• 07 MAR 06
    • 0

    Science communication in the UK hits a low note

    Science communication in the UK hits a low note

    Commentary By Don Maisch
    March 6, 2006

    Concerned over how controversial science issues are being communicated to the public in the British media, the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) and the Royal Institution of Great Britain , under the Directorship of Baroness Susan Greenfield (who is also affiliated with SIRC) , have published a joint “Guidelines on Science and Health Communication”. These Guidelines are stated to lessen the distortion and sensationalism of media reporting of controversial science and health issues and to ensure that scientific stories should be scientifically accurate without unjustified “˜scare stories”™ and articles offering false hopes to the seriously ill. Baroness Greenfield is a well known neuroscientist, holds several senior University positions and has authored numerous books and documentaries on the human brain.

    The guidelines propose what is essentially a strict process of vetting any science media stories to weed out the communication of controversial information not to the liking of the authors of the Guidelines. Anything that is not peer reviewed in an accepted journal, such as concerns over GM food safety , or community concerns over telecommunications towers, for example, would have to be balanced with expert comment from a select list of suitable experts drawn up by The Royal Society, the Royal Institution and SIRC.

    Under these Guidelines when studies are reported in the media that radically challenge existing assumptions, (that go against government policy, such as GM foods or cell phone safety) opinions from scientists with the opposite viewpoint should be included to explain why the findings “might be considered premature or even unfounded”. In addition positive findings should be combined with risk comparisons. The Guidelines state:

    “We recommend that, whenever possible, novel risks should be compared with risks that readers and audiences will be familiar with in their daily lives. For example, can the reported risk be compared with that of being struck by lightening, crossing the road, taking a bath or flying a hangglider? ”

    A further theme in the Guidelines is seen in section 6 where it is claimed “[u]nfounded scares can cause very serious damage to public health,” Section 6 also brings in the concept of making risk / benefit comparisons. For example, this could be a newspaper article reporting on a study finding an increased risk of acoustic neuronas for cell phone but then comparing that to the benefits of the cell phone as a “social lifeline”.

    In January 2001 a new “independent” Science Media Centre, created by SIRC / RI, was opened at the Royal Institution with the support of the UK science Minister Lord Sainsbury. The Media Centre aimed to help “sceptical and impatient journalists get their stories right on controversial issues such as animal research, cloning and genetically modified food”. However the close working relationship between government science policy and the independent media centre was seen in an article promoting the Media Centre by Susan Greenfield which was co-authored by Tristram Hunt who works at Tony Blair”™s press office at No. 10 Downing Street.

    Concerns over the SIRC dictating guidelines on how the media and scientists report science to the public takes on a rather bizarre twist when examining the SIRC”™s research paper ” The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21 st Century” by “social anthropologist” Kate Fox. Fox is a founder of SIRC and a consultant for the PR firm MCM Research Ltd . The telecommunications research paper is listed on the same SIRC webpage as the Guidelines on Science and Health Communication. So we can assume that this research paper has undergone a strict peer review process or expert evaluation by the The Royal Society and the Royal Institution. As such Kate Fox’s research paper must what The Royal Society and the Royal Institution consider as good science. If so God help Great Britain.


    Evolution, Alienation and Gossip
    The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century

    By Kate Fox


    Executive Summary

    Gossip is not a trivial pastime: it is essential to human social, psychological and even physical well-being. The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, has become a vital ‘social lifeline’, helping us to re-create the more natural communication patterns of pre-industrial times.

    Key findings:

    Mobile gossip is good for us

    Gossip is the human equivalent of ‘social grooming’ among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this ‘vocal grooming’ is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Mobiles facilitate gossip. Mobiles have increased and enhanced this vital therapeutic activity, by allowing us to gossip ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ and to text as well as talk. Mobile gossip is an effective and important new stress-buster.

    Mobile phones are the new garden fence

    The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent ‘grooming talk’ with a tightly integrated social network. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Mobile gossip restores our sense of connection and community, and provides an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern life. Mobiles are a ‘social lifeline’ in a fragmented and isolating world.

    Additional findings:

    * Men gossip as much as women. The study found that men gossip at least as much as women, especially on their mobiles. Thirty-three percent of men indulge in mobile gossip every day or almost every day, compared with twenty-six percent of women. Men gossip for just as long and about the same subjects as women, but tend to talk more about themselves. The study did find a sex difference in ‘gossip partners’, with men more likely to gossip with work colleagues, partners and female friends, while women gossip more with same-sex friends and family. Male and female gossip also sounds different, as women use more animated tones, more detail and more feedback.
    * Mobile as ‘symbolic bodyguard’. Women use their mobile phones as ‘symbolic bodyguards’ when feeling vulnerable in public places – in the way that they used to use a newspaper of magazine as a ‘barrier signal’.
    * The joy of text. Texting is particularly important in maintaining contact with a wide social network – allows us to maintain social bonds even when we do not have the time, energy, inclination or budget for calls or visits. Texting re-creates the brief, frequent, spontaneous ‘connections’ with members of our social network that characterised the small communities of pre-industrial times.
    * Teenage social skills. Texting helps teenagers (and some adult males) to overcome awkwardness and inhibitions and to develop social and communication skills – they communicate with more people, and more frequently, than they did before mobiles.
    * Text as ‘trailer’. Mobile gossip is enhanced by the use of the text message as a ‘trailer’, alerting friends to the fact that one is in possession of an interesting item of gossip, but saving the details for a phone call or meeting.
    * Entertainment. Women are more skilled than men at making gossip entertaining – three factors are involved: highly animated tone, plenty of detail and enthusiastic ‘feedback’.
    * Risk-therapy. Enjoyment of gossip is also about the thrill of risk-taking, doing something a bit naughty, talking about people’s ‘private’ lives – this is particularly important for the reserved and inhibited English, but all humans have inbuilt need for risk-taking.
    * Benefits of negative gossip. Only about five per cent of gossip-time is devoted to criticism and negative evaluation of others – but this ‘negative gossip’ has clear social benefits in terms of rule-learning and social bonding.

    If this isn’t enough to illustrate SIRC’s Galactic Bias then have a look at their article “Birds on the wire” at
    < http://www.sirc.org/articles/birds_on_the_wire.shtml >
    According to author James Harkin the critics of mobile phone technology argue that “they are essentially hostile to social life” and blame cell phones “for everything from a crime wave to a growth in teenage illiteracy.” Harkin is of the opinion that “mobiles can become convenient repository for existing anxieties which have little to do with the technology itself.” The article goes on with the theme that the only problem with the technology are those unfounded fears coming from an ignorant puplic. However the ‘clincher’ is at the end where Harkin makes the following statement.

    ” …together with an understanding of the benefits of mobile technology and relative risk factors which can help to put phone fears into perspective. They [local authorities] must also take greater steps to make their own properties and land available for the siting of phone masts.”

    And all this pseudo scientific babble comes from the web site of the people who set guidelines for the ‘proper’ communication of science in Great Britian!

    Don Maisch
    EMFacts Consultancy

    Leave a reply →