Thursday, September 20, 2012

How can we solve the wild problem of science communication?

In a strange intersection of the literature on matrices and the literature on dairy herd management (don't ask), I've come across a concept that I think underlies so much of what frustrates me about science-related news: tackling wild versus tame problems. Because we're humans (not mice! not rats!), we take a label--say, 'cancer'--and relate it in our thinking and understanding to a monolith, one that threatens our existence or that of the ones we love, one that can and should be battled and conquered. Yet, as anyone who's gone into any depth in cancer research and therapies knows, cancer is no monolith. Using the same word for out-of-control growth of aberrant cells in different tissues doesn't mean that growth happens the same way, even in the same tissue. The pathways to cancer are as multitudinous--more so, really--than the steps that lead to the complex process of cell division itself. 

In spite of this complexity, we'll still write about cancer as a monolith when even in the breast or skin, it arrives in many different and deadly forms. Researchers embedded in the field probably grasp that no one will find a general 'cure' for cancer, that each cancer, each pathway, will likely require special targeting and therapies. Indeed, treatment specification already hits at known pathways with identifiable genetic anomalies, with some therapies working quite well against a background of some mutations but not well at all against a different genetic background. 

But news stories about cancer are a different matter. Take this one, for example: "Snake venom could be used to treat cancer, diabetes." The real story is that researchers took the nasty molecules in snake venom and chemically defanged them, turning them into molecules that might be more physiologically recognizable--and less lethal--to a human. That's it. It's still a good story with great headline opportunities ("Scientists defang snake venom!"), but instead, it's turned into a treatment for some unspecified cancer. Or, try out this from Huffington Post, trotted around social media as "UNBELIEVABLE: Scientists find marijuana can stop spread of cancer!" I bet that's news to Bob Marley.

Why do we do this? You'd think that after literally decades of chasing fruitlessly after the cancer monolith, journalists and editors would realize that the monolith is really a hydra we can't take down with a single study, a single molecule, a single cure. What's our problem? Well, it's a wild one.

Wild problems, in this sense, are what the name implies: They're untamed and probably untameable. They're magnetic because they're The Big Issues, like cancer or the U.S. economy. And whether writers and editors know it, consciously or not, talking and writing about wild problems gets news stories wild click numbers these days. Cancer! Autism! Obesity! It's using wild problems as a marketing tool.

But it's not fair to the reader or to people with cancer or obese people or autistic people to take their individual experiences and treat them as wild problems. It's misleading to talk about a 'cure' for autism, particularly when writing about studies that aren't about autism at all, when that 'cure' is among the wildest of problems, given that autism itself is wildly idiosyncratic. And for a deadly disease like cancer, it becomes painful and personal. I've received emails from people with relatives dying from cancer, wanting to know if a story with a headline promising a cure for cancer holds hope for them. It does not.

I'm assuming--I think correctly--that people involved in science writing and editing, whether public information officers or journalists or opinionators, do it because they find science fascinating. Not the monolithic wild part of science, necessarily, but the overwhelming incremental nature of Nature, how that seemingly chaotic noise of atoms and molecules and interactions settles into the shapes that we recognize and understand, how they form the wild things. That's the fascination of science and discovery. But for some reason, we seem to think that presenting these incremental findings just as they are won't appeal to those who read what we write. 

If we were to focus more on the incremental reality of scientific discovery--and in this context, of discovery for conditions like autism--we'd present our readers with what reality is. A 'cure' for autism, which is not a disease, or a cure for what we call cancer, which is, likely isn't realistic. But if we talked and wrote about scientific discoveries within the confines of their reality--their incremental nature--we'd take those wild problems and tame them--and ourselves. We'd focus instead on tame problems and be more honest with our readers. 

Take autism as an example (because autism is always my example). It's a condition with an extremely uneven presentation from one person to another, of varying intensity in its various characteristics. But it's a condition that involves specific gaps that, if mitigated, might improve the day-to-day lives of autistic people. Moving from the broader view and heterogeneity of the wild problem of 'cure' and homing in for a close focus on these gaps? That bypasses autism as a problem at all--something that many autistic people would welcome--and focuses on the tame problems of bridging gaps. It's realistic, it's honest, it's thoughtful, and it doesn't overpromise.

As someone who writes about science for nonscientists, I feel a responsibility to keep the chain of accuracy in interpretation and information as intact as I can. It's my job to carve away overpromising and weak argumentation, false links and false advertising and to shape the truest, most honest story I can about what the science is telling us. If we were to think and write in terms of carving tame problems out of wild ones, would we, as a potential wild problem ourselves, be doing a better service for our readers?


  1. Brilliant. But don't just blame science journalists. I can't speak for cancer research but certainly in autism research, all the big grant money, high impact publications, and focus in general is on the wild problem. Sure people TALK about heterogeneity, especially when things don't work out. But we still mostly act as if autism is a monolith.

    1. I agree. I've seen scientists quoted in stories as talking about a "cure for autism," etc., and have had the same thoughts.

  2. Excellent insights. As a wildlife veterinarian I run into the same sort of attemtps to dump all wildlife into one basket. I try to dispel this in my own blogs and also when I had not yet retired and was teaching vet students. Some of them understood.

  3. I if the idea that cancer is a single thing was set in public consciousness 40 odd years ago with the National Cancer act of 1971, which popularized the phrase "war on cancer." That might have set the tone for a lot of public health ads in North America for the last few decades. They almost always talk about cancer in the singular ("cancer can be beaten").

    I am not sure that there is a way to undo decades of a simple slogan of "cure for cancer." I think there may be a very narrow window of opportunity to set expectations in the mind of the general public, and once those early impressions are made, they're very hard to change.

    1. I'm not gonna dispute that, but it doesn't excuse irresponsible reporting or scientific overreaching. Who's gonna change these expectations if not the people who report on the research?