The New Objectivity

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2010 8:17 am

Great post yesterday by fellow Discover denizen Ed Yong, asking “Should science journalists take sides?” Honestly, it shouldn’t be a hard question, although the answer depends on how you visualize the sides. If you have in mind

He said vs. She said,

then the job of a journalist is not to take sides. But there’s another possible dichotomy that is much more crucial:

Truth vs. Falsity.

In this case, it’s equally clear that journalists should take sides: they should be in favor of the truth. Not just passively, by trying not to make things up, but actively, by trying to figure out whether something is false before reporting it, even if it’s been said by someone.

All sounds kind of trivial, but it’s easy to lose sight of this principle by hewing to a misguided definition of “objectivity.” Ed pulls an extremely damning quote from medical journalist Jeremy Laurance:

Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.

That sounds about as wrong as it it possible to be wrong. It reflects a kind of lazy pseudo-objectivity that stems mostly, I would uncharitably suggest, from fear — the fear that one will make a mistake in trying to judge whether someone is lying or telling the truth. If journalists are just mindless stenographers, they can’t be accused of making that particular mistake. But they are actually making a much more serious mistake, abandoning the search for truth in favor of the goal of not being blamed.

It’s hard to argue against this mindset, which is often mis-labeled as “objectivity.” So maybe we should be defending the New Objectivity: the crucial duty of reporters to separate what is true from what is false. If a scientist says “this drug will cure cancer,” but the peer-review study doesn’t back that up, it should be a journalist’s duty to make that clear. If a politician says “my plan will cut the deficit,” but a GAO report suggests otherwise, it should be a journalist’s duty to highlight the inconsistency. “Objectivity” shouldn’t mean “report what is said and don’t pass judgment”; it means “uncover the truth, no matter who says what.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science and the Media
  • Bill Rockenbeck

    Reporters should be open-minded, not empty-headed.

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com/ Joseph Smidt

    Sean, I *really* agree with your assessment. I think if scientists make scientific claims they should be backed by a peer-reviewed articles or called into question and that politicians…

    Although, I guess on one hand that wouldn’t sell as many papers and on the other I think many journalists are not sure how much to always trust science and or GAO reports. Sometimes I think many journalists feel that sometimes “the establishment might be wrong”.

  • PPK

    Sean: “If a scientist says “this drug will cure cancer,” but the peer-review study doesn’t back that up, it should be a journalist’s duty to make that clear. ”

    But it’s a typical “he said vs. she said” situation. Assuming the first scientist also bases his opinion on some study how is the journalist supposed to tell which publication is right if he has no expertise in the field?!

    Sean: “If a politician says “my plan will cut the deficit,” but a GAO report suggests otherwise, it should be a journalist’s duty to highlight the inconsistency.”

    Again the same thing – he should highlight inconsistency but not take sides unless he can reliably check the numbers himself.

    All in all I completely agree with the quote you criticize – as long as we are talking about science or some other field which requires expert knowledge, the journalist without such knowledge should never second guess opinions of experts. If he wants to check who is more likely to be right he should look for more experts or find ones which are considered more distinguished but he should not try to be an arbiter of truth himself.

  • Alan

    I agree but it can be very difficult for a science journalist to “get it right” especially on highly technical subjects. If for instance they go to one highly qualified (even Nobelled) scientist he will say “no to multiverses” (e.g.) another will say “yes”. (I say yes, I think!) So who do they say is right? Is there a right just yet? As long as they say it with a qualifier, then that’s probably OK. But if it’s obviously equal-sided (true/not true) reporting on say, global warming, then the journalist needs some serious education or he simply has his own agenda to debunk the climate science.
    In some cases where it is not clear maybe he needs some kind of independent guru (scientist) he can go to. The best journalists probably have a little list…

  • Roman

    In the referenced post the author says:
    “As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.”
    Is there a science journalist out there who could do this (ea make a decent stab) at say current debate about string theory?
    Or how about subjects of the two recent posts (about Hawking God claim and everyday life reality “solved” post) – who will make a decent stab at those?

  • Benji

    Not all questions are as easily answered as questions of physics.

    That is not to say that physics is easy, but at least you have a stable and observable system in which you can conduct experiments and build on laws allready proven. Lots of other questions journalists report about do not have that luxory.

  • Simon

    Those of you interested in the workings of the “machine” that is the modern news media might be interested in Nick Davies’s book “Flat Earth News”. It explains, to my mind, how we got into this position. Now if someone can point me to a book that’s got the solution I’d appreciate it!

  • spyder

    I would think that the category “science journalists” have a different responsibility to various degrees than journalists, especially with regard to true and false. Most sci-jour writers report what is happening in the fields in which they are interested. They gain access, through confidences, to those people making breakthroughs at the cutting edges of their sciences. Some of these people will make mistakes, will have errors in their data. That doesn’t cast them as false per se, but rather as making errors. A sci-jour would need a tremendous amount of intelligence and experience in that field to be able to highlight those mistakes and errors, prior to other scientists reporting them. Others above make this point clearly as well.

    Everyday journalists, and i would include now bloggers across the spectrum, are, more often than not, struggling to balance their objective responsibilities between those who pay them, those who read them, and verisimilitudes self-realized. “I know X to be true, but the boss and readers really want Y to be true, and i have to say that.” It is much more difficult to do this in science reporting because, eventually, the truth comes out no matter what party (economic or political) is involved. And in this regard, i think tech writers are not sci-journalists, but merely those being paid to say X or Y.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Gravitys-Shadow-Search-Gravitational-Waves/dp/0226113787 Carl Brannen

    The most fascinating description of how an outsider can come to understand science (without understanding the math) is Harry Collins’ book on gravity wave detectors, “Gravity’s Shadow”. He was able to learn enough that in a double-blind study, in response to essay questions about facts of gravity wave detectors, he beat some professionals. (I think this is at least partly because he’s naturally a better writer, but it is clear that he knew his facts.)

    Science is performed by humans and the appropriate discipline for understanding how science is performed is sociology. Collins’ book may open some eyes on scientific objectivity and how truth is determined. He also wrote a book on the arguments and discussions about special and general relativity; eventually I’ll get around to buying a copy and reading it.

    One of the interesting observations of the sociologists on science is that the farther away a particular scientist is from a fundamental question, the more assured he is of the facts involved. This is the reverse of what one would expect. But man is a social animal, almost everything we know, we know because someone told us. For example, we trust the people who weigh electrons to give us the right number, few of us have actually run an experiment to accurately measure it.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    The assumption is that the reporter is capable of understanding what is true; that is often not the case.

  • Gimlet

    I think the journalists should stick with the facts and utilize a “he said, she said” parameter on controversial subjects, but if there is an overwhelming consensus on one side, report that, too. That background is part of the “facts,” and doesn’t require the journalist to make conclusions. I think this is more important in political disputes (i.e., how to interpret that GAO report, and which assumptions in the GAO report to highlight) than in science reporting.

  • whooke

    There have been many examples that I can think of in recent years (from climate change to “alternative” medical practices) where a press release is put out that is totally at odds with the content of the paper it is pubicising. The paper does not show what its authors say it shows. Usually the press release will be picked up by news media verbatum, with no “science journalists” actually reading the full report and saying “hang on a second, it doesn’t actually say that.” That’s what science journalists are paid for, not publishing other people’s press releases uncritically. If they don’t understand a paper, they can and should contact experts in the field who are unconnected with the study and ask their opinion. It’s not hard to do, it’s just not done very often.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction Eric Wolff

    This post reflects a position often taken by scientists frustrated about how distorted the climate change debate has become. They have a sense that one side is clearly right and journalists have screwed the pooch by giving the wrong side play. I can’t pretend that the climate change debate hasn’t gotten all fouled up —- in that it shouldn’t really be a debate —- but I suspect that if you looked at reporting on other subjects, you’d be pleased that journalists don’t declare themselves the arbiter of which side and which is wrong. Few debates are as clear cut as cliamte change. And even within climate change, is it obvious which policy tool is the right one to start solving the problem? No. It isn’t. Are you saying journalists should choose for us and only report that side?

    Journalists are paid to be skeptical. One of the best ways to discover the weaknesses in an argument is to talk to someone who disagrees with that argument. This person should be someone who is grounded in the field under discussion and have credible opinions. It’s simplistic to characterize this kind of reporting as “he said, she said.” Indeed, failing to find out the weaknesses in an argument is a far bigger failing than presenting alternative points of view.

    I

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I agree with Sean.

    Science reporters market is those who want the truth reported, so unless they are in the grips of a large magazine they and their pockets should benefit from this as well.

    He was able to learn enough that in a double-blind study, in response to essay questions about facts of gravity wave detectors, he beat some professionals.

    How is this relevant to the understanding of basic facts? We don’t ask the journalists to become experts on the consensus, but to be able to sort through the results especially when there is no consensus. It is the uncertainty in false positives we want quantified, not the certainty of true positives.

    Science is performed by humans and the appropriate discipline for understanding how science is performed is sociology. Collins’ book may open some eyes on scientific objectivity and how truth is determined. He also wrote a book on the arguments and discussions about special and general relativity; eventually I’ll get around to buying a copy and reading it.

    Maybe he did report on how facts are determined from measurement and theory, but from the above description it rather sounds like he reports on how consensus is formed.

    In which case the relevant discipline likely is economy, since research is “the market of ideas”. It isn’t how persuasive an argument is in “discussions”, it is how well the results sells.

    As for understanding how facts are determined from measurement and theory the relevant discipline ought to be “a science of science”. Today this is mostly blocked by the nutty and untestable area of “philosophy of science”, but testable theories like Popper’s falsifiability have started to come out. (And you must love the symmetry in that testability can be recursively and consistently bootstrapped by passing basic tests, while simple induction shows how the 19th century idea of science as induction fails. I certainly do!) And a whole lot of ad hoc heuristics have been published through the years.

    Sure such a discipline could have touchstones with sociology, but it is way too early to know of it would turn out. IMO falsifiability seems to predict most of the basic process and its success. In any case it should be important to understand and eventually safe guard (or dare I say “improve”?) the process itself, even if it organically evolves to give good results in most current societies. People are too curious to let this be covered by the “philosophy of science” comfort blanket indefinitely and will get to grips with what the area really entails, I’m sure.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Science journalism does not consist in reporting the consensus, it consists in impartially reporting on the evidence.

    Science journalists have to guide readers through the reasoning, point out examples of good scientific method as well as potential fallacies, fill in background that a newcomer to the area wouldn’t know, to bridge the gap between the technical literature and the non-specialists. They have to apply scientific scepticism and critical thinking for those who do not know how to do it themselves, and in the process teach it by example.

    Where there is controversy, they should not make judgements, but neither should they uncritically parrot the conclusions of either or both sides. They should ask each side what their evidence is, and then explain that in terms that the reader can understand and interpret. This deals with the issue of ‘false balance’, because either one side will have no evidence, or explaining it with proper clarity will make their position look so bad they’ll probably withdraw. Good science journalism should look like an essay tutorial on critical thinking; including assumptions and uncertainties, so the current state of knowledge can be understood. If the data supports it and is reported honestly, then the ‘truth’ of the matter will be obvious without needing to be stated.

    The job of a science reporter is not to separate ‘true’ from ‘false’, but to enable the reader to come to a scientific judgement (or not) based on the evidence; to understand the science, or as much of it as they can. This isn’t always possible, of course, but where it isn’t, the journalist should definitely not be setting up a scientific authority to simply assert a ‘truth’ in the name of science, or worse, filter out views they cannot themselves evaluate but which they have been assured by trusted ‘experts’ are false. That would itself be opposed to scientific principles.

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/ The Science Pundit

    Is The New Objectivity anything like The New Atheism? The thing is that it’s not exactly “new”.

    Perhaps because the discipline of verification is so personal and so haphazardly communicated, it is also part of one of the great confusions of journalism- the concept of objectivity. The original meaning of this idea is now thoroughly misunderstood, and by and large lost.

    When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary. The term began to appear as part of journalism after the turn of the century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information- a transparent approach to evidence- precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

  • Gordon

    If a journalist is concerned that what he is reporting is not the truth, he should consult
    someone who is competent to judge and then report what that person said.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #17,

    What if he is not confident he knows who is competent to judge?

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    I thought a journalists duty was to maximize advertising revenue. How does this achieve that?

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/ The Science Pundit

    @#19

    You must be talking about the Forbes/Pepsi school of objectivity.

  • http://omnologos.wordpress.com Maurizio Morabito

    As I am arguing at Ed’s, it is difficult to understand what is claimed here, unless there is a clear-cut, widely-accepted definition of “truth” (go figure).

    If “truth” means “the objective ways of the world”, then I’d rather see science bloggers and journalists trust the scientific method in uncovering more and more bits of the “truth”, concentrating therefore on applying the method rather than trying to trascend it because they “know” what the “truth” is.

  • bittergradstudent

    @Eric #13:

    Yes, but there should be no tolerance for obviously, provably wrong arguments. Tax cuts do not reduce the deficit. Global warming is a long term problem. Abstinence only education increases STI transmission rates and teen pregnancy. There has been no long-term, provable effect of conceal and carry on crime rates.

    These things shouldn’t be matters of debate. They shouldn’t be things that people are allowed to use to play the refs to push their political agenda. Tit for tat is not an excuse when people are just wrong.

  • http://takeyourselfback.blogspot.com linneasophia

    WOW! Does everyone see the most important statement? “Uncover the truth, no matter who says what.”
    LOVE IT!

  • Naught

    Very funny piece about the kind of science reporting that, I take, Sean is not too fond of:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/24/1

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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