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a chorus of expert voices serves science, the media and the public

(Updated 24 May to include a personal perspective from Adrian Bull)

Fiona took part in a debate session held at this year’s Science Communication Conference on Friday 17 May:

 

One message, many voices

During media frenzies like Fukushima government departments and arm’s length agencies tend to favour fewer voices in the media, communicating one clear and agreed message. However journalists prefer a plethora of expert opinion and seek out experts who disagree with the official line. Should science communicators be fighting to get one clear and consistent message out there at times of great public confusion, or should we encourage a range of different voices?

 

Speakers:

Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent, BBC;

Fiona Fox, Chief Executive, Science Media Centre;

Tim Jones, Head of News, Department of Health;

Simon Wilde, Associate Director, External Communications, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence

Chair: Adrian Bull, Director of External Relations, National Nuclear Laboratory

 

Tim and Simon argued for consistent clear messages, while Pallab and Fiona argued for multiple voices, even if those voices occasionally disagreed. Fiona’s argument went as follows, and a personal viewpoint from Adrian can be seen below…

 

It’s obvious the SMC would be for many voices because:

  1. We are not held responsible for public health outcomes
  2. We are never attacked from all sides for getting it wrong in the way government and NICE are
  3. We were set up to increase the number of scientists speaking out in the media during times of controversy 

However, I do happen to believe in having as many expert voices out there as possible despite my vested interests, because:

  1. There is no longer any choice
  2. It’s good both for science and for the public understanding of science
  3. Not having vocal experts potentially undermines public understanding of science and discourages other scientists’ engagement in the media

 

Why do we have no choice?

  1. With 24 hour news, the old ways don’t work. On swine flu, volcanic ash clouds, Fukushima, ash dieback, H7N9, horsemeat etc. the media will not wait for the fully informed, agreed messages.
    Journalists need to fill multiple slots and if those interviewees are not top quality independent scientists they WILL be NGOs, politicians, newspaper commentators, and single issue protest groups.  
    These people are ideologically driven and opportunist, which is fine, but it means much of the discussion will be not based on accurate evidence based information. Just look at GM and MMR 10 years ago.
  2. Even if people like the Department of Health, Health Protection Agency or Food Standards Agency were running press briefings every hour (which they are not!) journalists would still want a third party independent expert due to their natural distrust of any ‘official position’.

  

Why is many voices good both for science and for the public understanding of science? 

  1. Because crises are the best time for the public to hear from experts; former education minister Estelle Morris said she learned more about radiation through experts in the media during Fukushima than she had through her formal education.
  2. Because having more scientists in the news (at times when people care) means more opportunities for them to talk about how science works, and that includes the conflict and contesting of claims that is at the heart of science.  
  3. Because they hear from people who respect the scientific approach, accuracy and evidence AS WELL AS from people who are ideologically driven and have much less respect for evidence.
  4. Because individual scientists who have worked on an issue for 30 years get the chance to use that expertise to inform the public debate, not just to inform the government behind closed doors.
  5. Because the public are not stupid – they can work out that the independent expert from Stirling University should not carry the same weight as the Chief Medical Officer…

 

Why does not having vocal experts undermine public understanding of science and discourage other scientists’ from engaging?

  1. Because it looks like government and official agencies are hiding things/censoring experts.
  2. Because the risks of mixed messages are exaggerated and should be intelligently managed by press officers. When chairing SAGE during swine flu, former Government Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington was advised to deny there had been any disagreement by the scientists within SAGE on whether to roll out Tamiflu to everyone, or at-risk groups only. Beddington ignored this advice and was open about the fact that there was disagreement within the committee without resulting in damaging media coverage.
  3. Because the public and the media lose the chance to hear lots of accurate evidence based information in the height of a media frenzy
  4. Because wonderful scientists who want to communicate their expertise to the public feel discouraged and disincentivised. One scientist we have worked with lamented the fact that because they can’t speak out when asked to, ultimately, they will no longer be regarded as authorities in their area.

 

Adrian’s viewpoint:

In a public health crisis, scientists will often be called upon to advise government or other decision makers of what’s going on and the likely consequences of different responses. Their input is crucial, yet there are obviously other factors to be weighed in the overall decision-making process. Scientists (or their press officers) may sometimes fear that venturing into the media at such a time means one of two things. Either they will be pressed into premature conjecture of what the overall response should be. Or else the straight, scientific facts will end up mangled and twisted like a party balloon into whatever exaggerated shape the media have already chosen to portray.  

However, I think there is a balance to be trodden. With some forethought and a smattering of practice and self-discipline, scientists should be able to be restrict themselves to robust factual information which will help to clarify the issue, without being drawn into speculation of how the facts should be interpreted. They can even be taught how it’s possible to say “I don’t know” without coming across as a poor scientist!

Things haven’t always worked like that in the past. Partly because these situations are inevitably times of great activity for the organisations concerned, the urgent “must do” crisis fixing can be higher priority than proper consideration of the “nice to do” communications. That can make self-censorship appear to be the best short-term option. However, with greater appreciation of the importance of prompt, accurate and clear communications to the public, and a better recognition amongst scientists of how they can separate fact and explanation from conjecture and speculation, we may see things improve in future.

One thing is clear – the damaging consequences of mixed messages, “poor science” and the temptation of certain media to scaremonger are now well enough recognised that there is a strong incentive for scientists to be out there early on, setting out the right information in the proper context for whatever follows.

 

(editing by Robin Bisson)

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