1 D. May 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

You’re so right. These kinds of vicious ad hominem attacks should have no place in public discourse. By all means, disagree with someone’s opinions and deconstruct them thoroughly. But omit the gratuitous personal insults — at least in public.

2 Alice May 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Ben Goldacre is nothing if not a skilled rhetorician, and that’s a neat deconstruction of his work!

I’m not about to take sides on this. I’ll stand by my “bit bloody brilliant” tweet from this morning. Although without the constraint of 140 characters (and desire to promote my students’ work…) I should probably add that I wouldn’t sign up to all his comments. Also, though Goldacre’s style is one that can be enormous fun, many do find it unhelpfully aggressive. Like Winston, I’d say Goldacre is someone I think the world is very much better off for, though I don’t always agree with them.

I think it’s worth noting that Goldacre does bring evidence to his arguments against Winston, though they aren’t necessarily referenced in that interview. See, for example this post). I’d also add that personally, I think a web of science comparison is a very blunt comparison. I wouldn’t compare them up against each other though, apart from not wanting to take sides, they do very different work.

Finally, have you heard Goldacre on the subject of the term “public engagement”? That can be highly entertaining/ supremely depressing depending on your point of view.

3 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Thanks Alice.

I should add that I found parts of the interview with Ben hugely entertaining, although like you I didn’t agree with everything (obviously). I would also fully agree with you that we need the Bens and Roberts of this world (heck, I enjoyed Bad Science as much as anyone). Although I do think that great care needs to be taken over what is said and how it is said in the public arena if the goal of adding value to society rather than just to self is to be achieved – that goes for Robert Winston as well as Ben Goldacre (and me to for that matter…).

I also agree that the Web of Science is a rather questionable comparison – I was trying to make a point about someone without too long an academic record questioning someone with an extensive record. But beyond this, you are right – both have their strengths when it comes to communication and WoS is a lousy indicator of ability here.

4 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Meant to add (before being dragged away to help make the bed) that an ability to entertain comes with great responsibility – it’s not hard to bring people onto your side by making them laugh, even if they aren’t initially sympathetic to your views. Great when used well, but dangerous when used irresponsibly.

Haven’t heard Ben on PE – but can imagine how it goes :-)

5 alice May 1, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Sorry, I should clarify – by “blunt comparison” I mean I don’t like it. I was typing quickly and realised I wasn’t necessarily making myself clear. Personally, I’d say don’t compare them at all, but certainly don’t run a web of science search to do so. I should also underline that I respect you for defending Winston too.

Maybe a sentiment of co-operation rather than conflict is something all stakeholders (and individuals, even controversial ones) is something everyone in science communication needs.

6 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:56 pm

PS – though Ben Kolb did a great job with the piece!

7 Stephen Curry May 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

With respect Andrew I think your blog uses some fairly feeble arguments to attack Goldacre and verges on the ad hominem that you accuse him of.

What was the point of comparing Winston’s and Goldacre’s publication record but a rather crude effort to show Goldacre in a poor light. The comparison is not straight-forward because of the differing careers and ages of the two men. Stick to the issues.

And why make an issue of his opinion of Winston’s TV output? You concede he is entitled to it. Of course many other people have enjoyed it. So?

You are also too ready to discount Winston’s involvement in the fish oil adverts. It is not disconnected from his role as a science communicator. Given Winston’s position as a prominent public face of science, he has a particular duty to make sure of the validity of products he endorses. The adverse ruling by the ASA suggests an error of judgement that he should certainly be called to account for.

Your ending plea for harmony among science communicators is mis-directed in my view. Where is the freedom to criticise that is so necessary to science? As I’m sure you well know, scientists can be unpleasant to one another and that’s a side of science that should not be swept under the carpet! ;-)

8 Ruth Seeley May 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm

With all respect, Stephen, I see nothing ad hominem in Andrew’s questions here. In my view, Ben’s valid and necessary message is – and has always been – adversely affected by his public delivery of that message – whether on television, Twitter, or on his blog: he’s positioned himself as a shrill, iconoclastic terrier nipping at the heels of all but the Young Turks (male and female) of science who share not only his point of view but also his manner of hyperbolic expression. If you look closely at what Winston actually said in the ad, you’ll see that it was a highly qualified statement that was essentially meaningless (‘may’ ‘in some cases’). He would certainly not have been given the right to approve the ad in its entirety. Did he make an error in judgment? Perhaps. Probably? Does his entire career deserve vilification as a result? I think not. And I think that was the point Andrew was trying to make.

9 Stephen Curry May 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Hi Ruth – Andrew was not asking questions; he was making statements.

But speaking of questions, what do you think Winston was doing making ‘essentially meaningless’ statements? I would expect someone in his position to have the nous to realise that the advertiser would put the most positive possible gloss on anything that he said. So, in my judgment, he certainly did err on that one.

And, to be precise, Goldacre didn’t vilify his entire career – he said nothing about Winston’s contribution to reproductive medicine. Pedantic? Perhaps, but we’re talking science here.

I’m not going to dispute your opinion of Goldacre – we’re all entitled to a view but I don’t find him particularly shrill.

Best, Stephen

10 Ruth Seeley May 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Stephen – we’re talking science here? I thought we were talking about media relations and communications. If we’re talking about science I’d better shut up fast. :)

11 alice May 1, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Ruth – it’s worth reading the piece by Goldacre on Winston I linked to in my first comment – it’s not nearly as shrill as he can come over on twitter. I’m all for critiquing the guy, but critique others to and credit where it’s due.

12 Ruth Seeley May 1, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I find the same thing with Ben as I do with George Monbiot – when Monbiot writes he expresses himself so forcefully you imagine him as being constantly ‘shouty’ and frothing at the mouth. You see or hear him interviewed on television or radio and he appears perfectly reasonable. It’s an odd disconnect and one that, if I were magically appointed Monbiot’s editor AND PR person, I would try to address to get a little more consistency of delivery. BTW, Ben has described himself as ‘shouty’ on Twitter. But yes I will read the piece, Alice. :)

13 JonHW May 1, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Ben’s valid and necessary message is – and has always been – adversely affected by his public delivery of that message – whether on television, Twitter, or on his blog: he’s positioned himself as a shrill, iconoclastic terrier nipping at the heels of all but the Young Turks (male and female) of science who share not only his point of view but also his manner of hyperbolic expression

I’d disagree, Ruth – among other things, Ben has been supportive of many people with quite difference approaches to his own. For example, he has written positively about bloggers like brainduck and podblack, who do write in different styles.

14 JonHW May 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Sorry, there were meant to be quote tags around the first paragraph of my comment (a quote from Ruth). Does writing about online science communications come with it’s own equivalent of Muphries Law..?

15 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Miraculously Jon, Ruth’s bit is now there as a block quote :-)

16 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 7:45 am

Some people, including, I admit, myself, are attracted to and rallied by the passionate, confrontational style of the ‘shouty’, abrasive types, e.g. Dawkins, Monbiot, Goldacre… There are some things that are worth being really pissed off about. Or, maybe that’s just an American thing…? :)

The point is, I think we should celebrate the diversity of approaches and personalities out there. If you don’t like someone’s style, don’t read/watch them.

17 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 8:25 am

Have to agree with you there Karen – pains me to say it but life would be duller without Ben, and he makes many valid and important points. But there also need to be people willing to confront the confrontational, to make sure things don’t get too out of balance – after all, no one’s perfect!

18 Christine Ottery May 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

I agree with Karen too, about George Monbiot and the fact it is good for some people to be vociferous critics. I have to say, Ruth, that I don’t think shoutiness is a problem if it is underlined by a thoughtful, well-informed argument.

…Even if there appears to be a contradiction in the way people come come across on paper (or screen) and in real life – people are full of contrasts and can be at once both gentle and passionately confrontational.

Yes, Andrew, critics should not ad hominem, especially when they advocate rational discussion and are anti ad-hominem. That’s just hypocrisy.

19 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Thank Stephen, although the aim here was not to attack, but to citique – a laudable and necessary activity as you so rightly point out :-)

The point of the publication comparison – which I’ll freely admit was not rigorous (this is a blog after all) – was to compare Winston’s academic credentials as the person under “attack” with those of his attacker. I agree that in terms of what each person does in the realm of science communication they are not that relevant (although I was surprised that Ben had so few peer reviewed papers to his name). But when a person is accused of “powerful positions” it’s worth looking at at least some of the reasons why they might be appointed to those positions.

The TV issue was brought up because, in the context of connecting with people on science, I’m not sure what one communicator calling another communicator “boring” achieves, other than undermining them.

Then there’s the fish thing. I think I will need to address this in answering Ben further down these comments, but I want to be clear here that I am not endorsing, defending or sweeping under the rug Winston’s activities here. It is simply that, as the article reads, Ben comes across as using ad hominum tactics by linking “laughable” “boring” “collects powerful positions” and his involvement in the adverts. This is nothing about science or balanced discussion – it’s about making a point.

And finally I’m not calling for harmony per se. But I would like to see a little more humility and civility in these dialogues. Scientists most definitely can be unpleasant to one another, and I quite agree that that’s a side of science that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. But neither does it have to be encouraged and propagated. Especially when it comes to the interface between science and the rest of society, which by definition is about more than just the science.

But back to the fish supplement ad, and Ben’s comments (below)…

20 Stephen Curry May 1, 2010 at 5:26 pm

I’m afraid I’m not very convinced by your reply, Andrew.

The publication comparison was completely irrelevant and, as suggested by Dr Aust below, a poor rhetorical trick. You should deal with the substance of Goldacre’s criticism. His intellectual credentials are well established by his book and newspaper articles.

“Boring” is a valid viewpoint of TV output. It may not be universally shared but it’s still valid. I find Big Brother boring and don’t watch it. Millions disagree with me.

The ‘fish thing’ simply cannot be discounted – as I and others below have argued. You say (below) that Winston may have been “ill-advised”. Who was advising him? Could he not make up his own mind? Prof Colquhoun’s remarks below are telling.

21 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Oh well. At least you weren’t totally unconvinced!

I do think that the publication issue has some relevance in the context I used it, but I’m not sure that this context is clear. Many of Robert Winston’s appointments are based in part on his work as reviewed by his peers – so a quick shufti of WoS makes sense. Is his critic a peer? Not in terms of peer review publications. OK so the comparison makes little sense… apart from the inescapable conclusion that much of Ben’s output is not peer reviewed. Is that relevant here, I’m not sure yet – still thinking about that one.

And if you are in the communication business, boring is a pretty significant criticism – not to be said or taken lightly.

22 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 7:41 am

Why should a medical doctor and Guardian columnist be expected to have a peer-reviewed publication record?

23 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 8:12 am

Hi Karen,

I address this below (http://2020science.org/2010/05/01/ben-goldacre-what-were-you-thinking/comment-page-1/#comment-65695) Bottom line is that I don’t think science communicators should be expected to have a peer-reviewed publication record, but this was not the issue I was addressing in the blog.

24 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 8:19 am

Oops! Sorry, I haven’t read down to that comment yet… I had to take a break to stretch and drink some electrolytes… :)

25 Tigger May 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I don’t know about the finer points of the science but I do know Robert Winston is an appalling New Labour toady/apologist and has made some utterly awful/unwatchable/populist “science” programmes for the BBC, rather on the same level as Horizon at its worst

As an ordinary person in the street, I don’t find him at all convincing.

26 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Make that millions minus one he’s watched/read by :-)

27 Danny Moules May 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I think Stephen has addressed the points quite well.

Goldacre’s point seem relevant. I’m not suggesting they were expressed in the most unbiased manner, but then attacking someone’s character based on a somewhat biased assessment seems to fall afoul of the very thing you’re complaining about.

Another observation: The ‘alpha male’ is intended to be the one most suited to protecting those entities under their charge. If acts like supporting bad science to the public are a concern, then perhaps that ‘alpha male’ status should be challenged?

Authority is based on perceived value. It is reasonable to challenge it and question it, just like you would any other idea regardless of whether you like the person in question or not.

28 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Absolutely agree that authority should be challenged – constantly. This is at the very heart of science (although as a community we do it incredibly slowly and ponderously usually). But there are better and worse ways of doing this – especially where the question is how the science community can best reach out to and engage others in society, and ensure that the science enterprise is truly a society-wide enterprise. You do this through partnerships, collaboration, listening, learning and humility – not political power plays.

29 Ben Goldacre May 1, 2010 at 2:19 pm

For Lord Winston, one of the country’s leading science communicators – a respected BBC tv presenter – to appear in advertisements and personally endorse a miracle product to make children clever (shortly after presenting tv shows on the same subject) seems to me to represent an astonishingly crass failure of good judgment. Infinitely moreso when the evidence for this rather seedy potion is so thin that the advertising regulator bans the advertisement in which Professor Lord Winston appears as it breaches their guidelines on truthfulness and accuracy.

I regard his appearance in those adverts and personal endorsement of that product as inappropriate and a breach of the high ethical and professional standards we are entitled to expect from those who have the public’s trust. Sadly Winston is not alone. Carol Vorderman, our most famous populariser of mathematics, appeared in advertisements for “debt consolidation” companies, despite the pleas of poverty campaigners, and there are plenty more examples.

I would hope that someone other than me might have the decency to stand up and criticise activity like this, concisely and in their own name. This blog perhaps demonstrates why others do not.

That aside, I trust your readers will read the full interview and judge for themselves whether your long and angry article was a disproportionately melodramatic response to my passing off the cuff comment made cheekily after a student joked that Winston is too powerful to be criticised. It’s when you stifle criticism that things go very wrong in a discipline.

30 Ruth Seeley May 1, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Oh come on, Ben, there is nothing in this post that can be described as either ‘angry’ or ‘melodramatic.’ You’re starting to sound like someone who can dish it out but who can’t take it. If you’re going to position yourself as a constant critic and the Universal Claimant of the High Moral Ground (and you do), you’d better be prepared to take a little criticism yourself.

31 Danny Moules May 1, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I think there’s a distinction to be noted here.

Goldacre was commenting on an issue relating to science. He was addressing a _perceived_ failure to live up to professional expectations and the impact that could have on the field as a whole.

This, on the other hand, seems to be criticising commentary. In science, we should support the right to hold an opposing view. Not criticise the person making it because we disagree with the point.

It is not the agenda that matters but the way in which it is presented. With evidence, logic, ethics and professionalism.

Personally, I believe Maynard’s post has some merit and I believe some aspects of it are lacking. Ultimately I don’t subscribe to his interpretation, but I am going to continue reading this blog. I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to attack him personally.

32 Ruth Seeley May 1, 2010 at 4:41 pm

This is the passage in question. No one had mentioned Winston before Goldacre brought him up quite gratuitously. Oh and by the way, that’s ‘whom I consider laughable.’

“[Kolb] So what’s next for you? Are you planning Bad Science II or Worse Science perhaps?
[Goldacre] Hahaha, cool man, you should be in Marketing, that’s for sure. Well I don’t know. There are a lot of “Bad…” books now aren’t there? There’s ‘Bad Ideas’ by Robert Winston, a man who I regard as laughable.

[Kolb] I don’t know if we’ll be allowed to print that. He’s Professor of Science and Society or something…he’s got a powerful position here at Imperial.

[Goldacre] Yeah, he collects powerful positions and makes very, very boring TV shows and also personally endorsed a commercial product containing fish oil and appeared in all their adverts. Adverts which were subsequently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority because they breached their conditions on truthfulness and accuracy…I’m starting up a web TV project and if there are people around who are interested in knocking films together, helping out on that, or editing stuff down, anything like that, then I’m always really up for hearing from people. “

33 Danny Moules May 1, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Great. A double entendre of assuming I can’t read and your apparent point is so obvious you don’t need to state it.

34 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Ah Ben, the limitations of text-based communication! When I wrote this I was a little frustrated, true. But I also couldn’t resist the temptation to give the science communication community a bit of a prod, just to see what happened (slapped wrists for being such an experimentalist). But angry? Sorry, no :-)

In the piece, I was more interested in your comments on Robert Winston as they were written, rather than the issue of the St. Ivel Advance Milk ads. But as this is clearly a significant issue, let me try and address it – at least in part – here.

First, let me say that I don’t have the whole history here (I wasn’t in the UK when this occurred) – what I do have access to is commentary from yourself and others, and the ASA ruling. So I am loath to make specific comments on the case. That said, I would agree with you that for prominent and trusted figures to endorse commercial products is very sticky territory.

From what I can tell of this case, Robert Winston was ill-advised to appear in these ads, and in doing so may have both unwittingly misled people, and undermined his authority as a public advocate of science. Yet speaking from experience, when you decide to leave the sidelines and take an active role in society as a scientist, the line between black and white can get awfully murky – which means that at some point you are bound to make decisions and take actions that others object to, and that with hindsight might not look so wise.

I can’t speak on Robert Winston’s behalf in this case. But I can say that, from my own perspective, the way to deal with inevitable bad or suspect judgment calls is to invite, respect and learn from criticism. This only works when the critics are willing reassess their own position as they assess that of others though. What is not helpful in my opinion is when people try to make a gray issue black and white, or a complex issue over-simple.

But that’s just my opinion – I know there’s a school of thought out that believes confrontation is the key to successful communication, I’m just not a member of it (usually).

But back to the “I, Science” article. I was approaching this as a piece of communication with the power to influence people. I have no idea what transpired in the interview itself – all I know is what I read. Whether the remarks were carefully-considered or off the cuff is immaterial once they appear in black and white, as is whether they were made cheekily or in seriousness – that’s a basic rule of doing interviews! What resulted was a pen-picture of Robert Winston as someone who is laughable, boring, seeks power and makes dodgy commercials. Hardly balanced, and in my view, not very helpful.

But then, the beauty of exchanges like this is that it is possible for people to dig into the evidence and find out thing for themselves – whether reading the original article, the ASA adjudication, pieced by Winston, or other people’s comments here. Hardly stifling criticism, I feel!

35 Danny Moules May 1, 2010 at 7:23 pm

“But I also couldn’t resist the temptation to give the science communication community a bit of a prod, just to see what happened (slapped wrists for being such an experimentalist).”

Publicly disparaging professionals for such a reason isn’t really acceptable. Since we’re talking about science, might I suggest you want to run such an experiment you consider submitting your proposal to an ethics committee first?

“Whether the remarks were carefully-considered or off the cuff is immaterial once they appear in black and white, as is whether they were made cheekily or in seriousness – that’s a basic rule of doing interviews!”

So you’re suggesting that it’s acceptable for people to perpetuate those lies? How does that make what you’re doing any different from a tabloid spreading similar misinformation? A scientist should never be in this business. Check the facts. Read the papers. Don’t take interviews and articles at face value. That’s a basic rule of scientific skepticism!

36 Maria Wolters May 1, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I agree with Ben Goldacre about the adverts. People like Sir Robert need to be extremely careful about the kinds of products they endorse, especially if they are snake oil, pardon me, fish oil.

However, I think we need to have a nuanced discussion about Winston’s output. I like “Child of Our Time” – it’s a great effort to introduce evidence-based arguments into parenting, a bit like Tania Byron, and the accompanying books (NOT written by Dr. Robert Winston) are very good at that – calmly laying out arguments and referring to good science.

I absolutely ADORE what he has written about fertility, because it’s very clear that science does get it wrong, but science tries to help, and there’s just so much that is not understood. He doesn’t make false promises like many of the woo-meisters that target infertile women and men, who are astonishingly, terrifyingly vulnerable. When I went through infertility, Sir Robert was the lone sane voice of honesty.

I’m very sceptical about his other output though – I am not enough of an expert to be able to evaluate it independently, I just find it strange that a working reproductive endocrinologist can conduct sufficient research on, say, religion, to write a book and a TV series about it. So I stay away.

Those fish oil adverts just stink.

Sir Robert, if you or anybody close to you ever reads this, please, please start concentrating on human fertility and fertility treatments again – the country’s infertiles need you!

(FWIW, I won’t ever buy my children any Carol Vorderman products partly because of her “loan shark” ads. Low credibility – loan ads = RUN! With Sir Robert, on the other hand, high credibility – fish oil ads = still sort of ok.)

37 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Dead with you on the nuanced conversation Maria!

38 Sophia Collins May 2, 2010 at 11:00 am

I agree that the fish oil ads stink. However, I would also argue that there’s a big difference between that and the Carol Vorderman debt consolidation ads.

Basically because if I am mislead by the fish oil ads, then, the worst thing that happens is I buy some over-priced milk. Whereas unwisely taking out a debt consolidation loan can put people further in debt and lose them their houses. And this is why debt advice charities begged Vorderman not to endorse them, but she blithely ignored them. http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/credit-and-loans/article.html?in_article_id=408784&in_page_id=9

Also, I’d second Maria’s comments about Winston having far more redeeming features than Vorderman. Child of Our Time may have been boring to some, but we don’t all have the same tastes. Not everyone wants (or is able) to watch a Horizon on particle physics, or read an elegant skewering of misused statistics in a broadsheet newspaper.

I think Child of Our Time did an excellent job of making parenting and developmental psychology engaging, accessible and well-watched. They contained insights from scientific research that could be useful to viewers in their own lives and could help people bring up happier children. That seems a pretty worthwhile thing to do, to me.

39 Dr Aust May 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I’m exactly with Stephen Curry. Seeming to judge Ben G’s and Winston’s “public facing” activities, or any beef between them, by invoking their publications records is uncomfortably reminiscent of the

“Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis and National Academy member Peter Duesberg believe HIV is not the cause of AIDS and in science they outrank you. so there”

- gambit that is so beloved of the cranks.

Robert Winston, like Susan Greenfield, is someone who has been an important and positive presence in “science popularizing” in the UK, but who over the last few years has increasingly been giving the impression that they are rather losing their way. This manifests, inter alia, as making programmes, or comments, way, way off the areas they are actually knowledgeable on, and endorsing commercial products of very dubious, if any, value. Unfortunately, these things are the more problematic directly because of these peoples’ visibility and familiarity as “faces of science”.

40 Petra Boynton May 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

A few years ago the BBC ran a piece in the newspapers that asked ‘where’s the next Robert Winston?’ It bemoaned the fact that there were not many scientists willing to engage with the media and asked for people to volunteer to present science via the media.

Myself and a number of my colleagues responded, and yet despite our chasing of the issue, were not really used to any great degree by the station. However, they continued to make several more programmes on varying health/science topics all presented by Robert Winston.

Which, if they were all within the boundaries of reproductive (and possibly child) health would be okay. The problem is many of these moved into general psychology, human behaviour etc. They presented outdated studies that had ethical problems and were overly simplistic. For example one I recall involved an ‘experiment’ where a woman asked men out and a man asked women out. The men all said yes to the woman, but the majority of women refused the man. This was presented as an evolutionary strategy, missing the point that women are raised to be cautious of men they don’t know approaching them in the street.

Arguably Prof Winston may not have suggested this particular experiment but it was on a science programme he was presenting. And if one is a science communicator one should be focusing on topics within your area so you can be sure only the most up to date and ethical studies can be explored and explained in accurate and complete ways.

Ben is right to raise the concerns he does, even if you don’t agree with the manner in which he expresses his arguments. Many people working in this area are afraid to speak out against the ‘big names’.

On the occasions I have questioned some of the approaches or arguments raised by Prof Winston I’ve been accused by journalists and academics that I am motivated by jealousy, or that I have no right to criticise because I am not a medic and not a professor. Indeed the general view appears to be that Prof Winston and others like him are in the position they are in purely based on their professional skills and expertise. Which misses the point they are now mostly in this senior media position because journalists know who they are and see them as synonymous with science. Journalists may well lack the skills to evaluate whether or not the ‘science’ being discussed is contemporary or accurate.

We have every right to question practice. Indeed it is integral to what we do as academics/(social) scientists. Of course there will always be those who complain of anyone working in the media, but if you are engaged in sharing science messages to the public that should be with no commercial conflict of interest and limited to your area of expertise.

41 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Thanks Petra,

You raise a lot of issues that I think I will need to mull over and tackle elsewhere. But on one point I heartily agree with you – where there are concerns to be raised, they should be, and celebrity scientists should never be beyond criticism. What I do worry about though is the fine line between destructive and constructive criticism.

42 David Colquhoun May 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I’m right with Stephen Curry and Dr Aust. I mentioned the adverts to Winston at the time, and it was clear that he hadn’t bothered to read the relevant literature before taking the money. And, although he was appropriately indignant about quack treatments for infertility, he couldn’t be persuaded to do much about it. Still, I’m very grateful to him for the slightly surreal expexperience of lunch in the House of Lords -interesting to spot those who’d bought their way in.

There is a real problem, as I’ve found out myself, when you stray outside your own field, it takes quite a lot of work to get things right. Many bloggers have shown it is possible. Some of the best bloggers on quackery have no background in biology at all, but manage to talk a lot more sense than some senior medical people. I do fear though, that becoming a TV celebrity can be a mixed blessing. Not only Winston, but also Vorderman and Kathy Sykes do seem to have gone a bit too far at times. Perhaps there is, after all, a benefit to working for nothing but the love of the subject.

43 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 8:48 am

It’s interesting that Dr Aust and David Colquhoun both note this problem of celebrity scientists “losing their way” and going “a bit to far”, respectively. This seems to support Ben Goldacre’s call – which I wholeheartedly support – for fewer career science writers (and, in this case, career science presenters?) and more science editors. In his words, “I think scientists communicating themselves about their own field, but assisted by very able science editors could well be a much better model for science communication than science writers.”

(Full disclosure: I’m a practicing scientist.)

44 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 9:34 am

…and once again I fail to read all the way to the end of the comments. I see this is the subject of some debate below. I’ll weigh in there now…

45 HilaryPhD May 1, 2010 at 5:15 pm

My main experience of Lord Winston was when he bullied a witness in a most disgraceful way at a parliamentary meeting I attended. Yes, it was very vaguely within the sphere of sexual and reproductive health but he was clearly abusing his position. Never had any truck with the man since (and I am a Labour supporter).

The essence of it was “You can’t immediately and off the top of your head cite all the primary references that show that chlamydia is a cause of tubal infertility, therefore you are obviously wrong to suggest there is any relationship between STIs and tubal infertility”. The witness in question was a clinician with no experience of parliamentary committees. She was deeply grateful when I intervened (which I had to be quite forceful to do at all, considering how overbearingly he was being) along the lines of “It seems to me rather unreasonable to expect Dr X to have the primary references immediately to hand on a point which is widely accepted, but I am sure she can provide them to the committee in a written memorandum at a later date”.

I have cordially loathed the man ever since.

46 Petra Boynton May 1, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Hilary reminds me of an important point. Which is it is right scientists (and communicators) endorse an evidence based perspective. Yet part of the criticisms around Robert Winston’s work is he requires this from others but does not necessarily focus on it in his own broadcasting or talking to the media.

For example this discussion on orgasm causing infertility from Times Weekend today:
http://www.drpetra.co.uk/blog/“sex-fertility-and-commitment-what-men-really-think”-times-weekend-fails-to-fully-explore-psychosexual-problems-and-infertility/

47 Stephen Curry May 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

I think that Petra Boynton raises an important point that one might even cite in partial defence of Winston. Once your face becomes known, TV seems seems to fixate on it and so the same faces appear time and again on our screens. I’m not sure what is the origin of this problem. Perhaps it is the limited imagination of TV producers? Petra’s experience would seem to suggest as much.

But then again, maybe it is also partly due to the reluctance of many other scientists to engage in this — or any — kind of media activity. That is a shame. I think that Goldacre made a very good point in the original article that some of the best science communication happens when it is the scientists themselves who do it. To quote directly:

“I think a really good model of this is Radio 4 Science, cause Radio 4 does popular science better than pretty much anywhere else. If you listen to a Radio 4 Science documentary about 70% of the words in it are spoken by the scientists themselves. But that’s not to say that they’re making these programmes by themselves. Their words are edited down, they’re cut down, they’re reordered, they’re organised in presentable ways by the people who are producing the show. There are people there who are saying: “well I’m not sure the people quite get that, could you explain that maybe in another way?”. But they’re not insisting that they write and present the whole of the show. They’re not insisting that they mediate the ideas to the public. And I think that’s really crucial and I think that’s why in all honesty, for mainstream reporting and also for comments on science issues, I think scientists communicating themselves about their own field, but assisted by very able science editors could well be a much better model for science communication..”

But maybe I only like this because it’s self-serving!

48 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 8:54 am

Once your face becomes known, TV seems seems to fixate on it and so the same faces appear time and again on our screens. I’m not sure what is the origin of this problem. Perhaps it is the limited imagination of TV producers?

Richard Dawkins addresses this directly here, at 4:35.

49 Sophia Collins May 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

For my sins, I used to work in TV, and I’d say it’s a lot to do with the attitudes of TV producers. Particularly in short, newsy or magazine type shows – they want the researcher to suggest as a talking head someone they’ve heard of, someone the viewers may have heard of, and someone they can look at a showreel of and see how they come across on TV.

I think this is less a problem in docs because then you have longer to do the research, longer (in the film) to explain the topic and longer to film someone and cut down the interview to something coherent. Whereas if you want someone to come on Newsnight to discuss the latest news on faith schools, you want to find someone quickly and you want to feel sure they can deliver on screen.

Some people do come across much more engagingly on TV than others – someone might be very engaging in real life conversation but when you film them you suddenly notice that they digress a lot, they umm and arr, or they don’t leave any pauses between their points (makes it very difficult to edit). Some people naturally speak in pithy sentences, using vivid language and pauses to punctuate. They come across well on TV.

Despite people in TV all chasing the next big thing, they are often very reluctant to stick their necks out. A contributor who’s already been ‘roadtested’ means you are less likely to get in trouble for getting it wrong…

50 Avatar May 1, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I heartily enjoyed Ben when he took on Lord Drayson at the THES debate. Lord Winston, I can take or leave. However, lately Ben has become a critic for everything. I was appalled at his constant catholic bashing – it seems he can’t help himself but make gross generalisations. So if Ben is criticising Winston for endorsing areas that he has no expertise in, then Ben, you should lay off the religious snide remarks. In the words of our Prime Minister, he’s a bigot. It is quite sad, ben has fallen into the trap of believing his own publicity. I am reminded of David Niven’s character in ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies’. I suggest, Ben, that you take the time to watch the movie. You have feet of clay, like the rest of us.

51 jon turney May 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I’m not going to comment directly on the Bob vs Ben discussion, but I do think the criticisms of some of Winston’s output shed an interesting light on the other (to me) slightly implausible suggestion in the interview that science communication would on the whole be enhanced if scientists did it all.

Even with editorial input (and I enjoy editing as a craft as much as writing) the majority of scientists, like the majority of science, are pretty dull on paper. They are trained to write in a very particular way, for reasons which serve the needs of formal science communication. Public communication answers to different demands which some scientists can learn to meet (the good Lord among them). Science writers converting wholesale to editors of researchers’ prose is a recipe for an unremitting nerdfest, which might delight Dr Goldacre but I reckon would be quickly self-limiting as a mass-market endeavour. I’d interested in evidence to the contrary though.

52 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Opening up a can of worms there Jon! There’s a whole area of study of science communication and engagement, that rather complex and nuanced. But research and thinking does tend to question this model of “experts” and “editors” where the “experts” drive the story to a willing and receptive audience (and I use the word story advisedly, as so much of communication is about “story”). Out of the maelstrom of ideas, evidence and counter-evidence surrounding science communication come questions concerning the extent and validity of any one person’s evidence, the roles of intermediaries in information transfer, the type of expertise that is necessary for communication (scientific, communication, social, or what?), the role of communication, and so on… The reality is that effective communication and engagement (meaning people engaged in multi-way communication that has an impact) is a collaborative affair, with many players having many intersecting roles.

53 alice May 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm

I think Jon’s right to question the idea that sci com’n would be better if it was just done by the scientists (in interests of openness: Jon taught me science communication when I was an undergrad, so of course I’m going to agree with him on this…).

Still, I think Goldacre made a fair point that scientists working for the love of it may be freed from some of the various problems professionals have, but we should remember the advantages too. I don’t like statements like the majority of scientists are a bit dull. I don’t think they are helpful. There are loads of scientists who aren’t dull. There are also loads that are, just as there are fabulous professional science communicators and rubbish ones too.

However, in much of factual TV at the moment we have the ridiculous situations where documentaries have to be presented by a REAL SCIENTIST (TM) but then they don’t write the script. I’ve heard scientist-presenters complain that if they are being employed for their expertise, this should be utilised and they should have control over the content. I’ve also heard professional tv people (a) laugh at this and (b) complain they’d be just as good if not better at presenting. I think they both have a point.

Personally I think there should be room for both professional sci commers and professional scientists, not to mention people who sit somewhere in between. Moreover the range of people involved should work with each other (and learn from each other) as productively as possible. It’s always hard to make broad points about science communication in general though – way too big.

I’d also like to add that alongside simply being more professionally skilled at it, one of the reasons for the professionalisation of science communication was (is) to allow a critical distance between those who make science and those who report on it. We should be wary of generalisations here too (of saying science can’t critique itself, or complacently saying self-critique is what science is all about so it’s ok). Still, it’s worth noting, and perhaps remembering some of the discussions that surrounded the opening of the http://futurity.org project

54 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 4:08 am

Thanks Alice. This is exceedingly helpful and very much mirrors my own experiences here. Three things in particular you touch on that I think are worth highlighting are:

1. The distance between those who make and those who report on science can be crucial – science and scientists are not value-free, and the presentation of their work in a broader social context sometimes needs a more independent eye.

2. Connecting science to people is a skill and comes with its own expertise. As you rightly say, some scientists are fabulous science communicators, others maybe are less so. But to assume that because someone holds knowledge they are the best conveyors of that knowledge does not fly. And again, this comes back in part to social context and relevance – science communication is not just about imparting knowledge in a one-way flow of information, but also about contextualizing it. And this requires people who understand how to do this. Some of my work is with informal educators in museums, and one of their big frustrations is scientists who think they know the best way to get their work across to the museum-going public – usually, they don’t!

3. There are many different types of science communication, and to bundle them all together is exceedingly dangerous! An AP reporter linking some aspect of science to a broader story is very different to a TV documentary designed to educate, which again is different to a journalist attempting to place contentious science in a social context, and so on.

As you say so well, for successful communication “the range of people involved should work with each other (and learn from each other) as productively as possible”

Oh and thanks for pointing out Jon’s credentials – feel a bit of a fool telling him what he already well-knows! (my excuse, if anyone asks, is that it was for the benefit of the readers ;-) )

55 Sophia Collins May 2, 2010 at 10:33 am

I couldn’t agree more about there being a value in science writers who are not scientists writing about their own area. I’ve written a blog post about it (http://bit.ly/aaCuep), which I’ll refer you to rather than reiterate it all here.

In short, I think there are strengths *and* weaknesses to scientists writing about their own area, as there are to all other forms of science communication. I think they all have a useful place.

What I find a little confusing about some of the side-taking here on this issue is that Ben Goldacre seems to me clearly in the generalist science writer camp. As David points out, Dr Goldacre has not and does not work as a researcher. Further, he writes about a range of areas, broader than *anyone* could hope to be an expert on.

Now personally I think that’s necessary and useful and can give us a bigger picture than if we insisted only active researchers in an area could write about it. I think Ben does some great work. But it does seem a bit of a contradiction given some of the views expressed here.

56 Hilary Sutcliffe May 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Wow, strong feelings here then, and this is only Saturday’s offering!

I have been trying to write something thoughtful on this for half an hour but failed. But have come to the conclusion that as both Ben and Lord Winston are human, sometimes they don’t make the best of judgements, but that shouldn’t pollute the impact of the rest of their work.

Winston probably should never have done the ads (I wonder about his agent myself, the guy is a boff, he got this advice from somewhere). Ben should be much more careful about the remarks he makes in print, ‘off the cuff’ or not. By saying he was laughable and boring, he sounded to me a bit like he was trying to be hip and happnin, slagging off the old guy to the students! By saying Andrew was ‘angry and melodramatic’ he sounded just a tad miffed and petulant! But that is an extension of his style. I believe he has a lot of respect for media scientists, including Winston, and rates highly much of what he has achieved. He’s free to take a pop if he likes, but it would be more powerful do it as thoroughly and rigorously as the rest of his stuff.

Winston isn’t boring, and he isn’t laughable. He is a serious man, doing serious work and trying his best to communicate his thinking to the rest of us in as powerful a way as possible. If he keeps appearing and keeps getting asked, that’s because most of us like him, he gets good ratings, and, importantly, TV is a ridiculously conservative industry which is loath to take bets on new people when Winston will do the job perfectly well.

I wish there would be as much discussion about some of the issues Winston refers to in Bad Ideas. The analogy in his description “every act of creation and innovation there exists the potential, also, for our undoing” actually fits brilliantly alongside this discussion. Summarised as ‘every time you try to do something innovative and stick your head above the parapet, it is open season, and it will be shot off’!

Let’s chill shall we or we will never get a decent honest scientist airing their views or taking a stand ever again.

What am I doing here I’m going to bed!

57 Andrew Maynard May 1, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Thanks Hilary – wise words

58 Morag May 1, 2010 at 7:20 pm

I find it interesting how few peer-reviewed papers Ben Goldacre has presented, when a large part of his Bad Science book is all about slagging off those people who don’t like to submit peer-reviewed papers. In fact, he uses that as a way for us to tell who does the real science!

59 David Colquhoun May 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

@Morag (and others)

Ben has not, up to now had a job in research so it isn’t surprising he hasn’t written many papers. As I said above, some of the best critics of junk medicine haven’t even got a background in biology. All you need, I suspect, is an appreciation of statistical methods and of the nature of evidence.

I’ve written papers, but they are about ion channels and their underlying theory. You don’t need to be able to invert matrix Laplace transforms to understand the sort of things that Ben writes about, or most of what I write about on my blog. Understanding what can and can’t be inferred from observational epidemiology on diet and cancer really isn’t exactly rocket science after all.

In some ways it helps to be outside the field in fact. You have no financial interest in the outcome, no professional reputation to defend and you don’t have to worry about promoting your next grant. That night account for why one of the best writers about diet is a journalist (Gary Taubes) not a professional nutritionist.

When it comes to really hard science, it’s a different matter though. No sci com person could deal with particle physics (which intererests the public, or the intricacies of ion channels (which, sadly, does not).

60 Jo Brodie May 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Hi Morag

I’m not convinced that that analogy quite works to be honest. If Ben was claiming ‘X’ and refusing to share evidence for ‘X’ then that would be a reasonable criticism but that’s not happening here.

Personally I’d have to hope that the lack of a large publication record isn’t a barrier preventing me from pitching in to spot a bad argument. I’ve never published anything myself (well, OK, a poster abstract) but it’s part of my job to sift good evidence from bad, and to communicate this to other people.

I think in this case context is key; it’s more about transparency and attitude to transparency than the volume of published studies.

Probably a weaker argument, but I’ll make it anyway, is that Ben has a pretty good publication record (in terms of his blog and in the Guardian etc.) for the audience he’s often communicating with, and since he includes links to his source material (transparency) anyone is free to see if he’s treating it fairly or drawing daft conclusions. I think that’s reasonable enough.

Best wishes,
Jo

61 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 4:19 am

So I’m beginning to realize that the publication evaluation has been taken out of the context I intended – my fault for not doing more to make this clear in the piece.

I just want to be absolutely clear that, when it comes to communicating science, peer reviewed publications is not a relevant indicator of expertise or legitimacy.

The peer review literature indicates the level of expertise and recognition a person has attained in a given (usually very specific) field (hence its use in the context of Winston’s appointments). But it doesn’t attest particularly well to an ability to convey, contextualize or critically evaluate science. So in terms of what Ben writes and talks about, I really don’t think it matters that he has so few peer review publications to his name.

What is important though is having an idea of what underpins the scientific legitimacy of someone like Robert Winston – peer review publications is a part of this.

62 hilary Sutcliffe May 2, 2010 at 5:26 am

Meant also to reference Ben’s article of yesterday http://bit.ly/cSjgrY Evidence based smear campaigns – which explores interesting research indicating that unsubstantiated smears, as in political campaigns, actually work, and work better if corrections are subsequently published clearly demonstrating the initial smear is unsubstantiated.

If the smear concurs with people’s view of the situation the correction only strengthens their opinion that the initial smear is correct!

So, not scientific enough for you guys I know, but in this context, maybe if you believe that old buftons like Winston are misusing their positions of power and influence, then Andrew sticking up for him will reinforce your initial view!

Maybe Ben should have been even more careful with his ‘smear’, oops, sorry evidence based negative commentary, having just written this!

Either way, I found that research a bit disappointing, particularl following an excellent EPSRC/Uni of Westminster meeting on Responsible Innovation on Friday afternoon when we talked about the important of rebutting false stories in the press, citing one of the large UK cancer charities in the UK who spend a huge amount of time trying to do that. Maybe they/we are all wasting our time?

63 Petra Boynton May 2, 2010 at 5:45 am

Reading this discussion reminds me why many scientists don’t continue to try and engage with the public.

As part of our job (one of our many roles) we’re increasingly tasked to share our research directly with the public or to other organisations. I believe that is a good thing. However if you think about how this is sold to social/scientists it is very much framed as something you must work hard at, be enthusiastic about, and be helpful and cooperative with journalists and others.

You are trained up usually to talk about your own research (studies you have done or your specific area). Yet when you are doing work with the media/public you discover that what is usually needed is a far more fluid and broad approach where you are synthesising evidence within your area from a lot of places and applying them to a particular question or context.

Some scientists can do this on their own. Others find with a supportive journalist or sci comm person working with them that they can communicate a complex idea effectively.

But many struggle, and it’s usually when they run up against comments like ‘scientists can’t communicate’ or ‘you can communicate but many of your peers can’t’ – as if that is somehow a warning that you also should be leaving all the communication work to journalists or science communicators.

We also have to trust that journalists will interpret what we say faithfully, and most of us know that isn’t the case. Whether it’s through misquoting or more often simply ignoring your input for quotes from someone less qualified who’s providing the outdated/unethical/inaccurate message the editor has set their heart on.

And while I’ve huge amounts of respect for those working in science communication it would be incorrect to assume they also are the ones who always get things right. For example at a recent public event on the science of sex the (highly experienced) sci comm team wanted to test desire with pictures of men for women to rate as desirable. It had not occurred to them that anyone attending might be bi or lesbian.

The good news is with careful working with journalists and sci comm staff you can definitely collaborate to get really good work done. Collaboration is definitely the key. However if we continue to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ barriers between journalists and scientists or sci comm and scientists you can see why scientists will either stop bothering to engage or will do as many of us have done and focused on our blogs, writing direct for the media, broadcasting etc. Which is fine for those who stick with it and are confident. It sadly loses lots of good people along the way.

We’re still stuck with top down approaches here and ideas of which faction has the ‘best’ approach. More collaborative working is essential, and moving away from the old stereotypes is also good. Sure some scientists aren’t great communicators, but pushing that line is really very divisive and often pretty insulting.

[And in relation to the publications metric, it's worth noting how much work goes into publishing a paper. So I'm more skeptical of those with hundreds of papers to their name. Who often may not have contributed as much to the research/writing process but still get lots of credit. Very common in healthcare, for example]

64 Stephen Curry May 2, 2010 at 7:11 am

Hear, hear!

65 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 8:07 am

Agreed!

66 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 10:45 am

Yes! I’d only add that another reason a lot of scientists don’t engage with the public is that though, as Petra said, scientists are ‘increasingly tasked’ to engage, they are not increasingly rewarded. By ‘rewarded’ I mean ‘able to keep a career in research’.

The two main currencies for advancement in a science career are still peer-reviewed papers and funding successes. Public engagement is something you’re supposed to do, but only in very limited quantity (e.g. occasional, one-off events, interviews or articles)…. and that’s at best; depending on your particular academic environment it may be only just tolerated, or, at worst, expressly forbidden.

Couple this with the indoctrination scientists receive from their PhD and postdoc supervisors that to pursue any career outside of the accepted academic series is to fail, or ‘quit’ science, and there you have a formula for the continued avoidance by postdoctoral scientists of any substantive commitment to engage the public.

As for me, I’m still trying to forge ahead with one foot in research and one foot in engagement (engaging through ‘citizen science’ has been a real breakthrough for me here), but there aren’t really any precedents or role models (beyond those who’ve ‘switched’ to engagement at the heights, or ends, of their research careers) to cite to promotion or hiring committees.

67 Sophia Collins May 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

Ah, but surely Karen, the warm glow of engaging the public is it’s own reward!:-)

68 Karen James May 2, 2010 at 11:25 am

I’ll just check to see if my landlord will accept some ‘warm glow’ in lieu of rent. :)

69 PM May 2, 2010 at 6:20 am

This is an unpleasant blog entry, Andrew, because you have not researched and addressed the substance of Ben Goldacre’s criticism.

He said that the adverts in which this man Robert Winston appeared were without evidence and an example of bad ethics in science communication.

The fact that you have not addressed the substance of Ben Goldacre’s criticism makes all your comments look petty and personal.

70 Andrew Maynard May 2, 2010 at 8:20 am

PM, go back and have another look at the dialogue in “I, Science.” The subject is Robert Winston’s new book “Bad Ideas?”, the framing is popular science books, and the narrative is one author having a go at another. Ben Goldacre includes the fish oil ads as last in a series of four attacks on Robert Winston, and when it appears, it is an add-on, not the main thrust of the discussion (“…he collects powerful positions and makes very, very boring TV shows and also personally endorsed a commercial product…” – the “and” is important).

I don’t know whether Ben intended this, or whether he didn’t articulate himself clearly – all I have to go on is the transcript. Either way, this is the story we are left with – a story of one author putting down another. That’s what makes me uneasy in the context of science communication.

71 Ruth Seeley May 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I just wanted to weigh in one final time to make the point I’ve tried to make several times already crystal clear: the beginning of the attack on Winston was not, in any way, shape, or form that I can determine from the textual evidence of the transcript of the interview, prompted by the interviewer. Goldacre was asked a question about what his plans for his next project were, was asked if he planned to write Bad Science II, and he basically ‘went off’ on the diatribe about Winston, began slagging Winston’s book and labelled him ‘laughable’ – then continued with the boring television comments and finished with the fish oil ad attack.

It doesn’t matter whether Goldacre is right or wrong in his opinion of Winston (or at least, it doesn’t matter to me whether he is or not, because I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who helps people share info with the media and who helps train them to both be themselves and to make the most of the opportunities they get to do so). There isn’t a PR or corporate communications person in the world who would endorse Goldacre’s approach to answering the question he was asked, and as one of the few communicators rather than scientists replying to this post, you’ll see that Hilary Sutcliffe identifies the same problems I do.

It’s not that it’s bad form, it’s not that it’s rude, it’s not whether Goldacre is right or wrong in what he said about Winston. It is that if, when you are given an opportunity in a media interview to talk about yourself, your plans, your goals, and your future projects, you should seize that opportunity, and Goldacre patently did not. The reason it’s wrong is because, in the same way attempting to correct misinformation actually reinforces it, slagging others when you are being interviewed about yourself actually creates sympathy for the person who’s attacked. I, for instance, having had no plans whatsoever to read Winston’s latest book (and having already bought but not read Goldacre’s), now really want to buy and read Winston’s book first.

I’d also like to say – with all due respect to the science communicators who have weighed in here – that the perspective you gain on media from working with clients across a broad spectrum of industry, some of whom are scientists and mathematicians, some of whom are not, and from doing media analyses of hundreds of publications, from watching how issues play out over the course of years in the media – is that the challenges of science communication are neither unique nor do they differ significantly from those of high tech PR, or energy industry PR, or the mining industry, or any subject that involves explaining complicated and not well-known information. There are journalists from trade publications, who usually (but NOT always) have a very informed perspective, years of background in the field, a very different target audience and will require answers to very different questions. There are journalists from general interest publications/media outlets, who no longer have beats, so thinly spread are they on the ground these days, and who will need a lot more background information and a different form of synthesis of information for their audiences. They all have to be provided with information in the way they need to receive it – not in the way the person with the information thinks it should be disseminated.

The only other thing I’d like to comment on at this point is the ‘over-exposure’ issue. It usually takes two full years of pretty constant PR effort to position someone as a subject matter expert with the media. It’s perfectly natural for a journalist on a tight deadline (and really, unless you’re dealing with a feature article for a long-lead publication like a magazine, you are talking very tight deadlines indeed) to call someone who’s always been responsive and informative to them in the past, someone with whom they’ve established some sort of relationship. Spokespersons who’ve been properly media trained and who ‘get’ media relations decline interviews that are outside their subject area of expertise, and don’t fall into the trap of providing the kind of controversial quote that sells newspapers. This kind of spokesperson (the best kind), will refer interviews to colleagues, constantly has the big picture in mind, and knows that when they comment outside their area of expertise the gain is short term while the pain is long term – eventually being too much of a media hound will come back to bite you. If you need evidence of this, surely this whole incident provides some support for that contention in the cases of both Goldacre and Winston.

72 Petra Boynton May 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Ruth, while I think your point here is well made:

“It’s perfectly natural for a journalist on a tight deadline (and really, unless you’re dealing with a feature article for a long-lead publication like a magazine, you are talking very tight deadlines indeed) to call someone who’s always been responsive and informative to them in the past, someone with whom they’ve established some sort of relationship. Spokespersons who’ve been properly media trained and who ‘get’ media relations decline interviews that are outside their subject area of expertise, and don’t fall into the trap of providing the kind of controversial quote that sells newspapers”.

In practice it just doesn’t happen like that. You can certainly tell the journalist all the things you’ve cited above, but rather than them finding someone who is qualified to speak they will often find the first next person who’ll say what they need to help a story stack up.

And sadly it’s not so much a case they ask you for something that is as basic as outside your area. It’s more common that it falls within your area so you know it is outdated, unethical or inaccurate. A good practitioner will point that out and should be listened to. In practice the journalist will have to go and find an expert who’ll say what they have been tasked to find.

So it is far more complex an issue than sticking to ethics or ones subject area.

And when folks in a high position speak outside their area AND are talking about issues they should know are wrong, this is a major worry. Which is why I think Ben did exactly what you advise here, he used a media opportunity to highlight poor practice we ought to be questioning.

73 Ruth Seeley May 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Petra, I must most emphatically state that I did not – and would never in a million years – advise that Ben should use a media opportunity ‘to highlight poor practice we ought to be questioning.’ I advised that he answer the question he was asked, which was about HIM, not about Dr. Winston.

We will have to agree to disagree yet again on the subject of media relations. You may remember that I emailed you on the subject last year and your response to my privately advising you that your public comments on the failings of media were ill-advised if you hoped to continue doing media relations was that you had been media trained and knew all there was to know, thank you very much. Luckily for both of us, you aren’t my client.

I just wish you could acknowledge that, having helped to media train more than 150 people, having thoroughly prepared dozens of clients for interviews and sat in on dozens and dozens of interviews, having worked for a newspaper myself for three years, having dealt with media from small-town newspapers with 5000 circulation to the BBC, and having done an awful lot of issues management and crisis management communications, in which media analysis spans years, not days, that I have a certain expertise in this particular subject area that is actually superior to your own.

74 Andy Russell May 2, 2010 at 8:38 am

The fish oil incident isn’t the only time that Robert Winston has promoted something with very little evidence to support it.

75 Bewildered May 3, 2010 at 10:45 am

I don’t want to defend Robert Winston over the fish oil ads (that seems very dodgy) but he isn’t really promoting religious belief in the article you link or using his scientific reputation to suggest it’s supported by evidence. He is criticisng Dawkins who does attempt scientific statements without evidence on that subject: http://ill-conceived-rant.blogspot.com/2010/04/richard-dawkins-is-enemy-of-reason.html.

76 Marianne May 2, 2010 at 6:20 pm

I had a little lecture from my boss recently that incorporated “you don’t really like working in the lab do you…” and “well, if you like writing that’s fine, it doesn’t make you a failure…” (actually in as nice a way as possible, I’m just quoting it to show that people’s points about ‘leaving science’ are valid – I know I’m lucky to have the level of support I do in my institute).

It’s good to note that everyone is weighing in on this discussion, and Andrew is doing well to actually respond to the comments, to the point of conceding where something he’s written is perhaps ill-advised. Not everyone does this, and I think it’s worth appreciating that in talking about science we can serve up our criticisms, though there seems to be some unmerited hostility creeping in.

For me, personally, I don’t have much of substance to offer on Winston. I remember watching his programmes when I was little and I have defended his work in the past. I’m afraid I have to agree with Ben to an extent – it can be dull. But that is, as has been said, simply an opinion as a TV consumer. I was disturbed upon seeing him endorse those products and am glad the ads have been removed accordingly.

An issue I do have, on the reproductive science side of things, is another somewhat ad-hom one in that he is the embodiment of old-fashioned science, surely. He’s a guy with a tache, looking a bit like something from a 70s adult film. Sorry, but that puts me off. Maybe that’s sexist, I know he has the qualifications and the expertise, but I find his air unappealing when it comes to discussing female sexuality medically.

Petra is far more accessible and approachable – again maybe that’s just sexism, because she’s a lady ‘just like me!’.

I don’t intend to detract from the advances Winston has helped to achieve. I respect all the great science communicators. But I don’t worship him and I don’t think it should be too much of an issue if a fellow communicator doesn’t; it’d be boring if we all patted each other on the back all the time, wouldn’t it?

77 Alice May 3, 2010 at 5:02 am

Ruth.

With respect, I think you’re on the wrong track with your (overly-personal, imo) response to Petra. At the very least, the idea that Goldacre should have stuck to talking about himself seems to miss the point.

He wasn’t doing PR, something which I imagine he’s quite proud of, and the interviewer (and audience) were largely pleased for too. He was talking honestly, openly and humorously to a student magazine. So to critique him for doing PR badly doesn’t make much sense to me.

I cannot believe I have just defended Ben Goldacre for not being a self-publicist.

Obviously, there are ways in which we might read that interview as a form of self-promotion. But it’s not professionalised PR. You might object to the fact people doing various forms of engagement or public debate aren’t doing good PR, but I suspect you might have to lump it. I should note that I’m all for good PR in science communicaiton (and science communicators admitting they are doing PR rather than hiding behind more apparently “public serving” phrases), but it will only every be part of the field.

I also think Petra makes excellent points about the complexity of declining/ accepting invitation to provide quotes.

78 Ruth Seeley May 3, 2010 at 11:02 am

It wasn’t meant as an attack, it was a plea to have my professional experience recognized and the expression of quite a bit of irritation at having what I had quite clearly said (two or three times in this stream) misrepresented and rephrased. I only mentioned our previous correspondence on the subject for the sake of transparency because her misrepresentation of my stated views included the suggestion that I was likely to agree with her. I felt it was necessary to indicate that I was already personally on record as being not likely to agree with her views on media relations. I do agree she made some good points re declining interviews, but since her leading comment was such an outrageous suggestion/misrepresentation of what I had said previously, those got rather lost in the shuffle.

This entire discussion has got so very oddly off track, and I wonder why that has happened. As I understood Andrew’s original blog post, the issue for him [and for me, once I'd read the transcript of the interview) looking on from the sidelines as a PR person] was the ad hominem attacks made by Ben in the interview – which, since it was posted on the internet, is globally accessible. Student magazine or New York Times doesn’t really matter if it’s posted on the web – and that’s a part of my point (and would be part of any PR person’s point). It’s out there now, accessible to mainstream media journalists, fodder for all to use in forming an opinion of the two men in question – and the controversy now begging for mainstream media pickup. As is everything said on Twitter – which is not a ‘formal’ interview with a mainstream media outlet either. Since Ben’s book had an amazon.co.uk sales rank of 73 when I looked over the weekend and will soon be available in the US and since the interview he granted referenced primarily his non-NHS work, he is most certainly engaging in public relations/promotional/marketing communications activities by granting interviews.

Not sure if you saw the comment Marty Robbins made to me on Twitter this weekend, which was said jokingly, and I do paraphrase here, ‘I’ve said publicly I have no respect for Susan Greenfield – don’t hit me.’ There is such a world of difference between expressing a personal opinion to which one is, of course, always entitled, and in mounting an ad hominem attack out of the blue (which is how the initial reference to Winston was made in the interview – Ben Kolb had not referenced Ben Goldacre’s blog post on the subject of the milk ads previously in the interview, nor had he mentioned RW) – and to categorically state someone is ‘laughable’ and ‘boring’ is very different from saying ‘I [personally] have no respect for this person.’). In Ben’s reply to Andrew in this stream, he suggests that the ‘off-the-cuff’ remark was made in response to a question from the interviewer, and it very, very clearly wasn’t (a point I’ve also made about three times now).

It’s precisely this sort of gaffe we use when doing media training – people who’ve concluded an interview is over and say inappropriate things when the journalist is still in hearing range or the tape is still running; people who lose their tempers with journalists; and people who phrase things totally inappropriately.

The difference between saying you have no respect for someone and that they are laughable is in the emotional charge of the language used. Which is something we work on with clients when we media train them, including helping them to understand the nuances of language usage in different countries. As just one tiny example of this, the word ‘scheme’ is commonly used in the UK to mean plan – as in ‘profit-sharing scheme.’ It has a far greater negative connotation in North America, and I’ve advised clients to use the words ‘plan’ or ‘program’ instead when talking to North American audiences and in the communications they do with their North American employees. Similarly, I have reprimanded clients during media training for describing a financial meltdown as a ‘holocaust.’

However, I have to bow out of further discussion of this issue, as I have work to do for actual clients who do acknowledge my expertise. And even pay me for it sometimes. ;) Happy Monday, Alice.

79 Bewildered May 3, 2010 at 11:21 am

Ben’s comments may not have been structured in the best way, and did contain statements which might prejuduce people against Robert Winston beyond the legitimate fish oil criticism. However I see little point in speculating about his intent. It is actually rather hard to always speak in such a way that this does not happen, and as has already been pointed out here there are similar flaws in your blog.

The fish oil criticism is an important one and Ben should be praised for making it. I do agree that Ben’s general dismissal of Robert Winston is going to far though and that a more nuanced discussion would be helpful.

80 Ben Goldacre May 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

this is all rather bizarrely legalistic. i had a fun chat with a clever sci-comm student. he asked me if i was writing bad science 2. i said there were too many books with “bad” in the title, made a passing snark about winston, and when the student made a comment that winston was untouchable and too powerful to be criticised, i made a couple more snarks, because winston is not too powerful to be criticised (that way danger lies) and i explained just one of the reasons why i think he’s problematic, in some detail, which you’ve chosen to ignore. i find your desperate failure to engage with that substantive criticism of winston (there is plenty more) genuinely bizarre. you won’t address substance. you’d rather snark and then, in the same breath, complain about somebody else snarking.

while you continue to pick holes about someone being impolitic and having the wrong kind of personality for your tastes, your repeated refusal to engage with the substance of the serious ethical issues i raise about prominent science communicators using their public trust to personally endorse products in dodgy adverts is bizarre at the very least.

worse than that, tho, in your endless poring over these few words you miss a chat which i think, reading over it, covers a lot of ground and was quite fun and thoughtprovoking, on account of a sparky interviewer.

not everybody needs to speak at every moment in the political, metered, pre-planned, conservative terms that you evidently prefer. not everyone is as willing as you to dwell endlessly on style – i’m sorry you don’t like mine – while diligently and carefully ignoring substance. the fact that you get more attention, money, and resources than the chap writing for i-science says a great deal about the problems in sci-comm.

81 Stephen Curry May 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Finally – someone who gets it! ;-)

Well said Ben.

P.S. Marianne – LOL but that was unbelievably sexist!

82 Andrew Maynard May 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Well, in the post title I asked the question “Ben Goldacre, what were you thinking?” (OK, so there was an exclamation mark there as well!), and I got an answer – thank you Ben.

It’s been a long, interesting, often contentious and sometimes a little weird comment thread. I could let it run. But I’m not sure there’s much more mileage in pursuing the ever-increasing number of threads developing here – something to ponder for later discussions I feel.

Ben, I’ll assume your parting comments were directed at a number of preceding contributors, and not just me – I’m not sure some of them match particularly well with my parts in the discussion above.

But rather than succumb to the temptation to prize the can open further, I’m going to put the lid on it.

Thanks all for a discussion which was never dull.

Andrew

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 trackbacks }