Popular science stories can be exciting, educative and a lot of fun to read. But sometimes we come across that erratic story which reinforces gender stereotypes while trying to explore the biology of the male and female body. One example would be the study published in the Guardian in December 2013, which quoted the principal scientist as having said that the brain scans of a 1000 men and women proved old gender stereotypes right. This caused quite a stir, and follow-up stories called for science to stay away from such typecasting.
While the scientific process is objective, the questions asked during research can spring from a scientist’s own prejudices. Stories about health and medicine that carry such prejudices from the laboratory to the newsstand can easily be misleading or even hurtful. So, how then should popular science be reported? In this interview I talk to my professors, Doug Starr and Ellen Shell about responsible science reporting, and about the herculean task of putting science in a social context. We also talk about the specific story from the Guardian, and about junk science.
Starr and Shell co-direct the Graduate Program in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University, where I was a student between 2009 and 2011. Starr is an experienced environmental and medical writer, whose work has appeared in The New Republic, Discover, Science, Smithsonian, Public Television, National Public Radio, The Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. His most recent book, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, won the Gold Dagger award in the UK, and was a finalist for the Edgar Allen Poe award in the U.S. Shell is a correspondent and contributing editor for the Atlantic Magazine, and often explores the interface between science and the society in her pieces published in national publications like the Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times, Seed, Discover and the Washington Post. Her most recent book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2009) gives a narrative history of the low-price consumption in America, while an earlier work, The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin (Grove/Atlantic, 2002), takes a hard look at the obesity pandemic.
Shweta Krishnan: What is popular science reporting?
Doug Starr: Popular science reporting is talking about science and scientific issues to the members of the general public and that’s very important because in other issues it is quite easy for people to communicate directly with the public. Obviously politicians are quite skilful with directly communicating with the public, entertainment people are, athletes are, but for scientists it is difficult because science is a complicated language with complicated issues. So for science journalists it is our job to understand the science, which means to really understand it and not just report what people say. And this means we have to read the journal articles, we have to interview the researchers, interview other scientists, understand the science, and put it in a scientific context. By scientific context we mean: Has this work been done before? Is there similar work; is there different work? Does this work contradict what has come before and if so how much attention do we pay to it? And then put it in a social context: what does this mean for us? I mean, if it is a study on sexuality, you know, what impact would it have for example, on young people’s sex lives? So the things that matter are thorough reporting, thoroughly understanding the issue, reporting it in a scientific context and reporting it in a social context.
And I think the other point is to avoid this whiplash that you get when people say this latest study is the ‘new truth,’ when in fact, the latest study just adds to what is being discussed and should be another voice in this new discussion. A lot of inexperienced science reporters get caught up thinking that the newest thing is the truest thing. That is not necessarily right. So I think those are the main things that we consider important.
Ellen Shell: When you are reporting a popular science story, you have to think about who your audience is. Who are you writing this piece for? Are you writing for children? Are you writing for older people? For the general public, or for a technologically savvy group? Most scientists will tell you that most of the science is very arcane and specialized, and so journalists, who act as the bridge between the scientists and the general public, must take the science, contextualize it and make it relevant to their audience. The value that you add as a good journalist is you do analysis. You don’t just say what the scientist says, but you add an analysis and that analysis is what you offer your consumer.
Shweta Krishnan: Doug, when would you take a study seriously, and when would you say it is important to talk about it to the general public. Let’s take the example of health related studies.
Doug Starr: Health related reporting is really a delicate issue because it is the one field of reporting where we could accidentally hurt people. You know, people could go on some crazy diet, or take some medicine that is unproven or get hysterical about a disease that is not very common. It is so personal that people react to these pieces. So, it is interesting to report health but there are several steps you need to take: number one, take a close look at the study. What was the study done on? As you know if the study was done on mice that is interesting, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot because the difference between mice and men is a great one. If it is a study done over a short period of time with a small sample size that is not good. The small sample size could be an unusual population for some reason. Studies shown over a short period of time can’t tell what the long-term health effects are going to be. I think whenever you are reporting health information, unless it is something like the Ebola outbreak, unless it is truly startling, you have to report it as an incremental change. This adds to what people have been talking about, or this tends to contradict the current state of thought.
Shweta Krishnan: Doug, you spoke about how we need to put science in a social context. But sometimes a study, or the way it is reported, can seem politically incorrect. If we take the piece in the Guardian as an example, the initial story ran with a quote from the principal investigator on how old gender stereotypes might be true, but it did not really include studies that argue against this. So can we talk a little bit more about putting science in a social context? Also, can science be politically correct?
Doug Starr: Well, science is supposed to be objective so to speak, although there are some scientists who push in certain directions. Taking this story for example, that there are neurological differences between men and women, which we don’t like to believe currently… If I were reporting that study I would report what the study said, and really take a careful look at their methods, because it is not unusual for conclusions not to be based on rigorous methods. So take a look at that and then talk to people who have different points of view and put it in a context. For example in the last year, if 50 studies have come out showing there are no essential differences, and this is the one study that came out showing there are essential differences, you need to report that difference, because this shows where the momentum is going. And if something is not politically correct, I would say it in the article. That becomes part of the story. So I don’t see my job as withholding a story because it is distasteful but my job is to dig into the story even if it is distasteful. So, what are the implications of this, are there ripple effects, is this study truly valid, or is it just one data point in a sea of data points that says something contradictory? Whatever it is, the solution is to always dig deeper not to avoid the story.
Shweta Krishnan: So you said, we currently don’t like to believe that there are neurological differences between men and women… which means we were comfortable saying that before. So, let us say we believed something to be true, and then there is new evidence to show that the thinking must change, and this new evidence is coming out of the social sciences not the biological sciences, how would you factor that in as a science writer?
Doug Starr: I would just report that the field is evolving and growing and taking twists and turns as part of this interesting search. I really think it is important not to see each paper as the truth that is being delivered, when each paper is another increment to the movement, in fields that people are trying to move forward. In fact, each paper is not always a move forward, it is just adding to the data. I don’t have problems when things change; the change is part of the story.
Shweta Krishnan: Ellen, if we could just talk about your book, The Hungry Gene for a minute. It deals with a very sensitive topic. So, could you talk about how to report the science behind such a topic without sounding insensitive about it, or without misleading people? Also, how do you weave the politics, the history and the economics of an issue into a science story?
Ellen Shell: I almost never write about pure science issues. Almost everything I write about looks at science and the society. In the case of the hungry gene, we know that obesity is a scourge of public health. We know it costs many lives – diabetes, heart disease and other problems. So on the one hand, you have to disregard the fact that people worry about their appearance and talk about the health concerns. On the other hand, you worry about the sensitive issues like diets… what people eat. It is as close to religion as you can get. You grow up with a food memory. Diet is so close to ideology, the way we live our lives, and so you have to be aware of that when you get into this kind of topic. As a journalist you have to know how a topic relates to people’s agendas, their sensitivities. It is unavoidable.
Shweta Krishnan: If we were to take the study in the Guardian as an example, or another study that might say that men can read maps better than women for example, how would you say we should read it as science reporters. The social context within which we understand science is constantly changing and so how do we marry the two issues?
Ellen Shell: I don’t really recall this study, but I can tell you that we need to contextualize this study itself… how many studies show similar findings, and how many contradict these findings. The way you are quoting the researcher it seems as if he or she was eager for publicity. Science journalists have to be wary of these comments, but journalists and editors tend to get excited when you hear such comments, because of the eyeballs that story would get. You cannot shy away from a topic because of sensitivities, but on the other hand, I would say you should be particularly careful if you get the feeling that the scientists are sensationalizing the finding.
Shweta Krishnan: Sometimes a scientific finding – like one about the elemental differences between the genders – can seem like quirky and interesting science, but then, it could really have a lot of repercussions for some people. These studies could reinforce gender stereotypes, and even sexism. So what should a journalist really do when science seems to ‘show’ something that could potentially cause a lot of political harm?
Ellen Shell: So the bottom line is it is not a journalist’s job to be progressive or far-sighted. But it is his or her job to take material, analyse it, contextualize it and present it in a way the reader can understand and appreciate it. So, in the case of hard wiring in the male brains and female brains, the best thing a journalist can do is to talk to a wide range of neuroscientists, analyse a wide range of studies on the topic, and then ask why people are even asking this question. What would be the use of saying that men can read maps better than women? If we did Venn Diagrams between the sexes, I am sure there would be a lot of overlap. A lot of women will be good at map reading. Now if there are more men than women who can read maps, we should ask what difference does that make, why do we care about that, why is there research into this, what are the essential questions we want to unpack. I think as a journalist, rather than be concerned about the repercussions of these studies, I would unpack these questions. Why do we care? There might be some good reason and that is what I would share with the public.
But there is also a lot of off-the-wall reporting. I am not familiar with the press in India, but I have seen it in China, in Africa, in various parts of the world, and even in the United States. The idea of engaging the reader at a sensational level can be quite appealing to editors. There are also a lot of untrained journalists who are writing that stuff.
Shweta Krishnan: Even if science is objective in its methods, I find that scientists often have prejudices, which inform their research questions. So how do I write that story?
Ellen Shell: You tell the reader your concerns. You say, ‘Dr. Smith is very excited about this. He has made a career in this, but not all agree.’ You can say this very politely. You can say that the scientists you are interviewing have an ideological predilection and then you contextualize that and say, ‘here are other points of view.’ And you as a journalist have a point of view, and I think it is fair to share that with the reader. Especially now, I think journalists have the right and the duty to share with the reader what they think.
Shweta Krishnan: Sometimes, a lot of pseudoscience makes it to the papers. For example, during the Republican primaries in 2012, a story surfaced about Republicans saying women don’t get pregnant when they are raped. They used ‘science’ as evidence to make this statement. So, what should a science journalist do when something like that is being talked about?
Doug Starr: Taking that as an example… what he said was outrageous and so it is really necessary to report that in context. So if someone says women don’t get pregnant unless they want to, you talk to fertility specialists. 100% of them say that is perfectly insane. That is your story. A public figure has just said something 100% absolutely insane. If some obscure person says something stupid it is not my job to report it. So who really said this, is this person important, and if he is, then I need to report it and put it in a context. Just because someone says something it doesn’t become news. And even when it is news it does not stand alone; it has to be put in context.
Shweta Krishnan: Ellen, what do you think science reporting can do for an issue like this?
Ellen Shell: Well that particular incident, it was an old politician quoting an old wives’ tale that if you are very scared or upset you cannot get pregnant. It is obviously an old idea, it is preposterous. So I think the best job a journalist can do is to address it as if it were true, and say ‘Let us look at this. Why would someone say this?’ Then you look at the evidence he is providing, and then follow it through. Rather than lambast it you see if there is some amount of fact. If you lambast it you lose an opportunity to educate and inform. So in your writing you set the record straight. So when people read it they know why they shouldn’t believe that any longer.
Shweta Krishnan: Sometimes, the media as a body tends to get excited about such statements and sensationalizes it, and then there are people listening to this when they are traveling or working, and they just hear half of the story, and soon some of these statements become facts in the minds of the public. So, what if people don’t read the whole story or see the accurate stories? How do we make sure they know which stories stick to good science journalistic standards and which ones don’t?
Doug Starr: I think that is tough, and the Internet has made it more difficult because people can look up their ‘own truth’, whether it is true or not. I don’t think we as individual journalists have control. I think what we can do is do the best job we can and hope that the high quality stuff gets out. Certain people and certain publications develop reputations for having credible journalism and people who want credible journalism turn to that. You cannot make people who watch the rubbish, watch the good stuff. That’s the part we don’t have control over. It has gotten a little worse with the Internet and the decentralization of news.
Ellen Shell: I think that it has become bifurcated. There is some excellent writing both by scientists and journalists on the web. The problem with the web is there is so much and it is difficult for the public to know where to go. In the past, things were curated. You knew, for example the New York Times was a good source or Science was a good source. But now it is really difficult to tell. There is a lot more material, and it is really hard to navigate or to manage the material. We don’t have as many curators of good material, and so the reader has to be more sophisticated, but that is not the case. So, with this deluge of material there is more opportunity for misunderstanding.
Shweta Krishnan: Doug, I think the general public is constantly interested in what the sciences have to say about everything, and see it somewhat as the ‘truth’. But science is hard to talk about and can be easily misinterpreted. So then would you say that science journalists should feel socially responsible to work with out-reach programs, or would you say that science journalism at every level, whether you are with an out-reach program or writing for a newspaper just has an element of social responsibility in it already?
Doug Starr: Oh yeah, all journalists have to have an element of social responsibility; you can’t say stuff. And you know that is a problem with a lot of what I see on TV. It is a lot of people just saying stuff without being thoughtful about it. An integral part of our job is to be socially responsible, and reaching out in terms of reporting stuff in ways that matter, in contexts that matter and make sure people that people understand the issues.
Shweta Krishnan: Ellen, do you think science journalists have to pack in an element of social responsibility in their reporting?
Ellen Shell: Well, take doctors who are plastic surgeons to movie stars… they may not think of social responsibility, they may like being with celebrities, they may like being rich. They are different from a kind of doctor who is a pediatrician in a poor part of the world. So these are different people. So there are journalists who like to have fun, and there is the other kind of journalist who feels socially responsible. Some reporters could be good at reporting technology for example, they don’t have a point of view, they are not interested in the betterment of society… that is okay as long as that is your area. But if you are reporting about the kind of things we are talking about, like public health or social science, I would think people would have to be socially responsible. Just like I would hope that the paediatrician would care about children. And they would know that something that is not just fun, it can be sensitive, and if it is misleading it can be dangerous.