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“What We Know Now” vs. “Next New Paper” Science Communications

Here’s a new Nature Medicine paper: “Maternal cannabis use in pregnancy and child neurodevelopmental outcomes.” Of course we’re going to want to read that.

And the findings don’t disappoint our curiosity: The authors find a 50% increase in the rate of autism spectrum disorder in children born to women who use cannabis compared with women who don’t.

(At least, in all children born to Ontario women between 2007 and 2012 who said they’d used cannabis in some form and at some time during their pregnancies, compared with children of Ontario women who said they hadn’t used it during pregnancy.)

You can imagine what’s happening. Headlines. A few talking heads on TV. If past is prologue, we can also expect Twitter peer review, debate, blowback and possibly politicization of the findings. Moralizing thought pieces to follow. And an increasingly familiar sense that all of this is what science today looks like: a contest of positioning and posturing that leaves us weary, bruised and (most important) lacking edification.

Let’s call this whole ball of wax the product launch approach to science communications.

The product launch approach was created by the big-media-science-communications-industrial complex. It serves the interests of media (for stories that get attention) and big science (for headlines and attention as proxies of impact, to show funders). It generally doesn’t serve the rest of us.

For this paper: Cannabis use is self-reported. The data is old. We don’t know when the women who say they used cannabis used it during the pregnancy, or in what form, or at what dosage levels. It’s almost impossible to isolate cannabis use from other variables. So the paper teases, but doesn’t satisfy — like so much science communication today.

But what are our alternatives?

Here’s one from Emily Oster, in her latest ParentData newsletter edition. Instead of endorsing or dismissing the paper, she evaluates how it moves our knowledge forward on the use of cannabis on pregnancy. In a short space, Oster looks at:

  • The state of the science on the question of cannabis use and its impacts on pregnancy;
  • How shifting mores around cannabis have made this question more and more relevant to larger groups of people;
  • Where this paper fits into and advances that literature;
  • How to look at the paper in light of the larger research project from which it comes;
  • The strength of the data the paper relies on; and
  • Some of the questions the paper still leaves open.

All that’s a mouthful. It needs a name. Let’s call it the what we know now approach.

The what we know now approach prioritizes our need for knowledge over the needs of the big-media-science-communications-industrial complex.

It’s also much more nuanced, so it gums up the product launch approach.

When done well (as it is by Oster), however, it induces calm in readers, because they learn from and trust a third-party authority. They aren’t being yanked around by overframing or a discovery narrative. They aren’t being fooled by prestigious journal nameplates.

BTW, Oster says the new paper isn’t as compelling as a previous study from the same authors. That paper examined moderately increased risk of prematurity and NICU transfer for babies born to cannabis users vs. non-users. And even that study is far from perfect — because of all the factors I cited above for the new paper.

All that context, nuance and understanding gets ignored, glossed over or dispersed over Twitter by the product launch approach.

So what does the what we know now approach ask of you as a scientist or researcher?

  1. You need comprehensive domain knowledge (of studies on pregnancy, like Oster).
  2. You need to be willing to call it as you see it, credibly but fearlessly, every single time.
  3. You need at least one dedicated platform for pushing out those fearless calls and then gathering feedback. Oster has a newsletter with devoted readers. Oster could thread her analysis, but she couldn’t go as deep: threading is laborious and she wouldn’t be creating a resource that readers and others could link back to. YMMV.
  4. You need a distribution strategy that gathers the audience that you serve around your insights.

Takeaway: These four things together — expertise, drive, platform and distribution to/conversation with the audience that you serve — constitute your entree to public trust.

Your transition from expert (talking to other experts) to authority (talking to the world).