Science by journalists vs. journalism by scientists
In this blog, I would like to explore the thesis that science is too important to be left to the journalists. Science is under assault on all sides these days. And the group with the greatest clout and the making the greatest negative impact to science and the role it plays in our society are those of the media, especially those in the media who are responsible for what we call news. As a result, what we see on and hear from the media about science is instead a platform for the rhetorical skilled, yet scientifically illiterate; the Global Warming Deniers, Evolution Deniers and the Modern Medicine Deniers.
In the process of trying to create “stories,” journalists use what they call a “journalistic scientific debate,” where a voice is given to both sides of a given issue. If they can get one scientific opinion on one side with a counterpoint on the other, they deem that they have done their jobs. It doesn’t matter that science is not about debate and that scientific issues cannot be decided by debate. What journalists are primarily interested in is the “story,” not the science. They consider the “story” a success if they have stirred the pot of conjecture and a raging discussion ensues. And unfortunately, rarely does science enter into these discussions, because neither the reporter nor the audience has any science background to be able to accurately judge the veracity or consistency of the science.
The problem with science as it exists in the media today, is that there is rarely any penalty for bad science stories, as it relates to ratings. But there is a bad fallout for our society. If you, as a purveyor of the news, get the science wrong, the consumer of that news gets the science wrong. And we know that because almost all us get our science information from the main stream mass media there is a huge disconnect between scientists and non scientists. And there in lies the rub. Hype sells spectacularly, science does not. And if the decisions we as a society make about science are based on hype and skewed science because we are ignorant of the science, how can we solve the problems we have, make informed educational decisions, or even have the where with all to understand the crucial backbone to our technology and science based society.
Most people would point out that there is a debate in peer reviewed science and that scientists routinely debate one another over their studies. And that is true. However the debate between scientists is over the method and the content of the studies, the science, and among scientists who are experts in their fields and who have other scientists critiquing what they have to say. It is part of what is called “scientific method” and it is tedious hard and oftentimes very slow. Before something is consider to be fact it ebbs to and fro sometimes for years with many, many, many studies and researches that point first in one direction and then another. And it is rarely “news” in the sense we have created in the mass media. Real science is rarely a spectacle, raging conjecture or personal. Most scientists are so busy doing their researches that they have left the reporting and interpretation of their studies to reporters who rarely have any understanding of what they are reporting.
So it is no surprise that so many bad science news reports come out of the mass media and that we have such conjecture over what should be non issues. Is it time to revisit how science is reported to the public, train our scientists in grad school to learn about how the media works and ride shotgun on science? Reporters and the modern mass media have shown themselves to be totally unable or unwilling to learn what constitutes science and what is good science reporting. Is it time for scientists to become journalists?
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