2018 was a year replete with scientific communication. More than ever this field reveals how highly complex it is. After nearly a year of considering this subject, here are some of the lessons we’d like to draw from it.
Progress does not make good headlines
Acknowledging that the worlds of science and technological progress, and the media are out of kilter is a euphemism. If you need convincing, you only have to delve into Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s latest work. The author highlights an analysis of the “feelings” expressed in the headlines of the New York Times from 1945 to 2012, which shows that they are increasingly pessimistic. Which comes as a surprise to the author, because the reality is quite different. With 75 supporting charts, chapter after chapter, he shows that in all areas things are objectively going better and that the ideals of the Enlightenment are gradually being realised. So, we may well wonder: why do the increase in average life expectancy, the decrease in infant mortality, the decrease in the number of famines, the drastic decrease in the number of those living in poverty… struggle to be noticed in the media? Why does the coverage of scientific information by the media systematically favour a pessimistic tone?
The risk vs. danger problematic
Seen through the distorting lens of the media, there are certain textbook cases of pitfalls. The “risk” versus “danger” issue is a prime example. Causing confusion in the reader’s mind looks set to continue for the long term. Perhaps one of the most telling examples is the Libération newspaper’s cover story “Alert au soy fou” [“Warning, mad soya”] published in 1996. This involves lumping together the mad cow crisis on the one hand, and the arrival in Europe of the first shipment of GMO soybeans on the other. The link was firmly established in the minds of the readers, and the rest is history. But the two incidents cannot be treated in the same light. In one case, we are dealing with an identified danger from animal feed. In the other, a potential risk. While danger forces us to turn to prevention strategy and we have no doubt that every effort must be made to prevent the danger from occurring, risk, rather, forces us to apply the precautionary principle. Studies have to be conducted to deal with any eventuality and research has to continue, even if there is no certainty. The absence of this distinction between these two concepts is well recognised to be the cause of much confusion and misinterpretation.
A complex communication topic: cancer
If there is one particularly difficult to communicate research topic, it is cancer. As epidemiologist Catherine Hill shows, contrary to popular belief “There is no cancer epidemic in France; overall, the number of cancers is increasing only because of the demographic effect of population growth and ageing. The main exception is lung cancer in women. ” In support of her reasoning, the author relies on two indicators: the annual number of new diagnoses and the annual number of deaths. Then we need to study the “preventable causes of cancer”, which leads the epidemiologist to note that “it would be useful to compile a checklist of false beliefs about cancer risk factors and an inventory of unfounded prevention recommendations. It would be an indispensable counter argument to the abundance of baseless recommendations.” This remark brings us to the heart of our problem.
Resist the fatalism of “all carcinogenic”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an intergovernmental agency, part of the World Health Organisation, is renowned as a reference point for communication on the subject. As such, it regularly hits the headlines of the media with its monographs. First of all, it is important to remember that this body does not produce studies itself, but only compiles them. Secondly, based on these compilations (monographs), the IARC classifies products which have been analysed into five broad categories:
Group 1 “Carcinogenic to humans” (e.g. solar radiation, cigarettes, cold meats),
Group 2A: “Probably carcinogenic to humans” (e.g. red meat, glyphosate),
Group 2B: “Possibly carcinogenic to humans” (e.g. coffee),
Group 3: “Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans” (e.g. tea),
Group 4: “Probably not carcinogenic to humans”
It becomes clear how difficult it is for the mainstream media to grasp the nuances between all these categories.
As noted above, some media outlets favoured pessimistic headlines. So, from wording such as “Red meat is ‘probably carcinogenic’”, it’s a short leap to a shock headline like “Meat and cancer: the shocking WHO report”. Also, on entering the Google query “red meat” we are now immediately prompted with the suggestion “red meat carcinogenic”.
It was subsequently seen that there was confusion between potential risk and danger and that it was very complicated to untangled. It is important to remember that IARC product grouping only refer to a potential risk. So, if I eat cold cuts of meat, it may increase my risk of getting cancer, but it doesn’t make cold cuts as dangerous as tobacco.
The difficulty of distinguishing between these categories becomes apparent, where the categories broadly include several products and an intensive analysis of each product is given separately: two items in the same category do not inherently represent the same danger. The art of good scientific communication on this subject depends on the ability to make this nuance understood. We also appreciate the efforts at communication implemented by WHO, the IARC’s parent organisation, to reassure and inform public opinion in a very simple way through a question and answer system .
To conclude, we may easily suppose a priori that all products existing in nature will eventually fall into one of the IARC categories…. “All-carcinogenic” is a concept that a scientist can think about in a purely intellectual way without the emotional charge that would cause him or her to sink into despair. The scientist will instead identify a course of action to find solutions to prevent the disease . It is much more difficult for public opinion, and inconceivable for a cancer patient hoping for a cure. This sheds light on the extraordinary effort that an organisation like the IARC has to make to tirelessly explain its valuable communication work.
 Frequency and causes of cancer in France, Catherine Hill, SPS n° 316, April 2016, https://www.pseudo-sciences.org/spip.php?article2620.
 For example, on the WHO website there is a FAQ section to address the carcinogenicity of red and processed meat consumption.
Question 9. “Processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Tobacco consumption and asbestos are also classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Does this mean that consuming processed meat is as carcinogenic as smoking tobacco and being exposed to asbestos?
No, processed meat has been classified in the same category as other cancer-causing agents, such as smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does not mean that they are all equally dangerous. IARC classifications describe the strength of scientific data on an agent as a cause of cancer, but do not assess the level of risk.” https://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/fr/
 We may recall, for example, that the US firefighters who participated in the 9/11 rescue efforts were able to be treated and compensated, because it was discovered that the materials they had breathed in had been classified by the IARC.