Let's imagine you are having a slow morning so there are a few minutes to reflect. At a dinner last night your friend said "show me the science" when you were arguing about genetic engineering. Now you want to get the science … where do you go?
Be it on nanotechnology, glyphosate, childhood vaccination, microwaves – science is simply not available easily.
Why? There are several reasons.
As the pace of new developments in science and technology quickens, there is a huge number of scientific publications coming up every day. Consequential discoveries are swimming in a sea of trivial ones. Science reporters are increasingly confronted with covering complicated technical information.
Meanwhile, the number of science journalists shrank even faster than the collapse of the classical media channels that employed them. For example, in the US 10 years ago there were 90 weekly science sections in the main newspapers. Today there are no more than 15. Along with this decline, and a struggle to maintain the audience, came a shift form the once in-depth reporting toward life-style type coverage of popular medicine, personal health and fitness.
As mainstream media strives to simplify and entertain, science and regulatory issues are often presented as a battle between “dueling” experts at two extremes, which gives a false sense of balance and often overemphasizes minority views.
Raw science is still published, of course. There are thousands of scientific journals. For example, a top publishing firm like Elsevier can have hundreds if not thousands of titles. But for an average person to scan them all to find what interests them would be incredibly time-consuming and expensive.
Most journals not only require scientists to pay in order to have their work published but also charge the readers about 35$ per article, or 300 – 400 $ per annual subscription. (Although there are some free-access systems, such as Public Library of Science). Of course, scientists employed by governments, industries or universities have permanent access to relevant journals via their institutional subscription. But for an ordinary person, getting them all on a regular basis makes no sense.
Another barrier is that their language is often obscure. For many authors the conclusions and consequences are secondary; they are more intent upon describing in very technical terms what they did rather than revealing its significance (most scientist also fear bing labeled "activists" if they highlight the societal implications of their discoveries).
The Internet offers volumes of information, but that resource is intensely vulnerable to manipulation. Unsorted and unevaluated, it can be bewildering and inaccurate for the unsophisticated user.
Serious vested interests are an enormous confounding factor, playing a role usually invisible to the untrained person. First and foremost, it is about influencing which new discoveries gain media attention. For example, companies that stand to profit from a new drug invest in making sure that reporters write glowing articles about it. Conversely, when something unfavorable is discovered about a product, the companies invest in diverting attention and discrediting the science. These efforts range from outrageous to subtle, such as lining up pre-selected teams of critics (see the Swiss SCAHT, for example).
The well-funded PR industry tries to directly influence the judgment of journalists on behalf of their clients. This creates a media feedback loop, where other journalists are themselves influenced by the initial, "tailored" reporting. It further leads to the rise of potent and pervasive stereotypes, such as: the "wonder drugs" in the 60s, or the "pesticides feed the hungry" from the 70s and "biotechnology has to feed the 9 billion people in 2050" of today.
The PR operations are disguised under a variety of seemingly disconnected but mutually reinforcing forms. One example is the very active, UK-based Science Media Center, set up in the height of the GMO debate in Europe 14 years ago, to "help the scientists better communicate, without revealing its corporate connections. It followed the template developed earlier for its infamous American counterpart – the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH).
Social media outlets similar to the popular I Fucking Love Science on Facebook, typically churn out a flood of trivial science sound bites and easy visuals but strategically omit crucial findings unfavorable to the industry.
You can navigate through the PR to get to good, impartial science by following a few rules:
1) Always keep in mind that companies, which are uncomfortable about scientists discovering there is something wrong with their products, will first turn to the time-tested strategy of spreading doubt and denial. There is actually a golden rule followed by an industry in trouble: first ignore unfavorable science, then deny it, then distort it, then delay any regulatory attempts, and in the final stage accept and innovate. This can last decades or more.
2) If you find a publication, first check the source. If the information comes from a body that will benefit from the discovery – or be harmed by it – recognize they have a stake and think twice about its objectivity. Be even more careful if you have seen elsewhere that qualified, independent scientists challenge that position.
3) Check the language. Go to an industry, or industry association website to see what language they use. For example, a scientific paper or report about pesticides BY INDUSTRY OR ITS ALLIES will call them "plant protection products", (or "phytosanitary products" in French); "treatment" or "crop dusting" instead of spraying or use, etc. They will often use the term "sound science" instead of just facts.
Then when you see words like that on seemingly disconnected and disinterested websites, connect the dots.
4) Check Wikipedia. Some entries are written by industry but there is enough objectivity in Wiki, especially if you take a bit more time to dig further and read the background information.
5) Check the NGOs. The people there may at times use passionate language, but they don’t stand to make a gain from highlighting a study. They may not have the budgets for elaborate PR or beautiful visuals but their resources, documents and links offer a wealth of information.
6) Regretfully, many government sources are heavily reliant on the science delivered by the industry. Put your antennae up if there are even mild concerns expressed by the government. They are usually diplomatically worded as not to offend the "principal stakeholders" and their lawyers.
7) Don't hesitate to go to the primary scientific journals. If you need a specific article that requires payment, and don’t want to pay, go to the library of a local university. Their computers often have access via subscription.
A warning about journals though: Industry strategists have a long tradition of setting up captive or even fake journals. Some of the articles in these will be legitimate science. But some will be plants presenting misleading if not false information, given legitimacy because they appear beside other articles. The journal may use its status as a peer-reviewed publication to create the aura that these papers are legitimate.
For example, a recent analysis showed that the editors of 17 of 18 toxicology journals studied had hidden ties to industry. If you want to identify dubious sources, this list would be a good place to start.
It never hurts to look at the journal website for its policies on conflicts of interest. Some are tougher than others. Then always examine what each scientist says about his or her institutional affiliation. If one or more authors on the paper are from an industry linked to the issue being studied, be skeptical. Keep in mind that companies rarely let studies that are critical of their products into the peer-reviewed literature. Be especially wary of letters to the editor authored by lawyers who are criticizing scientific publications reporting that a product is harmful. The lawyers often don't advertize their industry affiliations.
8) Finally, although most ordinary people are unaware of it, it is very easy to design scientific experiment to fail. If the study’s authors are from industry and they are reporting no effect by a chemical they produce, that’s a warning sign. There really may not be any effect, but gaming of experiments may not be as rare as you would hope. What are some of the tricks? Measure an insensitive endpoint. Introduce uncontrolled contamination that hides a real effect. Use an animal strain that is insensitive to the type of effect that is of interest. And here's another variation: Some industry studies... and even government... have been published with conclusions that are actually contradicted by the actual data in the article.