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Sci/Med Writers: Are We Part Of The Problem?

Are we inadvertently muddling the public's understanding of research?

Research is an incremental process, and there are precious few “Eureka!” moments when an idea springs forth fully formed, unfettered by qualifiers and questions that muddy the waters. As a result, those of us who write about science and medicine often take pains to ensure that we do not overstate research results. We use our own qualifiers when describing new findings, and try to educate our readers without overhyping the most recent study. But a new study finds that research-oriented news stories – particularly articles about cancer – are actually contributing to public uncertainty about the state of the science.

People with questions about cancer (often cancer patients and their families) seek information online – that’s certainly understandable. But researchers from NC State and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that most of the news articles online incorporate “uncertain terms” that can leave people even more confused about such critical issues as prevention, detection, treatment and mortality.

This study raises a significant question for science writers, myself included. If our goal is to inform and educate our readers, the last thing we want to do is add to their confusion about scientific and medical issues. So, what can we do to present new research findings – including their limitations – without increasing public uncertainty? (And yes, I know that there are instances where the questions posed by new discoveries are more interesting than the discoveries themselves.)

I don’t have any answers, but look forward to hearing from you.

Note: Here’s a great piece by Steve Silberman on the importance, and joy, of writing about science.