April 14, 2024

Facts with few readers — or readers with few facts?

An exchange in the letters column of the leading journal Nature raises interesting points about whether scientists should worry about the message or the facts when they talk to the media. In January Nature published an article by a group of conservationists which predicted that many species would become extinct by 2050. Its argument was complex and used hard-to-understand statistics. Many articles in the media were wildly distorted. Most of them blared that a million or more species would become extinct by 2050. These exaggerated claims were subsequently taken up by some politicians and conservationists.

The solution of some Oxford scientists was to restrict press releases to research papers which present “clear and unequivocal findings” and for scientists to actively seek to clarify bad reporting in the press.

Two of the original authors responded to this suggestion. Blocking publicity, they argued, would have meant a lost opportunity. Exaggerations were actually a godsend in communicating an important message to millions of Americans, even if the facts were wrong. “Breaking through a US media climate often dominated by news of war, terror or the latest celebrity escapades is a victory…. although the reporting wasn’t perfect, we believe the benefits of the wide release greatly outweighed the negative effects of errors in reporting.”