Sunday, December 13, 2009

Asking Dr Science

~with love for Duck's Breath Mystery Theater ~

I'm sitting on a pile of notes from a recent biomedical conference I attended. Good news: it was open to the public and findings of true merit were presented. Bad news: I've found zero reporting about the data. Or even about the fact that the conference and associated research took place.

This federally funded program has a stated goal of translating science to the community. I'll address what was presented from the podium in another post -- with embargoes intact, because I respect the peer review process. But first I want to address a call that came from the floor: a plea for greater community outreach and communication.

We all agree in principle that it's the right thing to do. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Consider two barriers that inhibit disseminating discovery to the public. One is physical accessibility, e.g., where will it be published, broadcast or presented? The second is content accessibility: even if it's made available who will be able to understand it? And interpret it accurately, and in context?

Unfunded mandate
I've previously posted my concerns about television doctors -- one small part of the problem. More broadly, something is awry in a system that holds researchers accountable for transparency but provides absolutely no resources to support it. Because of the Internet, physical access is the first barrier to fall: some overachievers have created brands and search-engine-optimized their work. But even the most highly motivated and best intentioned scientists will fail this responsibility without appropriate funding and personnel.

Publicizing discoveries is the right thing to do for a variety of reasons. Many of them are cited in a great post I found this week. Postdoc Biochemist Michael White appears to be trying to address the discrepancy I find most frustrating, that between the stated intent/desire to share information openly and actions. In an attempt to persuade his colleagues to blog, White wrote:
Science impacts all of our lives, and everyone knows it. We've all felt it first hand - boomers who grew up under the shadow of nuclear weapons, anyone who has been mesmerized by the amazing Hubble images of deep space, and especially anyone who, in a battle with cancer or some other equally frightening disease, has painfully bumped up against the limits of our knowledge and faced the uncertainties present at the frontier of biomedical science.
Whose job is it?
Full disclosure: I'm passionate about this work! I do it for pay when I can. When I can't, I write this blog. Either way I'm adamant that it needs to be done --

-- and done well. Not all scientists are as capable as White. And it seems counterproductive to demand that in addition to their high level skills scientists ALSO be able to do the work that journalists and other writers are trained to do. But as the pace of discovery quickens, instead of hiring more writers to research, present and interpret discoveries, we have shut down the science desks of major papers, even wire services.

I know -- and scientists do, too -- that interpreting findings is an exercise in trust, and that the public's trust has been somewhat abused. In a Pew Center survey reported last summer, a substantial percentage of scientists say that the news media have done a poor job educating the public. About three-quarters (76%) say a major problem for science is that news reports fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not. The scientists are particularly critical of television news coverage of science.

The Pew survey also suggests that as a society we trust scientists more than journalists -- but that doesn't mean we understand what scientists say. We deserve to know and we need interpreters with integrity.

Caveat Emptor
"Ask Dr Science: I know more than you" was one of my favorite comedy bits in the 1980s. (If their site was working I would be thrilled to link to Duck's Breath Mystery Theater). The moral is: just because he says he knows more than you, don't believe everything you hear, even from "Dr Science."

Journalism Professor Gary Schwitzer and a couple of other consumer watchdogs can help you avoid blatantly inaccurate or biased stories about science and medicine. Sources for stories abound; I recommend you start with trusted sources from the traditional press. Of course if you're reading this you've already found your way into the blogosphere. Here's hoping you'll appreciate the care I take to cite my sources and balance my posts -- and keep reading A Healthy Piece of My Mind.

And if you have suggestions for great, legit accessible science and medicine reads, send a comment!

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