Sense About Science, an independent trust founded in the UK to demand evidence behind scientific claims, has recently launched a US presence. We learned more from new US director, and former journalist, Trevor Butterworth.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and current position?
A. I’m Director of Sense About Science USA. I’ve lived in the US for 22 years—I came here from Ireland on a graduate scholarship to study history and philosophy at Georgetown University. Oddly enough, I won the Green Card lottery two weeks before I left for Washington DC, and my journalism break in the US turned out to be a piece for WGBH in Boston on what it was like to win the Green Card lottery. After journalism school at Columbia, I ended up launching a daily media criticism website in the early, heady days of the Internet. I suppose you could say I was fascinated by how and why the media got the news wrong as a specific problem of knowledge, and what the ethical implications of this were with respect to journalism. It was very much a practical, “real world” problem of my academic interests. This is not to say I didn’t write widely: the Boston Globe once credited me with changing discussions in American punctuation from the comma to the semicolon (something for my tombstone), but I was increasingly sustained by writing about the way statistics and science were reported and misreported in the media and public policy—something I did with the mathematician Rebecca Goldin at a small think tank called STATS.org, which was affiliated with George Mason University. By extension, that led to a deep immersion in the problems of communicating science through journalism and to the media.
Q. Can you tell us more about Sense About Science and why it's important that you expand its activities in the US?
A. We’ve all heard the phrases “we live in an information society,” or “we work in a knowledge economy,” but how much of that information is accurate and how much of that knowledge is true (or probably true, to be more exact)? We know from the growth of what has been described as meta research that a considerable amount of information isn’t accurate and that many things taken as true are probably wrong. We know from the National Institutes of Health that a considerable amount of scientific research cannot be replicated. And we know that marketing departments, journalists, politicians, and advocacy groups make many claims that have the aura of scientificity.
But in order to find out whether there is good science behind these claims—or any science at all, we have to ask for evidence. We have to demand that those with a purchase on our decision-making provide us the evidence. We have to demand that those who make decisions on our behalf—politicians, government officials—show us the evidence for their decisions. Evidence is the foundation of democratic accountability, the means by which we are able to reason pro and contra. What impressed me about Sense About Science in the UK was that they saw this problem from both ends: scientists had to speak up for science; but the public had to be empowered to ask for evidence. It was a two way street, or “expert fed rather than expert led” as they put it.
Sense about Science seemed to me to be a 21st century version of the kinds of societies that sprung up during the Enlightenment to advance knowledge for the public good. After speaking at a panel they organized for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014, and learning that they were trying to launch in the US, I was keen to help. They were creating and—to use that slightly worn buzzword of contemporary culture—“curating” the kinds of conversations that were both valuable and, for me personally, deeply enjoyable.
Q. Do you find any regional differences in how people react to reports on science in the media?
A. People react to science based on their beliefs and cultural and political affiliations. Given the massive amount of information produced in our “information society,” we tend to look for cognitive shortcuts by outsourcing decisions on what information we believe to people we trust. That can be problematic when it comes to scientific controversies—but that’s the subject of a much longer piece.
Q. Can you tell us about stats.org? How did it get started and what is its mission?
A. STATS launched in the early nineties as a reaction to the problem identified by the research Tankard and Ryan did on the media coverage of science in the 1970s: “Most journalists seem unable to judge whether numbers are really meaningful or accurate. Consequently, they either trust all figures or they trust none; and they tend to focus exclusively on a report writer's conclusions, while ignoring specific numbers and data collection techniques.”
STATS.org is now a joint project between Sense About Science USA and the American Statistical Association. It has two objectives: the first is to get journalists thinking about the importance of statistical understanding in terms of the stories they cover, which will involve enlarging something we were already doing: providing free statistical analysis and advice for journalists on deadline. When I say “we,” I mean my brilliant colleague Rebecca Goldin, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in Math from Harvard and MIT. Rebecca has helped journalists for the past decade with problems large and small. She has proofed the methodology on a major global investigative project conducted by the Associated Press, helped journalists from the New York Times and Wired with analyzing studies on deadline, and, more generally, she offers a mathematician’s perspective on story ideas to journalists. Sometimes these conversations can go on for hours, and I think that shows several important things: a mathematical or statistical perspective is, generally, not part of the typical journalist’s toolkit, but it is a vital one to getting the story right. As we stumble through a data-drenched society, an increasingly important part of journalism is going to have to be collaborative in order to be accurate. So, we’re supersizing this “help-desk” feature by creating an editorial board of statisticians who have agreed to help journalists. The only thing we ask from journalists is a reasonable deadline!
The second objective is to write about statistics in a way that looks at its power to transform scientific research and knowledge—to see it as a key driving force of intellectual history, and to create critically-infused journalism around that.
Q. What other initiatives is SAS launching in the US?
A. The other big initiative is the AllTrials campaign. Sense About Science has been the steering group for a coalition of scientific organizations and individuals—for example, The Cochrane Library and Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma—who are pushing the pharmaceutical industry to register all their clinical trials and report all their clinical trial data. Currently, fifty percent of all clinical trials conducted have never been registered or reported. Data transparency is the logical counterpart of asking for evidence—and the progress the UK Sense team has made is amazing. Lots of exciting developments are coming down the transparency turnpike on this!
We’ve also just started running media workshop for early career researchers in the US. These have been really popular in the UK, and it seems they have had the same effect on scientists here. They give young scientists the opportunity to engage both with fellow scientists more experienced in dealing with the media as well as science journalists.. We’ve also started LinkedIn groups for each workshop to keep the discussion on science communication going.
Thanks Trevor, and best of luck!