19 February 2013 | EN | ES
How scientific knowledge is presented in public debate, by scientists or journalists, has a big influence on its impact, says David Dickson.
One lesson I have learned during my career as a science writer is that, if you want to influence a reader’s attitude towards a topic, the most effective way can often be through a balanced and well-researched news story rather than a tub-thumping opinion article.
The reason is straightforward. A reader will approach an opinion article with their guard raised, on the lookout for points on which they may already disagree with the author.
In contrast, they are likely to be more responsive to a balanced news item, feeling free to assess the evidence presented to them — even if this leads towards the same conclusions that the journalist has already drawn, but not expressed explicitly.
In communicating information about science, the way it is presented — or ‘framed’ — is often as important as the information itself.
I was reminded of this at a symposium in the United Kingdom earlier this month (6–7 February) on the global politics of science advice, organised by the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex. 
One widely discussed issue at the meeting was how scientists frequently frame their advice to policymakers by presenting it as a consensus within the scientific community, for example on the processes responsible for global warming.
As several participants pointed out, exaggerating the certainty of scientific conclusions can undermine the importance attached to legitimate uncertainties.
Several other examples of inappropriate framing were raised.
Suman Sahai, from the Gene Campaign in India, argued that presenting the need to increase food production as a problem that could largely be solved by the efforts and insights of those who do ‘hard’ science, such as biology and biochemistry, excluded the potential contributions of social scientists, or others lacking a scientific background but with relevant knowledge and expertise.
Brian Wynne, a professor of science studies from the UK’s University of Lancaster, spoke of how government scientists had paid insufficient attention to the practical knowledge of farmers about the feeding habits of sheep in assessing the potential dangers of fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the 1980s.
“There was not a direct framework for comparing and evaluating different types of expertise,” said Wynne. “The scientists were not dealing with the same questions as the farmers.”
The media’s role
The Sussex meeting was also reminded that the way the media frames scientific information frequently influences how policy debates take place, by determining how both the public and policymakers see information.
On the positive side, a journalist’s enthusiasm for a new scientific discovery can be infectious. Reports of a major breakthrough in, for example, malaria treatment, can bring it to the attention of policymakers and encourage them to incorporate it into medical programmes.
But there can be negative aspects, particularly when a science story is framed inappropriately to meet the traditional values of the newsroom.
Journalists can overstate the significance of a scientific result in their eagerness to emphasise a story’s novelty or potential impact. For example, they might repeat a publicist’s claim of a “breakthrough” without checking whether other researchers agree with this assessment.
News stories can also exaggerate the significance of a lack of agreement.
Disagreement among experts is of legitimate public interest, and airing contrasting views is a way of ensuring that stories are balanced. But providing dissenters with what is often called “the oxygen of publicity” can seriously backfire, as former South African president Thabo Mbeki found when he encouraged stories in his country’s media publicising the views of dissident scientists that HIV did not cause AIDS.
The moral is that both scientists and science journalists should be aware of the importance of the way in which science is communicated.
Scientists seeking to raise awareness of the social significance of their findings need to learn how to frame their results effectively when communicating them to policymakers and the public. This can mean eschewing the authoritarian voice in which scientific conclusions are often uttered in favour of a greater willingness to accept uncertainty and the potential validity of alternative points of view.
Science journalists must ensure that the way we write about science accurately reflects not only the content but also the significance of what we are reporting. One way of doing this is by asking how an advance can have a practical benefit or how it relates to other research in the field.
We also have a responsibility to expose science-related stories that have been inappropriately framed, for example by scientists inflating the significance of their findings.
Incorrect or misleading framing, whether deliberate or otherwise, eventually builds a distrust of science that can only degrade public discussion of key science-related topics, from climate change to novel medicines.
Handled in a responsible manner, the way that scientific information is framed, by scientists and journalists alike, can significantly enhance its social impact.
David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net 2001–2011.
 Credibility across cultures — STEPS annual symposium 2013 (STEPS Centre, 2013)
All SciDev.Net material is free to reproduce providing that the source and author are appropriately credited. For further details see Creative Commons.