Fragments Of Reality
Science news in media and science communication
Published : Saturday, 2 January, 2021 at 12:00 AM Count : 192
Considering the science communication from UK perspective, I think of early 19th century, in 1825, the physicist Michael Faraday, a member of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, who initiated the annual Christmas lectures in which scientists presented scientific subject to a general audience. These lectures continue to the present day and reach a large, mainly young audience. I also think of the British Science Festival organised by the British Science Association, first held in 1831 in York, UK. It was at these annual festivals major scientific advances were announced.
For example, Joule's experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat in the 1840; Bessemer's steel process in 1856; the discovery of the inert gas Argon by Rayleigh and Ramsay in 1894; the first public demonstration of wireless transmission by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1894; and J J Thomson's discovery of the electron in 1899. Darwin published his book 'The Origin of Species' in 1859. This book was discussed by T H Huxley and Wilberforce in the science festival held in Oxford in 1860. Darwin was unable to attend the programme because he was unwell at that time. It was at these meetings that the term 'scientist' was coined and the 'dinosaur' named.
The British Science Festival has inspired the growth of other science festival in UK held in different cities such as Edinburgh Science festival or Cambridge science festival. It is interesting to note that since 2015 the British Science Festival has taken different shapes. It is now taking place on campus and in the city centre over 4-5 days in a year focusing on cutting-edge science, discovery, and innovation. The festival aims to showcase the research excellences of its host institution and explore the societal impacts and cultural applications of science. In the same year, in 2015 first India International Science Festival (IISF) has also been launched. So, IISF is going hand in hand with some of the global initiatives.
Science communication is a very pertinent topic. Think about the coronavirus situation both in India and globally. This is now a burning issue. Communicating this issue with the society clear, concise and correct way is very important. It becomes more important for science communicators when the President of Brazil says 'Covid vaccine can turn people into crocodiles' or US President Donald Trump says 'climate change is hoax', because one of the roles of science communicator is to influence opinion. So, science communicators not only do transmission-oriented activity, but also do transaction-oriented activity. The later is based on dialogue rather than just the transmission of information.
News published in the media has many characteristics such as exclusivity, conflict, surprise, share-ability, entertainment, drama, follow-up, relevance, magnitude and organisation's own agenda. Some of the general news characters are also overlapping with the character of science news. But science news has a special place within the general news domain, because it needs to consider how to deal with 'balance', 'embargoes' and 'uncertainty'.
Balance refers to the standard principle of hearing both sides of an argument. A debatable question is-do we need to give equal space for the both side of the argument? In science, sometimes scientific evidence of one side of the argument is much stronger than that of the other side. So, some argue that we should not give equal space to the both sides of the argument. Another issue is-balance on the one hand demands to present all sides of an issue, whereas accuracy demands verification of facts to avoid error. So, science news need to convey to the public which perspective has the most supportive evidence.
The BBC Trust commissioned a report couple of years ago (2011) to review the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science. One of its conclusions is that 'programme makers must make a distinction between well-established fact and opinion in science coverage and ensure the distinction is clear to the audience.' If we engage in a false balance, then an opinion might generate an air of legitimacy and the oxygen of publicity.
This sometimes happen in case of climate change issue and in recent time about the source of coronavirus. Balance can be a function of quantity of information, but it also can be a function of quality. Balance norm of the science news also adhere to the public right to be informed, stakeholder's rights to have their perspectives heard in the public arena and the science communicator's own responsibility. This issue generate loads of debate today.
Dealing with embargoes is another issue that a science communicator needs to address. This sometimes relates to the balance issue. For example, some journal impose embargos on science journalist wanting to report on a paper, because they says, one can only report after publication of next three papers so that a balance reporting is then possible. Sometimes embargoes come from the research funder. A research funder may want reporting if they are satisfied with the findings and the information is not commercially sensitive. This sort of issue can erect barriers to the exchange of scientific information.
Third point is uncertainty. Science is all about uncertainty, rather than about certainty. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was the teacher of Bertrand Russell said, in science 'the exactness is a fake'. Not all science journalists understand the meaning of p-values in statistics or the difference between the correlation and causation. Science journalists also need to understand public respond to uncertainty, which is like Ellsberg paradox, where public prefer the devil that they know, not the unknown saint that they don't know. Is there any socially acceptable threshold of uncertainty? This is a culture specific question. But this is sometimes problematic for the society. So, uncertainty around a scientific findings and its effective communication with the target audience is an important issue.
In order to understand the trend of science communication, we may go back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who is known as one of the founding further of communication theory. Aristotle believed that persuasion occurs when three components are represented: ethos, logos and pathos. Ethos is credibility. This means we tend to agree with people whom we respect (for their achievements, experience etc). Logos is the means of persuasion through logic, data and statistics. Pathos is the acts of appealing to emotions. There are some analysis carried out in science news writing and have found that largely there are 10% Ethos, 25% Logos and 65% Pathos (on the basis of textual analysis).
It has been recognised that reaching a general audience while communicating scientific content is as much an art as a science. Besides story-telling about a scientific issue and fake news, current trend of science communication includes 'Churnalism', which refers to recycling of pre-packaged public relation and press agency copy. However, science communicators do experiment with different forms of science communication such as transmission oriented activity, transaction oriented activity, Shannon-weaver model or using inverted pyramid model of communicating science news.
Our 'mass' communication has suddenly become 'mask' communication in the age of coronavirus. We are using mask to filter the information coming to us. We might see in a mask that it says that 'this mask protect you from PM2.5'. This is an objective of mask. Science communicators are also disseminating objective oriented science news instead of exploratory research based science news. Current trend is also flowing towards constructive journalism and slow journalism. In case of constructive journalism, one use positive psychological technique and produce a productive and engaging coverage and in case of slow journalism, one does less focus on now and more focus on the relevance of an issue.
Future of science communication will be dictated by the media landscape. Generally public like dialogue model, this will get more prominence than the deficit model. This implies that instead of public understanding of science we should give more emphasis on the scientist understanding of public. We can think here the German Philosopher Habermas for his thoughts about science and society dialogue. Habermas wrote, 'Communicative action in which actors in a society seek to reach common understanding and coordinate activities by reasoned argument, consensus and cooperation as opposed to strategic action strictly in pursuant to their own goal'. So, more transaction oriented activity model will emerge for disseminating science news than transmission oriented activity model.
We shall see more ethics in the practice and application of scientific research and science communication. How and through what means we choose to say something is often just as important as what we say. Rabindranath Tagore said 'the knowledge that are coming from the western world using foreign ships need to be distributed to the villages of India using the local boats'. Disseminating knowledge using local tools and technique is one way of looking at it. Acquiring knowledge from indigenous people is another way of looking at it.
A report published by UNESCO in 2016 titled 'Indigenous knowledge and implication for the sustainable development agenda' shows how integrated system of knowledge, in which indigenous people will have the opportunity not only to share their experience to overcome future challenges, but also to engage them as an active agent of change by involved them in a decision making process, will make society more scientifically aware of the problem and will contribute to the sustainable development agenda.
Louis Pasteur once said, 'science knows no boundary because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.' India International science festival and science literature festival is such torch that will illuminate the world, because it is rich in content and has become truly international. Hence, I feel proud to be a part of it.
Dr Kanan Purkayastha is an Environmental Advisor, Teacher and Writer based in UK