In fourth grade science class, I learned that taste buds were divided into regions of the tongue. We even conducted a confusing failed “experiment” in which we were supposed to confirm this with taste strips. Year later, in junior year biology, I learned that this experiment failed because taste buds are, in fact, distributed across the mouth. This taught me that textbooks are insufficient for teaching us the science by which we should live.
The alternative, unfortunately, is a volatile scientific understanding that comes from sources of questionable trustworthiness. One day, we read that coffee is bad for health because it increases blood cortisol levels. A few weeks later, we read that coffee is, in fact, good for health because it is correlated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s. Most of us do not read the journal articles or talk to the experts. We are left to throw up our hands and browse Reddit instead, resuming our previous aggressive coffee consumption habits.
Branding motivations play a major role of knowledge obfuscation. It is well known that pharmaceutical companies and tech companies try to skew public understanding to increase consumption. There is also another, more insidious branding at work: that of researchers trying to increase their influence. Even the most scrupulous researchers are susceptible to branding pressure: mainstream acceptance is influential in faculty hiring and tenure cases. As a Ph.D. student in computer science, I have learned not to tell you why the ideas I propose may never work. If I am lucky enough to get that media interview, I am not going to say why my problem is not the most important problem or why my solution is not the best solution. Because of the public’s short attention span, presenting catchy sound bytes and oversimplified explanations is good for both my interviewer and me. No wonder the science we get from the New York Times, TED talks, and blog posts is so fragmented and inconsistent.
My aspiration for journalism, then, is for journalists to provide context and curation for scientific knowledge. Journalism can publicize not just results but potential motivations, from funding sources to a scientist’s track record of stances on a topic. Rather than presenting stories in a one-sided way, journalists can solicit multiple expert opinions, including experts outside the area who may not have as much reputation and political capital at stake. Rather than pander to public desire for simple panaceas, journalists can teach the public to embrace complexity by giving people tools to help engage with conflicting opinions. The newest research on whether coffee is good for us may be different than what we heard last week, but if we know how this compares with the whole research trajectory on the topic, as well as expert opinions on the validity of the research, we are able to form educated opinions. It is only with this context and curation that non-experts can have any hope at navigating this science branding game.