Sowing the seeds of sense
Tracey Brown | Features
FIRST PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 69 (2003)
When endocrinology hits the headlines, it isn’t always for the reasons the researchers had in mind. The trust, Sense About Science, promotes evidence-based public debate about science and risk. Here, the trust’s Director, Tracey Brown, talks about managing public debate.
A quick rummage through recent fragmented memories of popular exposure to endocrinology produces a nonsensical sensationalist stream: HRT is a risk not worth the benefit, it apparently causes cancer; growth hormone – there was a problem with weight lifters using it, it comes from dead bodies, it also causes cancer; the hormones they put in meat make you immune to antibiotics; in the USA young girls develop breasts earlier because of the hormones in food (or is it that they get facial hair?); genetically modified food can make men sterile…
No doubt you can remember an even longer list of popular claims. As regards public clarity about scientific evidence, endocrinology seems particularly scare-prone, because of its intimate connection with social behaviour, human health, current therapies and environmental exposures. Often, scientists’ results are released into wider debates that are already polarised or political. For example, hormone therapies have their advocates and detractors, and claims about ‘gender bending’ effects are de rigueur for environmental campaigners against agricultural chemicals, anti-GM groups, and some alternative health practitioners.
According to Robin Lovell-Badge, developmental geneticist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, endocrinology’s inherent complexity doesn’t help. For instance, when considering endocrine disruption, ‘There are all sorts of variables in the way a chemical is handled both in the environment and in an organism. Results in this field rely on data that are difficult to collect in a uniform way, and consequently there are rarely ‘clean’ answers.’ Indeed, the WHO’s recent report on endocrine disruptors concluded that the publicity accorded to the area was not supported by convincing experimental data.
While this may help prioritise future research, the immediate challenge is how to achieve a measured discussion about the available evidence. In this regard, I suspect that endocrinologists, like other scientists, need to become more confrontational.
No doubt confrontation sounds at odds with our self-effacing, ‘dialogue’ focused times. But, before dismissing it, consider this paradox: despite the proliferation of ‘science communication’ initiatives, the rebranding of every aspect of society’s interface with science as a ‘science and society’ project, and a general anxiety about ensuring ‘stakeholder consultation’, have relations ever felt worse between the scientific community and society at large? Have the media ever been so controlling of how scientific claims are communicated? Has there ever been such scepticism about the role of science in social progress?
Most modern scientists are pleased to have distanced themselves from earlier methods of confronting public scares – which often took the form of a condescending dismissal! However, the adoption of alternative, effective ways of confronting distortions has not been straightforward. Scientists’ increased sensitivity to potential opposition seems also to have made them reticent when problems arise. More significantly, the scientific world has never before had to compete with so many health groups, environmental campaigns, campaigning journalists and new age therapy promoters, among others, each vying to comment on findings.
At Sense About Science, we encourage scientists to take on the challenges of the broader implications of their work at two levels. The first is straightforward – to think about how claims are likely to be presented. Good advice is readily available. The Science Media Centre, established last year to respond when science hits the headlines, helps anticipate the media reaction to results. Professional and learned societies also provide a (currently under-utilised) resource. They should at least be informed about work entering the public domain. The scope for generating public confusion is greatest when unprepared contacts are asked for their reactions. The Society for Endocrinology, according to External Relations Officer Tom Parkhill, still learns late in the day about research news, ‘most often because the press ring up asking for a response.’
The second level is to think more strategically about relationships with groups who have a role in how research results are received and understood, and to confront people directly over mistakes and disagreements. Active relationships can remove the scope for misunderstanding, and even for mischief. When we know people, we feel more compelled to confront them directly with disagreements rather than to project them publicly straightaway.
Public scares about scientific matters are usually generated by active players, which include a wide range of institutions that shape public opinion, beyond the journalists on whom we tend to focus. Commentators on recent public scares have often been able to generate alternative interpretations of results in a relatively unimpeded way, with little insistence on distinctions between evidence and conjecture. When I speak to organisations with concerns about conservation, health risks and pollution, they have usually neither sought nor received contact with the scientists whose research they are reacting to, but have been dependent on news releases and discrete discussions among themselves.
Where scientists make direct contact with other commentators, it improves the public debate. Organisations that shape public opinion need to be treated in different ways. A few campaigns’ credibility is dependent on undermining scientific evidence per se. In most cases, however, being prepared to confront the sources of misinterpretation can set up useful relationships. Some scientists involved in research using animals and stem cells are directly in touch with interested medical charities, and we can see the benefits of this in recent discussions about the need for such work. At Sense About Science, we have created opportunities – some more challenging than others – for scientists to discuss evidence with people from conservation groups, aid NGOs, medical bodies and writers of parenting literature, among others.
Seeking direct, active engagement with the people who make the arguments influential may be less appealing than the vaguer consultations that often pass for ‘dialogue’, but it offers the only real prospect of being effective in reducing public scares. Those scientists who have been willing to confront significantly misleading claims are often rewarded with a better understanding of what different commentators represent, and the source of their reactions and anxieties. That understanding puts scientists more firmly in a position to swing the balance of public discussion away from scares and in favour of evidence.
Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science
For more information see www.senseaboutscience.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.