Pro-science crusader - or media luvvie? Professor Susan Greenfield talks about the difficulties of doing both.
‘It is in the nature of being human that people are curious. That is what we are brilliant at doing – and if we were not, we would still be in the caves.’
Professor Susan Greenfield, director of the UK Royal Institution and Oxford professor of pharmacology, makes no apologies for how science helps satisfy this basic human curiosity. In fact, her passion for promoting science to the public has made her a household name in the UK.
Many will have come across her through the popular BBC2 series Brain Story, delving into the current state of knowledge in neuroscience, which Greenfield wrote and presented, and which was broadcast in 2000. Others will have seen her photo-shoot in the celebrity-spotting Hello! magazine, or noted that she was voted Woman of the Year 2000 in the UK Observer.
Greenfield’s willingness to court the press, and considerable success at it, has attracted the label of ‘media luvvie’. But she is well aware of the fraught relationship between science and the media today, and is as prepared to defend the importance of scientific experimentation as she is keen to popularise the knowledge it creates.
How should scientists respond, when the products of experimentation, from stem cell research to GM food, are capable of generating whole weeks’ worth of alarming headlines? With the advice of an impressive range of science journalists and scientists, Greenfield has addressed this question through helping to develop and promote a new code of conduct for the media and scientists, instigated by Dr Peter Marsh and Kate Fox from the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford (1).
‘Guidelines on Science and Health Communication’ makes a number of straightforward but significant points. Essentially, the code argues for the provision of relevant contextual information when reporting science – and health-related stories. News stories should, for example, explain whether results are preliminary or conclusive; consider the significance of the sample size; ask whether there exists evidence of a causal relation, or just a statistical correlation; and look at how conclusions correspond with the findings of previous studies and current scientific opinions on the subject.
For Greenfield, the importance of such a code of conduct is clearly demonstrated by the frenzied media coverage generated by Arpad Pusztai’s pronouncements on ‘poisonous’ GM potatoes in February 1999. His pronouncements were later discredited among scientists, but retained their resonance amongst the public. One of the problems in this instance, says Greenfield, was the media spotlight ‘focusing on one maverick’. Maverick views can be important; but as Greenfield argues, their views need to be backed up by hard evidence and examined in the context of what mainstream scientists are saying.
Greenfield stresses the importance of explaining to the public why peer review – the mechanism by which scientists scrutinise each others’ work – is significant. Pusztai’s data was not peer reviewed, but ‘the general public did not realise why that was important’, says Greenfield. ‘We need a box somewhere explaining it, otherwise the public may think it has something to do with the House of Lords.’
If the importance of peer review is not appreciated, we end up with the confusion generated by Pusztai: where ‘the public thinks, here is someone blowing the whistle and standing up to the establishment, while scientists see it as someone not subjecting their work to scientific rigour’.
What tends to be forgotten is that, when scientists do not subject their work to the scrutiny of their peers, they run the risk of getting something wrong. Even if a scientist believes that their results are so important that they should be announced to the public immediately, as Greenfield counsels, ‘there is the danger of alerting people to something which is not true, which leads to alarm and scare stories, and never knowing what is true’.
Greenfield’s arguments for a code of conduct governing science reporting have provoked criticism from some quarters. In the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) report ‘Who’s Misunderstanding Whom?’, Ian Hargreaves and Galit Ferguson state, in direct response to Greenfield, that ‘there are no obvious grounds for thinking that scientists should be able to expect any greater protection from the media’s inadequacies than any other group’ (2). They go on to argue that the media reflects society’s concerns, and that these are what scientists need to learn to deal with.
What does Greenfield make of this? She is aware of the need for scientists to engage proactively with the media, and takes a very practical view. ‘The media have their own agenda: to sell papers’, she says, and ‘rightly or wrongly, they need answers very quickly’. Greenfield admits that ‘Guidelines on Science and Health Communication’ does not deal with ‘the speed with which scientists need to address issues’, and she is currently working on this. In conjunction with others, Greenfield is hoping to establish a new science media centre, providing a focal point from which scientists can explain the nature of their work, discuss its consequences, and engage in public discussion over the benefits and risks.
Depending on how robustly the scientists involved are prepared to argue their case, this could be a good initiative – though, if successful, it could well project Susan Greenfield beyond Hello! magazine and into the latest eco-news bulletin. How will she cope with the political attacks on science this kind of initiative is likely to provoke? When I asked Greenfield if she thought that science risks coming under increasing political attack, she replied: ‘Politicians’ main point is to stay in power, and science is not an electioneering issue’. ‘So it hasn’t been politicised’.
Is that really the case? It is true that science is not a party political issue. But it has been politicised, in the sense that science is increasingly subject to political, as well as scientific, judgements. Witness the ongoing debates about GM food, global warming and stem cell research, as three examples of issues that have become hot political debates among campaigners and the press, in which politicians from all parties are compelled to intervene. Science is politicised, not because politicians have turned it into an electioneering issue, but because of the broader social and cultural sense of trepidation that surrounds science today.
It is clearly important to explain the significance of concepts like peer review, to enable the public to put scientific research in context. Yet even if this had been achieved when Pusztai announced his incorrect results about ‘poisonous potatoes’ to the world, many were eagerly awaiting the story that GM foods could be dangerous to human health, and the story would still have gained ground. To explain why, we have to look at the more general sense of pessimism and distrust about science and innovation. This is not something that can be reversed through a code of conduct – but it is something with which scientists have to engage.
Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. He is the editor of Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Nature’s Revenge?: Hurricanes, Floods and Climate Change, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) The Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford
(2) ‘Who’s Misunderstanding Whom?’, Ian Hargreaves and Galit Ferguson, ESRC 2000
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