The media and science are natural born enemies; the one sells opinions while the other replaces opinions with facts. Journalist prowl the university press releases, stalking us like big cats, striking at the most unexpected times. When a journalist call does come, the first feeling is one of abject terror. Some of my fellow researchers are in the midst of one of these most dreaded aspects of doing science, the media frenzy.
What is going on now is probably the most benign type of media folly. Some of my colleagues won a grant to do a study on the effects of nanoparticles in diesel fuel on honeybees. It might or might not give us groundbreaking data on a number of important health and agricultural problems. The key word here is might. If they new the answer, then they would not bother wasting taxpayers money on the project. It is typical case of the media setting their own agenda by fixating on the unproven minutia. This is a minor side project as the Guy involved recently secured a large proportion of the nations research spending on climate change for the university. When the interview requests came in, I heard the conversations in our open office as the PI coached his post doc on how to give very simple clear statements that did not over sell, nor could be taken out of context. This is critical training because the press has lost it’s way and is no longer concerned with truth or anything higher like it’s special role in democratic states. All the major outlets seem to care about anymore is making money by stirring up controversy and problems. Reporters are out to get us to say something stupid and to miss-represent whatever we say in a way to get the most eyeballs on their advertizements. There are some good science writers that I have worked with like Amanda Schaeffer and John Whitfield, but most reporters already know the story they are going to write and just want to drag a scientists into it to give the story some appearance of credibility.
One of the biggest problems with science and the media is the resulting over sell by journalists. Preliminary studies and grants become breakthroughs and the science is usually not presented well enough for a poorly educated public to interpret. From our school in the past few years we have had watercress curing breast cancer based on a trial run of ten women, and curry as the magic food to slow Alzheimer’s based on one of the thousands of chemicals in tasty curry showing some promise in a fruit fly model. In both cases the lab groups involved seemed startled at the media reaction and really had no choice but to try and ride the wave of over-hype while maintaining their integrity. I have not noticed any up tick in the number of watercress curries in our lunch areas.
There is one extreme form of media mistake that I think is border-line fraud. That is the deliberate misrepresentation of science for personal gain. In my field, every month I see some idiot out there saying that the science of aging is on the verge of breakthroughs that will significantly increase lifespan by some absurd number of years. This could not be further from the truth. Aging research is in a state of confusion today as the most popular theory, the free radical theory, has collapsed. There is absolutely no chemical or drug out there now that has been shown to slow the aging process in humans, period. Life spans are increasing because of breakthroughs in heart disease and cancer and not because of anything to do with modifying the general process of aging. The problem with these claims is that whenever someone says that we are the verge of immortality or curing Alzheimer’s, people actually believe it and expect it to happen soon. They want to know where these promised benefits are and then misappropriate funding to translational research (making practical drugs and treatments from basic discoveries) where there is very little if anything to translate. The most grievous case in my opinion was the first discovery of life on Mars. I immediately looked up nano-bacteria and my heart sank when I realized that NASA probably had it wrong, and most likely over-selling the story without technically telling any lies. The pretty pictures of the “bacteria fossils” were explained by inorganic processes within a year. This goes to show how far one can fall in science when truth is sacrificed for financial and political gain. Since then this same group claims to have more solid evidence but who can take them seriously after hijacking the Pope's and presidents' agendas for something so quickly disproved? I still sometimes see those tatter clippings of the so-called Martian bacteria posted on the walls in biology departments. Once put up an expression of the joy and wonder of why we do science, now with corners curling over trying to hide their shame.