Finding Better Ways to Talk About Science

Bradley Voytek has an interesting post, titled “Defending Jonah Lehrer,” in which he discusses what scientists can do to improve the state of science reporting.

So why is the neuroscientific community at fault for Mr. Lehrer’s occasionally inaccurate scientific reporting?

Because our own house is in such disarray. Of course there are the well known issues in cognitive neuroscience, such as Vul’s “voodoo correlations”“double-dipping” statistics in neuroimaging, and the dead salmon. Or our straight-up misunderstanding of basic statistics.

But some of our issues are more subtle. One of the main offenders living in our attic seems to be conflating the idea that because a brain region is active in one state–such as addiction–and in another task–such as mothers looking at pictures of their own babies–that babies are “addicting”.

Voytek’s point is a simple and important one. If published work was less misleading, the reporting on published work would also be less misleading.

Since Voytek’s goal is to cut writers some slack, I’ll fill in by championing the “writers need to do better” cause. First, I think it’s important to view science writing and the popularization of science in a historical context. At this point, the battle to make people care about science has essentially been won. Jonathan Haidt is on Colbert. Wonkblog is referencing peer-reviewed research every day. Neil Degrasse Tyson has a trillion Twitter followers. (Obviously I’m biased from being immersed in science-centric corners of the internet, but I still think popular science has “arrived” in a way it hadn’t a few years ago.)

I don’t want to get into an “ends-justifying-the-means” debate, but if a few liberties were taken in the course of arriving at our current unprecedented level of interest in science, I don’t think it’s a big deal. You can’t write to a science neophyte the way you would to a professor. However, the Lehrer style Voytek often criticizes is not and should not be the the end goal. This is why I’m concerned with the shortcomings of Lehrer and others (this includes myself, a serial offender.) The style doesn’t seem to be evolving enough. As society gets more familiar and more knowledgable about science, writers need to take their rigor up a notch so that the public is continuously being challenged to learn more and be more “scientist-like” in their consumption. There needs to be a balance so that the writing remains comprehensible, but it can be done.

One easy way science reporting can be improved is with more-accurate and more-detailed vocabulary choices. It could be something as simple as using words like “correlated,” “predictive,” “manipulation,” or “suggests,” instead of “discovered,” “explains why…,” and “demonstrates.”  It’s a lot harder to exaggerate a study when you explain what was actually happening in the lab.

It’s important to remember that the process of educating the public can’t happen overnight. People need to understand the scientific method before they can understand correlation and experimental manipulation, and they need to understand correlation and experimental manipulation before they can understand effect size (the next rung on the rigorous reporting ladder, to be reached circa five years from now.) To write a Lehrer-style article seven or eight years ago would have been a risk. People might not have had the familiarity or interest to read it. But writers like Lehrer did it anyway, and now pop-science is firmly entrenched in the media-entertainment-advertisement complex. That stability means it’s now time to once again take risks, increase the “science-ness” of science writing, and hope that readers will follow.

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