Communicating science

I’m at the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne at the moment.  Its fascinating being here. Normally when you’re at a science conference, there’s a plethora of your colleagues and just a few journalists.  Here, its completely the other way round.  I’m now the odd one out!  Despite this slight unease, the one thing we all have in common is communicating science to the public.

Home to the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists
We’ve had some fascinating sessions.  A group of us had a panel discussion on the discovery of the hobbit (Homo floresiensis) and how the media reported it.  The last half hour was thrown open to the floor and we had quite a chat on why the politics got so much coverage at time (sometimes more than the actual science!).  There was an intriguing point raised that when a newspaper article is printed, that’s pretty much it, but when a television documentary is made, it can be broadcast several times (even if it is wrong).  I’m not sure we got to an answer apart from writing to the broadcaster and complaining.

The politics of science has certainly been a theme of the meeting.  On the morning of the first day we all woke in the hotel to find a selection of privately-produced newspapers and a DVD of a documentary, all declaring global warming is a fraud!  It’s hokum but great fun to flick through; where do these people get their ideas from?   It’s certainly not science.  Wonderfully, our first session was on the politicisation of science. 

Reporting science in the media is certainly at a critical juncture; it offers the possibility of raising the publics understanding of science so they can make informed decisions.  Certainly as scientists, it is our duty to explain our work as clearly as possible, and frame the science in a way people can understand and relate to. This is particularly important with regards climate change.  We had a whole day on this topic.  A key thing that came out was the use of balance in many of the articles reporting climate change (we saw this with the discovery of the hobbit as well).  For example, the Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was written by over 800 contributing authors, reviewed by more than 2500 scientific expert reviewers and represented over 130 countries.   Yet its pretty common to read a comment critical of the findings at the end of the article, often by someone who is not even a climate scientist.  No wonder the public are still confused about the science!

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