Reaching Out For Outreach: Addressing Challenges in Science Communication

Recent events during the corona crisis have shown the real dangers arising when science is mis-represented in the media. Can digital journalism offer a solution?

Hi, I’m Paul Taylor, a scientist at LMU Munich. I work in the field of cognitive neuroscience, psychology and neurology, specialising mainly in developing techniques for brain stimulation and neurofeedback. Like many academics I also have a more general interest in the relationship between science and society. I’m thrilled to be taking part in the Rocking Science Journalism program at Media Lab Bayern. In this first blog post, I’ll briefly describe my background, motivation and initial approach.

There is a growing recognition of how badly things can turn out when science communication goes wrong. Recent events during the coronavirus crisis have shown that this can arise on many different levels, from misleading statements by politicians, over-excited press releases, biases of individual news institutions and one-sided reporting. As a researcher, I’m particularly interested in the way in which scientists communicate with journalists, and ways in which that interaction can go wrong: whether some prominent disasters have occurred partly as a result of this connection being in some ways fundamentally broken. One famous example is the catastrophe that arose when people stopped getting their children vaccinated against measles - due to a single study which was soon found to be not only flawed but even fraudulent. Another more general case is the continued ignorance of the science behind climate change. These examples certainly reflect systematic failures. The key challenge I want to tackle is this: Could these problems be remedied by finding new ways to cross the tangled web that extends between what scientists do and what the public hears about?

The Rocking Science Journalism program places its emphasis on pioneering new ideas for scientific journalism within the digital domain, and there are three goals that I hope to achieve from this. Firstly, I want to learn about the ways in which digital journalism is evolving, and what key trends are forming that could be relevant for improving scientific outreach. Secondly, which steps are necessary in practice to develop a solution? Thirdly, I hope to learn from the rest of the fellows in this program what challenges are faced by science journalists – at the moment, my own personal perspective has only been from the standpoint of a researcher.

My initial sketch of an idea of a first approach is to try to create a better resource for journalists to appreciate scientific context. It may be that some of the basic, fundamental information they need is not available in the right way. For example: When a particular science paper is published, what if that study is a complete one-off, and is totally unrepresentative of the scientifc community as a whole?How could this be made rapidly apparent to a journalist outside that field? Is there a way to highlight whether everyone else in the scientific community believes that this is a strange and misrepresentative blip in the literature, or that it is the new counterintuitive paradigm-shifting revolution that everyone has been hoping for?

How can a single journalist – possibly under an intense deadline – get a feel for what the community thinks about this? Would it help – for example - if each scientific paper was visualised on a website as a node in a network? Users could then visualise whether other papers – other nodes in the network – challenge, are inspired by, or frankly disprove that new paper. That is my starting point for this fellowship at Media Lab – please look out for a later post to see what I learned during this experience!


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