The Use and Abuse of the

Editor's Note: In this essay, the authors--both scientists and writers--discuss recent science news stories and express their opinions on how the stories were handled by the media, as well as how scientists and journalists deal with each other. In this issue of The Scientist, we also have two other features on communicating science: Commentary on page 8 and Opinion on page 9. The "B" word--breakthrough--divides scientists and journalists as no other. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather invoke it regula

Jul 20, 1998
Barry Palevitz and Ricki Lewis

 

Editor's Note: In this essay, the authors--both scientists and writers--discuss recent science news stories and express their opinions on how the stories were handled by the media, as well as how scientists and journalists deal with each other. In this issue of The Scientist, we also have two other features on communicating science: Commentary on page 8 and Opinion on page 9.
The "B" word--breakthrough--divides scientists and journalists as no other. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather invoke it regularly; print journalists use it all the time. Yet, at the frontier between science and journalism, where the public finds out about the latest discoveries, no word better signifies the crosscurrents and undertows that can sink the communication process. And none better reveals the cultural divide that separates the two professions.

Is the B word abused, to the extent that its impact is diluted? To answer that question, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, home of cutting edge biomedical research and host to prestigious meetings on everything from virology to cancer, thought it opportune for the two cultures to get together. The meeting, appropriately billed "Breakthrough! How News Influences Health Perception and Behavior," linked journalists, scientists, and public information officers from Feb. 27 to March 1, 1998 to discuss how the media translates, and sometimes garbles and sensationalizes, the results of cancer research for public consumption. It was a meeting whose import would increase in the months to come, as the accuracy of several media reports, some on scientific matters, would come under public scrutiny.

Attendees gathered with recent gaffes echoing in their ears. Last fall the media had a field day with the prospect of headless humans grown for spare parts, following remarks that University of Bath biologist Jonathan Slack made to a BBC crew filming a segment on Dolly, the cloned sheep (O. Morton, Science, 278:798, 1997). Slack had made headless tadpoles for his research on frog development (itself no surprise in light of recent findings) and wondered if the same could be done with humans. Then in early January, Joseph Palca reported on National Public Radio that physicist Richard Seed wanted to set up a clinic to clone people. Both stories rekindled the political/ethical firestorm Dolly first ignited, and only the biomedical community's last-minute effort headed off legislation that would have imperiled important research.

NPR aired the Seed story despite what sounded like a pitch for sugar daddy funding backed by little substance, and the near universal feeling of (and strong negative pressure from) scientists that human cloning is unethical. And in what should have rung warning bells for any science journalist, Seed justified his venture with a vision of man becoming 'one with God.' Many journalists and scientists responded to Seed and the NPR report with disbelief and sarcasm. A conspiratorially minded Cold Spring Harbor attendee might have wondered if the whole thing was a plot to increase attendance; the timing was perfect! In fact, Palca was a featured speaker, but despite an awkward attempt to explain why he saw a legitimate news story where others did not, many were unconvinced.

Listening to Palca at Cold Spring Harbor, and also a featured speaker, was Gina Kolata, highly respected science writer for the New York Times. If Kolata learned anything from Palca's experience, it didn't show two months later when she started a media brouhaha of her own. It was Kolata who wrote about Judah Folkman's angiogenesis inhibitors as potential cancer cures in an article that appeared on the front page of the (May 3) Sunday New York Times, a story that quickly reverberated worldwide and sent cancer patients scurrying for treatment. Like a child's game of "telephone," what started out as a modest headline in the left-hand column of the Times ('A cautious awe greets drugs that eradicate tumors in mice') took a more ominous tone spread across the entire front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ("Cancer drugs cure mice: are humans next?"). Of course, the Times wasn't responsible for other editors' excesses; once the train left the station, there was no telling where it would stop.

The Times' story rehashed old information. Folkman's work had been published earlier in Nature (T. Boehm et al, Nature, 390:404-7, 1997) and in the September 1996 Scientific American (275[3]:150-6), where he stated, "In animals, it (angiostatin) can stop nearly all blood vessel growth in a large tumor or in its metastases." (See also: H. Black, The Scientist, 12[9]:10,13, April 27, 1998) The Times story was also premature and misleading since the drugs were years away from the prescription stage. Despite caveats in the Times and here that tests had been done only in mice, the link to cancer patients, embodied in dramatic quotes from DNA guru James Watson and National Cancer Institute Director Richard Klausner, seemed obvious. As Science magazine wrote, "the effect was explosive" (E. Marshall, Science, 280:996-7, 1998).

Soon the two scientists questioned Kolata's version of what they had said. By midweek, the media piled on. The hype inherent in the story had become the story. The flap even made the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman complained, "The words cure and cancer spread in the fertile Petri dish of the media culture. People heard the cure but not the caveats." Said ABC's Judy Muller, in an NPR commentary, "While the scientists are waiting (for more data), the media are on a binge." An editorial in Nature (393:97, 1998) suggested that Kolata shouldn't take the whole rap; her editors were also guilty--of bad gatekeeping. That seemed to echo Robert Hotz of the Los Angeles Times, who took a strangely contorted view of the Richard Seed affair in the National Association of Science Writers' winter newsletter. Hotz complimented Palca for "excellent reporting," but blamed NPR for aggressively marketing his story.

Stories such as the ones on angiogenesis inhibitors and Richard Seed leave their mark, like tire tracks in permafrost. While Kolata eschewed the B word and dutifully inserted cautionary notes in her piece, the Newsweek cover wasn't as shy. The Times quotes from Watson and Klausner had made the smell of 'breakthrough' unmistakable.

But is the public becoming jaded about a word so liberally dispensed or inferred? While the frenetic pace of research breeds discoveries like a zucchini plant grows fruit, many of the advances don't pan out or yield to opposite findings. Such is the history of cures for cancer in mice that turn into duds in humans. And with all the conflicting reports about dietary fat, salt, and vitamin A, it isn't surprising that people are confused. As scientists imbued with wait-and-see skepticism, we know that discoveries last only as long as data support them. But a public largely unfamiliar with the scientific process doesn't appreciate that nuance. As a result, science seems unreliable.

Science has also lost some of its sheen because of notorious cases involving questionable research ethics, where allegations of everything from plagiarism to falsification of data received prominent attention in the press (S. Shafir and D. Kennedy, The Scientist, 12[13]:9, June 22, 1998). But journalists aren't immune to temptation either. That Kolata's agent may have taken advantage of publicity to promote a book deal, as the Los Angeles Times reported on May 6, added to the general sense of distrust. It's not surprising that Time magazine's cover invited its readers in with "How to Tell Hope from Hype." If people are convinced that every scientist and journalist has an angle, they may have less incentive to stay informed, making an already disturbing science illiteracy even worse.

Another casualty, ignored in the latest ruckus but the object of keen attention at Cold Spring Harbor, was scientists' opinion of the press. Scientists have historically viewed the press as sensation-mongering dumb-downers unworthy of the time it takes to do an interview, an image graphically documented in Worlds Apart, a 1997 study sponsored by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. According to the study's coauthors, reporter Jim Hartz and astrophysicist/astronaut Rick Chappell, "nowhere has the distrust toward journalists been so pronounced or so pervasive as in the science/technology community." Moreover, the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that "few members of the news media understand the nature of science and technology, such as the 'tentativeness of most scientific discovery and the complexities of the results.'" The study was based on interviews with more than 1,400 scientists and journalists.

To be fair, antipathy toward the press is simplistic and shortsighted. Though hardly a glut, good science writing isn't difficult to find. And as the Freedom Forum study points out, science suffers if its practitioners can't or won't communicate with politicians and the public, either directly or through intermediaries. Bad reporting isn't just the fault of journalists, wrote Craig Venter, of The Institute for Genomic Research, and Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, in a Nov. 28, 1997 letter to Science blaming Jonathan Slack's glib comments for the headless human incident.

Scientists' disdain for the press, as documented in Worlds Apart , also seems more than a little disingenuous when discoveries hatch patents and start-up companies at the slightest whiff of profit, and business-minded researchers seek out the media to hype their latest results, no matter how preliminary. With venture capital and higher stock prices only a newspaper clipping away, reporters are bombarded by press releases from companies, universities, and scientific journals. Many reporters, anxious for a scoop, take the bait. And so the scientist is caught up in a love/hate relationship with the press, like a suitor pulling petals off a daisy, mumbling, "I love thee, I love thee not."

Of course, ill winds blow both ways, and although journalists polled for the Freedom Forum study had more confidence in scientists than vice versa, the romance between laboratory and Wall Street breeds cynicism. In her book Clone (Wm. Morrow and Co., New York, 1997), Kolata portrays scientists as egotistical, jet-setting superstars. In light of all that's transpired, that attitude may come back to haunt her.

The Cold Spring Harbor meeting was a step in the right direction of getting the two cultures in sync. But the garden between science and journalism needs constant tending, lest weeds threaten to choke the good stuff. More opportunities for mutual interaction are needed. Unfortunately, every new cancer cure or Richard Seed debacle alienates those willing to do a little hoeing. Somehow the situation has to change. When two cultures as interdependent as science and journalism are so mutually distrustful, we all lose because a hostile relationship shatters effective communication. And that feeds another, more serious conflict noted in the Freedom Forum report: we are "a swaggering national population proud to lead the world in science and technology but woefully unable to understand or appreciate much more than flash and gadgets."

How long can that last?

Barry A. Palevitz is a professor of botany at the University of Georgia. He can be reached online at palevitz@dogwood.botany.uga.edu.

Ricki Lewis is a textbook author and can be reached online at rickilewis@nasw.org.