Scientists to Journalists: Don't Use the 'B' Word

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, November 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Scientists to Journalists: Don't Use the 'B' Word


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


Despite the growing importance of science in modern life, reporters just don't get it, say researchers. As a result, the public remains confused about the complexities surrounding the scientific process.

Scientists and journalists continue to exist in disparate worlds -- with federally funded researchers spending decades on a single problem, while free-market reporters search for science headlines every day -- according to the findings of a meeting of scientists and science reporters convened by the Freedom Forum, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Sometimes these worlds collide. John Gibbons, science adviser to President Clinton cited one news report on the Mir space-station mishap that had the craft "spinning wildly out of control." In truth, it turned once every six minutes after being hit by debris. "It's this kind of sensationalism that is counterproductive in getting information across."

Scientists find science coverage poor and thin, although free from bias, according to a recent survey conducted by the Freedom Forum. "Only 2 percent of scientists expressed a great deal of confidence in television, the news medium from which most of the American people get information," noted the report.

Scientists often avoid reporters for fear that they won't "get it right," said NASA scientist Rick Chappell, coauthor of the report on the survey data. In their rush for immediacy, they use the word "breakthrough" to portray scientific discoveries made in baby steps over years. Samuel Hellman, a leader in cancer research, proposed a ban on the word. "Please avoid the `B' word," he said. "There are no breakthroughs."

The survey, based on responses by 670 scientists and 762 journalists, also found that:

* Nine in 10 scientists think the popular press does not understand "the tentativeness of most scientific discovery and the complexities of results."

* More than 60 percent of scientists say news reports about the risks of eating or making contact with many substances are exaggerated, "unduly alarming the public."

* Eighty percent of scientists and reporters agree that the contradictory findings typical of science confuse citizens.

* Eight in 10 scientists think the public is gullible about miracle cures or solutions.

Hellman noted that many important developments in science are unglamorous, while a minor finding can evoke great excitement in the public. "You have to not sensationalize the nonsensational," he said. …

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