The news may not do nuance – science should

I certainly don’t want to stoke the embers of the Tim Hunt affair and like many I was desperate for the daily diet of media stories to end. But I do think the scientific community could benefit from some sober reflection and lesson learning. Like others I am keen for something more positive to come out of this miserable story.

There is of course a level at which this particular set of events was uniquely bizarre, and it may be optimistic to think that we can draw any general lessons for the future. After all, who has not felt bewildered by aspects of this saga which seemed to defy all the normal rules of science stories. Yet there are echoes of events such as Jim Watson’s racist gaffePhil Jones’ hacked emailsthe Michael Reiss affairthe sacking of David Nutt and Matt Taylor’s shirtstorm, and I think it’s worth debating whether there are any general principles which we could agree on that would help science press officers to navigate similar stories in future. There are probably multiple lessons, but in the spirit of kicking off a discussion amongst my fellow press officers can I start with one I feel especially passionate about. It looks something like this:

No scientific body should make any significant decisions about their association with a scientist based primarily on reports in the national news or social media. 

I love the media. That’s why I have chosen a career in which I get to work with journalists every day. I also spend my life championing the quality of science reporting against sometimes lazy critics. But I would never recommend making any major life-changing decisions on the basis of news reports alone. One of my favourite quotes about the media came from US political reporter, David Broder, when giving out Pulitzer prizes:

“I would like to see us say over and over again until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.”

Another quote I have had reason to recall came from Simon Pearson, former night editor of The Times, who horrified a group of Fellows of the Royal Society in a speech when he let them into a secret from newsrooms: “To the question ‘do you want it good or do you want it now?’ there is only ever one answer.”

If the news media is an unreliable basis on which to make major decisions on the future of a scientist, how much more so with social media? Twitter is of course many wonderful things but I doubt even its biggest fans would suggest that it is the truth on tablets of stone. In the case of Tim Hunt I think Twitter was playing one of those roles perfectly, communicating instant outrage around the world about words that some people found deeply offensive. That’s fine. Better than fine some would argue. But when even the tweeters point out that there is no room for nuance on Twitter the scientific community should take note.

So in the early days of the Tim Hunt affair the news media and social media were pretty much doing what they do. But did our scientific institutions do what they should do? Or to put it another way would it be reasonable to suggest that we look to scientific bodies to do something different? My argument for debate is that we should.

These institutions have many overlapping principles. These should of course include a commitment to women in science, but also include the core principles of science and natural justice, the proper investigation of facts, and the right of an accused person to face his accusers and answer the charge in a reasonable time frame.

We all know that one of the most bewildering aspects of the Tim Hunt affair and of similar stories is the speed with which they emerge and develop. A common response to the speed of social media is the need for institutions to adapt and be as nimble and responsive as Twitter. Organisations that remain silent in the face of Twitter storms are ridiculed, and press officers claim we can no longer afford to sit back and allow a narrative of events to unfold. Vacuums left by us will be filled by our critics, narratives unchallenged risk reputational damage.

Given these kinds of discussions it is perhaps unsurprising that many press officers I have discussed this with feel that UCL, the Royal Society and the European Research Council had no choice but to take decisive action in response to a growing Twitter storm. I am not so sure. I think they could have acted with less haste. I also think they could have been responsive without a rush to judgement. Of course we can’t be oblivious to a Twitter storm raging around us, but I worry that when we find ourselves embroiled in events being driven by Twitter speed we conflate the need to engage and be responsive with the temptation to act decisively and deliver a summary judgement.

The irony here is that I suspect the decisive action at such an early stage probably stifled the opportunity to have a much more positive and rich debate in which all the relevant facts would have come to light. As soon as institutions made such swift and radical decisions that became the focus of the media coverage, it was then difficult to discuss and comment on anything but the decision itself, as UCL found to its cost.

A few weeks into the saga I contacted Mike Granatt, a former senior government communications expert, former member of the SMC’s board and more importantly my all-time favourite communications guru. I told him that lots of us were bewildered and wondered what he might have advised UCL and others to do in these unusual circumstances. Quick as a flash he emailed back with the kind of statement he would have advised them to issue:

“We have heard this disturbing report. We understand the anger that has been caused. Prejudice against any section of society is unacceptable, but so is a rush to judgement when the implications are so severe. We will look quickly at all the facts, and ask Sir Tim for his explanation. We will then take any and all appropriate action.”  

Mike added that he felt that science press officers were well placed to champion a less hasty approach, saying: “Science press officers are outwith the walls of power and patronage that can obscure the vision of leaders, and they practise objective analysis of the media battlespace every day. Importantly, the best press officers agree that a rush to recognition is an essential demonstration of awareness and engagement. But they know that a rush to judgement with limited knowledge is a trap, all too easily sprung by campaigners or happenstance or both. They need to stand their ground.”

I found those sentiments fascinating. I have written before about how science press officers do more than just PR for science. Many, including most I have employed at the SMC, are former research scientists who left the bench reluctantly and only because there are now career opportunities which allow them to communicate the science they love. Science press officers do PR of course and reputational management, but we also have values that are core to science as well as media relations. At our best, science press officers care about accuracy and evidence and nuance and caveats and context. We know that science stories without these elements can harm the public interest, and most of the science press officers we work with every day challenge researchers who over-claim for findings and managers who put institutional reputation over truth-telling.

So would a different process have produced a different outcome? Having spoken to many of those involved I suspect quite possibly not. That’s fine with me. As I have said all along there are no real villains in this saga, just competing principles and approaches to issues.

However the fact that scientific bodies may have arrived at the same decision with the full facts as they did without them is not a justification for making decisions in ignorance. We have to be better than that surely? I live in hope that even people who disagreed passionately with me over Tim will agree that in the science world we should take decisions based on all the information and evidence available. Can we agree that as science press officers we should endeavour to stand for the values of science: accuracy and evidence and interrogating the facts and context and lack of bias. Can we say that Twitter doesn’t have to be good at nuance but science does?

When I moved from PR in quangos and lobby groups into science the biggest change for me was the different speeds of science and news, a culture clash I had not found in previous jobs. While news was generally only ever a partial version of what we knew on that day, researchers often spent years on one experiment, and even when complete they then patiently waited for their research to be peer reviewed and published. Adapting science to the 24 hour hungry news beast is what makes science media relations both so challenging and deeply satisfying.

The immediacy of Twitter is its allure. But science is powerful precisely because it doesn’t rush to judgement, and a careful weighing of all the evidence should be as important when judging an individual as when writing a scientific paper. We science press officers have a role to play and discussing this now might be useful. I fear the next Tim Hunt will be along soon.

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

Source: Science Media Centre UK

Image source: Getty Images

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