We, scientists, journalists, and concerned citizens, are issuing a wake-up call on the treatment of scientific information in the French speaking media, and on its importance in social debates. At a time when suspicion of media and institutions is at a peak, we call for a new in-depth look at the entire information pipeline. Scientific topics must be shared with everyone without sensationalism or ideological bias, so that trust can be re-established on a long term basis between scientists, media, and citizens.
In a democracy, journalists carry a heavy responsibility. The quality of public debate depends on the freedom which journalists enjoy, and on the quality of information which they provide; this also affects decision making. The scientific method offers a reliable base of knowledge that can be used as a basis to formulate public policies on complex issues such as food, health or ecology . Therefore it seems logical for scientists and journalists to work together. Scientists should not shun the media for fear of misrepresentation of their work; journalists should report scientific facts and studies with no distortion.
We want to alert media professionals concerning this latter point. Today, we see an increasing misrepresentation of scientific results. These are often recognized only if they comfort pre-existing opinions. In the opposite case, the implication is that such research is funded by an evil lobby. Let’s be clear: scientific knowledge is not a supermarket in which one can choose what one likes and leave what goes against one’s opinions. Indeed, there exists a scientific consensus on topics as diverse as:
- Climate change:
These are not simply opinions. They are conclusions drawn from scientific studies, supported by reliable scientific institutions such as the WHO, the European Academy of Sciences, the French National Academy of Medicine, the French Academy of Agriculture, or the IPCC.
Of course, science cannot provide all the answers. Some questions have not led to a clear consensus, some remain unanswered. It is then completely legitimate for the media to present and explain the ongoing debate. However, if a consensus does exist, journalists must be able to identify it, and must try to understand and report it. It is not desirable to give the same weight to a well-established scientific fact and to its denial. For example, it would be inconceivable to follow 15 minutes of coverage of the International Space Station by 15 minutes given to a flat-earther.
We are aware that “merchants of doubt”, including some scientists, have tried and are still trying to misrepresent the consensus. Yet journalists are missing their target if they believe that scientists are their enemies. This may have the adverse effect of pushing scientists and journalists apart even further.
We would also like to point out the important difference between the time scales of science and those of the media. The over-interpretation of preliminary results or of small scientific advances, immediately contradicted or qualified, clouds the message conveyed to the public. While it is legitimate to try to report scientific news as soon as possible, short reaction times can be counter-productive, especially in the absence of any keys to understand them.
It is urgent to reconsider the place of scientific information in our media and in the public debate, to avoid widening the gap between scientists and journalists. Together let’s find a way to give science the place it deserves. For a calm and rational public debate, for the good of our political life, and for our fellow citizens. “Science knows no country,” said Louis Pasteur. We add that it must know no ideology.
 Académie nationale de Médecine, Académie des Sciences
Les difficultés de l’information du public sur les vaccinations. Académie nationale de médecine - Académie des Sciences. Novembre 2011.
An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Chapter 2 : Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development. International Panel on Climate Change. Accessed february 20th, 2019.