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"Science Media Center" to Craft Talking Points for Controversial Scientific Issues

In an oft-quoted lecture in 2003, novelist Michael Crichton told Caltech students, "There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period."

Science is supposed to be an unbiased search for truth about the natural world, where discoveries by a maverick individual may trump majority opinion if the evidence demands it. "Consensus science" (an oxymoron) runs the risk of stifling dissent, creating the tyranny of the majority in an enterprise that should protect academic freedom. What should matter is not who says it, but whether the evidence supports it.

Yet scientists have a problem; there are well-established theories that come under attack by nuts on the Internet. Anyone with a big enough megaphone can say anything. Take the extreme example of a flat-earth society: what if they garnered a big enough following to convince reporters that scientists were conspiring to hide the truth about the earth's flatness from the public? Wouldn't it be helpful for reporters to have an official clearinghouse for scientific opinion to counter it?

That's where the Science Media Centre (SMC) comes in. Begun in London in 2002, it is now spreading to other countries. A fledgling SMC is springing up in America, Nature reports. The brainchild of Fiona Fox, the SMC seeks to provide a "scientific voice" in the media.

The centre's aim is to get scientific voices into media coverage and policy debates -- and by doing so, to improve the accuracy with which science is presented to the public. It tries to do this by providing select journalists with a steady flow of quotes and information from its database of about 3,000 scientists, and by organizing around 100 press briefings a year. "Our philosophy is we'll get the media to do science better when scientists do the media better," says Fox. (Emphasis added.)

It sounds good in theory, but there are "vehement critics" who warn of dangers:

All this means that when science makes the news in the United Kingdom, the SMC has often played a part. Scientists adore it, for getting their voices heard. And many journalists appreciate how the non-profit organization provides accurate and authoritative material on deadline. But Fox and the SMC have also attracted some vehement critics, who say that they foster uncritical media coverage by spoon-feeding information to reporters, that they promote science too aggressively -- the SMC has been called 'science's PR agency' -- and that they sometimes advance the views of industry.

The primary danger comes not in questions about a flat earth or alien landings, but in issues where legitimate controversy exists. That includes a great deal in most fields of science. And when public policy is involved, it's not hard to see how the "voice of science" can trend along party lines, even when science, ideally, should be apolitical.

One can imagine the authoritative voice an SMC would deliver about Darwinian evolution. Speaking of the attempts to get an American SMC going:

Last year, at Fox's urging, Julia Moore, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, set up an exploratory committee for a US SMC. Moore has since started fund-raising: "It's going full steam ahead," she says. The US centre will focus more on helping journalists to reach scientists than the other way around, as its UK counterpart does. "They need help writing stories about the latest research on stem cells or climate change or the latest controversy on evolution," says Moore.

How tempting it would be for Julia to call the NCSE, with its camera-ready boilerplate ready for press! As convenient as the SMC concept could be for reporters, one may foresee a number of casualties for science if it takes off:

  1. It can mislead the public into thinking there is no debate about controversial subjects like stem cells, climate change, or evolution.
  2. It can foment laziness among reporters, who will be tempted to borrow the talking points instead of digging into the issues themselves.
  3. It claims to speak for all of science, when in reality, each science has very different methods, degrees of rigor, and verifiability (compare archaeology, chemistry, and psychology).
  4. It presents a "scientific voice" without validating the "3,000 scientists" who make up the consensus, how they were chosen, what their biases are, and the degree of variance of views within the field.
  5. It shields scientists from the public. The SMC does not give out contact information from its scientist database, providing anonymity instead of accountability.
  6. It fosters an unhealthy relationship between scientists and reporters, who have different roles. Reporters need accurate information from scientists, but should also be neutral and critical. Those who resist using the SMC might be criticized.
  7. The SMC runs the risk of developing an academic-media-political complex, acting as a powerful lobby possessing the presumptive authority of "science."

To be scientific, the SMC would have to craft talking points on both sides of controversial issues, giving the best arguments in favor of each position, staying as neutral as possible. That's unlikely to happen. "We were set up to get the voice of science in the debate," Fox said, implying she feels science has a single voice.

It's not an idle threat that an American SMC would become another NGO with tremendous power. In Britain, Ms. Fox has already used the SMC to influence policy on abortion, genetically modified foods, global warming, and hybrid-embryo research. The SMC goes beyond just providing information to the media. Here's one example of the SMC's political influence:

Perhaps the biggest criticism of Fox and the SMC is that they push science too aggressively -- acting more as a PR agency than as a source of accurate science information. In December 2006, for example, the UK government indicated that it planned to ban scientists from creating hybrid embryos containing cells from humans and other animals. A public consultation had found unease with the research, and early media coverage tended to focus on the ethical concerns, quoting critics such as members of the Catholic clergy.

Researchers, funders and scientific societies organized a campaign to change the government's mind. The SMC coordinated the media outreach, hosting five briefings at which scientists played down ethical qualms and said that hybrid embryos were a valuable research tool that might lead to disease treatments.

A follow-up study showed that media coverage reflected the SMC's views, and influenced the outcome:

The SMC was "largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human-animal hybrid embryos", says Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who carried out the analysis. (The eventual bill would allow hybrid-embryo research.) But Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate. "It was a strategic triumph in media relations," he says.

In another example of agenda-driven coverage, the SMC's talking points used a tornado story to link extreme weather to global warming. It's impossible, scientifically and statistically, for one storm to bear on such global issues. One could just as well cherry-pick an ice storm in Vermont to warn of global cooling.

The danger of a fake unified voice speaking for all of science was voiced in the article:

Ivan Oransky, head of the health team for news agency Reuters in New York, does not think that the well-sourced journalists with whom he typically works will need such help, but he says that local newspapers and websites without that expertise could use an SMC. Still, he worries that such a centre could end up having an undesirable influence on the news. "If it's a force for smoothing over some of the legitimate disagreements that scientists have, if it is a force for putting science in the best possible light because of who the funders are, I don't think it's really doing all that much," he says.

Reporter Ian Sample used SMC information for a story and found it handy. He worries, though, about using the SMC as a crutch. "It's a really dangerous thing and an easy thing for journalists to start relying on SMC comments," he says. "We should be picking who we're talking to and picking which questions we're asking."

One critic who left a comment after the article had harsh words for the SMC:

It is a profoundly sinister organization, which cynically manipulates the scientific agenda. It depends for its success upon overworked and stressed scientists and lazy and complacent journalists who prefer to be led by the nose rather than thinking for themselves.

There are already Science Media Centres in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. More are planned for Germany, Denmark and France. The American SMC should be operational by 2016.

As for Intelligent Design...

Predictably, an American SMC will take a pro-Darwin, anti-ID position, continuing the attacks against intelligent design. We've seen this kind of thing before. There was the AAAS Booklet, Science and Creationism, that tried to speak with a unified voice knocking down intelligent design as pseudoscience. We've dealt with the NCSE for years. Wikipedia is another example. In a sense, this will be more of the same, but on a bigger scale. A lot will depend on how readily reporters come to rely on it.

Assuming the SMC is successful, it could supersede the NCSE as the most forceful opponent of academic freedom legislation in the states. Then, there will be the additional threat that all the international SMCs will unify into a global organization. Perhaps it will merge with the UN.

There's no need to be pessimistic, though. Often, large organizations become unwieldy. The Roman Empire got too big for its britches. Increasingly unmanageable, it split into two empires, one that fell from within, one that held out with decreasing influence till conquered. In the long run, the truth wins out. Yet interesting times may be coming.