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Out of Order: Of mice and…well…other mice
As someone who routinely writes about biomedical science and its potential to change the way humans live and interact, it is tempting to let the excitement of an achievement overwhelm any discussion of its cautionary aspects or its limitations. Every step offers so much hope to people who have worked so hard to achieve that step, and particularly to the people who await relief from a medical condition or its related anxiety.
Similarly, in trying to convince inquiring minds to pick up the latest issue of DDNews or to click on a story link or like and retweet our social media posts, it is tempting to write the headline that induces excitement or intrigue. Like any news organization, DDNews is a business and that business requires readers.
I like to believe that my editorial colleagues and I do a good job at refusing that temptation; that in bringing you amazing stories of science and medicine, we do not overstate the achievements or their potential. (And I welcome you all to call me on any questions of hyperbole.)
It was perhaps because of my desire to remain vigilant on this point that I became intrigued by the Twitter account @justsaysinmice.
Effectively, all this account did was add the phrase “IN MICE” when retweeting announcements of research findings that lacked this vital piece of context.
The account immediately started showing up everywhere as scientists and science writers across Twitter hailed the account as a godsend. That, in fact, was how I discovered the account; because so many in the @DDNewsOnline community were retweeting the @justsaysinmice posts.
In mid-April, the creator of the account—James Heathers (@jamesheathers)—explained his rationale in an article he published on medium.com.
“So many stories about the Latest Thing That You Need To Know About What Will Kill You Next Tuesday can have their accuracy dramatically improved by the simple addition of IN MICE,” he wrote.
“I should note at this point that saying IN MICE after reading a headline is a reasonably common trope amongst scientists,” he suggested. “I’m certain I didn’t invent it. I’m just the goon who thought it would be a funny Twitter account before he’d had any coffee.”
But, he quickly pointed out, his self-amusing lark has a very serious madness (anger) behind it.
“I think reporting on scientific research accurately, especially when it’s about health and medical science, is important,” he continued. “It often means telling people crucial, scary or important things from a position of authority.”
“So, I don’t think you should wait until the third paragraph before mentioning that the research on your diet, or the tumour that’s going to kill you, or the Latest New Threat, is mouse research,” he argued. “Or worse, not mention it at all.”
At the best of times, and especially when trying to reach a broader audience, science communication is difficult. Every statement of experiment and outcome has so many qualifiers that it becomes virtually impossible to say anything with any degree of coherence.
This is likely the reason why any scientific paper might as well have been written in Linear A for anyone outside of that field of expertise. Thus, trying to explain to my mom what happened and its implications can be excruciatingly difficult. (Then try tweeting it.)
But that’s our job—as science writers, as science communicators, as scientists.
In an era of fake news, an era where the veracity of science is questioned at every turn, we simply cannot afford to look like we’re holding information back or that we’re overstating our findings.
The deniers can lie or conflate or mislead all they want; we cannot. It’s not a fair fight, but it never has been.
Like Heathers and his 52.3K followers of @justsaysinmice (as of April 22), we must stay vigilant as we wander the internet or read the newspaper in search of science stories. And just as importantly—and perhaps more within our individual control—we must remain vigilant in the words we use to describe science, to avoid, wherever possible, the slightest hint of hyperbole.
As I said earlier, if you see me slipping, please call me on it. And my promise to you, as with any of my colleagues, is to give you as much salient information as I can in the space allowed.
If you cannot trust what I relate to you, what is the point?
You can read James Heathers’ article “IN MICE, explained” online at: https://medium.com/@jamesheathers/in-mice-explained-77b61b598218
Randall C Willis can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org