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Covering science like an expert

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BY MARY NICKUM
Outdoor writers are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife and environmental issues. The truth is we often aren’t the experts, we just know where to find them — and how to interpret and share their knowledge.
The writer’s responsibility is to be accurate yet convey the information in an interesting way. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles.
Where does one find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article? You need to find the real experts.
The credibility of the communicator, the media as a whole and ultimately the scientific enterprise itself is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks and benefits of scientific research. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. Sometimes the best we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer on the topic we’re investigating.
Whatever the outcome, or the topic, there are a few things to think about when reporting on science.
Start with some old-fashioned research. Know enough to be able to ask questions and identify what experts might best speak to the topic.
Find your experts. Experts are everywhere. Check local colleges and universities and government agencies like your state game and fish department.
Schedule a face-to-face interview, if possible. Phone conversations and email questionnaires are OK if the expert is not local. You don’t have to be an expert on the topic as long as you pay attention to detail, ask good questions and aren’t afraid to admit how little you know.
Ask good questions. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, it does however require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:

  • Was the study done, or claim made, based on evidence only?
  • How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations?
  • What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
  • Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
  • Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
  • Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?

Know your science basics. There are five principles of scientific analysis and understanding them will help you in your reporting and writing.
1. Some uncertainty is acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds” or “flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. Science writers don’t have to do the math; they just have to say to researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is there another explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Is there an alternative explanation for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The dimensions of studies. For costs and other reasons, not all studies are created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable, but sometimes used. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is more study needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The power of peer review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.
Think about who the findings might impact. Are there non-experts that have a stake in the research you should interview? Are there people who disagree with the findings or the way the study was conducted? Do the new findings match previous research or are there discrepancies? Science stories like all good stories, shouldn’t be single-sourced.
Double check your understanding. When you sit to write make sure you understand the topic and information you have collected. Can you explain the study to a friend? If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Check again with the expert if you feel unsure. ♦
— A member since 2000, Mary J. Nickum is a retired librarian who is now an editor and freelance writer. Her primary focus is on science for the public. Nickum is editor-in-chief of the Intermountain journal of Science and currently edits World Aquaculture magazine. Contact her at mjnickum@hotmail.com
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