Science in the Media: Helping or Hurting?

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It’s something of a running joke in particular newspapers, that they relish scaremongering about scientific breakthroughs-blowing ideas out of proportion and claiming that nearly everything increases your risk of developing cancer. This, along with a whole host of other miscommunications, means that new discoveries are finding themselves under public scrutiny far more than would have occurred fifteen years ago.

Surely if the general public are taking the initiative to engage themselves in science it can only benefit society as a whole, right? Wrong. Partially, at least. Unfortunately a lot of the concepts and studies which get reported are complex and end up being simplified so more people can understand them.This means that important aspects get ignored or ideas become wildly inaccurate. Possibly the best example comes from the Higgs-Boson, the media’s “God Particle”. The explanation behind this concept, from the very forefront of physics, is far more complicated than the public believe and there is a reason they’re not just letting anyone play with the super collider at CERN.

Another problem with the popularisation of science is that, as a general unit, humans aren’t very good at understanding statistics. It has been proven time and again that the greatest understanding of numbers, as far as the majority are concerned, comes from realism or physical representations of scale. Meaning the percentages and risk values which get reported in newspapers are hard to understand unless people have expertise in the area.

Again, we don’t have to look far to find an example, recently newspapers and news sites have reported that patients in hospital are more likely to die at the weekend than during the week- attempting to make a point about medical understaffing or leaving junior employees in positions beyond their depth. The headlines report a “10 percent spike in deaths” but when you consider that this number is for all patients including the elderly, the terminally ill and emergencies. When you remember that this is 10 percent of seven to eight percent of hospital patients, you begin to realise that this is maybe not the disaster it seems, and that we should probably have a little more faith in junior doctors- if they’re going to be tomorrow’s doctors they need to start somewhere.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with the public taking an interest in the findings of recent studies, I think it shows that there are a great deal of good intentions in the general public. We would certainly be in a worse position if new information was reserved solely for those in the scientific community.

The important fact to remember is that the results which make it into the media have been chosen specifically for their shock effect – and so should always be taken with a pinch of salt. As a general populous, we should always try to consider that as much as our lives are influenced by science we, too, have a great influence on science and the research that goes on within it. And with great power, comes great responsibility…

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