The image of science

Journalism is an interesting and challenging career, indeed, and practicing a specialization like science journalism is an even bigger one. Especially so when you write for a daily newspaper in a city like Guatemala. The illiteracy is about 40 percent, and many of the people who learned to read or attended only elementary school, after the years, are not used to reading anymore. It is what specialists in education call “functional illiteracy”.

So, journalists must make not only attractive articles, but creative illustrations or photos to catch the attention of their audience.

In printed media the role of an image is crucial. It has to reinforce the written message or must help to explain it deeply. To do so, journalists have to work together with an illustrator or photographer; they have to agree about the right way to grab the readers´ eyes.

The image must be friendly and simple but effective. Sometimes the draws are joined by photos, in order to better explain the message. And the author must remember that his creation is going to be for an audience that will not have a scientific background, or worse, might not even be interested in the subject. So, the challenge is big.

Marvin Olivares, a Guatemalan visual artist, says that the image does not have to be a masterpiece. Even though the illustration structure can be complex, the final presentation has to be easy to understand. The colors do not have to be so dark, because of the low quality of the paper used to print the daily, sometimes they get darker.

The techniques illustrators can use are many. But in many cases, because of its flexibility they prefer to use water colors. At present time the work is easier because of computers.

“About the style, it depends on the subject; it can be a cartoon that in a humorous way explains a complex situation. Also, it can be a technique illustration that shows the inside parts of something. Of course, the final decision is up to the daily editorial focus”, says Olivares.

Olivares says that in the 70´s and 80´s there were artists in Guatemala City like Erwin Guillermo, Moisés Barrios and Carlos Letona who stood out in  making medical illustrations.

For example, they made pieces about how a drug works or how a person experiences a headache. “They had a tremendous flexibility to create an analogy as well as a descriptive illustration”. Of course, many of these pieces were made for pharmaceutical companies.

Until the 90´s, when in Guatemala City some scientific illustrations started to appear in the daily newspapers.

So, in Guatemala and many other Latin American countries alike, there is a big field to explore in illustrating science. There are enormous possibilities for artists, photographers and illustrators who wish to make something different. But the first and most important thing to do is give  science journalism the importance it has and deserves.

We must work hard at opening doors in the media so journalists and creative designers and illustrators can get a better job; we would be growing in a professional way and also, we would be helping society to be more and better informed about science.

What do they know?

One of the most important things of being a journalist is knowing your audience. Especially so if you are a science reporter. Do the people you’re addressing, for instance, know what chromosomes are? And do you have to explain the theory of the Big Bang, or is this common knowledge? Explain too little, and your audience will not understand what you’re writing or reporting about. Explaining too much also doesn’t work. It may waste valuable writing space or airtime, and people may feel you’re underestimating them and therefore stop reading or listening.

But it isn’t easy to attain knowledge about what your audience knows about science. Fortunately, there has been some research on this subject. The report Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 of the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States offers an overview of a number of these studies. The vast, biannual report provides quantitative information about science & engineering in the United States. The report contains a chapter fully focused on public attitudes towards and understanding of science and technology (S&T). In this chapter, the results of multiple nation-wide surveys concerning this topic are combined. Also, these outcomes are compared to the outcomes of similar surveys from all over the world. The surveys were all held amongst representative samples of the general population, with the number of respondents varying from approximately a thousand till thirty thousand.

It turns out that the scientific literacy of the general American audience isn’t all that high. To measure knowledge of S&T, a standardized set of twelve questions has been designed which is used in surveys all over the world. The questions are shaped as statements which can be true or false. The scientific facts and concepts in the questions should theoretically be known by anyone who finished a normal high-school education, since they are taught here. Still, the average American only answered 6,6 out of the twelve questions correctly. This figure hasn’t changed much over the years the surveys are held (the first time was in 1992). The number of correctly answered questions was positively correlated with the level of education and young people answered more questions correctly then older people.

There was also a clear difference in the knowledge of S&T between men and women. Men tend to know more about physics, while women tend to know more about biology and health-related issues. For instance, 61 percent of the men knew electrons are smaller then atoms. Of the women, 52 percent thought it is the other way round. But while 72 percent of the women know it’s the fathers genes that determine if a baby will be a boy or a girl, just slightly over half of the men answered this statement correctly. Perhaps the most remarkable findings are that 68 percent of the American women think lasers work with sound waves in stead of light waves; and that a staggering 73 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men don’t know the universe started with the Big Bang.

Though this last result may be because of cultural or religious reasons. In other countries like Europe, Japan or China, a lot more people answered this question correctly. This also holds true for the statement that the human species developed form earlier species of animals. In a different survey, more Americans answered these questions correctly if the statement began with ‘According to scientific theory,…’.

Looking at the average score in this type of survey, no country or region notably outperforms another. Knowledge of S&T is about the same in the United States as in Europe or Japan. South-Korea also scores well. In Russia, Malaysia and China the knowledge scores are relatively low. In the report, Europe is treated as a single region, composed of 25 EU-members. But there are large differences in S&T knowledge between these 25 countries. Northern European countries score best, with Sweden taking the lead.

The NSF report also contains some potentially interesting findings concerning public attitudes towards S&T. A few examples:

  • All over the world television is considered as there main source of S&T information. In the US, the internet comes second; in other countries, newspapers are usually mentioned as the secondary source. The internet does generally score best when asked what source people turn to when to want to look up information on a scientific subject.
  • 87 % of the Americans support government funding of basic research, and 41 % think the government should spend more money on scientific research.
  • All over the world, space exploration is mentioned as the scientific topic people are least interested in. But at the same time, this is the topic which gets most airtime in the US evening news shows. The report doesn’t go into detail on this apparent contradiction.

What scientists think about you

Recently, in the company of some members of our organisation, The Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association [KENSJA], I attended a workshop in Nairobi on Making an Impact: Research and Communication. It dealt with communicating more effectively with policy-makers and key audiences, engaging with the media, innovative communication tools one can use, impact making and why research communication is important.

It brought together researchers, communication officers, science journalists and policy makers and had very interesting and stimulating interactive sessions. But my interest here is on what these other people think and feel about science journalism and science journalists.

Both communication officers and researchers at the meeting felt there is need for a paradigm shift in which the media is engaged right from the inception of projects through research phases to outputs; that this will give insights and leverages for powerful, accurate and authentic stories.

But there were unpleasant views on science journalists and science journalism. In a terse comment one researcher said “journalists like sensationalism.” They blow things out of proportion; they like reporting stories or events in a way that makes them seem as strange, exciting or as shocking as possible.

Some story headings are tailored in a way that cause great anxiety, even where there is none; and in some cases the headlines do not even reflect the content when you go through the lines.

The question that science journalists may ask in this respect is, how sensational is a sensational story or headline?

We were also ‘accused’ of distortion and sometimes making wrong references to particular tools that a research work has yielded or even making wrong institutional references or their mandates.

One communication officer remarked: “sometimes you go with the journalists to function and what they report tomorrow is absolutely different.” Journalists, some said, are interested in increasing sales for their organisations and twist stories to suit this thus leaving out the crux of the matter they are reporting on. They miss the point.

Others even wondered if there are good science journalists. “Good science journalists are difficult to find,” a participant remarked. Sometimes journalists go for interviews when they are absolutely unprepared; they have no background information and start fumbling in front of interviewees. The reporting, therefore, comes out shallow and of no great use to consumers. It is always very disappointing to scientists and researchers when journalists fail to understand what they are saying or doing, which may reflect badly on their reputation once the story is in the public domain – something they are extremely keen on.

As if that is not enough, most editors have scanty knowledge about science reporting and as the chief gatekeepers of what goes out, they do a shoddy job. Even more interesting was the accusation that some journalists demand for enticements before they can do a story.

Some of them add no value and colour to a story and will simply pick what is in the press release. “Add value by investing in the story through having background information, having interviews with other independent people or organisations dealing with or opposed to the same issue you are about to do story on,” said one participant. These are some of the things they think about you.

Questioning the Methods; Questioning the Results

The headlines tend to be sexy, eye-catching, definitive, and nearly always misleading. Some statisticians claim that observational studies are unreliable and not supported by replicable data.

A year ago, a study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B surveyed 740 pregnant women on what they ate before and during pregnancy. Of those who consumed the most calories, 56 percent gave birth to boys. Of those who consumed the least calories, 45 percent gave birth to boys. Breakfast cereal was found to be linked to baby boys out of the 132 foods included in the survey.

Conclusion: Women who eat cereal have boys?

A statistician in North Carolina reanalyzed the data and countered the studies findings as pure chance. The researchers are standing behind their findings.

Melinda Beck of The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Behind the cereal squabble lies a deep divide between statisticians and epidemiologists about the nature of chance in observational studies in which researchers track peoples’ habits and look for associations with their health but don’t intervene at all.

Stan Young of the National Institutes of Statistical Sciences has provided a set of questions to assist in finding out whether claims from observational (medical) studies are true.

1. Is the trial a randomized clinical trial? (In general, reliable.)

  • Non-FDA – 80% likely OK. (Ask if the trial is replicated; Ask how many questions are in the primary analysis. Are claims made for secondary analysis?
  • FDA approved – over 95% OK for primary claim (Data is checked. Analysis is checked. Analysis is pre-data collection approved.)
2. Is the trial an observational study? In general, very unreliable. Of claims tested, over 90% of the claims fail to replicate.
  • Is the data publicly available?
  • Is the analysis code available?
  • How many questions are at issue?
  • Has the data set been independently re-analyzed?
  • Have the claims been independently replicated?
  • What was the cost of the study and who funded the study?
  • If there is a proposed biological mechanism, is there independent experimental evidence to support it? Was the mechanism proposed after-the-fact?
  • Is “cause and effect” being claimed?
  • What is their opinion: if someone replicated the study, how confident are they that they would find a very similar result?

Young offered Effect of Selenium and Vitamin E on Risk of Prostate Cancer and Other Cancers. JAMA. 2009;301 (1) “as a study that attempted to replicate claims coming from observational studies.”

MP3 download of Young talking about misuse of statistics in epidemiological studies: