Science and the public

Today I had my first supervisory board meeting. I was a little bit nervous beforehand, mainly because it’s the first of these meetings I’ve had so far and I was just nervous I was going to say something ridiculous. As it turned out, it was a much more informal affair than I’d been fearing. I was tested a little bit with questions about why I’m doing this work and why it’s important. The silly thing is I know exactly why it’s so important, every piece of paperwork I have to do is prefaced with my rationale. For some reason, though, my brain stuttered and I just sat there with my mouth hanging open for a few moments. For the most part, it was testing how much I already know, how much I’ve been doing, and if I understand the context of my work. And, as far as I’m aware, they aren’t recommending to the research committee that I shouldn’t carry on, so a job well done I guess!

Most of the problems I’ve been encountering are equipment failures. I have an air compressor that pumps CO2 gas through my cultures, and it, for whatever reason, died. It was making the most horrendous noise every time it was on, I honestly thought it was about to blow up. I mean, this thing is pretty offensively loud when it’s working properly anyway, but it was making the most horrible sound I have ever heard in my life. And my brother had a brief stint learning how to play the trumpet when he was 10. So I’ve had to replace that with a temporary fix while it gets sorted at the engineer’s. At the same time, it turns out our climate-controlled rooms are no longer so controlled. The coolant is leaking out of two of them (one of them being the room I’m using), so they need to close them for a week while they fix them. Thankfully this will probably be done at the beginning of January, after my current experiment has finished.

Yesterday we had a talk from Phil Williamson from UEA about a recent article published in The Times. The article essentially claimed that ocean acidification was exaggerated and that it wasn’t anything to worry about. Most of what the author said was either misinterpretation or just wrong. Unfortunately, the thing about journalists is that they’re very good at communicating and sounding like they know what they’re talking about. Ocean acidification isn’t a widely known issue in the general public (it really should be though), and it’s entirely likely that a lot of people read that article without knowing anything about it and thought to themselves, “Hey, he makes a point!” I find it odd (if not a tiny bit rich) that this guy can write whatever he likes and publish it in a newspaper, whereas the actual articles he’s criticising go through a rigorous peer review process before they end up getting published. I think this really highlights the need to better publicise ocean acidification, because currently there’s no literature that’s widely accessible to people who aren’t specialists. We then get the problem that the only accessible material is the articles like the one in The Times.

Journalists are trained to write in a very persuasive and convincing style. Newspapers are also much more interested in the most sensational stories they can get. For example, the coverage on the murdered MI6 agent. There was an article in the Sun about the fact that police officers found women’s clothing in his flat. Now, my first assumption would have been, “Oh, he probably had a girlfriend, or at least a female relation stay over at some point.” But the headline the Sun went for was “Murdered spook was a cross dresser!” Not really the most logical conclusion, but certainly more attention grabbing than “Murdered spy probably had a girlfriend, maybe his sister came and stayed one weekend.”

Anyway, I think science portrayed in the media needs to be monitored a lot more. As I said, a journalist can write anything in a newspaper. The problem is, once something gets published where a lot of people see it, it takes a long time for that misinformation to be corrected in the public domain. Let’s just hope in the future people can have the information available to them to be able to come to their own conclusions about what they read in the paper.

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