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Fiona fox's blog

why experts need to speculate, without speculating

The Cumbrian train crash was just one in a long line of stories that saw me and my colleagues asking experts to speak in the media about what went wrong before anyone could possibly know what went wrong. And let me tell you these are the times when you really do need to take a deep breath before calling a scientist, because it’s almost inevitable that one of the experts we call will be seriously outraged at being asked to speculate in the media before the full facts are known.

One of the experts I spoke to on the liquid explosives scare last summer shouted down the phone that the police had asked people not speculate and he expected the Science Media Centre to comply with that request. Others get less cross but are no less strident in their refusal to join the frenzy of speculation that is now a permanent feature of our 24–hour–news culture. One of the train experts I called this week insisted that no self respecting scientist or engineer would take to the airwaves without access to the full facts on what had gone wrong.

This is particularly familiar territory for the Science Media Centre. After all, we were set up five years ago precisely because leading figures in the scientific community recognised that the absence from the media of the best experts on issues like BSE, GM crops and MMR mitigated against a balanced and accurate debate. So asking scientists to enter the fray before the full facts are known is kind of part of the job description. It also happens to be something that I now feel passionately about.

Breaking news is, by its nature, based on speculation and guess work –from the horror of six healthy men on the verge of death after aclinical trial went wrong to the images of the poisoned Russian dissident to the outbreak of bird flu in our turkey farms.

But speculation and guesswork is not what scientists do best. And of course you could argue that the scientists refusing to speculate are simply displaying all that is special and distinctive about science. The search for truth and respect for evidence and accuracy that drives the pursuit of knowledge by scientists is about as far removed as it could be from the media’s needs at times of breaking stories. I will always remember the sharp intake of breath in a room of 200 leading scientists at the Royal Society when Simon Pearson, news editor of The Times, calmly told them about the first rule of journalism: “to the question ‘do you want it good or do you want it now?’ there is only one answer”.

It also stands in sharp contrast to the culture of politicians, protest groups and NGOs who often see these huge breaking stories as an opportunity to get their messages over and raise their profile. The Soil Association certainly did not let the lack of full facts stand in the way of them using the outbreak of bird flu amongst Bernard Matthews’ turkeys as an opportunity to voice their opposition to factory farming. Similarly news of disasters at GM crop sites or nuclear power stations are seized on by opponents of these technologies with breathtaking speed.

And good for them – campaigners exist to raise awareness of their issues and put them on the political and media agenda. I know, I did it for many years. But it does make it all the more important that scientists and engineers enter these discussions as well.

One of the train experts who objected to my call (and not just because it was 9am on a Saturday!) argued that the integrity of expertise is intimately bound up with the refusal of real experts to imitate other groups by speaking before the facts are known. And there is a beautiful logic in this position. After all, surely the way to counter irresponsible and possibly dangerous speculation by non-experts is to not play the same game.

But it’s exactly because of this integrity and respect for evidence that I want the public to hear from this expert. It’s precisely because when he goes on the air he will refuse to speculate that I want him to do the interview. It’s specifically because what he says will be based on 10, 20, 30, often 40 years of expertise in this field that he will be a million times more qualified to speak on this issue than many of those who happily make themselves available for interview. At times when people quite literally fear that they will die – fromSudan I in our foodricin on the underground or travelling on dangerous trains – I want to hear about the real risk from real experts, not self appointed ones.

When media headlines screamed out that terrorists were planning to wipe out hundreds by throwing ricin on a packed underground train, many of us thought we could be facing our worst nightmare. Yet the first ricin expert I spoke to told me that, in fact, we could swim in it, eat it or sleep in it with minimal effects and that to kill us it would need to be injected inside our bloodstream (as it famously was with the sharpened tip of an umbrella to kill a Bulgarian spy, Georgi Markov, in 1978). Getting this expertise into the media very quickly changed the shape of that story.

When six men are lying dying in a bed after a pharmaceutical clinical trial and I am already hearing patient groups and politicians on radio talk-shows saying this proves that animal research doesn’t work and that companies are taking risks with people’s lives, I want to hear from scientists who can explain why adverse effects don’t always show up in animal trials and who can balance a horror story with the facts and figures about how many clinical trials take place with no problems. Not knowing what had happened in this particular case needn’t be a barrier to experts sharing what they do know about monoclonal antibodies, first-in-human trials and the importance of both!

And here’s the rub – we never ever ask scientists and engineers to speculate. In fact we encourage them not to. When the media were claiming that Litvinenko was poisoned by thallium, our physicists made it clear that they had no more information about what was killing him than anyone else, but were happy to be interviewed on what they knew for fact about thallium, then radioactive thallium and finally polonium-210. However counterintuitive for the scientists, they did accept our argument that it was better for them to talk to the media at this time, rather than self appointed experts who could fuel scare stories with their partial knowledge.

So what I’m arguing here is that society needs to have access to the best science and engineering precisely at times when these issues are headline news and the public and policy makers are most engaged with them. The truth is that when the full facts are known about this latest crash it will probably merit a 100 word article on page 10 of The Times; no-one will be listening, no-one will be worrying. The time to inject expertise into the public debates about vaccines, clinical trials, train crashes and similar issues is when they are in the news.

The expert that starts an interview by saying, “I cannot speculate on what caused this crash and nobody should until we have the results of the investigation – but I can tell you this about the infrastructure of this model of train…” will be injecting much needed accurate information into a story as well as reminding the public that what is good about scientists is their integrity and respect for facts. The Science Media Centre’s philosophy is that “the media will start ‘doing’ science better when scientists start ‘doing’ the media better”. We are not in a position to change the media – but we can respond to Simon Pearson’s first rule of journalism by offering to help the media to “have it now AND have it good”!


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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