About Chemical Innovation - Subscription Information
May 2001
Vol. 31, No. 5, pp 28—33.
Succeeding in the Marketplace

Table of Contents

Janette Busch

Will they read it? Will they understand?

Journalists are accused of “dumbing down” science articles, but often they don’t understand the subjects they cover.

opening artScientists are trained to use words to describe concepts in very precise ways. Journalists who want to write about science often have to convert scientific papers into articles that are understandable to a broad range of readers. This can be a difficult task if a journalist has no real science background—something like trying to explain a cricket match when you have never played the game and don’t understand the rules.

A journalist needs special skills to understand and write stories about scientific and technical issues. When preparing an article, a journalist must take great care to maintain the integrity of the science and retain the interest of the reader. Many journalists seem to think that they have to “dumb down” their writing to the reading level of a 12-year-old. They may do this because their own understanding of science is quite limited, or they may not understand the significance of the issues they are covering. They are, however, doing themselves and their readers a considerable disservice, because important information may be lost or misrepresented in the effort to simplify the language.

Everybody can appreciate that publishing a newspaper is a complex business, but the newspaper’s prime task is to entertain and inform its readers. To inform, a newspaper needs to publish accurate and correct information. Writing articles for a 12-year-old’s reading level overlooks the reality that our world is becoming more complex and involved every day. People need to understand the increasingly complex world they live in.

A good example of the journalists’ failure to inform the public was heard at a recent genetic engineering forum (1). A professional in a nonscientific field expressed horror that he would have to eat DNA now that food was going to be modified by genetic engineering methods. Journalists and newspapers should have been informing people that all food comes from living cells, and thus contains DNA. Perhaps discussions of such contentious issues would be more productive if more people were informed clearly and accurately of the facts.

The need to inform the public about scientific issues has increased as scientific knowledge has increased. Every day, people have to make difficult decisions for themselves and their environment; accurate knowledge about the science involved can help them make these choices. Precise, nonsensational, and informative science communication is of critical importance to society.

I belong to an electronic mailing list for science communicators with the Society for Technical Communication (2). To find out whether I was the only person concerned about this problem, I sent a message to the list asking what the members felt about the “dumbing down” of science. From their replies, there was no doubt that I had struck a chord with my colleagues.

For another view, see "Scientists as communicators" .

Lost in the translation
Scientists and science communicators tend to choose words carefully to explain an idea or a concept. This is because of our training in science. Sometimes, it doesn’t help our message when a journalist changes words to be more general, more appealing, or simpler. Unhelpful changes may involve seemingly simple things such as substituting “do have” for “may have”. A journalist without a science background may not think that this is a significant change, but it has the potential to change the meaning of the article.

Louise Thomas, a freelance science communicator, said that the potential for error or incorrect nuances in science reporting is probably higher than in any other field. “Without a fundamental grasp of any science, how can a writer be expected to interpret research reports, or indeed, even interview most scientists?” she asked.

We have all read articles in which journalists have published facts incorrectly. Although most mistakes are merely irritating, more serious errors can require scientists to vigorously disclaim reported statements they didn’t even make! A common example is misuse of the phrase “cure for cancer”. Some of the hundreds of types of cancer are treatable, but some are not, and professionals speak of “remission” rather than “cure”.

Compounding the problem is the tendency for people to believe unquestioningly what they read or hear the first time it is published, even if the information is incorrect. It seems that no matter how many corrections or retractions are published, the original story is what remains in the collective memory. Moreover, the practice of circulating pieces through the large wire services tends to perpetuate the errors. Scientists are justified in feeling aggrieved when they have given reporters correct information, only to see it reported incorrectly in print.

We cannot expect journalists to take all the responsibility for this disservice. Another of my respondents said that “Although everyone seems to agree that communicating technical information … is a problem, no one does much about it.” The assumption seems to be that the public would not care, even if you did make better information accessible. Perhaps there is a lack of appreciation by journalists for their audience here.

“Science journalists without science backgrounds,” said another person, “represent the tragedy of democracy where uninformed individuals have the right to make supposedly informed decisions about things they don’t understand in the least.” He placed the blame for this on the scientists and on those who write about science.

The cost of sensationalizing science
I believe that the public has lost confidence in scientists because of the sensational slant often put on science stories in the popular media. Some journalists try to make every science report a breakthrough, when in fact, science is usually a slow, considered, and precise process. Each step advances the body of knowledge, but not in the dramatic or sensational manner that many journalists would have the public believe. Do a quick survey of your local newspaper and see what I mean.

“The perception is that miracle herbs and toxic spills sell newspapers, but ‘real science’ will only confuse and bore,” said another respondent. Unfortunately, it seems that the less science there is in a story, the more it will be sensationalized.

Furthermore, people have a tendency to be afraid about what they don’t understand. As a result, when they don’t realize that something has been sensationalized, this style of journalism can lead to irrational fears, which are perpetuated as myth builds upon myth.

Is it necessary to dumb down science?
“Dumbing down” rarely helps to explain the science more clearly or accurately. When I write about science, I regard my audience as knowledgeable adults whose understanding of science, engineering, and technology is somewhat better than a 12-year-old’s (even if their reading age is only at this level). In other words, the concepts are advanced even if the language isn’t. As one respondent put it, “There’s a huge difference between reading age and thinking age.” “Even 12-year-olds can understand about science issues as long as they are written using words and analogies that they can understand,” said another person.

I feel, however, that reducing everything to a 12-year-old’s level of comprehension is patronizing and runs the risk of trivializing the science so much that it is hardly there at all. If the story is that trivial, why run it at all? Who is benefiting from it? Who cares?

One person responding to my informal survey said that it is not so hard for a good writer to explain something complicated, provided the writer understands it first. He said that the problem with most modern journalists is that they do not understand science because they have studied little or no science at either the secondary or college level. He’s discovered many a time while tutoring children that you cannot explain what you don’t really understand.

Another person said that to use the 12-year-old reading level as a rule of thumb is not necessarily the best course of action—there are always exceptions. She believes that people who are interested in reading about science probably have more background or knowledge than the average high school graduate to begin with, so it may not even be necessary to dumb the content down for science stories.

The thing that most irritated another respondent about the “dumbing down” issue was how absurd the whole notion is. “Anyone who’s taken the time to explain something complicated to a 12-year-old knows how bright these people-in-training are and how, with a bit of thought, you can explain remarkably complicated things to them.”

One respondent begins her articles in an engaging and personal style, then puts the technical information further on in the story or in a sidebar. She said she writes so that her mother, who is not a scientist, can understand it.

Another person spoke about the importance of the five Cs of writing—clear, complete, concise, correct, and comprehensible. He said “dumbing down” does no one any service. He believes journalists, especially those reporting science, share a responsibility to promote writing in the “five Cs” mode to the public. Dumbing down to a 12-year-old level, he says, would make most science relatively incomprehensible.

Finally, why do newspapers dumb down science when they don’t do that for business or arts pages? A double standard seems to be operating here. Science must be dumbed down because it is seen as difficult to understand, but the business pages with equally difficult (and some would say boring) concepts and ideas are not.

What can scientists and science communicators do?
Scientists and science communicators should have opportunities to talk to journalists on a regular basis. Too often, we are content to stay in our own corners and hurl abuse at each other. Journalists who do not have a science background need specialized training. The Internet holds plenty of potential to deliver courses to a global audience. Topics could include

  • the scientific method of research—a basic philosophy of investigation underpinned by observation,
  • the pitfalls of “dumbing down” science,
  • how to detect “flaky” science,
  • how to check the validity of the science,
  • why scientists can’t give you the definitive answers you want,
  • the difference between promotional articles and straight science, and
  • the need for absolute accuracy in science writing.

cartoon: "See spots. See spots run."
"See spots. See spots run."
Journalists-in-training who do not have science backgrounds could be offered internships in research institutes in order to learn more about the scientific method. Science undergraduates should be encouraged to consider training in journalism—not all graduates want to do bench science. Scientists and science communicators should be able to attend regular workshops where they can learn what types of articles are acceptable for publication. I sometimes find that scientists have unrealistic ideas about what will interest the media (the 3000-word article when 300 words is all that is required). Scientists and science communication professionals need to take every opportunity to use their skills as communicators to communicate with journalists how important it is that science is reported error-free.

Acknowledgment
I gratefully acknowledge the input of Geoffrey Savage and Jonathan Hickford from Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand.

References

  1. The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (New Zealand); http://www.mfe.govt.nz/issues/organisms/law-changes/commission/.
  2. stcscsig-l@stc.org, listserv of the STC Science Communicators’ Special Interest Group, October 2000.
  3. www.salon.com/ent/feature/2000/04/14/sharp (accessed May 2001).
  4. Bruhn, C. M. Consumer acceptance of new technologies. Presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Feb 15–20, 2001.
  5. Cherry, J. P. Integration of strategies to reduce pathogens on foods. Presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Feb 15–20, 2001.
  6. Weigold, M. F. Science communication and mass media: A review of the literature. Presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Feb 15–20, 2001.
  7. www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/issuebrf/sib99328.htm (accessed May 2001).
  8. Rowan, K. E. Whose side are you on? Perceptions of effective science news coverage among scientists, journalists, and public affairs officers. Presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Feb 15–20, 2001.
  9. Priest, S. H. Misplaced faith: Science communication and scientific advocacy. Presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, Feb 15–20, 2001.

Janette Busch is a scientist and science communicator at Lincoln University (Animal and Food Sciences Division, PO Box 84, Canterbury, New Zealand; buschj@lincoln.ac.nz; +64-3-325-3803). She has tertiary qualifications in science (biochemistry and microbiology), laboratory technology, and technical communication from the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, New Zealand. She has worked in a meat processing plant, in forestry, and in secondary education. At Lincoln, she is responsible for providing resources for laboratory courses, undertakes research, and is responsible for the division’s research publicity. Her current areas of interest are food biochemistry (nutritional analysis and sensory evaluation), science communication, and distance education.


For further information

    Hart, G. Science-writing for nonrocket scientists: Don’t dumb it down! The Exchange (Newsletter of the STC Science Communicators’ Special Interest Group) 2000, 7 (3), 1–2.

    Thomas, L. Science communication in a sceptical age: A summary of the 14th International Conference of Science Communication, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, Nov 4–5, 1999. Available from Louise Thomas, Wordwise Science Communication, PO Box 13-389, Johnsonville, Wellington, New Zealand; +64-4-478-9951; www.writerfind.com/

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