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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.

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  1. @Mike – you’re right, we do link to a write-up done by the university about the paper. But only because the paper itself isn’t available online yet. Once it is, we’ll be linking to that!

  2. Great discussion. To add a slightly different dimension, there’s an interesting piece in last month’s Atlantic titled “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science” ( that examines the role of a Greek doctor who has spent his career challenging bad science in medical journals. More food for thought for folks who try to communicate medical and scientific findings.

  3. One thing that came up during the NASW event over the last few days and which we also had in a paper we did in NatureBiotech (Science communication reconsidered ) was that simply putting the facts out there is not enough.
    As a result many readers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to sorting through the information.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the full paper because another question that comes to mind is what qualifies as an online story or article. To many online users clicking around while checking e-mails and having coffee at the same time, the link you posted might initially look like a story and in a browser tab does appear as NCSU News::
    In fact it is just a media release and I can bet it will get automatically re-posted on aggregators (include our own site) and appear even more like a ‘story’ with no added context or explanation. This happens all the time and again, leaves the average reader hanging a bit.

    Coming out of the Science Writers event I just posted an entry called Science in the Nightwatch ( ) where I suggest that part of the solution is to go where the readers are and engage them there. There are a host of dynamite science writers out there that the average person is simply never going to see because those aren’t the internet ‘circles’ they travel in.
    Research is daunting for the reader and if you’re in the science communication game we have to appreciate that and enter into their world and explain ourselves or our science in that forum.

  4. Thanks for your feedback. Hopefully more people will weigh in as well. Jamie, I think you’re certainly on to something, in regard to illuminating the scientific process and the limitations of a dataset. Depending on the outlet, however, there can be significant constraints on length (e.g., TV coverage of research news). Any ideas on how to balance describing new findings; placing them in context; providing an overview of the process; and sustaining a narrative — particularly within a (very) finite word count? I’m curious as to how other people tackle this problem.

  5. The recent controversy over triceratops and going back to the Pluto controversy would lead a non-scientist to question the certainty of science. Of course, this is true for the daily bombardment of novel drug/nutrition discoveries, as well.
    I think the methods of presenting the findings is as important as describing the discovery itself.
    In my opinion, teaching the scientific process to the public is possibly more important than communicating the science.
    Science writers should emphasize that each new discovery is only a certain as the data that supports it and there’s always the possibility that contradictions will be identified. Also, by citing research that supports a given discovery one can build a case for the legitimacy of the new results.
    The real answer is to be truthful and transparent about the research.

  6. I recorded a piece recently for the Strange Quarks podcast on this subject.

    The transcript can be found here:

    Who is responsible for responsible science journalism? An itchy case study.#

    Although the research was not a subject as serious as cancer, (eczema) it is relevant to a large proportion of the population and it gave very dubious advice against standard medical practice.

    No-one in the chain of “researcher – principal scientist – University Press Office – Journal Press Office – Main stream media ” came out looking good.