I like watching and listening to the news. It gives me a small insight into what is going on in the world without having to go around and find out for myself. However, there are a couple of phrases which come up every so often that set alarm bells ringing. Being a science PhD student the words “Scientists say…” or “Researchers at X, Y and Z have found…” should make my ears perk up and my mind cry Oh yes! Science in the news, tell me more! Instead it tends to be Oh no! That’s not right!
Only recently I was in the lab, spreading some bacteria onto an agar plate that contained an antibiotic, when I heard the words seeping out of the radio “Scientists at UEA have been given funding to investigate new antibiotics, which could be used to replace the one’s our bodies have become resistant to”. OK, so there is research going ahead into antibiotics made by bacteria found in the bodies of leafcutter ants. And yes new antibiotics could be found. But no, no, no, our bodies have not become resistant to them. It is there in the name, ‘antibiotic’…anti…biotic. Antibiotics act against bacteria and are generally given to us as a medicine when we incur a bacterial infection of some kind. They then work to kill the bacteria giving us a problem and we get better. It is not our bodies that the antibiotics work on. Therefore it is the bacteria which have become resistant to the antibiotics, not us. It is relatively simple things like this which are more commonly incorrect and not one area of science is immune from it.
Science in the news is where most people get their scientific information from once they leave school. And it is these little snippets which stick in the mind. When sitting in a pub, café or on public transport I frequently overhear the dreaded phrases slipped into conversations followed by a garbled load of misinformation which people claim to have taken from news programs or that day’s newspaper. So many times I have refrained from turning around and correcting them, because social convention dissuades you from butting into the conversations of people you’ve never met, and correcting them like one of the school teachers they’ve long left behind. Beside, such an exercise would be futile while such reports continue to appear in the media. I’m not really sure who is to blame, if it is the original scientists for not properly explaining their work to the journalists, if it is the journalists who didn’t ask the right questions, if it is the school teachers and parents who didn’t teach properly, or even if everyone is a little bit to blame. I can understand that when communicating science for a mass audience it can be difficult to adjust scientific language into a form that can be understood by everyone – especially when column space or air time is short, but the information needs to be correct to prevent scientific ignorance in society. One thing I’m sure about is that the phrase: “Scientists say”, will continue to get my goat for the foreseeable future.
by Kirsty Jackson- a third year PhD student in the lab of Dr Jeremy Murray. All opinions in this blog article are my own