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Talking Headlines: Dr Phillip Williamson on the importance of correcting misinformation in the media

by on 2016/12/13

Dr Phillip Williamson is an associate fellow at the University of East Anglia, employed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  His science coordination work includes programmes on ocean acidification (completed), shelf sea biogeochemistry (ongoing) and greenhouse gas removal (planned), all co-funded by NERC and UK government departments. Misleading reporting on ocean acidification has led to Dr Williamson to become a strong proponent of countering poor reporting and misinformation in the media, as shown by his recent column in Nature.

Much of your work focuses on ocean acidification and its potential effect on creatures that live in the sea. What’s the current consensus in this field? 

Ocean acidification is the large-scale change in seawater chemistry caused by increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it increases the concentration of hydrogen ions, measured on the pH scale. Other changes include a reduction in carbonate ions, that may cause shells and other structures made out of calcium carbonate to dissolve. The chemistry is relatively well-known, and direct measurements since the late 1980s confirm that these processes are underway. What wasn’t realised until more recently was that many, but not all, marine organisms are sensitive to such changes.

Since CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to rise for many years, (even if the United Nations Paris climate agreement is fully implemented), researchers have investigated the implications of future ocean acidification. There have also been studies of sites where CO2 is naturally released from the seafloor, and analyses of the changes in marine life that occurred during previous, natural ocean acidification events, e.g. around 55 million years ago.

Marine organisms that have been shown to be especially sensitive to high CO2 and low pH include warm- and cold-water corals, shellfish (such as oysters) and small planktonic snails, known as sea butterflies or pteropods. Impacts of ocean acidification, and its interactions with other stressors, have been synthesised in meta-analyses and international reviews.

As a topic linked to climate change, ocean acidification has been the subject of a lot of media interest. How do you think it is generally covered in the media? 

Whilst there has been UK media coverage of ocean acidification, public awareness is not that high. Recent surveys have shown that only around 20% of the British population know what is involved. Public awareness is higher in some parts of the US, particularly on the Pacific coast, where ocean acidification has already caused significant economic damage to oyster cultivation. At the global scale, the main ecological, socio-economic and public concerns relate to impacts on coral reefs, important for coastal protection, local fisheries and tourism, as well as providing habitat for a very wide range of other marine species.

Mainstream UK media coverage (e.g. by BBC and the ‘quality’ press) on ocean acidification has generally been helpful and informative. However, a minority of press coverage has deliberately chosen to be controversial, misrepresenting or ignoring facts that are scientifically well-established. Website coverage is very variable in quality. There are many US websites that either have an anti-science agenda, or promote pseudo-science; e.g. denying climate change. Most of these are linked to extreme right-wing politics.

Where do you think the problem of poor science reporting lies and who holds responsibility? Scientists, institutions or journals?

Poor reporting of ocean acidification in the traditional media has two main causes. The first is over-dramatization of the story by journalists, to compete for column inches in a newspaper or broadcast time. The second is when the journalist, commentator or editor has an ideologically-driven agenda, resulting in cherry-picking of information.

But there is also competition for attention by research institutions, their press offices, and by scientists, keen to publish in high profile journals and achieve sought-after ‘impact’ ‒ crucial for assessments of research and future funding. Studies showing little or no effect for ocean acidification (or for any other experimental treatment) are unlikely to appear in Nature or Science; nevertheless, it is important that they should still be published, assuming they have been properly carried out. Such information provides comparative information on species sensitivity, testing our theoretical understanding of the processes involved. They may also indicate the potential for physiological acclimatization, genetic adaptation and food-web interactions.

Scientific journals provide the quality-control for academic papers. The system of peer review is not perfect, yet it is the best there is – and the scientific process is inherently self-correcting.

How do you think the confirmation bias in social media might exacerbate these problems?

Whilst social media can assist in the dissemination of conventional science, they predominantly promote the unconventional, unusual or outrageous, based on sensationalist, clickbait headlines. Furthermore, echo-chamber and bubble effects occur, as a consequence of Google search algorithms, Facebook news-feeds and personal sharing of links and content. All these not only lack quality control, but re-inforce existing world views and prejudices. As a result, fake news may be given more attention on social media than the real thing. It is disturbing, but maybe not all that surprising, that the most-shared climate change story in the past 6 months was the fake news (originating from YourNewsWire) “Tens of thousands of scientists declare climate change a hoax”, or that the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives tweeted a link to a Breitbart pseudo-science article as if it were fact.

You recently wrote a piece in Nature encouraging scientists to challenge falsehoods and misrepresentation of their work. Why do you think it is important to take steps to counter the distortions?

The communication of science is as important as doing the research; without the former, the latter is money wasted. Whilst much of that communication is an internal process (via peer-review and scientific publications), science is funded to benefit society, providing the evidence for policy decisions. Value-based judgements are also involved, but these should operate fairly. No-one expects politicians, nor the wider public, to read academic journals; instead they receive information through the media, as well as directly from individuals they trust (science advisers in the case of politicians; friends, work colleagues, teachers, nurses and hairdressers for everyone else). So if there is distortion and misrepresentation along the way, whether accidental or deliberate, the overall science-society-policy relationship breaks down: no-one knows any more what to believe. Experts may not get everything right; nevertheless, they are considerably more reliable, and are trusted more, than non-experts.

You have tackled poor reporting on ocean acidification head-on, why did you decide to counter these distortions?

There is a very specific and subjective answer to your question: an article by James Delingpole in The Spectator that not only trashed the science of ocean acidification, but also considered the UK Ocean Acidification research programme (that I had coordinated) to be a whopping waste of public money. Lots of other errors and inaccuracies were also included. Initially I tried raising my concerns with the editor of The Spectator, but when I didn’t get any response, I published an online rebuttal via The Marine Biologist. That resulted in a rather unpleasant and personal diatribe from Delingpole, via Breitbart. Since online slanging matches are neither scientific, productive nor edifying, it seemed appropriate to refer the core issues of accuracy and misrepresentation to the UK Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) ‒ to make a more authoritative assessment of whether the original article in The Spectator had breached the Editors Code of Conduct with regard to accuracy.

My IPSO complaint is expected to be resolved before the end of the year. Much seems to depend on the limits of free speech and fair criticism, and the distinction between opinion and fact. But what is fact? What is truth? Scientific caution in making definitive statements can be unhelpful here, even if soundly-based on the premise that knowledge and understanding are necessarily provisional, capable of improvement. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has defined seven categories of uncertainty (from exceptionally unlikely to virtually certain) but holds back from saying that anything is certain.

Have you seen a good example of reporting on your field?

There are many journalists working who do take the time and trouble to ‘get it right’, and websites that have impressed me recently for their coverage of climate-related news, and the science-policy nexus, include Carbon Brief and Climate News Network. Climate Feedback also warrants mention, since that provides article-specific analysis of the credibility of scientific articles published elsewhere.

And finally, what would be your tip to our readers on how to get it right when they come across sensationalist headlines?

For me, a crucial issue of credibility in science reporting is whether sufficient information is given to trace the story back to its source – usually a published paper. [From RtH: This is a Research the Headlines Top Tip too!]  If a newspaper article really is ‘over the top’, and you have the expert knowledge to recognise that, the most effective response is probably still the traditional letter to the editor (sent as soon as possible). Even if your letter isn’t published, it is likely to be brought to the attention of the article’s author. Online comments are, of course, another option ‒ or may be the only option for online material.

Just a few years ago, the response to your question might have been “ignore it, it will go away”. Unfortunately it hasn’t. The silver lining, on a better-late-than-never basis, is that there is now much stronger zeitgeist against press misinformation, with awareness of its potential for societal harm and perverse political influence.

Dr Williamson, thanks for talking with us and for highlighting the importance of countering the distortion of science in the media.

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