I clicked the link to the International Herald Tribune and found a fascinating story about out-of-control communication doing violence to truth and good scientific work. The case presents a challenge to PR professionals who must explain and defend complex science in an increasingly rumor- and emotion-fueled media world.
It started when Robert Roselli, Oregon Health & Science University, launched research to explore why approximately 8% of rams prefer sex with other rams. Not only did a lot of folks misinterpret Roselli’s intentions, many of them — including the Times of London — got the story wrong.
The activists piled on — PETA, animal-test groups, gay rights groups, then gay rights/PETA advocate/tennis star Martina Navratilova. Martina said Roselli’s work “can only be surmised as an attempt to develop a prenatal treatment” for sexual conditions.
“The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”
Roselli can tell you precisely how his research may help humanity. But by the time he assembled the talking points, the gay-sheep controversy had spread like a grass fire in the Santa Ana winds. He launched a social-media counter campaign by enlisting several prominent scientific bloggers. But it was way too late.
Bloggers representing animal rights and gay rights positions fanned the flames, seemingly convinced that Roselli must be the second coming of Josef Mengele. Surely he’s part of a conspiracy to eliminate homosexuality through negative eugenics.
I wonder how many PR professionals would be comfortable tackling a story with so many scientific, ethical and communication complexities. The call for such professionals is getting louder, but I see PR students every day who go out of their way to avoid math and science courses.
Irony of ironies? If Roselli is successful in demonstrating that homosexuality is actually a physiological trait, won’t that erase all the anti-gay nonsense coming from the fundamentalist crowd?
Yikes, for an educated guy I ask dumb questions sometimes.