Thursday 15 March 2012

It's not a job.

One of the greatest misconceptions about science is that it is a job.

As Steven Siegel said in Under Siege (that timeless cinematic masterpiece etched into the brain of every boy who was 15 years old in 1992, mostly because of the cake scene): "It's not a job, it's an adventure".

Actually I think he was referring to being a navy seal rather than a scientist. But let's not quibble.

Being a scientist is a lifestyle. And it isn’t even a single lifestyle, it is several lifestyles rolled into one. In fact, I’m not even sure how many lifestyles – I’ve never sat down and counted them. This, above all, is the main reason I enjoy being a scientist: because it is truly impossible to get bored.

One moment I can be meeting with a PhD student about their latest experiment or set of results. The next I can be explaining lateralization of brain function to a couple of hundred undergraduates while they watch me having my motor cortex stimulated with electric currents. The next I can be spitballing ideas with a colleague over a whiteboard or a pint (or both). The next I can disappear into a world of seclusion and questionable musical taste while writing a grant application or research paper. The next I can be standing in the stunning Palazzo Fedrigotti in Rovereto, giving a talk on how the parietal cortex enables selective attention. Running through of all these activities is a thread that unites scientists everywhere: that child-like buzz of discovering things about nature that we simply didn’t know before.

Being a panelist at the Royal Institution this week for Alok Jha's event on science journalism reminded me what a privilege it is to be part of such a diverse and interesting profession. Here I am in the lecture theatre where Faraday spoke, engaging in a public forum with such luminaries in science journalism and communication as Ananyo Bhattacharya, Fiona Fox, Ed Yong, and Alice Bell.

Someone pinch me.

The Cardiff team at the Royal Institution debate on 13 March. From left, Emma Cheetham, Petroc Sumner, Jacky Boivin, and Fred Boy.
Me and Ananyo chatting before kick off. When they heard I was speaking, the Ri really should have warned the audience to bring their snow goggles.
I did a lot more listening than talking and it was a fascinating and humbling experience. I want to extend a big thank you to Jayshan Carpen for his excellent organisation of the event, and to the many scientists, journalists and press officers who attended. It was a stimulating discussion, and stay tuned for Alice Bell’s wrap-up piece, coming soon to the Guardian Science blog.

Alok Jha introduces the debate. He's really not as sinister as he looks in this photo.

Perhaps I’m being being overly optimistic – I’ve been told this is one of my character flaws – but I think this debate could be a defining moment. The main reason I'm positive is that the argument has shifted from some fairly heated finger-pointing to a focus on self-scrutiny. 

For me, the whole story began with a spirited debate in the Guardian about copy checking and the importance of accuracy as a starting point in science journalism. We were prompted to enter the discussion after we had a pretty diabolical experience with some newspapers in the reporting of our previous research. The omnipresence of the Leveson Inquiry raised the room temperature, and it was an exciting and at times heated debate. It has now become more measured and constructive, with each side asking itself what changes it can implement to improve the standard of science news coverage.

Me. Talking.
Changing yourself isn't easy, but what is most important is that we see it as possible. I refuse to buy into the argument of disempowerment: that scientists and journalists are pawns on some enormous chessboard controlled by remote gods in the clouds, with any attempt to implement change perceived as na├»ve, foolish, and futile. In the words of Frank Costello in The Departed, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me”. This is street wisdom at its best. Scientists need to realize that there is much we can do to change our environment and improve the quality of science news. We made nine suggestions in our pre-debate Guardian article, and as the vivacious Fiona Fox declared on Tuesday night, the answer is to “Engage, Engage, Engage!”

In my presentation at the debate I suggested three ways that scientists can improve the quality of science news. The first was to accept ultimate accountability for the quality of our own press releases, including a specific section: "What this study does not show". As scientists we need to work closely with press officers and respect their unique talents, but we also need to take as much ownership of press releases as we do our own research articles. This argument for accountability echoes that of Ed Yong, who proposes the same for journalists: that regardless of any and all obstacles, those who pen news stories are responsible for the quality of what they pen. There may be explanations for why this can fail, but there are no excuses. These are vital aspirations on both sides.

Our second recommendation was that more scientists should blog. Blogs have many benefits, and one is to provide a supplemental knowledge base for journalists. I will be using this blog to practice what I preached - and I've also just now joined Twitter.

Finally, we emphasized how important it is that scientists are vocal in challenging bad science and bad science reporting. On this we need to stand up in public and be heard. Ben Goldacre is a pioneer in neighbourhood watch, as is the brilliant Dorothy Bishop, but they shouldn’t be going it alone. I made a start on this last year in the Guardian, and I'll be doing more of it. And one additional point I should have made on Tuesday night is that all UK scientists should join the database for the Science Media Centre. They are a remarkable group of people who do vital work. Please support them!

The three things scientists could start doing now to improve the quality of science news coverage.

So what will my blog be about? I plan to write articles on science from many different angles, from evidence-led discussions about how the human brain exercises impulse control, free will, and attention, to behind-the-scenes insights into what it's like to be me: to work as a researcher and group leader at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. I’ll provide slides on talks I’ve given and some photos and videos too. You can find more about my specific research and publications here.

I’ll address general myths and misconceptions about science as they become topically relevant. When we have a key paper published, I’ll blog about it and provide some additional context and insights for journalists and other interested readers. I’ll talk about science politics and my experiences engaging with industry.

Along the way I’ll try to offer some advice to up-and-coming scientists and postgraduate students. I’ll critique what I see as bad science (with the disclaimer that you mustn’t expect me to be as intelligent or articulate as Ben Goldacre!) and I’ll tell you about mistakes I’ve made in this profession and what I learned from them. I’ll write about science politics and the peer review process, and I will try to give frank and accurate insights into the inner workings of the science ‘machine’. Some of these posts might surprise readers who are outside science. I’ll also offer my opinions on various issues relating to science journalism.

I’m going to be irreverent and some of what I write will make me a troublemaker. I will also occasionally rant. As an Australian, I am prone to dropping the occasional expletive so apologies in advance if you have a sensitive disposition.

For those seeking originality, I can’t promise that this blog will raise any issues that you haven’t seen or read about before. I grinned when I read a tweet from Stephen Curry about my three points at the Ri debate: Chris Chambers so far a master of the bleeding' obvious in his presentation in pts 1-3”. Very true – in fact this is true of all nine points that we raise. When it comes to exploring ways that scientists can help improve science journalism, I’m not going to parade in front of you as some kind of revolutionary thinker. I’m not an expert on science and media, and I'm not a genius. I’m just a regular scientist who cares about this issue and wants to get involved.

Post-debate discussions. Ananyo Bhattacharya in the foreground. In accordance with best practice, the discussions swiftly adjourned to the pub.

This is why we’re commencing research of our own on how science is represented in press releases. Rather than standing on a soapbox, we’re going to let our evidence do the talking, and you can follow the progress of our research at Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any ideas about our research or would like to join our team.

Is this whole discussion of science journalism an exercise in navel-gazing? Are we naive to think we can change anything? Was the debate destined to be a “dog and pony show”, as predicted by one Guardian reader?

I would answer No on all fronts, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. All I will say is this: if we keep an open mind and a clear focus on what we want to achieve, and how, who knows where this could lead.

I hope you enjoy my blog.


  1. thanks for this Chris - wish I could have been at the meeting, but really interesting to read your slant, and gives me some things to mull over when writing and fact-checking my articles...

  2. One of my casual past times is trawling the many news/media articles about MRI(claimimg presumably to be bringing us something informative) and pointing out to the journalist/author that the 'Patient Undergoing an MRI scanner' image (displayed in their article) is in fact a CAT machine, or PET system etc. This happens quite a lot. Some respond positively to the correction, but most just don't care as long as the article passes some kind of basic editorial process and they have got paid for it.