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  • Explaining controversial issues to the media and the public


Science is often controversial. Bob Ward explains how scientists can communicate results without creating undue controversy.


Scientists often have to explain issues that are controversial, usually because of disagreement over the methods, results or implications of research. Controversy can often arise when there are implications for human health or the environment, and the consequences can be significant if they change people's behaviour suddenly, for example in response to a new risk.


The pitfalls of controversy


Several pitfalls can prevent the public or journalists from gaining a clear understanding of a controversial issue. They may receive conflicting accounts of the interpretation or significance of research findings, and find it difficult to weigh up the evidence. Or they may find that a scholarly disagreement has become a polarised debate, preventing them from assessing what is controversial.


In many cases, scientists can make it more difficult for the public or journalists to understand an issue clearly. They may speculate casually about the implications of preliminary findings that have not been fully examined. They may use jargon that proves impenetrable to the layperson. Or they may convey information about risks and safety in a way that is open to misunderstanding.


But with proper preparation and practice, scientists can avoid the pitfalls and help the public and media to properly understand controversial issues.


Being prepared


The first and most important step is to recognise in advance what will interest the public or journalists. This can be done best by placing yourself in their shoes and considering what questions they may have.


For instance, if the research involves animal or human subjects, will they ask about the methods used? If so, can you explain in layman's terms why such methods were necessary? Will they ask about previous work that came up with different findings? Can you explain why the results are different?


Very often your audience will be more interested in the implications. As these may not always be obvious, you can seek advice from other specialists, such as regulators, who have experience in considering the significance of the work.


Although the implications may not be purely scientific, it is better to show an awareness of them rather than to plead ignorance, even if you do not feel qualified to offer a definitive view. Few people are reassured by scientists who do not seem to appreciate the wider significance of their work, particularly if ethics are involved. If you have not previously thought about the implications, it is better to admit it than to speculate on the spot.


A clear understanding


Once you have recognised that an issue may be controversial, you need to practice how to talk about it to journalists and the public. This means describing the issue in clear, non-technical language. Never overestimate journalists' knowledge, but be careful not to underestimate their intelligence. Do not patronise them.


Ultimately, you are seeking to leave your audience with a clear understanding, neither exaggerating nor underplaying the controversy that surrounds the issue. You should be willing to acknowledge conflicts and to explain clearly why they exist, even if your own views put you firmly on one side of an argument. A journalist who senses that a scientist is not being completely honest about a controversy will usually be encouraged to dig further, and may go to others who might have vested interests in provoking a dispute.


Scientists can sometimes be caught out by potential conflicts of interest, which cause additional controversy if they are not openly declared. Think about whether the source of research funding may imply a competing interest, for instance if there is sponsorship by a company that manufactures the compound whose safety is the subject of the research. If so, it is better to be upfront and acknowledge its existence and explain whether it is likely to have had an influence on the outcome of the work.


You may also be asked to comment on the motivations of individuals who are involved in a controversial issue, because these can add 'colour' to a story. Be careful not to cause offence, and do not speculate.


In many cases, opposing views in a controversy are honestly held, and the protagonists and their supporters will hardly welcome comments that cast doubt on their integrity, for instance by suggesting they have an ulterior motive for their views.


Dealing with risk and uncertainty


Sometimes scientists unwilling to commit themselves on questions about safety and risk, unintentionally generate a controversy. If you are asked whether something is safe, and you are in a position to assess the risks, you could try and quantify it rather than give a straight yes or no. You could also say that you are not in a position to assess risks, but you should then suggest somebody else who might be able to offer guidance.


Controversy can also arise if a scientist's work shows that the risks have changed. Be careful to distinguish between a relative change in risk and absolute risks. For instance, if you have found that a disease's risk has increased from one in ten million to one in five million, you could say it has doubled, which might catch the attention of the media and the public. But you could provoke undue concern if you do not also give the absolute risk. Try to anticipate how a layperson might react to how the risk is expressed.


Risks and other findings can be even more challenging to explain if they are uncertain. It helps to distinguish between uncertainty that is inherent, for instance because it involves a forecast about a complicated phenomenon such as the weather, and that which may be temporary, for instance because current knowledge is incomplete.


Remember that some degree of uncertainty exists in almost every area of science. Be prepared to explain how significant the evidence is and make sure you recognise when other scientists might credibly offer different interpretations of it.


Make a clear distinction between evidence and the conclusions drawn from it. Even when the evidence is inconclusive, you should indicate where the weight of evidence and opinion lies, although there is a chance that a minority view may ultimately be proved correct.


Practice makes perfect


Above all, be open and honest about controversial issues. It is important to recognise your audience's interests and motivations, and why they may be drawn to a particular controversy. But remember also that journalists aim not just to inform and educate, but also to entertain their readers.


The task of communicating with the public and journalists can be made easier through practice and training. You can seek the advice of a press officer or other communications professional. But if you rely on them to explain an issue on your behalf, perhaps in a press release, check they are expressing it in a way that is not inaccurate or misleading.


Most universities and funding bodies also offer courses on how to speak to journalists and the public. As with any other skill, your success will increase the more you do it, particularly if you seek constructive criticism from others about your style and approach.


Bob Ward is the director of Global Science Networks


This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this practical guide.

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