Translation gap between media and science

While traveling to work these days on the metro in Prague, I observe rows of heads slightly tilted downward, gazing at mobile devices. The information emanating from these machines includes valuable real-time information, entertainment and erroneous tales that have been culled from existing data to satisfy some entity’s agenda. So-called “fake news” has become a lightning rod for the media, with suspicion cast over, for example, biopharmaceutical companies whose purported master plan is to produce high-priced medicines for profit, and governments who have issued mandates to provide herd immunity via the vaccination of children. The internet has become the conduit for professionals and special interests groups alike, both seeking legitimacy. Within this maze of information and misinformation, is it possible for internet users to locate trustworthy data-supported information?

To illustrate this problem, consider the mindset of a new mother who searches on the word “vaccination”. As expected, the search returns an overwhelming number of results from reputable sites such as “Parenting“ and “Today’s Dietician,”, and various academic studies. However, the overall search is muddied with many non-peer reviewed articles from special interest groups (and sometimes medical professionals). Understandably, this array of information leads to confusion. Many academic studies are difficult to understand for non-scientists, hence most laypersons choose to read popular writings which are generally easier to understand. To combat this, physicians and scientists must follow the recent example of large media organizations, and demonstrate the validity of their research before a story is published.

A supporter of the collaboration between science and media is Howy Jacobs, a distinguished professor of molecular biology, the director at the Institute of Medical Technology (IMT), University of Tampere, and a senior editor at EMBO Reports. He has suggested that the miseducation of the masses is due to the disconnect between science and the media (Jacobs, 2012), and that the responsibility of educating medical writers falls on scientists. To give credence to his point, Jacobs tells of his experience with a misinformed bed-and-breakfast owner in southern Alaska, who believed that climate change was not a reality and had no effect on wildlife, specifically the polar bear. After a quick internet search, Jacobs found published data of comparative mitochondrial DNA sequences of polar bears and brown bears that supported the hypothesis that environmental stress (Edwards, et al, 2011) may have influenced a recent genetic exchange between the two species. Jacobs realized that scientific data is available, although public awareness and access are lacking, and concluded that the media could help explain the research process used by scientists and report the findings legibly for lay people.

There are already a few portals doing work of this kind, including the Mayo Clinic, the Centers for Disease Control and the European Medicines Agency, which have developed sites that provide up-to-date information of important treatments vaccination or novel cancer treatments. However, much more can still be done, perhaps with the inclusion of local news sites, and the generation of new portals. Institutions of higher learning such as UNYP could also take an active role to establish portals or links for the academic and internet community.

All in all, it is imperative that scientists continue to publish data, and work with the media to better convey scientific results to the masses in a clear and comprehensible way.

Is it possible that such a portal could be implemented by a member of UNYP’s IT Management class of 2018?  

Fingers crossed!

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