By Flor Lacanilao, PhD
(NOTE: This article has been previously published in Star Science, Philippine STAR, 27 July 2006. It is posted here with the author’s permission)
The public will remain uninformed and uneducated in science until the media professionals decide otherwise, until they stop quoting charlatans and quacks, and until respected scientists speak up.
–-The Scientist, 16 April 1990
There is trivia overload but little science reporting, says Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Juan Mercado. Citing UP development communication professor Felix Librero, he asks, why journalists can’t do for science and technology what the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism does very well for politics?
This observation reflects the public’s poor understanding of science in the Philippines. The problem is not too little science stories being reported, but too much of them from nonscientists. The information that the public gets is largely propagated errors, taken as information in science. Hence, there is a widespread public ignorance of basic scientific concepts and procedures, which only scientists can explain.
When they try, however, they have to compete for media space and time with nonscientists, who greatly outnumber scientists. They also write and talk better. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained and practiced in scientific writing, the style of which is adapted for a distinct purpose and audience. They are then generally poor storytellers. It is still their duty, however, to communicate science to the public.
The media can improve their role in spreading science. It is important for media people to know who the scientists are since they produce the useful information. They can give more access to media and editorial aid, when scientists have science stories to tell. Media and scientists are the two promoters of science literacy. And only by working together can they be effective in giving the public the useful information in science.
RP’s information production
As discussed in previous papers in this column, scientists are researchers who have published papers in international refereed journals, which are indexed in Current Contents (CC) or Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE). These indexes are produced by the Institute for Scientific Information (www.isinet.com). Scientific papers or valid publications are research papers appearing in CC- or SCIE-indexed journals, referred to here as int. journals. A research paper published elsewhere is a gray literature (information produced without adequate peer review and verification). This is produced by nonscientists. It is the common output of research in the country, and it is the main source of information given to the public for education, development programs, and decision-making.
Because of its doubtful validity, gray literature doesn’t count in established assessments of S&T performance. It is the main reason why our country or universities always lag in international rankings of S&T capability and economic progress. Our science policymakers are yet to be aware of this, which is long past due.
The country produced only 249 int. journal papers in S&T in 1995. The rest were unpublished reports and gray literature. The int. journal papers made up only 5 percent of the country’s output. Nearly half of the int. journal papers were produced by the Los Baños-based International Rice Research Institute, which had only about 3 percent of the country’s PhDs in S&T. Worse, except for the University of the Philippines, the national production of scientific information has hardly improved. At least there is hope as the UP leads.
Examples of poor science reporting
If journalists will do for S&T what the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism does very well for politics, as earlier suggested, but will get the information from nonscientists and the DOST, they will just continue propagating errors in science. Saying this in a nice way will not help the overall science program. It will just hide the truth.
An example is a recent cover story in Newsbreak (30 Jan. 2006) on alternative medicine. Not one among those interviewed has any published papers in int. medical journal on the efficacy and safety of herbal and coconut oil products. The boxed statement in the lead story says, “Conventional and alternative medicine can go hand in hand to provide integrative or holistic healthcare.” This is dangerous if interpreted that consumers can take herbal drugs while taking prescribed medicines.
Numerous studies have shown the adverse interactions between herbal drugs and prescription medicines. Our medical doctors must know this, as there are also interactions between certain prescription medicines. Thus, unknowingly the authors and editor are endangering consumers’ safety when taking herbal drugs. Could this potential danger to consumers be offset by benefits that readers get from the report?
One would hardly fault some companies promoting herbal products for profit, their main aim. Nor would hosts of talk shows and documentaries be blamed for advertising them. But why would some of our medical doctors and the government agencies in health and S&T promote the use of herbal products and virgin coconut oil? And how can we trust the Bureau of Food and Drugs that approved a product of virgin coconut oil being advertised in newspapers?
There are not enough studies to guarantee their efficacy and protect consumers’ safety, as my study on medicinal plant research has shown in this column. No scientific review article has confirmed the efficacy and safety claimed for any of our herbal or coconut oil products. On the other hand, scientific reviews of the literature on the use of herbal products worldwide have documented numerous examples of liver, kidney or other organ damage.
Meanwhile, all forms of media, including talk shows and documentaries, continue to report claims of beneficial effects of herbal and coconut oil products promoted by nonscientists.
Why don’t scientists speak up?
Some of them do or try. But they are overwhelmed by nonscientists. Here are some reasons:
First, unpublished PhDs (no publications in int. journal) outnumber our published PhDs in S&T many times over. Reasons include the following: (a) With some exceptions at UP, our PhD programs in science require only the bound thesis instead of valid publications, (b) most academic and R&D institutions recognize the doctoral degree without publications in int. journal, a practice not seen in any developed country, and (c) unpublished PhDs are given research grants by our funding agencies, and they continue to produce gray literature that entitles the author to honorarium, promotion, or even award.
Second, academic and R&D people in the humanities and social sciences publish more popular articles in science than scientists in the natural sciences and technology. They also appear more on television and radio programs. They participate actively in activities of community organizations (e.g. religious, environmental, health) that support the public’s science education.
Third, unlike most nonscientists, scientists are largely poor writers for the general audience. They are trained and experienced in scientific writing, which has different rules. Research reports that they write are addressed to fellow scientists for verification, not to the general public to use. Whereas the popular article provides information to the curious reader, the scientific paper “seeks to argue persuasively a new claim” to peers with similar training. The scientist’s style clearly differs from that of popular communication. Getting used to the journalist’s style is not easy.
Improving media’s role
Reliable sources of scientific information are available. Media people have only to learn how to get them. For instance, they should start by knowing a scientific paper from a gray literature, a scientist from a charlatan (defined above). There are indicators for each of these differences. The scientific paper, for example, separates the scientist from the charlatan. Find out from the Google Scholar (for list of one’s publications) and the Science Citation Index Expanded for list of int. journals (http://www.thomsonscientific.com/cgi-bin/jrnlst/jloptions.cgi?PC=D)
One suggestion for editors is not to routinely refuse papers from scientists (once these have been verified) for reasons of poor style. Instead, why not edit the language for the general audience? Further, why refuse science stories previously submitted or published elsewhere? The popular science article should be treated like a news story published in different newspapers for the public’s information. It is not a publication of original data that is barred dual publication in scientific journals. Science stories are intended for the information of maximum audience. What then is the reason of our newspapers and magazines for the exclusive coverage of science stories? Much useful information from scientists doesn’t reach as many readers as intended because of such editorial policies.
Whereas the scientist’s primary role is to produce scientific information (research), dissemination of verified information (extension work) is a scientist’s social responsibility. As discussed above, however, they are not trained to write for the community. But some try; a few struggle. This is where editors of science, technology, or health sections can help. For instance, section editors can invite scientists to submit papers on their research projects or interests, which can then be edited to suit the general audience. This way, editors are assured of getting useful scientific information from scientists, rather than waiting for papers of doubtful quality from people of unknown skill.
Journalists can write about a scientist’s work. Or they can get information from review papers in int. journals. Scientific review articles show which subjects have been adequately studied. They also tell which studies have been adequately verified. The quality of cited literature reflects the quality and integrity of a review article, whether or not this is from an int. journal. Then journalists can do for S&T what the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism does very well for politics.
Finally, the key to spread the public’s understanding of science is for media people and scientists to recognize their respective roles and to work together. And for our scientists to ponder the sad state of science literacy in the country while saying, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
The author is a retired professor of marine science at UP Diliman, a former chief of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in the Philippines, and a former chancellor of UP Visayas. E-mail him at flor_lacanilao @ yahoo.com.