In posts of yore, we've had occasion to discuss the duties scientists may have to the non-scientists with whom they share a world. One of these is the duty to share the knowledge they've built with the public -- especially if that knowledge is essential to the public's ability to navigate pressing problems, or if the public has put up the funds for the research in which that knowledge was built.
Even if you're inclined to think that what we have here is something that falls short of an obligation, there are surely cases where it would have good effects -- not just for the public, but also for scientists -- if the public were informed of important scientific findings. After all, if not knowing a key piece of knowledge, or not understanding its implications or how certain or uncertain it is, leads the public to make worse decisions (whether at the ballot box or in their everyday lives), the impacts of those worse decisions could also harm the scientists with whom they are sharing a world.
But here's the thing: Scientists are generally trained to communicate their knowledge through journal articles and conference presentations, seminars and grant proposals, patent applications and technical documents. Moreover, these tend to be the kind of activities in scientific careers that are rewarded by the folks making the evaluations, distributing grant money, and cutting the paychecks. Very few scientists get explicit training in how to communicate about their scientific findings, or about the processes by which the knowledge is built, with the public. Some scientists manage to be able to do a good job of this despite a lack of training, others less so. And many scientists will note that there are hardly enough hours in the day to tackle all the tasks that are recognized and rewarded in their official scientific job descriptions without adding "communicating science to the public" to the stack.
As a result, much of the job of communicating to the public about scientific research and new scientific findings falls to the press.
This raises another question for scientists: If scientists have a duty (or at least a strong interest) in making sure the knowledge they build is shared with the public, and if scientists themselves are not taking on the communicative task of sharing it (whether because they don't have the time or they don't have the skills to do it effectively), do scientists have an obligation to engage with the press to whom that communicative task has fallen?
Here, of course, we encounter some longstanding distrust between scientists and journalists. Scientists sometimes worry that the journalists taking on the task of making scientific findings intelligible to the public don't themselves understand the scientific details (or scientific methodology more generally) much better than the public does. Or, they may worry about helping a science journalist who has already decided on the story they are going to tell and who will gleefully ignore or distort facts in the service of telling that story. Or, they may worry that the discovery-of-the-week model of science that journalists frequently embrace distorts the public's understanding of the ongoing cooperative process by which a body of scientific knowledge is actually built.
To the extent that scientists believe journalists will manage to get things wrong, they may feel like they do less harm to the public's understanding of science if they do not engage with journalists at all.
While I think this is an understandable impulse, I don't think it necessarily minimizes the harm.
Indeed, I think it's useful for scientists to ask themselves: What happens if I don't engage and journalists try to tell the story anyway, without input from scientists who know this area of scientific work and why it matters?
Of course, I also think it would benefit scientists, journalists, and the public if scientists got more support here, from training in how to work with journalists, to institutional support in their interactions with journalist, to more general recognition that communicating about science with broader audiences is a good thing for scientists (and scientific institutions) to be doing. But in a world where "public outreach" falls much further down on the scientist's list of pressing tasks than does bringing in grant money, training new lab staff, and writing up results for submission, science journalists are largely playing the zone where communication of science to the public happens. Scientists who are playing other zones should think about how they can support science journalists in covering their zone effectively.