Science is a vital component of our society and prosperity, but in order for science to be effective, it must be communicated well. It is important that the general public be educated about recent advances and discoveries in science. However, most science is initially communicated using highly specialized language among professionals with intimate knowledge of the particular field. Instead of reading the esoteric source material in professional science periodicals, the general public stays in touch with science via “popular articles,” or dumbed-down summaries of scientific research. These summaries are not written by the researchers, rather by news organizations or unaffiliated individuals. It is up to these parties to communicate science effectively and accurately, which they usually do quite well. One example of a well-done popular article is a post on the blog, “The Pump Handle,” written by Kim Krisberg, reporting on a study undertaken by a team led by Peter Rabinowitz about the health effects of hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a modern method of extracting natural gas from shale rock. It is about as efficient as it is controversial. In recent years a firestorm of criticism has arisen surrounding the adverse environmental and public health effects of this practice. In order to better assess the effects of fracking on public health, Rabinowitz and his team surveyed people, who get water from the ground and live near fracking operations, about any unusual health symptoms. The article in “The Pump Handle” accurately represents this scientific study but uses a different approach to communicating the information.
One of the hallmarks of science is its dependence on data. All conclusions in science should be supported by hard numerical evidence. This study is no exception. Throughout the results section, Rabinowitz et al explain when the data do and do not support the correlation between adverse health symptoms and proximity to gas wells. The researchers frequently clarify how their resultant data are only enough to “support the need for further investigation of whether natural gas extraction activities are associated with community health impacts.” (Rabinowitz et al. 24). Even though Rabinowitz suspected that there is a correlation, as is revealed in the interview for “The Pump Handle”, he and his team take great care in their report to not make conclusions unsupported by the data. Acknowledging the limitations of the study is important. Good science is conducted and reported without bias, and should not draw conclusions which are not supported by the underlying data. By clearly stating where their conclusions are tentative and require further study, they maintain their authority as researchers.
The popular article maintains this objectivity and tentativeness in its report by using carefully chosen language. For example, at the beginning of the article, it summarizes the results of the study by stating it “found that people living near natural gas wells may be at increased risk for adverse health impacts.” (Krisberg) The key word is “may”. This equivocation communicates the tentative nature of the conclusions. In addition to citing the research itself, Krisberg contacted Rabinowitz directly and asked him to comment on the findings. Krisberg quoted Rabinowitz saying, “This doesn’t prove association. But we feel that it really adds significant evidence to… taking seriously the potential for health effects.” The author chose to quote Rabinowitz saying the study “does not prove association” to clarify that the results are not absolute. In this way the popular article accurately represents the research because its conclusions do not go beyond the scope of the research.
In addition to clarifying what the research doesn’t support, the popular article accurately describes the actual results. Below is an excerpt of the popular article specifically explaining the results of the study:
“The average number of reported health symptoms was greater among households located less than a kilometer from a gas well than in households more than two kilometers from a well…The study did not find an association between proximity to a natural gas well and increased cardiac, neurological or gastrointestinal symptoms.” (Krisberg)
This is consistent with findings described in the original research paper, as shown in the following quote:
“We found an increased frequency of reported symptoms over the past year in households in closer proximity to active gas wells compared with households farther from gas wells….Other [symptoms], including cardiac, neurological, or gastrointestinal symptoms, did not show a similar association with gas well proximity.” (Rabinowitz et al. 24)
Both reports cite the same conclusions: People showed more adverse health symptoms when they lived closer to a well, but no association was seen with cardiac, neurological, or gastrointestinal symptoms. Of course, the information in the scientific article is much more specific and uses specialized vocabulary, but the message is the same. The correspondence between these two excerpts illustrates how the popular article accurately represents the findings of the original study.
The article and paper cite the same conclusions, but the constraints of their media force them to report the findings quite differently. In the scientific community credibility comes from careful research and reliance on data for conclusions. In order for study to be credible, it has to have been conducted effectively, therefore discussion of the procedure of collecting data is mandatory. Most papers in science, like this one, follow a specific outline: first an introduction, then an explanation of the methods, followed by results, discussion of results, conclusion, and a reference section. This paper includes a diagram supporting discussion of the methodology and several tables illustrating details of the results. In the discussion it includes statistical analysis of the results with assertions of statistical significance where appropriate. All of these are necessary elements of communication in the scientific community, and are required to support the research and justify the conclusions.
The popular piece is structured in an entirely different way. It is not divided into sections and it includes no figures or tables. It doesn’t even report any specific data. When the article relates the trends shown in the report it simply says that the occurrence of “health symptoms was greater” in households near wells (Krisberg). These purely qualitative statements would not be specific enough for other scientists, but they are enough for the general public. The public can’t assess the significance of data in the context of the research, so giving the exact numbers would be confusing. The popular article omits description of the methods and focuses almost entirely on the discussion and conclusions. This is because to the general public is only interested in the conclusions and lacks the technical background to follow the other material. Consequently, the conclusions are presented at the beginning of the article, not at the end. Although the popular article acknowledges the limitations of the research, they are given much less attention. The article never mentions statistical significance nor does it use extremely technical terms such as microbicides, surfactants, trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons. These words are much too specialized for the general public. Since an important part of writing for the public is keeping the reader engaged, the popular piece adds significant material from a personal interview with Rabinowitz. This humanizes the piece, making it more appealing to the audience, and connects the results to current events and policy regarding fracking, such as New York’s decision to enact a fracking ban. These details are not appropriate in a scientific paper.
Despite the enormous difference in language and structure of the two articles, they communicate essentially the same information. The popular article summarizes the results and conclusions of the academic one using simple terms that anyone could understand, and is thus less formal. However, all of the implications of the research discussed in the popular article can be directly attributed to a specific part of the academic paper. This kind of accurate, honest, and objective reporting is what the general public needs in order to make educated decisions regarding science.
Krisberg, Kim. “New Fracking Study Finds Link between Proximity to Gas Wells, Negative Health Symptoms.” The Pump Handle. Science Blogs, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2015/01/21/new-fracking-study-finds-link-between-proximity-to-gas-wells-negative-health-symptoms/>.
Rabinowitz PM, Slizovskiy IB, Lamers V, Trufan SJ, Holford TR, Dziura JD, Peduzzi PN, Kane MJ, Reif JS, Weiss TR, Stowe MH. 2015. Proximity to natural gas wells and reported health status: results of a household survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Environ Health Perspect 123:21–26; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307732
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