Friday, October 17, 2014

Fox News demonstrates both good and bad ways to cover Ebola

Some news outlets, including Fox, have been wildly spreading fears about Ebola. As an example of both good and bad ways that the media covers science, let’s take a look at a recent clip from Fox News in which they interview Dr. David Sanders about the possibility of Ebola virus mutating to become airborne-transmissible (right now it is only spread by direct contact!)

Their story is titled "Purdue professor says Ebola 'primed' to go airborne.Here is a link to the video.

I’ll start off with the good things:

1) Dr. Sanders did a good job explaining that Ebola is not airborne right now, but there is a "non-zero" probability that Ebola might mutate to infect the lungs and become air transmissible. And this probability increases as more people are infected.
2) The newscasters did a good job of accurately recapping what he was explaining without blowing it out of proportion.

Now for some bad things:

1) Quite obviously, the scare-you-into-clicking-on-it title. First of all, it's completely misleading for the sole purpose of grabbing attention (it got me!). Second of all, it's completely false. I watched it three times and Dr. Sanders never said "primed." So it is blatantly incorrect.
2) They did not include coverage of other scientists that claim the fears of airborne transmission are over-hyped because there are no instances of that ever happening naturally for a virus that infects humans. HIV and hepatitis are both good examples that have infected millions without changing their route of transmission.
3) The way Dr. Sanders describes his published research is a little misleading in the context of this story. It sounds like he describes the research demonstrated Ebola virus can infect the lungs. In fact, the actual study showed that if you take some of the proteins from the surface of Ebola and code them into a completely different virus (in this case a feline lentivirus, similar to HIV), you can infect human airway epithelial cells grown in cell culture. So this research did not use the full Ebola virus, and did not demonstrate this infection in a live animal model. Link to study here:

Some of these negative aspects might be a consequence of the brevity of this story. However, in an information-dense world, people get the news in short snippets, so the media needs to be careful not to compromise accuracy.

Interestingly, on the same network, Shep Smith reported on Ebola with commendable accuracy. He communicated the facts clearly and concisely while criticizing “hysterical” reporting as “irresponsible.” 

I hope future reports from Fox News and the rest of the media follow his tone.

*Update Nov 19, 2014: A follow up to this post detailing a thoughtful response from Dr. Sanders can be found here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

At the interface of science and society - a career fostering public interest in science at The Franklin Institute.

Credit: The Franklin Institute
Everybody loves science museums. Their fun and interactive way of presenting science reconnects you with your childhood self, when you were curious, when you wondered, and when you were so amazed that you could only manage to say, “Wow!” But what is it like to work at a science museum?

On Wednesday, we hosted Jayatri Das, PhD, to describe her career engaging the public with science as the Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute. As you would expect, her transition from the lab into the museum was cultivated by a strong interest in outreach and teaching. After receiving her PhD from Princeton, she gained experience as a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow developing programs for the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, DC. Following a short post-doctoral appointment, she landed a position with The Franklin Institute, an opportunity that she partly ascribes to fortuitous timing, as PhD level positions at museums are rare.

In her job she embraces a new paradigm for how science should interact with society. The goal is no longer public understanding of science. Rather, she urges we should strive for public engagement with science. “We want to communicate to our visitors that they are part of the conversation on how we use science and technology,” she says.

Science and technology do not exist in a void. Jayatri describes that:

1) Values shape technology
2) Technology affects social relationships
3) Technologies work because they are part of systems.

As an example, consider nanotechnology. This field has opened new possibilities to create quantum computing, high-tech military clothing, flexible inexpensive solar panels, clean energy, simple water filters, and new cancer treatments; even invisibility cloaks and elevators into space have been envisioned. But which of these technologies are developed will depend on the values of those funding the research and the circumstances driving market demand for them. Priorities would be different for a wealthy businesswoman in Japan, a US-trained Iraqi solider, a European who lost a spouse to cancer, and a cotton farmer in India.

As she points out, “Investments [in R&D] are being made by people with values different than most of the world’s population.” Therefore, it is important to challenge people to think globally.

Why are science museums a great place for these conversations? First, they provide trusted and stimulating information. Second, they are a place where people can reflect on science, technology, and the world. And third, they are a place for conversation because many visitors attend in groups.

Part of her job involves designing the many ways that The Franklin Institute engages the public with science, which in addition to interactive exhibits includes public programs, digital media, and partnerships with schools and communities. For instance, she recently led a public discussion about concussions in sports. The all-ages audience was presented with the neuroscience of head trauma and testimony from former Eagles’ linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and then they discussed what age kids should be allowed to play tackle football.

Because science and technology are so integrated into our lives now, conversations like these are crucial. In order for breakthroughs to be beneficial for society, they have to interact with public attitudes and values. This communication between science and society occurs naturally at science museums, so they offer fulfilling positions for people like Jayatri who are motivated to connect the frontiers of science with casual visitors. 

Interested in volunteering? You can find information here