If a scientist shouts in the trees, will those in the forest hear the evidence?
The media firestorm brewing since this summer over the validity of claims of Elizabeth Holmes for Theranos, a company with a $9 billion evaluation, reflects the larger inability of our culture to assign credence to scientists. Or even to ask for their input. This may be particularly problematic in the medical diagnostics space.
During a recent interview with Fortune, Theranos ceo and founder Holmes admitted that she has made mistakes by not better communicating with the public about the blood testing company's data and devices. But this issue was raised early on by esteemed scientists who expressed their skepticism of Theranos' claims of revolutionizing the blood testing industry, given the lack of available data.
As Vox reported recently:
In the worst case, this will be another example where the public fell prey to an over-hyped health promise supported by no good evidence.
Do distortions and possible misrepresentations of science happen because the public doesn't want to listen, because the messages are absent or because they didn't hear the messages?
Eleftherios P. Diamandis, the head of clinical biochemistry at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and John Ioannidis, of Stanford Prevention Research Center, both published their opinions about Theranos' approach in peer-reviewed journals.
Although the public does not have easy access to most peer-reviewed journals, some mainstream media outlets picked up their comments and published the scientists' concerns. Still, it took months for their insights to infiltrate the public conversation more deeply. They were pointing out what is now accepted by many, including Holmes: there is a need for transparency and peer review of the data supporting Theranos' extraordinary claims.
This view was shared by other clinical scientists and professionals who were engaging in active discussion with colleagues and at prominent conferences. But their perspective was mainly absent in major media.
The bigger question is why are scientists missing from the greater public conversation?
Beyond legacy sites devoted to science, such as Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic and newer players such as Cosmos, Aeon and Nautilus, credible voices of researchers are largely absent from critical media discussions on major science-related issues.
Of course, we all know of the stars of science mass communication, including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, whose goals include bringing science to the public and increasing public interest in the sciences. And outlets such as PBS provide scientific programming for all ages.
However, there are far more scientists who communicate science in peer forums versus public ones. And the majority are missing completely from any public conversation. Yes, news releases about key advancements and prestigious funding announcements or awards, such as the Nobel Prize, bring scientists into the media. But most often, they are quoted or their work is summarized by someone else.
As the news coverage on Theranos evolved over the past several weeks, articles began to include quotes from laboratory directors and researchers. It was good to see experts in my field contributing to mainstream media pieces, imparting snippets of their knowledge. However, it would be even better for those colleagues and other scientific thought leaders to write items read by the public.
It turns out that they are not alone.
In a recent Pew survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 78 percent of scientists reported rarely or never speaking to reporters, while only 10 percent reported frequently writing for the public themselves.
Yet, results of that same survey, suggest scientists agree that their communication to the public is important. A large majority, or 84 percent of those polled, responded that limited public knowledge about science was a major problem for the field.
True, a number of professional scientific organizations have promoted the inclusion of scientific contributions to public conversations. They even offer step-by-step instructions for writing op-eds. The AAAS has established a Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology.
Every scientific professional society should provide this information as a resource for its members and encourage this activity. However, a quick online search of several relevant to my fields of interest, shows they do not.
Their websites include areas devoted to vital advocacy efforts and even sections designed for the public, but detailed information about the channels and modes for members to contribute to the news are often missing. Without additional awareness, encouragement and tools, we are likely to continue to stay out of the pubic conversation.
Yes, scientists are authors, but we are trained and focused on publishing results of our original work for scholarly journals. If academic thought leaders have an opinion, they are likely to publish it, as Diamandis and Ioannidis did, in the perspective or editorial pages of these same journals.
We should reconsider this practice and broaden our reach. Perhaps we publish our opinions similar to our research because this is the forum we know best and feel is most appropriate for our intended audience. Unfortunately, despite the high impact it may have among the scientific community, the message might be inaccessible and unknown to the public.
This is an exciting time of advancement in my specialty, laboratory medicine, and its intersection with the public is unprecedented. As with all paradigm shifts, questions and debates will arise. There is a need to balance the hype and misconceptions pervasive in media with accurate and clear scientific information, noting the evidence base or acknowledging uncertainties.
If we, as clinical laboratory professionals, fail to find our public voices, the results may include misinformed or misguided healthcare decision making, practices and policy as well as lost opportunities for collaboration with the public. Just as important, people may miss the significant and exciting contributions we make to healthcare.
Is it the public's fault for not listening to scientific reason? Maybe we are also to blame for failing to emerge from our 'private' discussions into a larger public conversation.