Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Communicating science to the public? More like an advertising blitz.

Sad to say, I'm not being metaphorical.

I nearly drove off the road this morning listening to this story on Morning Edition about the ways ads (especially for Hollywood movies) are permeating more bits of our lives. This general thesis does not surprise me in the least. (For the record, the studio marketing folks are upfront that this is what they're doing. Serves us right for fast-forwarding through the commercials.)

The part that really raised my ire was the story's poster boy for just how far the imbedded advertising has gone, Jack Horner, the Curator for Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. Horner has been a consultant for the Jurassic Park movies. I'm actually glad they hired a professional here (especially since most of Michael Crichton's scientific expertise, apparently, is in climate science). But, it turns out, Universal Studios wanted more than just information about dinosaurs from Horner. They also wanted hype. And, seeing as how they gave Horner "a nice tidy sum" (in Horner's own words), they got it. Horner was part of a team that had discovered remains of a really big Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he agreed to delay announcement of the discovery to coincide with the release of the third Jurassic Park movie. Indeed, he didn't just delay the announcement -- he agreed to fudge the discovery date by several weeks to coincide with the press build-up to the movie's release.

Horner allowed as how this would not have been an acceptable thing to do in a manuscript submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. But, to his mind, what appears in the popular press is meaningless. Quoth Horner, "You can go to the press with anything and they'll publish it." He wasn't lying, at least not to anyone that mattered. He was "sitting on a little media hype" to satisfy the studio which, he was quick to point out, provided funds that made lots of Horner's research possible. And Horner says this is "within reason as far as I'm concerned."

Horner is probably right that discovering a big T. Rex makes more of a splash in the sixth grade class than it does in the world of paleontology. Moreover, there is probably less interest in the precise date the fossils were unearthed (what's a few weeks in geological time?) than in what the fossils themselves might teach us. And, it's worth noting, Horner's discovery never made it to the scholarly scientific literature, with or without accurate details about when it happened. Nonetheless, there's something unsettling about Horner's attitude.

In the story, Thomas Holtz, a T. Rex expert at the University of Maryland, articulated a central concern:

We're in the business of presenting observations and facts. And although it's a trivial fact, you know, once you start doing that, who knows what else will follow? I hope nothing worse ... and honestly, I don't see what advantage it gives them, either.

So, let's compile Dr. Free-Ride's list of reasons to think Jack Horner has sold his scientific soul (or at least delivered the first installment to Universal):

  1. Serious scientists are honest about the facts.
  2. Serious scientists are at least a little open-minded about what facts will end up being important. It is possible that the date on which fossils were discovered could end up being important. (Remember that fossilized angel Lisa Simpson discovered on the school trip? It turned out to be relevant that she discovered it after it was planted by the developers of the new shopping mall.)
  3. Serious scientist can sit on hype without resorting to lies about what they're hyping.
  4. Serious scientist will at least try not to let the "nice tidy sum" the funder provides influence the findings themselves.
  5. Serious scientists are concerned enough about objectivity that they will resist the temptation to engage in trivial fudging. (The first fudged fact is always the hardest...)
  6. Serious scientists ought to understand that misleading the public -- whether about the scientific facts, or into thinking that the community of science would see this kind of fib as A-OK -- is a very bad idea. The public funds a lot of science. The public also funds science education in the colleges and universities. And, the public makes all sorts of decisions about how science will be taught in elementary and secondary schools. Refrain from messing with their heads!
  7. Serious scientists ought not to abuse their power as scientists, even if it is expedient to do so in order to serve their corporate masters.

Let me say more about the abuse.

When Horner said "You can go to the press with anything and they'll publish it, " I don't think he meant anyone can go to the press with anything and get it published. I can't, and I'm both an academic and a responsible adult. Instead, I think he really meant that a credentialed scientist like himself, with a curatorial post (and a 1986 fellowship from The MacArthur Foundation) could get the press to publish anything. He's probably right. But, presumably, the reason the press would publish anything Jack Horner handed them is that there is a reasonable presumption that credentialed scientists with curatorial posts and MacArthur fellowships don't make up the stuff in their press releases! So, it's not really fair to say the popular press is to blame for delivering us garbage about science when scientists take advantage of the credulity of the popular press to deliver that garbage to the editors.

(An aside: Here's the beginning of the Overview of the MacArthur Fellows Program:

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.

Does fudging a detail like when a scientific finding occurred count as creativity? Does doing Universal Studios' bidding count as self-direction? If the MacArthur Foundation had a time machine, would Horner still have gotten that 1986 fellowship?)


At 7:26 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

My first reaction was similar to yours.

But I worked in press and in flackery for a while, and I thought through the day: The fossil's been in the ground for several tens of millions of years. What difference does it make to wait a few days to announce its discovery?

From the flackery side, I've often timed releases to try to get maximum play, in order to more effectively communicate the intended message. How is Horner's action much different? He didn't change any science claim -- he only time the announcement. What if the announcement had been delayed because when it was ready to go out, somebody found a huge typo? I've delayed releases for that reason. Is that unethical?

I've timed releases to hit the evening news cycle, or the morning news cycle, depending on what sort of dudgeon I want people to get into. Was it unethical to time a press release about the White House's planned veto of the Missing Children Bill so it would hit the Friday morning talk shows and live all weekend on the Sunday talking head shows? The calls on Monday turned the White House around. Does the end in any way justify the means?

Is Horner's sin only that he collects money? Why is it a sin to extract research money from commercial interests?

I'm still bothered by it, but not a lot. Horner confessed. I suspect that, had a reporter asked the actual discovery date, he'd have given it -- but it was irrelevant to the story. As I said, the fossil was several tens of millions of years in the ground.

If it was an ethical lapse, what does Horner have to do to get back in your good graces?

At 8:58 PM, Blogger AxmxZ said...

I think it's no big whoop. It would be very nice if scientists didn't have to play ball with corporations, but that's not the world we live in. I personally think changing the public release dates of a fossil, especially one with lots of "flash" value and relatively little scientific merit, is no big deal. Especially if all the true facts are conserved for the peer reviewed journals.

One could argue that this puts Horner on a moral slippery slope towards fraud, but I am not a big believer in such slippery slopes. He has not made a secret of this; he obviously feels that he's not compromised either his own integrity or the fossil's scientific value to any significant extent; and he’s obviously not *entirely* happy with having to do this, or else he wouldn’t have called these not-quite-ill-gotten gains “a nice tidy sum,” which rather brings to mind a mafia snitch’s pay off. All this shows to me that he actually thought this through, performed a cost-benefit analysis, and came to the conclusion that this was a relatively painless way to get some good research funded. So I say power to Horner for knowing how to survive in a world where a researcher's hunger for scientific knowledge has to be funded through the public hunger for spectacles. If there is a fault, it's not really Horner's, - such is the state of science in America today.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Matt Brauer said...

Horner's action is completely different because his reputation and credibility come from telling the truth. To the extent that scientists have a priveleged place in the public discourse, it's because the are perceived to be concerned with truth more than with selling stuff. Horner didn't delay the announcement: he lied about the discovery date. Big difference.

The date of the discovery might be a trivial datum. But does the public necessarily understand that? Will they be more or less likely to trust statements about an important point (the age of the fossil, say) because of this?

It's really hard to see how lying about something -- even about trivia -- could increase the public's trust in science. Horner should be ashamed of himself.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I'd have no problem with Horner if he was just fiddling with when to announce. The lying (about the date of discovery) bugs me, though. And what bugs me the most is that he seems to care not at all that he's mucking around with the popular press as a potential source of scientific information for the general public. That's where I think he's not simply at the top of a slippery slope, but well down the hill and heading for a tree.

It's bad enough that most people have been convinced (whether by crappy teachers, or crappy gender stereotypes, or whatever) that they just can't "get" science. I think, given the pervasive influence of scientific stuff in our world, that they ought to care at least a little about science. They ought to be able to learn something cool that scientists have worked out without boning up to fight their way through a journal article. Good science journalism could be a help here.

But when the scientists have so little respect for the public and the mass media that they figure lies don't matter? I don't see that getting the public engaged enough to try to follow science in the newspaper.

(And of course, I know there's shoddy journalism out there, and that in times of scarce resources even good scientists need to pimp themselves out occasionally. But dammit, I cannot accept that the right response to this sorry state of affairs is to say, "That's just how the world is, go with the flow." Scientists ought jealously to guard their integrity, to make the papers get the story right, and to make the public care!)

At 5:02 AM, Blogger Grant Canyon said...

This is a tempest in a teapot. (For God's sakes part of you argument is based on an episode of a cartoon.) Should Horner have done something different? Yes. Could it have any substantive effect? No. It isn't like he kept it a secret.

I think, if anything, his comments about the press should shame the press. (But can anything same the press?)

The fact of the matter is, the press (even so-called science reporters) are by and large so guilable, ignorant of science and lazy at fact checking and following up that Horner could have told them that he uncovered the skelaton of a fire-breathing dragon, and they would have reported it. (Probably on page B-7, on the "science" page, next to the horoscopes.)

That's not to excuse Horner, but just to say that the press sucks.

At 6:35 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Oh, that's great. Horner lies, then defends his lying by saying a big company paid him to do it, and here we have someone saying it's no big deal because the press sucks? That's just ridiculous.

Of course the press should expect the truth from scientists. And of course they listen when an expert like Horner tells them something. That's the whole point of talking to experts, to find out what is happening in their field and what is important. It's not shameful to trust respected scientists!

By the way, as was pointed out, Horner did more than delay the press release (it's his work after all, he can release it whenever he wants), he actually misled people with full knowledge he was doing it.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

It is most encouraging that scientists and science advocates find this worthy of discussion. You'd never find a discussion of ethics of creationists on a creationist website or blog.

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I'm pretty happy y'all are here discussing this stuff (and that it's not just me getting worked up about it).

Thanks for coming by!

At 8:40 AM, Blogger JM said...

You got Pharyngula link love! :)

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Duckman GR said...

You start lying, when do you stop?

That's the problem with the press, they are utterly devoid of trust. Now, everytime Horner says somethin, I'm going to wonder, which is real and which is convenient. And that's really the basis for so much of the problems we face today. It's all so convenient. Why trouble yourself with small details.

Isn't that what they said when they were building the Verranza-Narrows bridge? Isn't that what happened with the Mars probe that had something in feet and inches instead of metric figures?


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