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):
- Serious scientists are honest about the facts.
- 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.)
- Serious scientist can sit on hype without resorting to lies about what they're hyping.
- Serious scientist will at least try not to let the "nice tidy sum" the funder provides influence the findings themselves.
- 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...)
- 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!
- 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?)