeliness of communication is also critical. The great GM food debate, launched last month, will stand or fall on its ability to bring alive the public interest issues in language, including images, to which people can respond.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University, former editor of The Independent and director of BBC news and current affairs. His research project "Towards a better map: science, the public and the media" was conducted with Justin Lewis and Tammy Speers.

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