How Can You Make Science News Better? Ask a Historian or Sociologist of Science.

Photo by Rachid H, used under Creative Commons license
Photo by Rachid H, used under Creative Commons license

Red wine is bad for you again. Pesticides are killing the bees. Wait a few days, and the bees are doing better than we thought.

If you weren’t paying attention to the news a few weeks back, you might have missed all that. If you were paying attention, you’re probably confused.

The nuanced reality of scientific and medical research is almost always a little more complicated than the attention-grabbing headlines claim. Even experienced health and science journalists struggle with how to balance reporting the news of the day with the broader context of what scientists really know so far.

Journalists are working in the public interest, but health stories conveying messages that cause confusion and unjustified fears aren’t doing anyone much good. Nor is the overall impression left by the ebb and flow of conflicting reports – that science is capricious, changing seemingly at random as different ideas come into favor from week to week.

As evidenced by the discussion ensuing from science writer Virginia Hughes bringing up exactly these issues following the aforementioned red wine study, a lot of journalists are troubled by these tendencies in their field and are seeking ways to do better – by making smarter choices about which studies to cover, asking better questions about context, and refuting shoddier reporting, among the proposed solutions.

Others propose ignoring any individual studies for which the opposite finding would not have been reported. That should cut down on the most egregious “cats cause cancer” headlines, but may do little to slow the see-saw of studies that seem to report opposite, news-ready results from week to week.

One solution for reporters that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet, but should, is the value of talking to social scientists — historians of science and medicine, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists of science– in the process of reporting about research. Experts in these disciplines who examine the practice of scientific and medical research from outside of it are in a great position to give reporters, and by extension their readers, insight into where new scientific knowledge came from, what sort of agenda might be motivating the people involved, the cultural meanings attached to particular scientific findings, what questions were being asked—and what questions weren’t asked, but should have been.

To see how, take a look at a story from earlier this week that nicely illustrates the value a social scientist can bring to how a science story is reported: Did you hear that hurricanes with feminine names are deadlier than ones with male names because people’s sexist bias causes them not to take female storms as seriously? As Ed Yong reported in National Geographic’s “Phenomena”, it’s probably not true. Yong talked to a social scientist who helped break down the reasons why – from weaknesses of the methods to the context of other factors already known to affect the deadliness of storms. Check out the reporting and ensuing discussion here.

The bees provide another excellent example – and they can illustrate exactly how social scientists can weigh in to help reporters get the story right. Let’s take a closer look.

Did Context-Free Reporting Cause Colony Collapse Disorder?

Chloe Silverman, PhD

“Almost every time one of these studies comes out, it’s promoted as evidence that ‘X single factor’ is a decisive culprit,” said Chloe Silverman, PhD, a sociologist and historian of science in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology & Society, whose current project is focused on people’s approaches to understanding pollinator health. “But there’s plenty of evidence that a combination of factors contribute to honey bee health problems.”

In her current NSF-funded research, Silverman looks at how scientists and beekeepers handle complex, multifactorial disease issues in bees – including unexplained colony losses during the overwintering period and Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome first identified in 2006 – to gain insight into the social complexities of our approaches to human diseases and disabilities. Her methods include participant observation and open-ended interviews. Unlike a journalist’s typical source for a bee story, Silverman isn’t directly investigating what causes colony losses. Instead, she focuses on how people working with bees come to understand those losses – because how we talk about bees’ health is a fertile ground for understanding how we talk about humans’ health.

Whether in bees or in humans, there is a tendency to simplify that is deeply rooted within the culture of science, even before a story gets to a reporter and the public.

“This is partly because reducing a problem to simple component factors helps scientists develop experimentally testable hypotheses,” Silverman said. “However, the instrumental nature of this kind of simplification can get lost in translation, leaving reporters with the impression that a single set of experimental results is meant to solve a complex problem.”

Adding back complexity to simplified science is just one way that sociologists and historians of science can help add necessary context to science reporting.

A sociologist can tell you it starts with what questions the scientists are asking and how they try to answer them.

Photo by John Baker, used with Creative Commons license
Photo by John Baker, used with Creative Commons license

“Different kinds of study designs cause different kinds of things to emerge as central causes of complex conditions,” Silverman noted. In the Harvard study that made headlines last month, researchers treated experimental bee colonies with low doses of two insecticides, in the class called neonicotinoids. They found that most of the experimental colonies ultimately collapsed over the winter, and most of the control colonies survived. If you only look at that simple summary of the experiment and its results, it’s easy to conclude that the neonicotinoids caused the collapse.

But Silverman pointed out that there are other valid questions to ask about whether chronic, low-level neonicotinoid exposure in bee colonies is causing colony loss. For a start: Are low levels of the chemicals present in many colonies that have died off? Other researchers have tested background pesticide levels in wax and pollen and found that the rates of other pesticides, including miticides introduced by the beekeepers themselves, are often higher than neonicotinoids – even in colonies that went on to experience similar patterns of overwintering loss.

It’s often convenient for scientists to describe their results in simple terms, too – and sociologists of science are attuned to that dynamic.

Social scientists are trained to be attentive to the different stakeholder dynamics that can affect research. They can use that knowledge to guide reporters toward a balanced approach. Silverman said that without knowledge of these undercurrents, reporters may inadvertently or uncritically reproduce claims that are as much political as they are scientific. “For example, there can be strong incentives from the perspective of funding, longstanding commitments to research programs, and even a desire to do effective public outreach, for scientists to represent their findings related to disease processes as successes in locating a single cause for a disorder, rather than partial explanations for complex conditions.”

Social scientists are attuned to style conventions in reporting news that tend to give stories a particular shape.

Another link in the chain of oversimplification is that press officers (like me) are sometimes under pressure to come up with a simple headline that will get news coverage for their institution’s research. (For my own part, I try to report responsibly as my friend Matt Shipman recommends, but not all press release writers are so careful.)

And journalists tend to follow particular narrative conventions, such as “the discovery just around the corner” or “the intractable mystery,” Silverman noted. “But social scientists who study science are in a better position than most to both identify those tendencies and offer more realistic descriptions of the pace and progress of scientific research.”

Photo by Max Westby, used under Creative Commons license
Photo by Max Westby, used under Creative Commons license

For example, Silverman pointed out a New York Times story from last month that reported the scope of research on colony loss over multiple years, the political forces shaping research on insecticides, mites, parasites and other suspected contributing causes. Near the end, a quote from a government bee research specialist is telling: ““Nobody likes that kind of complicated story, but year to year, all those factors could play into colony health.”

“This report does a particularly good job,” Silverman said. “But you can see how it’s possibly a less dynamic story than, say, this one” – an older New York Times story that posited a metaphorical murder mystery, a major breakthrough on a new suspect, and an unlikely buddy drama between entomologists and the military. It ends with an obligatory “more research is needed” but readers may come away satisfied that the solution to the bee murder mystery is right around the corner.

That story ran in 2010. The solution was not right around the corner.

Sociologists and historians of science are well informed about the context of a scientific field.

“People with knowledge of the history of science and medicine (and this includes many sociologists of science, even those working on contemporary issues) can situate new developments in the context of a particular field’s history,” Silverman said.

It’s a principle that doesn’t just apply to bees. “If someone asked me to comment on (hypothetical) new research on parenting styles and autism symptoms, I’d be careful to couch my comments in a discussion of the often negative representation of parents, mothers in particular, in the history of autism research and treatment,” she said. Prior to researching pollinator health, Silverman studied the history of autism spectrum disorders and the role of parental knowledge and love in shaping scientific research. “I’d also discuss research programs that have been based on a more balanced assessment of the unique perspectives that parents and caregivers can bring to the work of developing effective autism accommodations and interventions. “

Social scientists can provide essential perspective on science, medical research and health.

The practice of science is done by people and shaped by social needs, so it always has underlying social dynamics. It shouldn’t be a surprise or an afterthought for science reporting to find value in a social science perspective. At its best, science journalism is where discovery meets the public interest. Reporting on, or with due consideration to, the sociology and history of a discovery is a part of the public’s interest.

Kelly Joyce, PhD, who directs Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology and Society, also noted that public viewpoints that may be less familiar to scientists also fall within the social scientist’s purview: “Social scientists also study situations where scientific fields and laypeople have different kinds of expertise on a scientific or technological issue. They then delve into the social components that contribute to one point of view being privileged over others. For example, our new colleague Dr. Gwen Ottinger examines how communities create and use technology to monitor air quality in their neighborhoods and what happens to this data as it travels into policy realms.”

Other faculty in Drexel’s center look at issues such as air pollution advocacy and asthma, diversity in STEM education and employment, and much more.

Science and health reporters: Have you talked to a social scientist today? To get in touch with one at Drexel, contact either me or Alex McKechnie.