In the public health arena there is no such thing as “pure research”. Actions and communications always have the ability to influence opinion and policy one way or the other, and must be conducted with the greatest responsibility.
The challenge with communication
Many of the problems with highly emotive issues such as BSE or mobile phones stem from confused, misguided, or insensitive communications. There are also several recent salutary lessons of the effect of irresponsible communications. For example
- scientists expressing concerns about side effects of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination has led to vaccination rates dropping below the critical level needed to prevent a serious measles epidemic.
- when scientists expressed concerns about possible side effects of the contraceptive pill, use of the pill fell, pregnancy rates rose, and abortion rates rose.
- on the other hand, on the BSE issue, scientists feeling they had to be reassuring to avoid public alarm led to a loss of trust - more on the lessons to be learned from BSE
The Economic and Social Research Council have recently funded research into the effect of media coverage on people’s perceptions about one of these issues, MMR. They concluded that media coverage led to people having a misunderstanding about the scientific position – and that this could have serious consequences for public health. more on this research into media coverage
Responsible communication involves honesty about the science. With BSE (bovine spongiform encapalopathy), much damage was done by reassurances about safety which current knowledge does not substantiate. This has understandably left many people distrustful of statements about safety.
This web site is intended by National Grid to present the science of EMFs as honestly as possible. We recognise that there is some evidence that magnetic fields may be a possible cause of childhood cancer. It is not possible to guarantee that EMFs are safe. It would be wrong to try to hide that fact.
Getting the balance right
However, the state of the science must not be exaggerated. It is notoriously difficult for the media to convey shades of scientific uncertainty. Dramatic claims of new scientific certainty are tempting but rarely justified.
There is also a growing recognition in the scientific community of the need to think carefully before talking to the media. The Royal Society and the Royal Institution have both made the point recently that not all science is equally good science. It is only by exposing both the working and the results to scrutiny by fellow scientists that the scientific community can come to a judgement on whether what a scientist has done is valid or not, and therefore that the public can be given a fair presentation of the facts. More on communicating research
Effective communication requires sensitivity as well as honesty. Much research has been done on communicating health issues. One presentation of the results is shown below. This conveys an important lesson:
- It is not sufficient to have a factually correct message.
- It is not sufficient (though it is important) to be able to put the message about EMFs in context with other issues.
- Communicators also have to try to gain people’s trust.
Risk Communication: What you have to do
(adapted from Fischoff)