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Establishing a new paradigm for scientific communication

July 17, 2018

mad scientist

When the outcomes of food and nutrition studies are reported in the press, they can easily cause consumers to be alarmed. During session 044, “Say What? The Mandatory Paradigm Shift in Today’s Science Communication,” on Tuesday, July 17, speakers discussed why the paradigm for science communication and reporting needs to change.  

Kristen Zu of Gradient said that most food and nutrition studies are epidemiological. Epidemiological studies are founded in observation and association, which Zu defined as any relationship between two measurable quantities that renders them statistically dependent. And although an associative relationship can be due to causation, it can also be the result of reverse bias or pure chance. Unfortunately, most nutritional epidemiology studies are observational in nature; they report associations, not necessarily causation, which is the emergence of a direct effect from a specific cause. However, well planned, robust epidemiological studies, Zu said, provide strong evidence for causation. “Never draw causal conclusions from a single observational study,” Zu said. 

Carl Winter of the University of California, Davis, said that trying to communicate science in today’s society is beset with pitfalls, so he offered advice to food and nutrition researchers on how to communicate successfully. If faced with a group of people who question the presence of chemicals of food, Winter said, one should first consider whether or not to engage. If researchers choose to engage, then they should do so only if they are willing to listen to others’ ideas—even if they conflict with scientific evidence. Winter stressed that it is important for scientists to humanize themselves by personalizing their experience, telling stories about themselves, and demonstrating their passion for what they do and why they do it. This allows consumers to see food and nutrition researchers as more than evil scientists, Winter said. Whenever Winter is approached by people who believe pesticide residue on plant foods is hazardous to health, he has one response: “Eating is hazardous, but not eating is always fatal.”  

And Jeffrey Margulies of the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright said that scientific evidence is usually not directly admissible in court because it is considered hearsay (i.e., an out-of-court statement offered for the truth of a matter). But expert witnesses are part of many legal defenses. Margulies believes scientists could benefit from the advice he gives to expert witnesses facing a jury: Be likable and confident without being arrogant, and always keep it simple without speaking down to people or insulting their intelligence.