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Margaret McCartney: Who gains from the media’s misrepresentation of science?

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 25 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i355

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Demystifying Science

In her contribution to January’s BMJ, Dr. McCartney diagnoses severe problems with the way in which we assume that science and knowledge travels in the world. Dr. McCartney worries that the wrong claims end up in newspapers and that ending up in newspapers has itself become a goal and evaluation criterion. [1] A worry we probably all share. I argue, however, that the fact that odd claims end up in the press and that universities and funders started counting press appearances, both flow from a mistaken understanding of science. More radically, perhaps, it flows from a myth of science. That myth is that (1) science produces truth and that (2) these truths require linea recta dissemination into society to sort their beneficial effects there. The myth is modernity.

The knowledge made in laboratories does not equal an unmovable truth. It is fallible, temporary, provisional, limited, vested with interests and experimental conditions impose limits to external validity. Science is a human endeavour and suffers from the same flaws as any other cultural activity. It is neither pure, nor perfect, despite naïve views of science as objective, neutral and in constant pursuit of an infallible truth. That myth of science is comfortable to scientists, because it offers privacy. It means that the process of science is not an interesting object for scrutiny, only its products are. It keeps public critique out of the lab and focussed on the output.

That output requires translation. Without translation it is inaccessible, unreadable and unintelligible to all but its authors and their peers. As a result, pure dissemination does not exist. Knowledge claims cannot be taken from a laboratory of scientific publication and placed into society, without the proper translation, they are impotent. In that act of translation, knowledge claims become different – less valuable to laboratory conditions, more valuable to the streets of London. Without the move, from lab to London, and without the change of audience, from scientists to the laity, all potential for public credibility of scientists claims would be absent. And, in the words of the historian of science, Steven Shapin, “Scientists without credibility are culturally impotent, and science without credibility is a meaningless enterprise”. [2]

There is a reason that scientists and universities like press coverage. Yes, it is about vanity, public relations, and money. It is also about the realisation that knowledge does not travel all by itself, the realisation that relevance is made, not discovered and the realisation that knowledge claims are not evident because of the truth they contain, but rather that they need help to travel and acquire credibility. Dr. McCartney applauds Anne Szarewski for not pursuing this path. This is laudable only, however, if we accept the aforementioned myth of science. We have, however, never been that modern. [3]

The acceptance that knowledge making and knowledge translation is work, demystifies it. It is also uncomfortable for knowledge makers and knowledge translators. It is uncomfortable for knowledge makers because it means that the lab cannot remain private because the way in which knowledge is made, matters. It is uncomfortable to knowledge translators, because they cannot hide behind the truth of a knowledge claim – they are part of the process that generates credibility for the claim. They have to take responsibility for their own translation.

When performed sloppily, both knowledge making and knowledge translation can cause harm. To find out whether or not it is of outstanding quality, or less so, the laboratory doors will forever have to be unlocked and newspapers and university press offices cannot hide behind the truth, because it is ‘rarely pure, and never simple’. [4] Public ignorance of scientific work is no less risky than public idealisations of that work.

[1] McCarthy, Margaret. 2016. Who gains from the media’s misrepresentation of science. BMJ, 352, i355
[2] Shapin, Steven. 2008. The scientist in 2008. Seed Magazine, 19, 58-62
[3] Latour, Bruno. 1993. We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.
[4] Shapin, Steven. 1992. Why the public ought to understand science-in-the-making. Public Understanding of Science, 1(1), 27- 30

Competing interests: No competing interests

16 February 2016
Bart Penders
Assistant Professor
Maastricht University
PO Box 616