Science and the Media
The news increasingly comes in number form: police-reported crimes go up and down; the economy shrinks or grows; the latest figures on Covid-19 cases are released.
Statistical literacy, broadly defined the ability to interpret, critically evaluate, and communicate statistics, is essential to navigating not only the news, but arguably today’s society. Scholars and policymakers alike are increasingly concerned about statistical literacy in the broader society as well as specifically in those groups – such as journalists – who shape how scientific knowledge is communicated to the public.
To give an example: In 2011 the Daily Telegraph wrote the headline “Fizzy drinks make teenagers violent”, implying a causal link between the consumption of carbonated drinks and aggressive behaviour in a particularly vulnerable group in society, namely young adults. However, the scientific evidence found only an association – not a causal relationship – between the two variables.
One argument is that journalists may knowingly spread misleading information to gain readership. However, if journalists have little or no understanding of how numbers are made (e.g., the design and analysis of scientific data) and how they can go wrong (e.g., the limitations of scientific research), then it is possible that they unintentionally report information that is misleading to their readers.
This then raises the question of how we communicate science to the public. “Fake news”, such as the above example spreads extremely quickly, in part because it appears novel and elicits emotions such as fear, disgust or surprise. And although we often think of “fake news” as deliberately intentional, the consequences of misinformation can be the same, whether it is intended or not.
As a result of these pressing problems and the need to address them, the Institute of Advanced Study is hosting two workshops this academic year: one on statistical literacy and the other on science communication.
Literacy is regarded as the starting point of education, a means through which we can gather further knowledge. It is, however, often associated with reading and writing, rather than numeracy. Yet, most of what we value about literacy requires an ability to interpret numbers and not just the written word. This raises several important questions such as: Why do certain groups in society value statistical literacy, while others find it inaccessible? Do journalists in the UK receive sufficient statistical training to communicate scientific evidence? What are the causes of statistical illiteracy? Dr Sophie Carr, Vice President of Education and Statistical Literacy for the Royal Statistical Society presented at the first workshop to enlighten us on some of these issues.
Science communication relies on expertise, accountability, and trust. The public looks to scientific experts for decision-making. However, expert advice can change as new results emerge. Whilst this is naturally evident to many scientists, dealing with uncertainty has been met with a level of scepticism and lack of trust from the public. This raises the question of why people trust experts in the first place. How do they decide who is, and who is not, an expert? How do experts communicate the uncertainty associated with scientific evidence?
Our guest speaker at the second workshop is journalist Tom Chivers. Tom is Science Editor at UnHerd.com and has won the Royal Statistical Society’s award for statistical excellence in journalism as well as the Association of British Science Writers’ science journalist of the year.
We hope that these workshops will spurn many more discussions about science in the media and future research projects.
The first statistical literacy workshop took place on the 22nd of September, and the science communication workshop takes place on the 29th of September. For more information about attending the workshop please e-mail email@example.com
Dr David Chivers (Associate Fellow IAS)
Professor Susanne Braun (Associate Fellow IAS)