Scientists and science communicators have a responsibility to report new research in a balanced and objective way. Exaggerated claims of the importance of fundamental discoveries and technological developments in areas such as alternative energy and carbon capture, lead to false expectations and poor policy. The message that should be conveyed is that science and technology is important to pursue, but it does not have the answers to deliver cheap clean energy in the amount that societies have come to expect from fossil fuels.
Until this message is conveyed accurately and responsibly, people will continue to live their lives of consumption in the belief that science and technology will provide for them. Policy makers will continue to avoid the realities of confronting climate change and energy provision because they have a convenient get-out clause provided by scientists who exaggerate the potential of their favourite new energy technology. The idea that scientists are going to provide technology that will give us all the energy we demand without emitting carbon dioxide is an aspiration, not a reality. By over-promoting a particular discovery or technology scientists are potentially doing more harm than good to the public interest and to the environment. It is time to call to account, those scientists and media outlets that do society this disservice. It is time for energy researchers to act with the same sense of responsibility as if they were conducting cancer research.
At times when we face challenges and adversity, we welcome good news to give us hope and encouragement. Equally in good times we welcome more good news to reassure us that the good times are here to stay. Good news sells newspapers, attracts audiences and generates income. It provides our leaders with credibility and endorsements of their policies.
Good news from the science lab raises the profile of particular scientists, helps them to attract new research funding, new research students, tenure or promotion. Scientists have mortgages to pay and school uniforms to buy just like everyone else.
So what’s wrong with this?
When I read ‘good news stories’ in areas in which I can legitimately claim to be a specialist, all too often I see exaggerated claims for a new piece of information or new technology. Scientist and reporter working in tandem are responsible for this ‘hype’.
This exaggeration provides false hope and expectations in the minds of those looking for solutions to our energy or climate problems. It is misleading. Potentially dangerously so.
It also provides policy-makers, when confronted with a challenging question, a very convenient get-out clause such as: “Oh the scientists have made a breakthrough in X [technology] that will enable us to meet that particular challenge“, or “We have invested in a promising new technology to meet that challenge”.
It is time for us to stand up and say: “Science and technology does not have all the answers. Society as a whole must take collective responsibility and bring about change in our demands”.
Let me give you an example. In 2009 I published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry describing some features of energy metabolism in an alga (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) that can convert sunshine into hydrogen (that was not our discovery, we just described some details).
What!? Sunshine into hydrogen? Simply add algae, water and mix. Surely this is the holy grail of bioenergy?
My university information office saw this publication and immediately wanted to write a ‘good news story’ for media release. My first reaction was yes of course; good publicity for us all. ‘Scientists at UWA unlock secrets of hydrogen produced from sunshine’ or some such banner.
I contacted my co-author Ben Hankamer, at the University of Queensland to ask for his opinion and agreement, and these are the comments that came back:
“there are so many [media] releases being made and unless they stand up truly as a breakthrough, people will become increasingly jaded with unrealistic claims.”
“the impression is one of this being ‘the solution’, when we all know there are many technical hurdles to overcome.”
I only had to reflect on this for a few moments to realise that he was absolutely correct, and that we scientists had to report our research far more responsibly. In other words, to go along with the hype of the media circus would have been irresponsible. I pulled the draft media release and my office was upset at ‘a lost opportunity’.
In 2010 I attended an international conference in Melbourne at which there was an evening public debate on the promise of biofuels and bioenergy. The meeting was chaired by the eminent and widely respected ABC science communicator Robyn Williams, and the author Tim Flannery (the new chair of Australia’s Climate Change Commission) was one of the contributors.
I am afraid that I found the whole tone unrealistically optimistic and not sufficiently critical of the opportunities that bioenergy can provide. In particular Robyn Williams cited the example of hydrogen production from algae as an example of a new breakthrough clean technology that can help to meet our future energy demands. My own view is that hydrogen production from algae is so limited that it could only ever provide us with a very expensive source of energy in small amounts. But since I did not have the opportunity to state this, 100 people went away feeling good about the future of hydrogen from algae.
I subsequently found that Robyn Williams had interviewed Ben Hankamer in 2008, so possibly this one source of Robyn’s information and enthusiasm. The interview reveals that Ben was trying to be cautious with his answers, while Robyn was looking for something newsworthy. Even Ben, who professes caution, was drawn into being overly optimistic.
Let’s be enthusiastic, but only when it is justified. Science communicators please take note. Offering false hope is a disservice to society.
Even when I venture outside my area of professional expertise, I can see obvious examples of exaggerated claims that give people false hope and policy-makers convenient escape routes. “Scientists discover new form of energy” proclaimed a headline in the Guardian newspaper. I looked at the original research paper and it became immediately obvious that scientists had discovered no such thing.
We must stop this hype.
Of course, the biomedical research sector has had to deal for decades with the issue of raising false hope. ‘New drug to beat cancer’, has given way to more responsible reporting, because for some people reading these reports it is literally a life-or-death outcome. False hope in climate and energy research is just as serious as that in health, and reporting in these areas should adopt equally strict codes. Making mistakes and poor decisions in relation to the climate change, is a matter of life-or-death for ecosystems and species, including humans.
We should all monitor the outputs from such media offices and hold them to account if they make exaggerated claims that could lead to false hope, unrealistic expectations, and worst-of-all bad policy in the areas of climate, energy and resources. Academic institutions must set an ethical example.
This is one area in which scientists can have a real impact on policy for climate change and new energy sources. Stop exaggerating in order to advance your own research field, and adopt a more objective and responsible approach. If you review papers or grant applications that make exaggerated claims, call them to account! Let us make responsible and realistic research that which attracts the funding and kudos, not the over-egged research.
Shelby Lin Erdman, CNN, March 16, 2010.
MIT researchers discover new energy source
Choi W, Hong S, Abrahamson JT, Han JH, Song C, Nair N, Baik S, Strano MS. (2010) Chemically driven carbon-nanotube-guided thermopower waves. Nat Mater. 9: 423-9.
Matthew T, Zhou W, Rupprecht J, Lim L, Thomas-Hall SR, Doebbe A, Kruse O, Hankamer B, Marx UC, Smith SM, Schenk PM. (2009) The metabolome of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii following induction of anaerobic H2 production by sulfur depletion. J. Biol. Chem. 284: 23415-25.