Neuroethics: Building a Relationship Between Scientists and the Public

May, 2002

This portion of the transcript comes from a Q & A session regarding the roles of the scientific community, the media and the public in the world of brain research.

RON KOTULAK (Chicago Tribune science writer, winner, 1994 Pulitzer Prize): Let me just give you now some suggestions that I’ve sort of culled from my experiences and those of other people from the Los Angeles Times, about how to improve the lines of communication between scientists and reporters with the emphasis on speaking in layman’s terms. Scientists who are reporting new findings should be available for interviews. Scientists should be available to help reporters evaluate new material even on a background basis. This is especially true when statistics can be used in misleading ways such as relative risks versus actual risk. Use analogies and metaphors when appropriate to make concepts easier to understand. Think in terms of explanatory illustrations such as graphs or drawings that can help make complex ideas and results understandable to the average person.

Ron Kotulak - Thumbnail 

Chicago Tribune science writer Ron Kotulak Credit: Scott Lasky

At the Chicago Tribune we have a huge department now of artists who do nothing but try to make material, whether it’s scientific or medical or whether it’s political or anything else, more understandable through different kinds of ways of illustrating this material. Very successful, it’s been a pioneer in this area. Too often the public views a new scientific announcement as a final fact, only to be confused and frustrated when another report contradicts it. We’ve all heard stories about how one day  caffeine is reported in JAMA to be good for you, and then the next week in the New England Journal caffeine is bad for you. And it goes back and forth. Very confusing to the public and I think that’s part of the problem that we’re facing. We don’t have people putting this kind of information into focus because it’s so broad and so overwhelming.

When I first started covering science, it was fine, you could write a daily story and that was it, because people would accept what you said (at face value) because that was all that was available. Today we’re inundated with information coming from all over and I think it’s part of our job to try to make sense out of it, to try to put it in some kind of  perspective and I think it’s part of the job of the scientific community to help us do that. But it is also important to emphasize that science is not written in stone, that it is a constantly changing process of discovery.

SARAH CADDICK (Director, Medical and Scientific Programs, Steven and Michelle Kirsch Foundation): While I agree that scientists should be more cooperative with the media as you pointed out, one of the things that I think is missing  and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, is the actual reporting in the media of the process of science. In addition to the actual scientific discoveries being reported on, an additional 90 percent of science is not going to sell newspapers. To scientists they’re amazing discoveries, but they may not necessarily be that way to the public. So I’d love your thoughts on how the scientific community can help you to put together the kind of reports that would help them understand the
process that gets to the discoveries, because I’ve never seen any really competent and comprehensive reporting on that.

RON KOTULAK: You know, actually I think that science, and medicine, does sell newspapers. If you look at Newsweek and Time, their biggest sellers are when they have cover stories on science or medicine. Those are the biggest sellers. And if you look at The New York Times, the science section, that is such a popular section because it’s done well and people are fascinated by it and they want to read about it.

I think that intrinsically people want to know. They want to  now why we’re here. What is this all about? You know, what are the discoveries? Sure, they want to know about cancer, and the immediate things that are important in their daily lives, but they have a broader interest. You know, we have a brain that allows us to say, where did you come from? And we’re exploring all this. All of science is an exploration of all these issues. And I think people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are fascinated by it.

So there’s incredible interest in what’s going on and I think that we are reaching a point where we have to take a broader look and make sure that things are being put more into perspective. Rather than this hot story that comes out—and I’m afraid that TV is guilty more of this than probably anybody else—they’ll give you a story line saying that, you know, watch the ten o’clock news, the newest cure for cancer. And the ten o’clock news comes on and they, blah, blah, and go on and they don’t say really anything, but they’ve given you this little indication that there was a cure for cancer when there wasn’t. And I think that we have to be more responsible in how we handle it.

MARY ELLEN MICHEL (Program Director, NINDS, NIH): Since we have people from the press here, give me some sort of insight about delivering negative information or skepticism. Often the press will call and every discovery is interesting and everything is a great new beginning and all this sort of thing. But delivering this sense of skepticism or perhaps doubt, but in a positive way that can be accepted and show the public that there’s debate and that not everything is the cure for cancer, that has often puzzled me.

RON KOTULAK: It’s a good point. I think that we, in this country, probably started off being, you know, ‘gee whiz, this is wonderful, scientific discoveries.’ And don’t forget, they’ve been coming at an exponential rate. And they are very exciting. But then you reach a point and you say, okay, I’ll take genetics for example, the first gene discovery, and I can remembergoing to the Bar Harbor for the Jackson Lab, covering the genetic conferences, perhaps many of you have been there, and early on the scientists would get exited, they’d put up on the screen an image of a whole chromosome
with a little band, dark band across. And everybody was excited about all that.

And, when this stuff came out just more recently, I said well, I’ll wait for some final result because I’ve been covering this subject for an awful long time and it’s now to the point, show me. Give me some result here. And if you look today there still are not very good results. So here’s a case where a lot of promise, a lot of promise, and nothing so far has really materialized. It doesn’t mean that it won’t, but it hasn’t. But I think we have to put that into focus.

So it’s part about what we have to do and I think we’re all evolving into various kinds of ways of handling this, but it’s a very good point. How do you handle bad news? How do you handle news that’s not so exciting any more, because it’s not new discovery, it’s basically saying well this line of research has petered out or is not  doing the kind of promise it had in the beginning.

I just would like to reemphasize I guess what we’ve sort of been talking about here is that I think we have to get the idea across that science is a process. And I say that because I’ve seen it at our paper. I’ve seen some editors who say well, by golly, they said this, it was a fact and you know, now they’re saying it’s just the opposite. And they just get discombobulated about it all. And I think we have to keep emphasizing. And I try to do that in writing about it, that it is a process and everything. But I think as you folks dealing with media, also being able to emphasize that this is a process. It’s a process of discovery which will never end.

I mean a fact today is a different fact tomorrow, it will be a different fact in the future. You know, we tend to believe in facts. Well, facts are not really facts. I mean they’re changeable things. We’ve seen that throughout the history of science.