Scientists’ image reflected by the accuracy of their data

Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor Credit: India Price/Online Editor

This week at Student Pugwash, the Science, Technology, and Society discussion club, we discussed the importance — or lack thereof — of the creation of a public image by scientists and the effects it can have on both the scientific community and the public.

Specifically, we covered the topics of liability of scientists with regards to their results and the effects that they may hold, and how to educate the public about the process of scientific rigor and what it entails.

The events that were presented with regards to this topic were the charging of scientists in Italy in 2009 with manslaughter with the misreporting of the probability of an earthquake, and the confidence of British scientists in the lack of ability for Mad Cow Disease to spread to humans through infected beef before the disease leapt to humans.

The first of the topics examined was the role that uncertainty plays in the scientific community and the reporting of said aspect to the public.

We considered the existence of error in scientific reporting, and the characteristics of the inherent falsifiability of the scientific endeavor.

First, a member brought up the positive reporting bias in science, which led another student to bring up the topic of the creation of incorrect conclusions from poor experimental design and rigged result reporting, specifically treating such negligence as manslaughter.

A different student proposed that scientists should be immune to the law and instead practice self-governance through rigor in the publishing of papers.
Another student proposed the promotion of the replication of scientific studies of particular interest.

From this topic we proceeded in addressing the liability — legal and social — when it comes to publicizing the conclusions to scientific studies, specifically with comparing the reports of scientists and potential failings to infrastructure designed and built by designers and engineers.

At first, a Pugwash member proposed that similar to the punishment given out to designers of poorly constructed buildings, scientists should be punished in accordance with that negligence.

Another participant built off of that idea by proposing that the punishment only be in the case of bad data. For example, if a bridge were to be destroyed by a natural disaster, then the scientist should only be punished if the conclusion is based off of bad data.

As a counter to the comparison between engineers and scientists, a different student proposed that it would be hard to compare the roles of engineer and scientist, as engineers have codes and lists of requirements to follow that usually result in more predictable results, while scientists are supposed to push boundaries with relatively unpredictable results.

Furthermore, to address the subject of false reporting, the student also brought up the misreporting that occasionally occurs with meteorology scientists and whether or not said behavior should be punished as a result.

From here we returned to the reporting of the existence of scientific error and the effect it could have on societal trust in science.

A student mentioned that the positions of celebrity scientists, such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, should be used to report on how to read science with regards to the existence of such error reporting.

Another student mentioned the role of the media in scientific reporting and proposed that the media is actually a neutral entity that can and actively does mislead people.

To be specific, the student mentioned the use of press releases and the mistranslations of scientific results in those press releases.

Another member provided an example of when a researcher simply worked in the normalization of data in a powerline study, and the media’s exaggerated and false conclusion of the results lead to him leaving Stanford under the pressure of power companies.

A potential solution to this dangerous misrepresentation could be as follows: the media may create a story, but other media companies must work as a check on those stories.

At the end of the meeting, the general consensus was that the reporting of science to the media and the populace is marred with flaws and misunderstandings.

But a different view, mentioned as a closing remark, noted that a site designed for the reporting of science in a media-like fashion exists where the articles are
written by scientists themselves.

The existence of the site could be seen as a hopeful outlook on the relationship between scientists and public.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on the liability of scientists in regards to their results.