It was with the arrival of the excellent blog post on Science, LIVE: A Made for TV Experiment that brought the topic of TV science and Prof. David Nutt’s new show: Drugs Live to my attention. Later I also read of a discussion between Prof Nutt and Julia Manning asking whether it is right to take ecstacy in a TV trial.
In addition to my angle on the issue of science communication related to this issue, the entirely separate issue of ‘is it even right in the first place?’ was addressed in the latter article. Maybe unsurprisingly, I completely side with Julia Manning, and feel that a scientific study funded by a TV programme is not viable. I can’t understand how this can be published in a journal when the topic has been funded by a body that has a personal interest in the outcome. I know, the Medical Research Council (MRC) didn’t fund it because it doesn’t fit with their portfolio of addiction, but I still feel there is more to the story of the study and its quest for funding that I can’t see. Another issue that I found distressing about this article was the fact that Prof. Nutt continued to take personal offence to Julia’s criticisms. His overuse of the work ‘I’ worried me to the point that I felt he viewed the study as a reflection of him personally and not there to provide help to those suffering from depression and the doctors who will treat them. Some examples:
“I should be commended for finding a way of doing quality science, which otherwise wouldn’t happen.”
“I’m looking to innovate…Your argument with me is essentially fuelling that prejudice.”
Maybe my feelings are completely unfounded, but this made me question the purpose of the show, bearing in mind that I have doubts about the quality of the communication of the process of scientific research, in Prof. Nutt’s own words: “…show the whole process – from design to analysis – of a scientific experiment being performed.”, and what benefits (if any) it will bring to the public and the medical sciences. Will the show stir up more questions amongst the public about drugs and science, and will they be the right ones?
Moving on to my main point about the quality of the scientific communication within the show, I have serious doubts about whether the public will really understand the whole process of a scientific experiment being performed from an hour long TV show. Translating the results of ‘ground-breaking’ science in a show this length probably has its own difficulties, but here we are supposed to be witnessing the whole ground-breaking study within the 57 minute long programme. Mark Stokes discusses this issue in his article that I mention above as the basis for this post.
People may ask questions like: why have we not found the cure to cancer yet if scientific studies can be undertaken so quickly? The biggest miscommunication here is the rigour and process of science rather than helping people understand it. There needs to be more support for people to gain a feeling for the logical thought process that comes along with all scientific studies, the way that research questions are developed, the background knowledge that needs to be acquired before you begin, the decisions regarding the best methods to use and the pitfalls and changes of direction that projects may take along the way.
Another thing I am very much personally against is simplifying science so much that you end up telling scientific lies to your audience in order to get across a basic concept. This is easy to do, and to an extent even universities do it: I remember as I entered my 3rd year of my undergraduate degree being told by tutors in our first lecture to forget everything we have been taught so far because although it helps us understand the basic principles of geology, its not necessarily all true. This of course was an exaggeration, and was based very much on the fact that we don’t know all the facts (by a long way) in geology as with all sciences. Whenever I communicate science however, I try not to back down from telling people the whole story. Yes, this is a more complex way of addressing science communication and involves a lot more work on the communicators part to get very complex issues into manageable words but it CAN be done. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the reasons why so many senior scientists are so difficult to talk to about their research, because sometimes it takes so much to find the words to describe what you can say in one word of scientific jargon it’s hardly worth the trouble! I personally find analogies incredibly helpful, as I use these in my own mind to understand concepts and situations so try to think of something everyday to describe and then apply to a situation. I think Dawkins and his extended use of analogies is partly responsible for this.
So, I would like to post the question: Is TV an effective way of communicating science, and should we be thinking much more about how and why we would use this particular medium for science communication? I think in the case of Drugs Live, the answer is no, TV was not a good was of communicating this study for the reasons outlined above. However, I think many other science TV programmes are excellent and at the very least inspire many people to get involved with science or have an interest in the natural world. TV and online video is a great medium for connecting to a diverse audience and should be used to help raise awareness about science. I am still inspired when I see David Attenborough and Iain Stewart (the ‘star’ of geology TV shows), and I also love shows about history and archaeology as well. These shows do not attempt to undermine years of research in one hour, but intend to draw attention to wonders of nature or modern science and I think they really work well. (Time Team was in some ways more like Drugs Live however, as from the smallest piece of evidence a whole town could be re-imagined right down to the colour of people’s dress…although something I really enjoyed watching maybe it was also not the best piece of communication.)
So what do I think is a better form of communication of scientific processes that takes advantage of modern technology? For me, it’s blogging, as this can form part of an active dialogue in communication, where readers can comment and writers can link simply to their inspiration from other articles or academic references. These discussions on blogs can even be part of further posts, or brought to wider Twitter discussions. With so many diverse questions and opinions people can learn much more easily about the process behind science, and enhance understanding simultaneously by a range of knowledge and opinion.
People are currently talking about blogging and online science and the effects that comments can have on the opinions of the readers (see this post for a little background). I believe that the worry that negative or unfounded comments can negatively influence readers’ opinions only enhances the argument for more science communication regarding the scientific method. The public appear to rely on the accumulated opinions of others to base their own opinions on. If anything this is good as it means that people want to get engaged and will listen to others opinions on the matter. People will be increasingly dependant on opinions of others when they do not have the tools or knowledge to assess for themselves what makes sense and what does not. Unfortunately the less someone knows and the more silly comments there are then the worse the end product of communication is. What we want is to keep this consensus of listening and commenting on others opinions as a form of knowledge sharing and enhancement but also to focus more on increasing the public’s ability to evaluate arguments themselves through effective communication of the scientific process.
In conclusion, TV can be a great communicator but I have yet to be convinced of the value of Prof. Nutt’s form form of communication and scientific study.