How Science Reporting Works

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 31, 2009 10:32 am

Not quite the science news cycle or adventures with media, but close:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (8)

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  1. » Blog Archive » O cientista e o repórter | August 31, 2009
  1. Walker

    Today’s comic on science publishing is even better. It perfectly captures the “least publishable unit” phenomena that I have run into many, many times.

  2. In fairness though, it’s not just science reporting… it’s reporting on most serious subjects… politics, economics, war/foreign policy, even the arts… by practical necessity it’s all condensed and oversimplified to the point of being error-prone. The errors and misinformation in the reporting on healthcare reform have been abysmal (but predictable).

  3. MadScientist

    Speaking of publishing – at a somewhat recent event one of the Murdochs told the audience that profit is the only guarantor of unbiased reporting – naturally I laughed until I was wheezing. “Fox News” is undoubtedly profitable but it is rarely, if ever, unbiased – and it is controlled by the Murdochs of course.

  4. Sheril,

    Thanks for this one! Although I often look at the actual science and the news articles that result and am appalled, my own personal experience with journalists has been very good. They’ve been accurate, circumspect, and have asked multiple follow-up questions to ensure that they’ve understood me correctly. (This is, admittedly, based on a small sample size of about 5.)

    How much of the problem do you think is unscrupulous, sensationalistic journalists (which certainly exist), and how much of the problem do you think is on the heads of scientists, who can’t form a complete sentence that can be understood by a non-scientist?

  5. D Wolfe

    In the case of climategate, the answer to Ethan Siegel is that the mainstream media will publish “a lot” without the faintest understanding of what they are saying and without questioning.

    The cognitive biases and logical errors in the process of doing climate research, peer review and publicizing and propagandizing the climate research is large: Confirmation bias (achieving results that confirm the expected or desired result); expert bias, not allowing questioning points of view to even be raised; selection bias — distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected; disfiguration of those having dissenting points of view; base rate fallacy or sampling bias (using only data that fits the desired story / result); media bias (a.k.a. polar bear syndrome .. did you know the polar bear population has actually been increasing?); moral credential effect — the tendency of a track record of non-prejudice to increase subsequent prejudice; focusing effect — prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome; bandwagon effect — the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same (this is related to groupthink and herd behavior; focusing effect — prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event – causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome, probability or statistical bias – massaging the probabilities associated with outcomes to make your case appear more likely or more disastrous; Semmelweis reflex — the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts an established paradigm, or your own point of view, and others. Historian Norman Davies in “Europe – a History” defined his 5 rules of propaganda:

    1. Orchestration: repeating the same messages over and over with different variations and combinations

    2. Deformation: discrediting the opposition with slander and crude parodies

    3. Unanimity: presenting your point of view as if everyone is in agreement with it and attacking and conquering those who doubt it including use of appeals of famous people, so called experts and applying social pressure through planned media events, movies etc.

    4. Transfusion: manipulating the views/values of the public to your own advantage

    5. Simplification: reducing all facts into a comparison between ‘good and evil’ and ‘friends and enemies’

  6. D Wolfe

    In fact you might say that there has been a bias blind spot — the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases, or even bias seeking fallacy – using any means to achieve your desired outcome.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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