Sound Science or Sound Bite?

Michael Bugeja explores the conflict between journalism and science.

October 10, 2006

I direct a journalism program at a science-oriented university where my colleagues are modern-day alchemists, turning corn into fuel, conjuring twisters in wind tunnels, or morphing visitors at our virtual reality lab into plant cells during photosynthesis.

These professors rank among the most ingenious, passionate people I have ever met.

Put some of them in front of a reporter, however, and all bets are off.

Being misquoted in the media is commonplace, especially when the topic concerns science. Depending on the error, a quotation out of context can catapult a scientist into the national spotlight where the person gets to clarify the remarks and do it again, only this time for a mass audience.

Analyzing cases of foot-in-mouth disease (not Aphtae epizooticae), I came to this conclusion: When researchers simplify science, they often end up providing sound bites that overstate findings.

Sound bites bite back. As early as 1993 Dorothy Nelkin, author of Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (W.H. Freeman), warned that scientists tend to oversell research when explaining it to reporters. Back then, media consisted mostly of newspapers, television and radio. Now we Google the news with nauseatingly repetitious reports inundating the blogo- and iPodispheres.

In this milieu, a scientist’s fate is not in the genes but in his or her vocabulary.

Language is symbolic, and therefore imprecise. Words that travel also arrive with luggage.  The title of this essay, “Sound Science or Sound Bite,” alludes rhetorically to tobacco lobbyists in 1992 who argued that “sound science” had failed to document that second-hand smoke was a health risk. Also, the term “sound science” may have political overtones. When the government approves of a project, the science is sound; when research runs counter to policy, the science isn’t.

Used here, “sound science” means findings that scientists can replicate in the laboratory. “Sound bite” means something pithy said in the media.

Journalists, of course, are partly to blame for overselling science. True, big national newspapers and broadcast outlets have seasoned correspondents. Science happens everywhere, including college towns like mine, Ames, Iowa, where agricultural biotechnology is on display in fields and on shelves of supermarkets. Many reporters who cover science do not fully grasp it, interviewing sources with polar viewpoints on genetically modified products or exotic animal diseases.

My colleagues diagnose mad cows. Reporters love mad cows because the beasts in question have or do not have the disease. Better yet, we eat on average 67 pounds of beef annually per person, ensuring the story will be read. But the science of immunohistochemistry to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory is, on occasion, an arcane topic for the reporter who also does restaurant reviews.

Unintelligible Design

The language of science has many dialects. Much is lost in translation. Once I collaborated with a microbiologist who kept referring to “p53” while I frantically paged through a medical report that had 45 pages, only to realize that he was speaking about a tumor suppression gene that encodes a protein with an atomic mass of 53 kilodaltons.

As everyone knows, a kilodalton is 1000 times 1/12 of the mass of one atom of Carbon-12.

I also collaborate with scientists across disciplines, helping them communicate with the public. When their research involves animals, presentations can be dicey, especially when activists are present. Years ago at a public seminar, I witnessed a brilliant, humane geneticist being challenged by an activist about the destruction of natural habitat for use as pasture for livestock. Beef was on the table again, figuratively, with reporters in the room. Nevertheless, in this charged environment, this scientist launched into a lecture on evolution in which he theorized that humans might have been chosen by nature to dominate the planet and, if so, had a right to use the land for their primary food source, cows, as this was an outcome of selection.

At that moment, I became interested in what scientists say to the media and why they say it. What prompted this researcher to meld two hot-button topics -- animal rights and natural selection -- into such a speculative argument?

Perhaps you have followed the debate at Iowa State University about intelligent design. If not, just google “intelligent design” and “Iowa State University” -- with quotations around those phrases -- and you will access almost 18,000 entries. Inside Higher Ed reported the conclusion of that debate last year when 120 of my colleagues signed a statement urging the rejection of intelligent design as science. My intention in referencing the debate is not to rekindle it but to call to your attention a citation in the Ames (Iowa) Tribune made by a famous scientist who delivered a speech here, titled, “Why intelligent design is not science.” He reportedly told the audience that “the origin of life could have come from a sequence of emergent chemical events, each one more complex than the last.”

Upon reading that statement, I sent an e-mail to a few scientists on campus who believe that intelligent design is philosophy rather than science. (So do I, by the way.)  I didn’t attend the speech, but I did have an opinion about the statement as reported, because it seemed to use the same type of overreaching argument often associated with creation science. On reading that someone had identified a sequence of chemical events accounting for the origins of life, my immediate reaction was jealousy. Apparently, the scientist had spoken to God, and I wanted an interview, too.

“This is why the public and media put a stop to all manner of scientific projects,” I messaged my colleagues. “Cloning research is a case in point. People believe that geneticists are engineering life -- a hyperbole, at best; the cell is engineering life. To state otherwise is to believe that the U.S. Corps of Engineers created water, not the dam.”

My colleagues generally agreed.

Based on the statement at the Iowa State speech, which came off as sound bite (or “pull quote,” in newspaper lingo) rather than as sound science, the speaker subsequently was taken to task in letters. One noted that his view was “conjectural and unsubstantiated” because no scientist “has been able to synthesize a single nucleotide from a prebiotic environment. Amino acids yes, but nucleotide, no.”

In a word, that speaker’s one sentence about evolutionary theory sparked another round of debate about intelligent design. Weeks passed. Folks called each other names in letters to editors. Finally, the furor died down.

I had forgotten about all this. Then I received a journal in the mail called In Character funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. One article in this edition stood out as exemplary: “Creation Myths: What scientists don’t -- and can’t -- know about the world.”

It carried this subtitle:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “scientist”? Chances are it isn’t “modesty or humility.” A simple experiment underscores this conclusion. Type “modest scientist” or “humble scientist” into the Internet search engine Google and you’ll be lucky if you get more than a couple of hits. Then do the same thing with “arrogant scientist” and the number of hits increases by an order of magnitude.
Arrogance is something both journalist and scientist seem to have in common because they also share another trait, a passion for truth. Journalistic objectivity is partly based on scientific fact-finding. The great 19th century British essayist Matthew Arnold wrote about “genuine scientific passion” in the 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy.” In it, he used the phrase -- “to see things as they are,” not as we wish they were. This, he wrote, was a “social idea” that made such persons, scientists especially, “the true apostles of equality” who “have a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time.”

This also was the intent in the Ames lecture, “Why intelligent design is not science.” However, the passion for truth, condensed into a pull quote in the newspaper, often is mistaken for arrogance, especially when we attach pop cultural notions to topics as controversial as evolutionary theory being able to substantiate the complex chemical sequences responsible for the origins of life.

To put this into perspective, consider this: The scientist who visited my university and who reportedly made that comment happens to be the same person who wrote the essay, titled, “Creation Myths: What scientists don’t -- and can’t -- know about the world” in the journal In Character. His name is Robert Hazen, author of the extraordinary book, Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins, and a professor of earth science at George Mason University.

Read Hazen’s book, if you haven’t already. When you do, you realize that his comment as reported in the Ames Tribune actually is based on the molecular fossil record. Most reviews of his work note how fair and balanced his theories actually are.

You can’t deduce that, however, by reading the 387 words in the story about his talk at Iowa State University on February 3, 2006. You need to glean the 339 pages in Hazen’s hard cover book.

And in this numerical comparison is also the problem at hand.

Bites from Books

Below are some of the most influential books that helped shape a century of science, according to The American Scientist, the magazine of the Scientific Research Society. To illustrate my point, I have reduced each work’s premise or conclusion into a sound bite -- an excerpt taken out of context -- the way many reporters do speeches by scientists. Sometimes those reporters jot down the premise and leave before the conclusion, to make deadline, especially if the speech is scheduled between 7-8 p.m., allowing little time to write and file the report. Sometimes reporters working on multiple stories show up for the conclusion and miss the premise, asking a few quick questions afterward and then scooting.

What would be the outcome, I wondered, if reporters attended lectures by authors of these great books, quoting them out of context in the year of publication, given the social mores of those times?

  • 1. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (1954): “Although obviously superior to cocaine, opium, alcohol and tobacco, mescaline is not yet the ideal drug. Along with the happily transfigured majority of mescaline takers there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory” (p. 66).
  • 2. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (1959): “[M]an is seen not as a static centre of the world—as he for long believed himself to be -- but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer” (p. 36).
  • 3. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962): “Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (p. 8.)
  • 4. Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Fractals (1977): “Why is geometry often described as ‘cold’ and ‘dry’? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain a coastline, or a tree.… Mathematicians have disdained this challenge, however, and have increasingly chosen to flee from nature by devising theories unrelated to anything we can see or feel” (p. 2).
  • 5. Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (1988): “Who knows what the chimpanzee will be like forty million years hence? It should be of concern to us all that we permit him to live, that we at least give him the chance to evolve” (p. 252).
  • 6. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992): “If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers” (p. 251).
  • 7. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, How Writing Came About (1996): “[W]riting emerged from a counting device.… Each change of reckoning device -- tallies, plain tokens, complex tokens -- corresponded to a new form of economy: hunting and gathering, agriculture, industry” (p. 122).

If you have read these books, you would realize that the above citations require substantiation. Those excerpts make great pull quotes in print or sound bites on air. However, taken out of context, they also provoke as much as inform. That is why I caution scientists to at least qualify similar remarks with humbler disclaimers, especially if they believe passionately in their assertions.

Straight to the Source

How, indeed, do scientists successfully condense the data of their passionate truths and convey them dispassionately to non-scientist reporters on a topic that is sure to spark controversy and debate?

I put that question to Robert Hazen, who responded at length in this e-mail:

“[S]cientists must be ever so careful when talking to reporters, especially those not trained in science or who are working on a tight deadline. Scientific progress can be halting, technically dense, often incomplete and filled with caveats. The scientific story is often messy, with lingering doubts, rival hypotheses, and always lots more work to be done (because the more we learn, the more we realize we have yet to learn).

“Reporters, on the other hand, want a neat story, simply told and unambiguous in its meaning. Reporters also love a controversy, and (in the interests of ‘fair and balanced’ reporting) will often present two opposing viewpoints with equal weight, even when the scientific community overwhelmingly endorses just one conclusion.

“So what's a scientist to do? My approach is to explain three things:

  • “First, describe what we think we know about the topic (and, if possible, provide a little background about the measurements and theory that support that knowledge). How do we arrive at our conclusions?
  • “Second, explain what we DON'T know about the topic, including the uncertainties, the controversies, and a sense of how much weight to place on different ideas. It's always best to be honest about our imperfect state of understanding.
  • “Third, and equally important, explain what we're doing to find out more.”

According to Dr. Hazen, science is a never-ending adventure.

I feel the same way about journalism.

It is the task of journalist and scientist to communicate that sense of adventure to the public without misquotation or overstatement. After all, in both our disciplines, the facts should speak for themselves.



Michael Bugeja, who directs the journalism school at Iowa State University, is author of  Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).


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