The stories we tell about science: A conversation

Red wine is good for you. No, red wine is bad for you. 

Ben Lillie and Virginia Hughes began a TEDxNewYork conversation about science and culture at Untitled Space in Tribeca by taking a look at why this kind of headline whiplash happens in the press: because science journalism has been structured around reporting on single studies as they are published in scientific journals.

Ben Lillie and Virginia Hughes in conversation at Untitled Space on June 9, 2015, New York, NY. Photo: Jim Webber

Ben Lillie and Virginia Hughes in conversation at Untitled Space on June 9, 2015, New York, NY. Photo: Jim Webber

“Any single study is something like 50% likely to turn out to be wrong,” says Hughes, science editor at BuzzFeed. “Not because of fraud or misconduct, but because of basic statistics.” 

“It’s just how science works,” says Lillie, the founder of Story Collider. “This runs right up against the way we think about science in culture—that scientists go into lab and make a discovery and then tell us about it. In fact, it is a messier process.”

The audience, listening intently. Photo: Jim Webber

The audience, listening intently. Photo: Jim Webber

In the conversation, Hughes shared why BuzzFeed has set up a five-person “investigative science” desk and Lillie revealed the spark that led him to create a storytelling platform for personal stories about science. They talked about science in movies, science in art, science generally in the fish bowl of our culture. The point: that all of our lives are shaped and continually influenced by science. 

The discussion veered toward the movement in science journalism to focus on racism and sexism in the field, and how science journalists have become more political in “holding people’s feet to the fire.” Both have recent examples: Lillie wrote an essay for Slate on the controversy over a $1.5 billion telescope on a sacred site in Hawaii and Hughes edited a story on BuzzFeed about a Nobel Prize winner making sexist comments at a conference.

Hughes said, “Whenever there’s bad behavior in science, the argument is always that: ‘But science is for the greater good, so we have to overlook all this terrible behavior.’”

“We have this idea that scientists are these objective people,” said Lillie.  “We minimize stories of the harm science has done.”

Finally, the two turn to the rise of the celebrity scientist, a la Neil deGrasse Tyson. “What do you make of this?” asks Lillie.

“I’m not sure what to make of it,” said Hughes, with a pause. “I think it taps into people’s genuine love of awe.”

Drinks and chitchat after the show. Photo: Jim Webber

Drinks and chitchat after the show. Photo: Jim Webber

Good times. Photo: Jim Webber

Good times. Photo: Jim Webber