Science News: The Difference Between Factoids and Facts

COMM-Jack Webb leaning over a desk with a rotary phone, pointing his index finger at the cameraWASHINGTON, DC – Members of the scientific, communications, and academic fields gathered at Johns Hopkins University last week to address issues of miscommunication among scientists, media, consumers, politicians, and the public.  The panel, hosted by the National Communication Association, discussed ways these problems might be addressed, emphasizing transparency and public outreach.
 
“Parroted factoids are probably the thing I encounter most as a science journalist that I have to fact-check on a consistent basis,” said Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour, warning audience members not to believe every fact, statistic, or analogy they are presented with on social networks or in the media.  The problem, Akpan added, is that science communicators “are trying to find easy ways to describe very complicated things.”
 
Much of the discussion focused on the difficulties in countering the abundance of misinformation in the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate – a topic that does not involve the U.S. rice industry directly, as there is no GMO rice in commercial production in the United States.

“We have an issue where the science is way ahead of the policy and the public isn’t even really part of the conversation yet,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, executive director at Science Debate, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes science understanding in politics.

“The junk science issue affects the rice industry most directly when talking about arsenic,” said Michael Klein, USA Rice vice president of communications.  “Here’s a naturally occurring element found in just about every food that grows, and the U.S. has the lowest concentrations of inorganic arsenic in the world, and yet we have alarmists and arm chair ‘scientists’ getting people worked up.  Communicating honestly and clearly on this issue is of paramount importance, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard than many of our detractors who regularly recirculate old, inaccurate stories keeping the issue alive when it has been found to not be a problem.”

Klein added that positive scientific news is also sometimes difficult to communicate clearly.

“U.S.-grown rice has a great conservation and sustainability story to tell, and as with any complex issue there is a lot that goes beneath the surface of a layperson’s understanding,” said Klein.  “We strive to bridge the gaps and make people realize they can and should feel good about U.S. rice for a multitude of reasons – scientific, patriotic, economic, environmental, and more.”