If you've ever watched any of Brian Cox's TV programmes in a room full of physicists, you may have realised that communicating science to the general public is somewhat challenging. Cox's enthusiasm for "amazing" things is... well, amazing, but his metaphors can be rather clunky and a common criticism from physicists is that he tends to misrepresent or oversimplify areas he is not an expert in. On the other extreme of course, scientific papers are rarely written with the general public in mind and trying to read one may put you to sleep, explode your brain and/or leave you none the wiser after three hours of trying to understand a single page.
Two examples of science coverage struck me this morning which illustrate some of the pitfalls nicely. Let's start with the bad one.
On the Today Programme this morning, we were repeatedly told that there was a one in 3000 chance of being hit by a chunk of satellite today. Why, wondered I, weren't we being advised to take shelter in bunkers, not to leave the house, and to take other sensible precautions, given that two million of us would be hit by space junk today? Why wasn't there mass panic? If one in 3000 people were going to be victims of orbital debris, and there are somewhere between six and seven billion people on the planet, after all, about two million of us were going to make the acquaintance of a piece of NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).
You may think I'm being pedantic here, but I found the way the report was phrased extremely misleading. It felt like, in an effort to reassure the public, someone had picked a big number out of thin air and was throwing it at us in an attempt to stun us before the space junk hit. Looking at coverage of the UARS story across the BBC, it's extremely patchy:
- The headline for this video from BBS Breakfast quotes "1 in 20 trillion", though the 1 in 3200 figure is in the text. To make matters worse, Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society (the talking head in the clip) makes an on-the-fly conversion between these two expressions of probability without showing his working. You could be forgiven for being confused.
- Kevin Yates of the National Space Centre in Leicester does a slightly better talking head job on the Today Programme, converting the 1 in 3200 figure into a 99.7% chance that we won't be hit.
Ultimately, though, the question remain: 1 in 3200 what?
To be fair to the BBC, a lot of the fault for this farce lies with the original NASA risk assessment. Overall, it's quite a good document. It gives us the history of the satellite, tells us it's been defunct since 2005, explains how risk is assessed and communicated. However, on slide 8, we find the following statement: "Estimated human casualty risk (updated to 2011): ~ 1 in 3200".
Now, what I think this means is the every one in 3200 re-entry events (of this particular type?) is expected to cause human casualties. Context is everything, and context is very much what is missing here.
The second story that caught my attention this morning was the one about the faster-than-light neutrinos. This too I had heard on Today, and I only looked it up on the Guardian because someone posted the "If we do not have causality, we are buggered" quote on Twitter. I was, however, extremely pleasantly surprised by the Guardian's coverage of this story. They gave me numbers, and those numbers made sense! Even better, they gave me error bars! And they explained the statistical level of confidence! They even linked to the original paper! Still, the story is very readable and understandable to someone with basic numeracy skills. The "buggered" quote does help too, and what I particularly like about this story - and the scientists' approach to it - is that it gives a very good insight into the uncertainties of scientific research.
Moral of the story: You don't need to stay indoors today in fear of space junk, but when someone's presenting you with dodgy science coverage, do call them out on it.
 What do you mean this is not how normal people spend their free time?