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Scientists and Media Madness

My first two scientific experiences of media madness occurred in the early 1960s when I was a real microbiologist. One day, the new local television station sent along a camera team to see what we were all up to. After a quick glance around the lab, the boss pointed at a fraction collector and asked me to switch it on. "It is on," I replied, explaining that the machine clicked around once very 15 minutes as each test tube collected liquid from the ion exchange column above. "OK, I understand," t

By | March 9, 1987

My first two scientific experiences of media madness occurred in the early 1960s when I was a real microbiologist. One day, the new local television station sent along a camera team to see what we were all up to. After a quick glance around the lab, the boss pointed at a fraction collector and asked me to switch it on. "It is on," I replied, explaining that the machine clicked around once very 15 minutes as each test tube collected liquid from the ion exchange column above. "OK, I understand," the man said, and went away to find something more dynamic next door. An hour later, he was back. "I really wish you guys would make that thing work properly," he said. Repeat of conversation. Deeply disappointed camera team.

But then anxiety descended: maybe these TV chaps would lose interest and go away. So guess how the story ended. With me groveling under the bench, twiddling the apparatus around more quickly that it ever moved before or since. Utter nonsense. But we had played the media game, and both sides, in their own ways, were happy.

Even worse was an incident a few months later when the university's public relations officer decided to publicize some work on the epidemiology of respiratory infections that was being carried out by a virologist in the same department. A press release was issued highlighting the practical importance of the research, but emphasizing that the man concerned had not actually discovered the viruses whose spread he was charting. No matter. Two days later, our local evening paper carried the banner headline CITY BOFFIN FINDS DEADLY KILLER VIRUS.

For such reasons, one sympathizes with scientists who have had unhappy dealings with the media. Ask around the corridors at any conference or congress, and you will invariably find a significant fraction of people with genuinely dreadful tales to tell.

The Other Side

But there is another side to this story. Some of the most demanding journalism, often accomplished with considerable skill, concerns science and medicine. Especially when one compares the constraints of time and space facing a) a journalist and b) a scientist composing a research paper, one must admire the formidable blend of talents with which certain media persons interpret complex information and write or broadcast their stories for a general audience. Because the best reportage reads or sounds deceptively easy, this truth is frequently overlooked.

It's sad, therefore, to find that even in 1987 a few research workers wish to distance themselves from the public. "A Nobel prize winning American scientist, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, yesterday accused the news media of impeding the progress of scientific research," reported the New Zealand Herald on January 30 of this year. The occasion was a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, during which Gajdusek had given a spellbinding, two-hour-long talk on his recent findings linking Alzheimer's disease and Down's syndrome.

Like the AAAS meeting, this was a conference at which scientists were invited to address the people. But not, apparently, the press. Saying that he would not have attended had he known how many media people would be there, Dr. Gajdusek claimed that some of the world's greatest researchers were refusing to get involved in major projects because of media harassment. "It is like Mozart being interrupted every three hours to ask how he is getting on composing a concerto," he insisted.

With or without personal experience of media misdeeds, one can easily sympathize with such sentiments. As anyone involved in conspicuous science will testify, helping the press handle technically complex issues is a time-consuming business. And it can be frustrating. But are these reactions really appropriate, especially amidst the problems swirling around the scientific community during the late 1980s?

Consider a financier or politician who consistently pleads pressure of work to avoid even the most sensitive and responsible media enquiries, made on behalf of the general public. He or she will provoke an understandable sequence of curiosity, perplexity and suspicion. Why should scientists expect to be different?

Dixon, who used to be a real microbiologist, is European editor of The Scientist.

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