The message and the messenger

I recently watched a wonderful film called “Don’t Look Up” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m not giving away too much of the plot when I say that the central theme is the discovery by two astronomers (Lawrence and DiCaprio) of a giant comet on a collision course with Earth and the struggles of the above two to have the issue taken seriously by US government and media. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The portrayal of the US president by Meryl Streep is helplessly funny.

It got me thinking about the many ways in which journalism conspires against science. And I think this is a unique position. It’s not that the science is intrinsically complex (although it often is) per se, it’s more that this is not seen to be personally relevant. After all, how many of us really understand say derivatives and suchlike in the stock market yet we happily hand over our money for investment in these arenas. At worst, this is the equivalent of making someone who can spell hepatosplenomegaly head of NASA. They may have won the spelling bee, but understand nothing of the science.

It is too easy to confuse the message with its messenger. In a cloud of social media interactions, we are more interested in “likes” and comments than core substance. What does a “like” actually mean? So many may well click the like button on this piece without actually liking it at all. It is really a gesture of acknowledgement, nothing more. Why bother? If I don’t provoke an opinion or evoke a reaction, I’m wasting my time.

Some years ago the Royal Society operated a scheme of media fellowships and I very nearly applied for one but it coincided with a particularly productive period of research in my laboratory. I thought it was better to push the science further rather than learn how to communicate it to people who don’t have a background in science. But there was also a fundamental difference in ethos. The media fellowships were intended to train scientists in how to communicate their science rather than the other way round. The idea was that scientists would work in newsrooms and learn how to communicate the science against competing news stories and time deadlines.

Essentially this was one way traffic. Although placing scientists in newsrooms had value, there was no apparent interest in say putting journalists into laboratories. It was always a case that we, the scientists, had to play in the journalists’ backyard not the other way round. I would have loved entertaining a journalist in my lab and getting them to understand what motivates scientists, what their drives and urges are, and why it is so important. To me that seems an opportunity lost.

There is a danger in dumbing down science. In the end, readers and viewers have the headline but not the column inches that support it. A good friend of mine is one of the best people I know for generating headlines and taglines. Call me a snob if you will but I feel that’s something of a wasted intellect. A brilliant pun does not make somebody read an article. And if it does it is in some way an indictment of journalism over science.

Science isn’t always simple. Often it isn’t. Often complex concepts cannot be condensed to the time period of the average crap.

Take my field – neuroscience in general and Parkinson’s in particular. At one level, Parkinson’s is due to a loss of dopamine in the brain. Simple. Let’s dig a little deeper – it’s one particular part of the brain, the basal ganglia, which receives nerve input from the substantia nigra. Did you see what I did there? Already we have talked of regional differences and we have introduced two new terms. Less simple. What causes these cells – we call them neurons – to die? If we are going to talk about causes and prevention, we need to say something about this. It’s about here that we come up against the point where knowledge and hypothesis collide. We know a little bit about how they die but less about why. This is the point at which the media loses interest. There is no simple way of giving appropriate weight to this lack of certainty. Media stories require a beginning, middle and end. Science is open-ended. One answer generates two questions. The media does not work like that.

This trivialisation and misinterpretation leads to all sorts of nonsense. I’m tired of the current conspiracy theory – that pharmaceutical companies do not want a cure for Parkinson’s. The reasoning behind this is that, by doing so, they would eliminate their own source of income. This is paranoia. I don’t believe for one second that drug companies are philanthropic but I do believe that, if they are engaged in Parkinson’s at all, they are looking avidly to be the first company that finds a cure.

This brings me full circle. If people entertain this sort of nonsense, it is due to the failings of people like myself as scientists (and I just about still qualify) to communicate our message in a sea of sometimes ill informed but persuasively written journalism. Therein lies the dilemma. Dumbing down of science is a slippery slope. Eventually you reach the point where the science or the story has to take priority. I’m not sure I would make the same choice as a newsroom editor.