Ian Hargreaves: Why scientists must learn to love the media

Taken from a lecture by the professor of journalism at the University of Cardiff, given at Green College, Oxford

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Scientists are struggling with life in media space, complaining that they are often misunderstood or ignored. But the organisation or profession which is not media- capable will not prosper, unless it derives its legitimacy from a narrow base immune from public opinion.

Today, more public-policy outcomes are determined in the media than in parliaments. When scientists complain about the modern media, they are mostly complaining about the inescapable condition of life in a media-ocracy.

Scientists must put behind them the idea that their communication problems are best addressed by more science education, however valuable such learning may be in its own right.

A research project at Cardiff University has mapped the relationship between public opinion, public knowledge and media coverage of three scientific issues over the past year. One finding is that those with a science education are not much more likely than anyone else to answer correctly questions about topical science issues, like global warming and biotechnology.

This research also finds that people suffer confusion about scientific points because they connect issues by general theme, rather than through an understanding of the science involved. One example: many people think nuclear power causes global warming.

To build knowledge and to inform attitudes needs persistent, well-organised and well-funded communications effort. Good media research can help identify where the effort is needed and what works.

What scientists can't do is to suppress minority or even erroneous ideas, however tempting. Today's always-on media may be alarmingly error-prone, as last year's controversy surrounding the MMR [measles/mumps/rubella] vaccine demonstrated, but to this, only one solution exists.

Disgruntled scientists should recall John Stuart Mill's argument for free scientific inquiry and free expression. Too many scientists, lost in media-space, overlook the connection.

Mill said: "The peculiar evil of silencing an expression of opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

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