Smell something fishy?

Two recent TV programmes have got me thinking about who is responsible for the public’s opinions of science and the important science policies that affect their lives.

On Monday night I watched with joy as Sir Paul Nurse charged on his Nobel steed (see what I did there?) at science’s harshest critics; targeting those who cherry pick facts, don’t give a balanced debate and favour shock and awe to entertain their readers – yes, he was talking about journalists and bloggers; those funny creatures who link the supercilious scientists and the fickle general public. But of course he also said that scientists have a responsibility to stand up for science and engage the public directly, perhaps missing out the middle man, as I have also argued in these very pages.

I have also been watching Hugh’s Fish Fight, in which the organic warrior picks a fight with the European Union’s fishing policies. Hugh is incensed by the blatant waste of fish that results from the strict fishing quotas imposed by the EU, which he illustrated for the audience by filling the programme with sad fishermen who were equally incensed at having to land cheap Whiting whilst throwing overboard all their expensive Cod catch. The waste was indeed upsetting and there was a lot of Cod being thrown overboard, but then I got annoyed for a different reason.  These clips were used to argue that there is in fact an abundance of Cod in the North Sea: queue a Fisherman’s rant about the scientists not knowing what they were talking about and that their observations were clearly more valid than those of the scientific establishment. Hugh then went to visit a scientist who studies fish populations. In the two minute interview did we hear about how the scientists measure fish populations or see any graphs for current data on stock levels? No. Maybe the scientist didn’t offer up said information to Hugh, but if Hugh and his production team had wanted to give a balanced and informative view to the programme’s audience would these things not have made sense to be included?

And so I wonder, what can scientists do in the face of campaigners with an agenda? Campaigners who have control of the media: the gateway to the public’s mind and soul. Is it fair to expect everyone to be balanced? Do scientists themselves give balanced thought to everything they do? Paul Nurse thinks so but I’m not so convinced. I certainly fall foul of being biased in these pages, keeping an audience entertained whilst being completely fair is very difficult to achieve in the few hundred words that most journalists have at their disposal.

A solution is beyond me. In an age of not only free and globally accessible media but of media that can be written by anyone, it’s no good for scientists to throw their rattle out of the pram and scream foul play; if someone wants to write something then they can and will. So more than ever, the responsibility lies with the reader to make up their own mind, the best we can do is give people as much information as we can. Some people are more willing than others to search for the information that they require so it’s the job of scientists and those in the know to get the information out there to the masses in ways that are accessible.

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