So where does the writer find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article? “Think locally,” advises David Periman of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Get to know your local biologist at nearby universities.” Learn their areas of expertise. Establishing these relationships is important; when an important story comes up on deadline, a researcher who has met you is more likely to call you back. As in any beat, maintain an exhaustive list of sources, organized by topic on a computer where it can be easily searched, include e-mail addresses, home and cell phone numbers if you can.
National meetings of societies are large but good places to find specialists in the field of your chosen interest. The information on time and place of these meetings are usually available on the society websites. Another option for finding experts or story ideas is peer-reviewed scientific journals. Peer-reviewed simply means that experts in the field have read the papers and suggested corrections and revisions before the journals accepted the papers for publication. If you are unsure if a jounal that you are using is peer reviewed, check with your local librarian. Whether you use information from a peer-reviewed journal or a source from a local research institution, be sure to check the facts.
Here are some tips:
- Don’t trust tips on blurbs or tip sheets. They can be helpful, but they can also be wrong. Always verify.
- Preliminary study information is often released as news but it is designed to create interest and obtain grants. It is often unreliable or incomplete.
- Don’t trust news releases. They too can be helpful, but sometimes wrong. Verify release information from the actual paper or the paper’s author. Double-check background information with other reliable sources.
- Be aware of the pitfalls of the peer-review system. Some jounals have more rigorous review than others. Again, double-check background information with other reliable sources.
- Ask a paper’s authors or researchers about previous news coverage of their work. Make sure that what you’re reporting is really new and wasn’t covered in detail just a few months ago.
- Ask about potential conflicts of interest. If any of the researchers have a financial interest at stake, this could and should be a red flag. You have to judge if stating the conflict will be enough to ease readers’minds or might the research information be called into question because of the financial interest. At this point, it would probably be in the best interest of your credibility to find another expert.
- Check trivial facts. Make certain that you have the expert’s affiliation and title.
A word of caution however, be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always, remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Now that you have a few good sources, how do you interpret the scientific information to make it understandable and interesting the public? First, be sure that you understand the topic and the information that you have collected. If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, however, it does require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:
- Was the study done, or claim made, on the basis of evidence only?
- How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations? What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
- Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
- Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
- Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?
You must understand five principles of scientific analysis to find answers to these questions. They are the basis of scientific inquiry.
1. Some Uncertainty is Acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds or flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and Large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. A commonly accepted numerical expression is the P (probability) value, determined by a formula that considers the number of events being compared. A P value of .05 or less is usually considered statistically significant. It means that there are 5 or fewer chances in 100 that the results could be due to chance alone. The lower the P value, the lower the odds that chance alone could be responsible. Science writers don’t have to do the math, they just have to ask researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is There Another Explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. A chemical in a town’s water supply may not be the cause of the illness there. A study’s time span can be very important so that normal cycles are not confused with study results. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Can you think of any alternative explanations for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The Dimensions of Studies. For costs and other reasons, all studies are not created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is a more definitive study now needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The Power of Peer Review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.
Above all, have fun. Science is intriguing, funny and essential to everyday life. If you write too loftily, you lose some of the best stories and the ones to which your readers most relate. Your credibility will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of your work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.
The points discussed in this article will be illustrated in a session entitled “The Anatomy of a Science Story” with a panel of three experienced science writers at the OWAA Annual Meeting in Bismark, ND in June, 2008.
Published in Outdoors Unlimited