Scientists urged to be speak out against unscientific evidence

And keep fighting erroneous ideas that, like zombies, just won’t die

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By Mélanie Meloche-Holubowski
Journalist Intern
EvidenceNetwork.ca

MONTREAL, QC Jun 11, 2015/ Troy Media/ – At a time when many government scientists in Canada are being muzzled, talking to the media may be a scary prospect for many researchers. Yet some academics are calling on their peers to speak out in the media and ignore the noise coming from think thanks and lobbyists.

“The research community is an essential part of an open society that values truth and ideas over interests and preferences,” says Damien Contandriopoulos, an associate professor in nursing and researcher at the Public Health Research Institute at the University of Montreal. “The time is now for researchers to get involved in the public debate. It is absolutely central.”

Unscientific evidence driving political agenda

Contandriopoulos organized a public panel debate on the issue recently in Montreal with both the research community and journalists. The conversation between panelists highlighted the interdependence of the media and researchers. The discussion highlighted how many scientific and health topics are often one-sided in media coverage – and how often public policy decisions are made without proper evidence.

unscientific “evidence”
Some things never die

“I’m sick and tired of seeing that think thanks, with specific commercial interests, are driving the political agenda, publishing reports, trying to frame the debate in a specific way,” said Marc-André Gagnon, an expert in political economy and health policy and assistant professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

“My role as a researcher is to bring forth evidence and to ensure that political decisions are evidence-based,” said Gagnon.

Scientific studies and reports are rarely communicated to the general public and most people don’t read scientific journals, said Contandriopoulos. But scientists shouldn’t only be speaking to the converted, he said. They also have a responsibility to publicize their results and ideas to the general public.

Rapid media cycles

Because news moves fast, the panel noted, science often doesn’t lend itself to digestible sound bites. Add to the mix companies and organizations with vested interests in framing public policy, along with researchers who are not media-savvy, and it’s easy to see how the work of Canadian researchers gets drowned out.

The panel encouraged researchers, who may not have the resources that some lobbyists or think thanks do, to get savvy about contacting the media through writing news releases or op-eds, using social media or emailing a journalist at a local paper.

Gagnon gets editorial help from EvidenceNetwork.ca, a non-partisan resource linking journalists with health policy experts. “They help edit my op-eds and have them published in most major newspapers – something I couldn’t do on my own.” Other resources include the communication departments for those researchers affiliated with universities, which often provide media training and op-ed assistance to the research community.

Taking the time to explain – in a plain language – why evidence matters to people lives is the best way to influence decision-makers and politicians, the panel said.

It might take a bit of legwork to establish a relationship with a journalist or a news organization, but “knowledge transmission remains necessary,” Gagnon said.

Unscientific evidence like fighting zombies

While it might seem like a David against Goliath fight, researchers should not be discouraged if they need to repeat their message repeatedly to counter biased or erroneous information, the panel told the audience.

Tongue in cheek, Contandriopoulos compared it to fighting zombies, an idea put forth by public health researcher Morris L. Barer. “It’s the notion that ideas, no matter how many times they have been proven false, still come back to life again and again, like zombies. Even though it’s a long-term battle, as a publicly funded researcher, it’s your responsibility to try to get the truth out.”

The increasing use of experts called upon for commentary on many topics, the panel noted, is also being questioned, warning against ‘talking heads’ who are ready to comment on every subject under the sun.

“What is the value of having them analyze a report that they have not yet read or having them comment on a subject that is not their expertise?” Gagnon said.

“The purpose is not about researchers having their face in the media more often – it is about helping the construction of a more rational public debate on societal issues,” he added.

Mélanie Meloche-Holubowski is a journalist intern at EvidenceNetwork.ca and a journalist with Radio-Canada.

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