By Andrew Elfenbein, University of Minnesota
Who can access science?
In my previous post, I noted issues raised by seemingly innocent polarity of “open vs. closed” to describe science. If, as I noted, open science is rarely as open as it claims to be, what would a more genuinely open science look like? It would confront the major form in which information reaches a mass audience in contemporary culture: journalism. The relations between science and journalism are never quite cozy because the rules governing each are different. Science requires detailed presentation of evidence, lengthy descriptions of participants, materials, and procedures, explication of statistical analyses, and thoughtful parsing of experimental results that differentiate between strong conclusions, weak conclusions, suppositions, and speculations. Journalism, in contrast, is a business supported largely by advertising. Its goal must be to catch and maintain attention; doing so increases the likelihood of funds directed to advertisers. Attention-grabbing writing is the filter for any scientific story in the media.
This imperative is not necessarily bad. It can be useful for scientists to see just how journalists distill what counts as interesting from what may look to outsiders like dry results. But the need to get attention is not the same as the need to present good or accurate science. As the pandemic has made appallingly evident, bad science will serve just as well, especially since oodles of cash are waiting to be made by attacking science, presenting pseudo-results, and spreading fear. Different as pro- and anti-science journalism may be, they share, deep down, a similar goal; to engage the attention of the reader who, presumably, is overloaded with possible choices. One result has been a disastrous upsurge of antiscientific journalism, largely but not exclusively associated with conservative media outlets. Attempts to discredit, downplay, or undercut such journalism have been dishearteningly futile.
Developing an effective response to science denial is a large and complex topic, well treated recently by Gail Sinatra and Barbara Hofer in Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do about it (Oxford University Press 2021). One facet that I will focus on here is taking more care in how scientific process, results, and recommendations appear to the public. My personal hobbyhorse is a “procedures” section in an experimental write-up that leaves out so many steps that it becomes impossible to figure out just what participants did. But even more important is making sure that any recommendations are written as clearly as possible.
What can Go Wrong: The Example of COVID
of problems in this area that it deserves close focus. Fairly or unfairly, the scientific response to COVID has become a metonymy for all science, so that the journalistic response to scientific recommendations around the pandemic becomes a microcosm for how scientific findings in general are understood and disseminated. To take one example, the World Health Organization issued advice for travelers in light of the Omicron variant. The final paragraph of this advice reads as follows:
In addition, all travelers should be reminded to remain vigilant for signs and symptoms of COVID-19, to get vaccinated when it is their turn and to adhere to public health and social measures at all times and regardless of vaccination status, including by using masks appropriately, respecting physical distancing, following good respiratory etiquette and avoiding crowded and poorly ventilated spaces. Persons who are unwell, or who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission.
The final sentence is a model of how not to write, although it is intended to be as open as science can be. The conjunctions in the final sentence are so poorly managed that it is almost impossible to comprehend the advisory.
(a) the unwell
(b) those not fully vaccinated
(c) those without proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection; and
(a) people 60 years of age or older
(b) those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe
The “and” in the last sentence of the quotation applies to both groups, so the advisory means that only those who fall into both groups are advised to reconsider travel to areas with community transmission.
But that is not how many in the media described the WHO recommendations: “WHO Recommends People 60 and Over to Reconsider Travel Amid Omicron Variant” (Travel and Leisure); “The World Health Organization recommends those 60 years old and older postpone travel over omicron variant concerns” (The Hill); “COVID-19 Omicron travel warning: 60 or over? Postpone your international holiday plans, WHO warns” (Yahoo News). None of these headlines represents what the WHO recommended. Only those over 60 who were also unwell, not fully vaccinated, or without previous SARS-CoV-2 infection were advised to reconsider travel, and then only to areas with community transmission. But the media headlines are much more attention-grabbing than what the WHO wrote because they seem to ban from travel a huge portion of the population, and one especially important for the travel industry: those sixty and over, who presumably need to hide in a corner to avoid what looks like the risk of imminent death.
Reuters seems to have been in the minority in choosing a much tamer but more accurate headline: “WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant” (Reuters). It also provided a much more accurate summary of the recommendation: “The WHO, in its latest guidance to authorities and travellers, said that people over 60 years of age who are not fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-COV-2 infection and those with underlying health conditions should be advised to postpone travel as they are at higher risk of disease and death.” But it is unlikely that, given a spray of these headlines, many readers would be able to tell that Reuters was right and the others wrong. Moreover, since the others have more attention-grabbing headlines, it may be that they are more likely to be read. The bigger point is that the very existence of the various versions provides an excuse for science denial: “Since no one seems to be able to agree on what is in the WHO report, why should anyone bother to believe it?”
My hope is that scientists can develop venues and formats for countering media inaccuracies and oversimplifications. I suspect that big advertisers will not support such venues because they are likely not to make money. But science needs venues other than traditional science journals because these journals do not have as part of their mission control over how science stories are reported and interpreted. Instead, scientists need to recognize the need for this role and to own it as part of their jobs. It will not solve the problem of science denial nor will it end controversies about open science. But it might create the conditions under which open science could thrive.