How media studies could save our scientists from a bomb

Media - Ian Hargreaves

You can't move these days for celebrity scientists. If it's not Susan Greenfield slinked up against the neoclassical pillars of the Royal Institution for Hello! magazine, it's Stephen Hawking helping to flog the cosmic virtues of Specsavers. In the bestseller lists, Richard Dawkins is more popular than God, and Lord Winston arbitrates upon life itself.

And yet: "Society's relationship with science is in a critical phase . . . public unease, mistrust and occasional outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists."

That's the judgement of a report published a few months ago by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Symptoms of the ailments identified by the committee are easy enough to exemplify. Unease: take the Prince of Wales soundbite, "We need to restore the balance between the heartfelt reason of instinctive wisdom and the rational insights of scientific analysis". Mistrust: look at what has happened since the BSE calamity to scientists' trust ratings, especially of "government scientists", counted on to tell the truth by only 38 per cent of us, according to a MORI survey. Outright hostility: experiments on animals, genetically modified foods.

When things turn nasty, the consequences are serious. We risk foregoing the benefits of technology. And for scientists, a negative public atmosphere jeopardises political support and funding. It can also stop freedom of inquiry and raises the possibility of bombs beneath cars.

In these circumstances, the messenger needs a flak jacket. At the height of the GM controversy, Tony Blair accused the media of "an extraordinary campaign of distortion" - to which the posh newspapers replied "not us" and accused the tabloids of hysteria. One Financial Times leader, dispassionately headlined "The perversion of science", wailed that governments "must do much more to explain the costs of intellectual barbarism and the advantages of measured progress".

A study carried out for the aforementioned select committee by researchers from the Science Museum in London likewise concluded that most of the trouble over GM was caused by "campaigning" newspapers.

It takes an argument such as this to make one realise the importance of what media studies people call textual analysis, or what sociologists call the social construction of meaning. Because it is obvious, isn't it, that when the FT counterpoints barbarism and progress, it is as guilty of iconography as the Daily Express's front-page headline "Mutant crops could kill you"?

Having spent the past year trying to elucidate the place of the media in arguments about scientific communication, I observe that, although social scientists of one stripe or another have done excellent work explaining (and even, to a large extent, foreseeing) the crisis of "expertise" and "authority" exposed by British food controversies, very little serious attention has been paid to the role of modern media in this process.

This is partly because serious study of the media, especially the electronic media, is laborious. Most research grants allow time for only a quick survey of selected newspaper cuttings. So far as most social science is concerned, we may as well still be living in the media world of the 1950s - although this is generous, given that hardly anyone is equipped to study radio in detail.

But there are two other more interesting causes of the chasm of miscommunication about science.

One is that scientists, like politicians, still talk about the media as if they were a one-way distorting lens, separating them from a duped public. It is a world-view that essentially requires a belief that "the media" are all-powerful and Joe Public an ass.

It is also a view that relies on the assumption that, when we speak of "media", we mean the national daily papers. People who produce scientific journals, such as the Lancet, appear to believe that they are engaged in an objective activity, or at least one of wholly conscious and transparent modified objectivity.

It follows that this is categorically different from what goes on in the mass media. Such people probably also believe that the FT is free of icons and magic.

As a result, scientists misunderstand both the media and the public. They hold the first in contempt and are mystified by the second. But there is another guilty party here: media studies. A trawl through the thickly populated landscape of media studies found a mass of material about Star Trek and other science fictions, but very little engagement with the proposition that "society's relationship with science is in a critical phase".

Roger Silverstone, the head of media studies at the London School of Economics, made the same point more grandly in a recent, forlorn manifesto, "Why Study the Media?". Here, he notes "how often the media are distinguished by their marginalisation, if not their complete absence, in so many of the critiques of the current state of global society".

My conclusion is this: if scientists, media academics and the media can't learn to talk to each other in a comprehensible language, what hope is there for anyone else?

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University. His Who's Misunderstanding Whom? - science, society and the media is published on 12 September by the ESRC. It will be posted on the ESRC website: www.esrc.ac.uk