Needed: Guidelines of best practices for media appearance

After having come across an ad in the New York Times, I thought it would be useful with a set of guidelines for scientists in relation to the media. Although the contents of this ad is discussed at RealClimate.org, I have some thoughts about the issue of how scientists and science appears in the media.

The Norwegian media have something they call 'Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press' ('Vær Varsom-plakaten'), so why should not academics have a similar code of ethics? Maybe a code of conduct for scientists in media could reduce confusion about science in the media?

Here is a proposition for what a code of conduct could look like:

  • Do not mislead

    • Ensure that statements can be backed by science.

    • Make sure that the information reflects the scientific literature.

    • Make sure your credentials are accurate

  • Do not neglect relevant information

    • Science should be objective.

    • If alternative explanations are equally valid, then this must be disclosed .

  • Be informed and up-to-date

    • If the scientist does not keep up-to-date with the literature, then the second point may easily get violated.

    • Make sure to read up on the scientific literature (use search engines)

    • Attend the important conferences

  • Use your title appropriately

    • Do not sign as 'professor' or 'Ph.D.' if the degree does have relevance to the question discussed.

    • Do not claim unjustified authority.

  • Be true to institutions

    • Do not claim unjustified authority by making connection to an institution that doesn't share the same view.

    • If your view is not shared with colleagues/institutions, say so (this is my judgement).

In addition, there is the obvious ethics in science, dealing with everything from fraud, treatment of subjects, to philosophical questions.

I did a quick search to see if there are codes of ethics lying around for scientists speaking up in the public. I tried the National Academy of Sciences, and found 'On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research'. Not exactly what I had in mind. As a member of Institute of Physics (IoP), I searched their web site to see if I could find such guidelines. No success. The American Institute of Physics, then? Nope. Then I tried the American Meteorological Society (AMS), who discusses a code of ethics, but not in detail and not specific for media appearance. Similarly, the Royal Meteorological Society overlooks a Chartered meteorologist status to ensure best practices and professionalism, but I don't see that they provide clear guidelines about media appearance. The Royal Society discusses New ethical code for scientists recognises the need for a code of ethics when communicating to the public, but the text on their page was too general to form a set of specific guidelines.

Science academies can play a role in providing a code of ethics in reach out activities, in addition to responsible conduct in research. A 'chartered scientist' status, overlooked by a professional academy, could be the answer the problem of unqualified scientists speaking out with apparent authority and media spin, because such a status could be revoked by the academies in case of misconduct. Hence be a kind of quality stamp guaranteeing that the signature has been according to a set of agreed guide lines.

In addition, the media could benefit from learning more about the scientific communities and how to avoid misrepresentation of scientific results. They should ask about the climate literacy and of how active the scientist is in relevant research (publication record) and how he/she stays abreast with the scientific progress (how often and widely do the person read articles, attendance in conferences, etc).

Back to the ad in the NYT - Some of the signatures were from Norway, one of which signed as 'Ph.D. former head of forecasting, The Norwegian Meteorological Institute', despite the fact that the official view of the Norwegian Meteorological Institution does not agree with the ad. Also, the affiliation is a bit misleading, as the person was a leader of a regional forecasting branch. One should also ask what subject the 'Ph.D.' was obtained in (title of the theses) and if it is of any relevance to the question the ad addresses.

So, should there not be a set of guidelines of best practices for how scientists should appear in the media?