How The Media Pollute Science – The Deepwater Horizon Example

American Scientist“‘s latest Science in the News Weekly points to the popularity of an insightful, harshly titled piece at Wired: “How Science Failed During the Gulf Oil Disaster” by Christopher Reddy (April 20, 2012), that is also a good way to explore how the media industry ends up polluting science almost beyond recognition.

Reddy concludes that “most of these problems are avoidable” (longer excerpts at the bottom of this post). I do not think he has grasped the magnitude of the problem.

The press pack only wants to “provide immediate, definitive information“, that is uncertainty-free. They of course end up distributing simplified, fact-free news and spreading unnecessary fears.

Scientists are in the meanwhile:

  • pestered by the media
  • “lured” by the limelight
  • pressured in forgetting uncertainty
  • ignored unless there is anything worrying to humans or wildlife in their reports
  • reprimanded if they don’t publish soon enough
  • openly invited to get rid of peer-review for the sake of quickness of decision

In the background, scientific freedom turns into parody, as “tenure decisions” loom hard. And therefore what can we expect the scientists to do? Of course they will end up:

  • deemphasizing uncertainty
  • playing for the audience
  • screaming loud about anything that might be considered remotely toxic
  • hurrying their articles to be printed
  • pretending to be always and invariably 100% correct.

Sounds familiar?

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Extracts from Reddy’s article:

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, many scientists, including me, stepped outside of the Ivory Tower to study what was an unprecedented — and unintended — environmental experiment. We succeeded in gathering mountains of data, learning all sorts of new things, and advancing science.

But we also failed.

Academic scientists chose the research that most interested us, rather than what may have been most important to responding to the immediate disaster. We failed to grasp the mechanics of the media

[…] on land, the press just kept calling

[…] Our academic training did not prepare us for the media attention we received, and sometimes liked too much. We did not recognize that the media’s mission to provide immediate, definitive information about unfolding events to an anxious public can limit its ability to be comprehensive and complex. Academia provides us the luxury to move slowly with the goal of perfection. So we had problems explaining uncertainties, and we did not understand the ramifications of our statements to the media.

Time, more than anything else, separated us. The media has hours to make a deadline. We have five to eight years to get tenure.

An example of how this played out was the reporting of oil plumes flowing from the well deep underwater.

Oil generally floats, so in the early days of the spill, scientists were startled to find high levels of hydrocarbons deep in the Gulf and relayed their findings to the media. The scientists hypothesized that high pressure at the depth where the leak occurred was causing some hydrocarbons to flow horizontally away from the well, rather than up to the surface.

The resulting news reports gave the impression that rivers of oil were flowing at the bottom of the sea, potentially killing shrimp and fish that supported the local economy and harming the ecosystem. Government responders and industry had to respond to the press about the plumes, rather then focusing on higher priorities such as capping the well. And the public had to respond to these reports, too. I recall one Gulf resident asking me if he should sell his house and move away.

Many academics, including me, were hard on the scientists who reported the presence of plumes. We thought they had veered from the standards of good science. Their findings were not peer-reviewed. In their communications with the public, they seemed susceptible to the lure of limelight.

[…] A month after the well was capped, we published a study in the journal Science confirming a subsurface plume more than a mile wide and 600 feet high that flowed for miles from the Macondo well at a depth of 3,600 feet. However, this plume was not a river of oil, but rather a layer in the ocean that was enriched in hydrocarbons. Water samples taken from within the plume were crystal clear.

We had just mapped an underwater plume with a one-of-a-kind underwater vehicle carrying a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer. It could be the greatest scientific contribution of my career. But the media wasn’t that interested. They were more concerned with whether the plume was toxic.

We were confused and said to them, “You need to know where the plume is before you can consider harmful effects.” It seemed so simple to us, but it was only newsworthy if the plume, at that time, could harm marine life or the environment.

[…] when I was the academic liaison at the oil spill’s headquarters the following month, I learned that those on the front line weren’t impressed by the publication of a paper a month after the crisis was over. Crisis responders often must make decisions on the spot, with imperfect information, even if it is risky.

During a crisis, “peer review is the biggest problem with academia” Juliette Kayyem, who was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Deepwater Horizon and teaches crisis response at Harvard, told me.

But to release unvetted data is a leap of faith. I observed a very talented junior scientist struggle with this. He was afraid he might be not be 100 percent correct, word would get out, and it would affect his tenure decision. […]