Which is Better For Science? Inaccurate Media Coverage Or No Coverage At All

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 17, 2009 10:27 am

Miriam Goldstein recently brought up a very important question in comments:

I would love to see you or Chris tackle this question – is media coverage where the science is inaccurate better than no media coverage? I fear that inflated claims like the ones in the NYT article may cause the public to discount the whole issue, once they find out that some of the facts are exaggerated or false.

The short answer is, of course, it depends. More science coverage is critically necessary if we’re to foster broader public understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of science, BUT hyperbole and inaccurate stories frequently undermine good intentions.

Before diving in, I’d like to hear from readers… Is inaccurate media coverage of science better than no coverage at all?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (30)

  1. John Kwok

    Sheril –

    I honestly don’t know. I am still amazed that a team of journalists and producers not known for their reporting on science – I am referring to the CBS News program “60 Minutes” – produced a most insightful and quite accurate segment last Sunday on vertebrate paleontologist Jack Horner, which featured an interview with evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll. If journalists held themselves to standards as high as those we see in the published pages of The New York Times and on television – with the Horner “60 Minutes” segment as a sterling example – then we wouldn’t have to ask Miriam’s question.

    Sincerely,

    John

  2. Don M

    I would generally say that an inaccurate story is better than none at all, particularly if it is interesting, assuming that readers will use some critical thinking (is that a false hope in most cases?).

    Unfortunately, it is not just a question of errors versus accuracy in the case of climate science: it is a question of deliberate errors, i.e. manipulation / propaganda. From what I have seen, and read in “Climate Cover-up: the crusade to deny global warming” by Hoggan and Littlemore of the desmogblog, there is a sinister campaign underway to confuse people about the facts.

  3. Joe Meils

    I think, when there’s some doubt, that the media should simply report what it knows to be true, rather than giving voice to alarmists. Human beings being what they are, there will always be some innacuracy creeping in. What might really be helpful, is to cultivate a healthy sense of skepticisim in the general public… Literally, the US has lost it’s “BS filter.”

  4. Colin

    Alleviating ignorance is the goal of science while errors and inaccuracies are the enemies of science. No coverage is by far the better option.

  5. Pisces

    There’s already enough poor reporting of scientific issues in the media. Maybe they ought to treat it like sports or weather…with a real scientist as talking head.

  6. Rob M

    I’ll have to stand on the side that no coverage is better than inaccurate coverage. Using the NYT article as an example, if knowledge of the inaccuracies does come out and make its way into popular knowledge, who will be blamed for it? The reporters and publisher of the article? Sadly the answer there is typically “no.” All too often science itself is blamed even when the issue is bad reporting on the part of journalism.

    I’ve encountered this far too many times with students being antagonistic toward science because of “how often it’s wrong,” when the core of their view is due to wrong or inaccurate reporting of the science.

  7. Gus Snarp

    I think it entirely depends on the degree of inaccuracy. No media report will ever be perfectly accurate, just like you’ll never meet a 100% confidence interval on a scientific study. We have to get the best results possible. It’s a scale really, with outright lies and misinformation at one end, and a very good report that only misses a little bit on minor details at the other end.

    Of course when you have reporters who don’t have a background in science reporting on science, and reporters and editors who believe that both sides should be given equal weight even though one is demonstrably lying, then you are unlikely to get to the good end of the scale.

  8. It doesn’t matter. Science research is only interested in producing science. Science feeds back to itself and furthers its own cause. Media serves the public a viewpoint. Perhaps a table accompanying any alleged science article counting the number of times a word/phrase such as “it may be”, “this might”, “it’s possible that”, “could be”, etc. would be useful in differentiating fantasy from fact in science coverage. Perhaps counter-balancing it with “confirmed”, “sample size”, “bias” would be nice. I generally do this in my head when reading any article, but if it’s laid out in print it might make things clearer…

  9. Gus Snarp beat me to my answer: “It depends.”

    Given the speed at which media is fragmenting, “no coverage” may be what we get whether we like it or not.

  10. If you read it in the paper (or on the interpipes) it must be true, right?

    For example, every Spring I see reports of the annual Atlantic hurricane predictions, which then use the predictions as evidence of global warming. And yes, I have been accused of being a denier by Believers for even raising this point. (capital – B as there is no skepticism or science in their statements, just Faith.) Sadly, all sides have extremists.

    If “prediction is not causation” is beyond so many people, how can “correlation is not causation” stand a chance.

  11. “Nature abhors a vacuum” or so it goes. A lack of information will be filled in and most likely by bad or incomplete data or by false data. Inaccurate media coverage is precisely this phenomenon.

    What we need is for the scientific community to step up and fill in the void with accurate information. Randy Olson, in his book “Don’t be Such a Scientist” illustrates the several ways this can/should be done and the level of communication needed to accomplish this task successfully. Furthermore, Science Cafes are wonderful venues to do this in. Brief presentations on a topic help to prevent scientists from getting too carried away with scientific jargon (hopefuly not used at all) which allows for audience Q&A- thereby keeping the attention and interest of all the participants. The challenge is two-fold. The scientist has to learn to deliver the information in a succinct, thoughtful and understandable way while the public audience has to attend and be proactive in their obligation to learn. The problem is that both sides have failed to do so over the years exacerbating this issue. Only now with the work of yours and Chris’ along with Randy Olson and a few others, is this whole issue being addressed. The lack of the emperor’s missing clothes is now recognized, how and where to get some is suggested and the scientists have to find clothes that are fashionable while the public has to be willing to look again at what was once a very unsightly problem. Only this combination of actions will restore America’s scientific leadership in this world- IMHO!

  12. wench

    inaccurate coverage causes damage, whether it be in the form of unrealistic expectations of forensics or fear of experimentation involving particle colliders. But – if there’s coverage then at least you can open a discussion about what’s wrong with the info provided.

  13. Gus Snarp

    @Paul Shin – I agree wholeheartedly that scientists need to do a better job of presenting information to the general public. At the same time I think we need to do a better job of educating the general public. Science is the key to our way of life and is becoming ever more important in political decisions as well. Just as no one should graduate high school without being able to read, no one should graduate who doesn’t have a basic understanding of statistics, the scientific method, and the research process.

  14. Gaythia

    Some inaccuracies effect immediate decision making and some effect long term attitudes. But others probably have less impact on actions or beliefs. These peripheral issues can probably be most easily corrected over time without impacting the acceptance of science.

    In the case Miriam Goldstein so ably documents, I believe that the public initially absorbs the main message: too much plastic trash in the oceans. It can be seen from the initial reports that this is very bad, and something should be done to either use less plastic or at least ensure that it not end up in the ocean. The public is likely to have no preconceived image of a gyre, and long before a fear of being sucked down into a giant whirlpool becomes a personal concern, information such as that presented by Miriam Goldstein can be absorbed as an expansion of knowledge.

    Some information has immediate impact. For example in the case of health, I think alternating exaggerated headlines: “Major Medical breakthrough!” or “Death threat!” with followup stories that say: “Well maybe not”, causes people to shut down acceptance of any such news story. And thus be less likely to take action when action is required.

    For things that require a change in the public’s long term views of the status quo or require a change in personal belief systems, false or exaggerated information may increase skepticism and undermine the ability of scientists to convince people of the validity of the actual scientific information involved. In this case, people may very well believe that they are using their critical thinking skills when they reject the science.

  15. Kirk

    Yes. More is better than less. When I was young I craved any tidbit of scientific information. I could discern the good from the bad. The effects of this years denial of science affects each succeeding generation less and less as the dark corners of science recede.

  16. Skeril,
    I think the answer lies in the media context generally. Yes, I used to argue that bad coverage should be replaced by no coverage – but given that we get bad coverage of every other issue/discipline in the medai, why should science be any different? At least, rearguard action though it is, we can fight bad coverage with editorials, letters, and subsequent articles. If there were no coverage, what and where would you fight?

    @Leon,
    It must be nice up there in that ivory tower. Science isn’t JUST

    only interested in producing science. Science feeds back to itself and furthers its own cause.

    Science is also about understanding the world, so that humans can live better in it and with it. Because of that, science is supposed to be inextricably linked to society (though I know we debate that here quite regularly) and the media is that link.

  17. Jamie F.

    I think media coverage always improves with the reliability of sources. The more media-friendly real scientists there are out there talking to the public, the better. However, readers/viewers/listeners more often than not confuse reporting *about* people who are presenting questionable information and reporting questionable information.

    Would that more media outlets had bigger budgets to fund high quality, fair, balanced and accurate stories. You want better? It costs money to give journalists the time and resources to do a good job. Support the good stuff!

  18. Erasmussimo

    Let us not forget that the process of teaching science necessarily involves simplifications that are technically inaccurate. We start off presenting a simplified view of science that students can grasp, and then steadily refine that view all the way up through grad school. So what is wrong with doing the same with the general public? There is no such thing as a completely true statement; reality is so complex that a perfectly true statement about anything would require an infinite amount of qualifications and specifications. So we simplify. Different audiences need differing degrees of simplification. The real problem is to figure out exactly what simplifications are appropriate for what audiences. When presenting science to the general public, we have to engage in massive simplification. That doesn’t leave much room for strict accuracy.

  19. I was thinking on this subject this morning. Communication is key. Particularly, communication that’s engaging and provides thoughtful feedback to create a discussion. In science, asking the wrong questions is just as important as asking the right ones. By extension, giving the public an overview of a complicated subject with some inaccuracies is far better than a vacuum on the subject. Facts can be corrected. Ignorance is much harder to tunnel through.

    And who knows, there are plenty of folks intelligent enough to question facts given in a newspaper article or broadcast. That’s why it’s important to engage the public at every opportunity. That is the real goal of science, I believe; to get one to question, to be interested and aware of everything around.

    We need to raise not only the bar in science but also the public’s understanding. As Carl Sagan put it; science and democracy are inextricably linked. If we have a society lacking in scientific understanding then how easy would it be to show them something that appears magical and have it be taken for that?

  20. SLC

    Re Paul M

    I would suggest that Mr. Paul M read Mr. Mooneys’ book, “Storm World,” in which it is made quite clear that it is premature to link global warming with hurricanes. Further, I would point out to Mr. Paul M that one of the most popular hurricane predictors is Bill Gray, who, as Mr. Mooney demonstrates in the aforementioned book, is very much a global warming skeptic.

    As for the question raised in Ms. Kirshenbaums’ post, I think it depends on the level of inaccuracy in the media coverage. I suspect that there is some level of inaccuracy at which it would have been better to have said nothing.

  21. Paul M

    @ SLC

    I’m not referring to the use of the link between hurricanes and warming — I’m referring to the fallacious use of the _predicted_ number of tropical storms and hurricanes as _evidence_ of climate change.

  22. Erasmussimo

    Here’s another thought: inaccurate science reporting is not that dangerous, because most people have the good sense to take any individual story with a grain of salt. People know that the news of the moment jiggles around wildly. They are willing to take a longer view and see how things turn out over the long run. Thus, the Jeffersonian approach of “let a thousand printing presses run” applies just as forcefully on this question as it does to any other source of information.

    It is certainly true that the anti-rationalists will seize upon individual stories to bolster their arguments. But that’s all part of the rough-and-tumble of intellectual life. Let them promulgate their lies; in the long run, the truth will out. The only concern here is that it may out too late to properly address a particular problem.

  23. magistramorous

    I know way too many people who refuse to talk about science, saying they’d prefer to talk about the weather, sports, and other “light” topics. I say that any coverage is better than no coverage at all, unless the coverage links science to Nazism or whatnot.

  24. Gaythia

    I agree with #22 except that I think that preserving the rough and tumble of intellectual life takes serious effort. It’s not enough to let the presses run (or tweets or You tube videos or whatever), an adequately wide ranging group of people needs to have access to and actually interact with these materials.

    I believe that the truth will out, but I also think that viewing the human historical record, one has to admit that there is room for considerable cultural and intellectual backsliding.

  25. SLC

    Re Paul M

    Would Mr. Paul M care to inform us as to who is making the claim that global warming leads to more hurricanes. Certainly Bill Gray, the global warming skeptic, makes no such claim. Neither does Mr. Mooney in his book, “Storm World.”

    In fact, global warming may actually lead to fewer hurricanes. The number of hurricanes produced in the Atlantic is strongly influenced by El Nino conditions in the Pacific and the presence or absence of sand storms in the Western Sahara where the low pressure systems that produce hurricanes are formed. If global warming would happen to produce more such sand storms and/or more frequent El Nino conditions, one would see fewer hurricanes. On the other hand, global warming is likely to produce more severe hurricanes because of the increased temperature gradient between the Atlantic and the stratosphere.

  26. Marion Delgado

    I think the average person can, and more importantly wants to, handle just so much information. So I’d rather it be good information. The amount of paid disinformation out there is the real problem, though.

  27. paul

    All (science) journalists should be required to swear an oath, with these crucial words, “First do no harm.”

  28. bilbo

    Is inaccurate media coverage of science better than no coverage at all?

    This one seems pretty simple to me. If we do away with science coverage altogether, we’re left with 1.) the hope that people can just stumble upon (and subscribe to) peer-reviewed journal articles….and understand them, or 2.) rely on blow-beating, ego-stroking scientists to attempt to relay science to the public (which, unless the public holds a Ph.D., will result in the scientists calling the public “stupid” and pointing the finger at public grade schools, with no desire to help).

    Give me oversimplified science coverage any day.

  29. Is media coverage where the science is inaccurate better than no media coverage? I fear that inflated claims like the ones in the NYT article may cause the public to discount the whole issue

    Your second sentence answers your first. Nothing will cause the public to discount an issue faster than no coverage of it at all.

    The article in question (“Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash”) may have been flawed, but it hardly seems egregious and the takeaway argument is still sound. One of Miriam’s critiques (that the report did not add anything new to the discussion) is hardly a cause for complaint. It means the story is being covered widely and the consequence of that is that the story will occasionally be covered poorly. “No media coverage” means that there would be no NYT article, but also no coverage by NPR, the LA Times, Discover magazine or PBS.

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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.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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