The new year of 2014 has officially dawned, bringing with it an attitude of fresh starts and reexamined approaches. Science communication and journalism would be advised to take the opportunity for navel-gazing as well. In this era of personal genomics and NSA overreach, helping the public understand technical topics has never been more important. With this in mind, I propose five resolutions for myself and other science writers in the year to come.
1. Alleviate the confusion surrounding “theory,” “law” and “hypothesis.” While I wouldn’t eliminate these terms from popular usage, as suggested by Wired’s Rhett Allain, each of the three has a slightly different meaning that should be respected in reporting.
2. Eliminate false equivalency. Journalists are often trained to represent “both sides” of an issue with equal weight, a practice that prevents bias in stories about politics or economics. But for scientific issues in which the overwhelming weight of evidence falls on one side, it is harmful to the public discourse to give equal credence to a fringe position. False equivalency has helped extend the “debate” on climate change and vaccine safety, among other vital topics.
3. Address the “natural” bias and chemophobia. The growing awareness of chemical pollution is a positive trend, but the resulting skepticism of chemicals can threaten the use of legitimately helpful compounds in medicine and other applications. The popularity of the ill-informed “paleo” diet also speaks to the desire for a “natural” ideal that simply doesn’t exist in a messy and human-influenced reality.
4. Disambiguate between different uses of “significant.” The word means something very specific in statistics, indicating that a result is unlikely to have arisen randomly. This result may or may not have actual importance to the topic being discussed, and researchers shouldn’t use the first meaning of the word to hint at the second.
5. Encourage outreach by scientists themselves. Although journalists can do a lot, the most powerful science communication often comes from those intimately involved with the research being reported. Twitter’s RealScientists account is a sterling example of how bench workers can engage the public that funds their work.