Should science journalists take sides?

By Ed Yong | September 23, 2010 4:20 pm

choose 1 red pill or blue pill

Tonight I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled “Should science journalists takes sides?” The event was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and panellists included myself, Mark Henderson from the Times, Ceri Thomas from BBC’s Today programme and Steve Rayner, the Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. This is a slightly extended version of what I said during my five minutes of the debate.

The title of this debate opens itself up to multiple interpretations: whose ‘side’ are we talking about? It is clear to me that science journalists should not take the side of any particular scientist, of a specific idea, or even of science itself. But it is imperative that we take the side of truth. That may seem obvious but many of the strictures of traditional journalism are incompatible with even that simple goal.

The problem comes from a desire to be objective or neutral. This is what Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, famously calls the View from Nowhere. You’re detached from the proceedings that you report on. You don’t take sides. You watch from afar. The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.

Problem One: a disservice to journalism. A veteran science journalist recently wrote: “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’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

Here’s a case study. A paper on acupuncture came out recently, which purported to show a mechanism through which acupuncture could relieve pain. It was a nice piece of neuroscience but the paper was hopelessly biased in its discussion of past research and in its interpretations of its results. I made this clear in my report, yet the vast majority of others failed to pick up on any of this. They just used the quotes and opinions of the lead scientist. They even used the “third-party” quote provided by the press release, stripping out the fact that it came from the wife of one of the authors, who was also the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

People might have got away with this a decade ago, but not now. The view from nowhere simply doesn’t work, especially in a world where everyone can state their own view. If you won’t provide critical analysis or context, then others will and they’ll pick you up for your dereliction of duty. Who do you think people will be more likely to read?  In a time when journalism is apparently in decline, it would be great if journalists didn’t voluntarily decide to make ourselves obsolete.

Problem Two: laziness. When I tweeted about this debate, one of my followers replied, “Doesn’t having a debate mean that science journalists have to take sides?” My tongue-in-cheek reply was that I will circumvent this thorny problem by adding the phrase, “scientists have claimed” to the end of everything I say… scientists have claimed.

How many times have I read that phrase, or a variant like it? It seems so innocuous but those three words are of course a secret media code. They means “someone came out with this batty idea and rather than tell you whether it makes any sense or not, I’m just going to report it verbatim and used this clever linguistic trick to shift responsibility for that view onto the person who said it.” A shorter version: “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I just write this crap down.”

The problem with this attitude is that it absolves people of the responsibility to do what journalists are actually meant to do: report the truth. It means that rather than actually reading up on previous studies, delving into a topic, providing context for readers, and fact-checking the statements that you’ve been given, you can just call one person up, write what they said, call another person up, write what they said and then call it a day.

This he-said-she-said style of reporting shifts the hard job of weighing up the evidence onto the reader, who isn’t exactly wallowing in time either and who probably doesn’t have access to the paper or source material or interviewee.

Problem Three: a poor understanding of one’s audience. Many readers engage with stories on a superficial level so you need to make it clear at a superficial level as well as a detailed one. Many readers, starved of time and possibly attention, judge stories based on headlines alone. Adding a question mark to the end of a headline, or a “may” in the middle of a declarative sentence does very little to qualify a statement. Adding a quote for balance at the end is little use.

The point is that if you, for example, report a story about how some people say that the MMR vaccine is dangerous, the take-away message is that it’s dangerous. “Objectivity” is not a function of every word in your piece – it’s affected by the structure and the very decision to publish in the first place. Which brings me onto…

Problem Four: naiveté. True objectivity is a myth – it doesn’t exist. Every choice you make is laden with subjectivity. The most important choice of all – whether to report something in the first place – depends on your interests, the interests of your editor or the stance of your publication. If I decide to publish a piece of junk evolutionary psychology about gender roles, that says something about my biases. The same applies if I decide not to publish it.

On top of that, you have the biases of the scientists and how they chose to present their results, and what they decided to research in the first place. Every single word you choose to write is laden with meaning that can dramatically alter the tenor and message of a story. Every verb and adjective is an agent of bias.

Problem Five: ethical breaches. Here’s where “objectivity” jumps the shark. I once talked to a reporter who had done a straightforward report of a fairly dodgy paper and asked him why he had gone down that route, when he clearly knew enough to critique the study in more detail. He said that he couldn’t find a scientist who was willing to comment on the obvious areas of criticism.

This is the point where the quest for “objectivity” crosses the line from a noble discipline to what’s virtually a breach of ethics. Hunting for quotes to tell the story you want to tell is ludicrous. It can lead to people censoring stories they know exist because they can’t get someone else to tell it! At its worst, it leads to people twisting what their interviewees say because they’ve already made up their minds about the angle.

Problem Six: failure to understand the nature of science. Science journalism is a fundamentally different beast to, say, political reporting. Here, there is an objective truth. The MMR vaccine either causes autism or it doesn’t (it doesn’t). The world was either fashioned by a Creator or it wasn’t (it wasn’t). Much has been said about the false nature of “balance” in science reporting and I won’t retread familiar ground here.

Now before I get lambasted by straw man arguments, here are some clarifications.

This is not about censoring minority views. Great progress has been achieved through radical thinking so, no, I am not calling for journalists to tell the next Einstein or Galileo to shut up. But if you do discuss minority views, then do so with care, do so with eyes wide open, and say where the consensus currently sits. As an example I like, Bob Holmes did a nice piece for New Scientist on a frankly ludicrous theory posited by one Donald Williamson about how caterpillars are a hybrid between insects and creatures called velvet-worms. The piece has one of those famous question headlines where the answer is no, but right there from the second paragraph, it’s clear that this is not a theory that holds much water.

This is not about doing it all yourself without seeking outside opinions. The critical thing is that an outside opinion doesn’t need to be an opposing one. If you call up other scientists to comment on a study, and they all think it’s good, then that’s grand. You might find that if you ask actual experts, rather than the attention-seeking ones, you might get at what the actual debates are.

And most importantly, this is not about taking sides with specific scientists, championing specific ideas, or signing up with Team Science. That would be an equally bad breach of journalistic ethics, the equivalent of (Rosen again) “joining the team”. When writing about science funding, regardless of how strongly you feel about the value of scientific research, you still have to make an objective case for it or weigh it up compared to other financial demands. When writing about science policy, you can point out how science would influence policy decisions without getting into a strop about how other factors also play a role.

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”.

It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting.

It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.

In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.

Update: There are some interesting responses to this post cropping up across the blogosphere. Some links:

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Comments (46)

  1. ChH

    EVERYONE takes sides. There is no such thing as objective journalism, and anyone who thinks there is … is a naïve fool.
    IMHO the most honest approach is to be frank about your opinion on the facts, let the other side(s) do the same, and let informed readers make up their own minds.

  2. the utilization of quotes to put one’s own opinions in the mouths of those who the author agrees with is often so transparent that it undermines the whole enterprise.

  3. David Harris

    All so true, Ed. Robert McChesney has some really interesting analysis of this false neutrality arising with the “professionalism” of journalism. Journalism once wore its opinions on its sleeves. That clearly had other problems but it’s an interesting contrast to understand so that we as journalists are servants to the truth, not some proxy for the truth such as “balance.”

  4. Scientists should be on the “side” of the available evidence, no matter where that leads them. There is a difference between being “objective” (waiting for evidence to come in before making a decision,” and dead behind the eyes by not responding to that evidence appropriately.

    Woodward and Bernstein weren’t being “nonobjective” when they broke Watergate, they were being perfectly objective by following the evidence as it unfolded.

  5. I think I mostly agree with you, though I would have a few things to say about “truth”… but it’s better if I go back to study now
    ***
    “The world was either fashioned by a Creator or it wasn’t (it wasn’t)”. Well said :)

  6. James Birkett

    “After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.”

    The way I see it, to lie you have to be well aware of the truth and actively trying to mislead someone. There is a word for someone whose goal is not to deceive, but merely wants to be heard by as many people as possible and is indifferent to the truth: the word is ‘Bullshitter’.

  7. michael

    hi,

    as a scientist, I need to point out that science does not study “objective truths.” science tries to discover them, but, inevitably, these “objective truths” are elusive. science is a process by which questions are posed and if we’re lucky answers are gained. but,almost inevitably, someone will find different answers. a better solution on and on ad infinitum. science, at its best, approaches the truth. good scientists know that there will always be more data, a better study. things that we take for granted as truth later turn out to be errors.

  8. Very well stated analysis, my friend. I’ve said much the same re: objectivity vs. subjectivity. Journalism is a discipline of *independent* verification of fact.

    One quibble: Creator. You can’t really know that, dude. It’s inherently unknowable and I get pretty tired of people who think they can. But I’m not tired of you and will have to check back now that I’ve discovered your provocative blog.

  9. Good points everyone – thanks for the contributions.

    To clarify, by saying that science studies “objective truths”, I don’t mean that science is always right all the time. Obviously, answers change all the time (see this week’s post on gorillas and malaria for an obvious recent example), but that doesn’t change the fact that there is an underlying objective truth and that, at all times, the goal for a scientist is to take the best possible stab at working out what it is. Which is, of course, exactly the same goal that a journalist should uphold.

    Also, a couple of tidbits from yesterday that I didn’t have time to incorporate into the piece:

    - The hilarious Fake AP Stylebook said: “”Controversial” is a legal term meaning “probably wrong, but we can’t be bothered to check.”

    - Climate Progress has an excellent piece on the drop in quality of the BBC’s climate change coverage, with a great quote from a veteran BBC journo: “Two men at a bar, one saying that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle.”

  10. Mikos

    All very noble and sensible, but there is a pragmatic point to consider here. If we are talking about newspapers, I think it’s important to realize from the outset that it is not [fundamentally] their job to report the truth.

    The fundamental job of a newspaper is to make money for its proprietor – and this may or may not result in the truth being either sought or told.

    If you start from that position, it does at least become a bit less infuriating when you read the latest piece of rubbish in the [insert hated publication here].

    The fact is that a newspaper editor will be interested in publishing the truth if it sells more papers, or generates the online equivalent. Beyond this, it may not be all that relevant.

  11. This post was perhaps the best exploration of the issue I’ve read yet. It encapsulates so much of my own thinking that I fear Ed performed a sneaky mind meld on me. Only he wrote it down better than I could have. Thanks.

  12. @Mikos – I very much disagree with this. Yes, a newspaper has to make money but it has to do so within the ethical parameters set by the profession that it is part of. If a newspaper editor were to argue that the fundamental job of a newspaper is not to report the truth, then that editor can no longer count themselves or their publication as an outlet for journalism. And truth/money are not separable. A consistent failure to tell the truth will lead to a loss of money in the long term as readers abandon an organisation in favour of better, more transparent ones. Which, one might argue, is exactly what is happening.

  13. Thanks for writing this, Ed. I want to print it out and stand on the corner like a pamphleteer.
    When writing about the environment in particular, it seems as though as soon as you take the side of truth (say, that global warming is not a hoax) you are accused of being an “advocate.” I don’t think this same thing is true for political reporters, who operate from the perspective that a functioning political system is a good thing–yet who are still generally considered to be “objective.”

  14. Aurora

    Very nicely put! “If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.” -> Exactly.

  15. Don

    The View From Nowhere is the title of a book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, # Paperback: 256 pages# Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (February 9, 1989)

  16. I know this. Wasn’t implying that Rosen coined the phrase, but I think he has done more than anyone else to popularise it in the context of journalism.

  17. Ed,

    I’m glad you made that clarification in comment 10 about science not being right all the time, because as I was reading this clarion call for reporters to write the truth, I was thinking, well, that might well involve science journalists taking sides in the ping pong stories that result from studies that show X is good for your health one week and X is bad for your health the next week.

    One other comment: you mention that science journalism is a different beast than, say, political reporting, which of course is true. But I have argued at my own blog that critics of climate change journalism should further recognize that there are different beasts within science journalism–the spot news story, commentary (on op-ed or blog posts), long-form non-fiction, etc. So for example, regarding the latter, I am one who had no problem with the infamous Freeman Dyson NYT magazine profile last year. I have argued that critics of that story were more upset that Dyson was profiled in such a prominent platform than with the merits of the story, which clearly showed that Dyson was being regarded by peers and friends as 1) out of his mind, 2) out of the mainstream and 3) possibly senile

    If you read and recall the piece, I’d be curious to hear how the standards you laid out in your post would apply to a profile of someone like Dyson. Did the writer report the truth in this piece?

  18. …that might well involve science journalists taking sides in the ping pong stories that result from studies that show X is good for your health one week and X is bad for your health the next week.

    Y’see, in my model, the journalist would know enough about the field or be savvy enough to analyse those ping-pong claims and either (a) decide not to publish the story because it adds nothing, is misleading, is based on dodgy data etc., or (b) publish but evaluate the latest results in the context of previous ones. This is what I mean by taking sides with truth. It is the polar opposite to simply assuming studies are true and writing about them as such, or indeed, not caring whether they are true in the first place. Taking sides with truth will frequently have to include evaluating crap science. And yes, a corollary of that is that journalists will have to know what they’re talking about. Long live the specialist reporter.

    I haven’t read the Dyson piece and don’t have time to at the moment, but in principle, I have no problem with the airing of a minority opinion as long as it is portrayed very carefully and analysed properly – see the Bob Holmes example I gave above. Many people criticised New Scientist for pubilshing that. I think they did a very good job with it. Part of the science narrative is that sometimes, people will come out with completely batshit insane ideas and it helps for people to know why those ideas are wrong. But you don’t accomplish that with he-said-she-said reporting, or by always returning to the same crackpot people when you want an opposing view, or by constantly giving those people airtime in a way that derails more interesting/legitimate debates.

  19. I should, by the way, offer a word of thanks to Mark Henderson for organising the debate and inviting me to speak on it (and thus forcing me to finish this post, which has been sitting as a draft on my laptop since May), and to Ivan Oransky for providing some valuable feedback on an early version. Cheers, gents.

  20. Rick S

    Your arguments are intelligent and persuasive, but they leave me feeling ill at ease. If we abandon journalistic objectivity as an unreachable ideal, is that very different from abandoning judicial objectivity for the same reason and by much the same argument? Should we dismiss ethics as a societal virtue because studies prove people don’t consistently behave ethically? Isn’t it true that holding to an ideal, despite the certain knowledge that we will fail moment to moment, acts as a counterpressure against drifting into chaos and savagery? It’s all well and good to acknowledge that true objectivity is an unattainable goal, but the value of goals is to keep us all facing in the same direction and on the same path.

  21. Eve

    Anyone who says scientists don’t take sides has never met a scientist before.

  22. @Rick S – I agree to some extent, and I think that everyone on the panel last night did too. But I would argue that the problem with objectivity is that it’s the wrong central goal. The right one, as I’ve argued, is to find the truth or, if you prefer, to ensure as accurate a portrayal of events as is possible. Objectivity is merely a tool that hopefully allows you to work towards that greater purpose and wielded correctly, it can do so. The problem, I think, is in seeing objectivity as a goal in itself. That leads to the sort of lazy, even unethical, behaviour that I described. In that situation, objectivity stops being a tool for arriving at truth, but actively acts as a barrier against it.

    If anything, I think the problem is that the very concept of objectivity has become twisted to reflect something that merely has the veneer of objectivity without any of its actual qualities.

    @Eve – And I’ve never met anyone who says that…

  23. Kathryn S

    This is a great response to many discussions I attended at the 2010 convention of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science titled “Bridging Science and Society.” Many members of the media were in attendance (I was there as a student) and it was just great to see scientists and the media interacting and discussing this very subject and more about the media’s role in relaying science to the public. At a panel devoted to discussing the media and climate change, a researcher from Harvard or Yale (the convention was in February and I don’t have my notes handy) essentially said the the nature of science and journalism contradict each other, because science is devoted to finding the truth and journalism is devoted to airing both sides. You responded to every critique of science journalism I heard from scientists at that panel and at that convention as a whole. I hope they read this, because this is also what I kept trying to tell them; Science and journalism DO have the same goal!

    Also, I would say to Rick S that I studied this in a course devoted to examining objectivity and bias in the media. We came to the conclusion that a better term is “fairness,” because objectivity implies some omniscience and that it is possible to know and discuss every angle of an issue at present, when there are always more than 2 sides/angles and hindsight reveals even more than one can see in the moment. The idea is simply to be fair and encompass as much of the issue, including context, in your discussions as possible. So, minority views can and should be included, as long as it is made clear what the majority and minority views are and, more importantly, provide the context/explanation for WHY these ideas have either a minority or majority following, because that is fair. It is impossible to be objective, but it is possible to be fair by approaching a subject openly and with transparency.

  24. “They even used the “third-party” quote provided by the press release, stripping out the fact that it came from the wife of one of the authors”

    Is it common that the third-party quote you read in science journalism articles comes from the first-party press release? I’d never heard that before, but it would certainly skew things dramatically.

    And the second part – was the particular press release in question honestly disclosing the relationship, only to be reported with the info stripped out? Or did Ed just happen to know? If the former, that would be stunningly bad journalism, to fail to reach the level of accuracy and disclosure found in a self-serving press release.

  25. It is impossible to be objective, but it is possible to be fair by approaching a subject openly and with transparency.

    @Kathryn – hear hear.

    @Brian – Yes, the third-party quote was in the press release; yes, that is very unusual; yes, it was honestly disclosed only to be stripped out in [many, possibly all] subsequent reports; and yes, that is stunningly bad journalism.

    Press releases can be self-serving by nature but the best press officers I know of are very good about things like disclosure. In a recent paper on oil-eating bacteria, the fact that some funding was provided by BP was mentioned in the press release but not the actual paper!

  26. Science journalists take sides all the time. Problem is, they’re not always on the side of “truth.”

    It’s a rare day when I pick up a science magazine or a newspaper, read about something in a field I know, and say, “They got it exactly right!”

    More often than not, the science writer has been bamboozled by some recent development that’s touted as revolutionary. Science writers start taking sides the moment they decide to give the “revolutionary” some free publicity.

    In my field, evolutionary biology, we have a famous recent example in The Darwinius Affair but there’s are lots of other, less obvious, examples.

    Good science journalism is very hard. Let’s encourage skepticism and critical thinking rather than “taking sides.” Often the best science articles are those that inform the general public about genuine scientific controversies. The worst articles are those that sweep such controversies under the rug and pretend that the dispute has been resolved by publication of the latest paper in Nature or Science.

  27. Gary

    Journalists who take sides insult the intelligence of their readers.

    That’s why they are easily ignored for presuming beyond their station.

  28. zackoz

    “A consistent failure to tell the truth will lead to a loss of money in the long term as readers abandon an organisation in favour of better, more transparent ones. ”

    I devoutly wish this was true, Ed, but I have one comment to make – Murdoch!

    His outlets lie all the time and there is little sign he’s going broke.

    This does not of course invalidate your general argument.

  29. Henry

    Ah, good stuff Edwrong, you’ve pretty much clarified the bit I was having problems with, although I still think you haven’t quite shown, re. political journalism (your example), there isn’t the same sense of ‘truth’ or ‘fairness’ (much prefer ‘fairness’!) as there is in this lofty elevated concept of ‘science’ journalism.

    In fact it strikes me that there’s a contradiction here. Let’s take a political event, such as the election of a new leader of a political party. A good journalist is only going to cover this event, and all the surrounding rumour, context, and meaning, by getting off his or her arse and actually talking to people, verifying things, to get at the underlying opinions and expertise. Sure, there’s subjectivity here (how ‘devastated’ is the loser, *really*?) and a whole lot of vested interest, but a good journo should – and does – factor this into the actual article.

    Now, back to science journalism, this apparently fundamentally different thing. If you’re arguing that just by reading/regurgitating the paper/data/press release and getting a few puff quotes, science journalists are doing their readers a disservice, and what they should be doing is talking to experts, finding back-stories, gleaning context, and weighing up all this to help shape the story, then… well how is that different? What sets it apart from other fields of journalism? Genuine question.

    Personally I do instinctively feel that there *is* sort of some difference between science journalism and other disciplines… but every time I try to pin it down it evaporates. Could it even be that science journalism is actually *easier* because there’s already been a layer of fact-checking embedded in the process – peer review – before the facts/truth even get to the journalist..? Is science journalism, actually, easier to do well than it is to report well on all the mucky uncertainty inherent in other fields? Hmm.

    Re. Murdoch/financial pressures… I’ve always thought this is best viewed as a ‘selective pressure’ on journalism (and everything else!) rather than a barrier to integrity.

    Anyway, I’m bunging this post into the reading list for this years’ City course, so there.

  30. @zackoz – On the face of it yes, although newspaper sales are plummeting across the board. I would argue that a fixation on impartiality contributes to that because it leads to crap reporting that people will affix little value to.

    @Henry – Yeah, it’s tricky, but I think the difference is at the level of the subject: science should be about arriving at increasingly more accurate portrayals of the truth, while politics is… less so. So take examples of climate change or medical screening or any one of the many areas where science and policy clearly intertwine.

    If I report on a political event, I can and should make sure that I get all the facts right – who said what, who funded whom, how many votes were cast, and so on. Analysing that, as you say, is fairly subjective and involves a fair bit of opinion – what does this mean, who has the better policies, who will make the better leader etc.

    If I report on a scientific paper/discovery/event, again I can and should make sure that I get all the facts right – what was found, who funded whom, what methods were used, and so on. But evaluating that has a strong (largely) objective element too: how does it tally with past results, were the methods used appropriate, do the claims reflect the actual results, and so on. There’s subjectivity sure (what does this mean for society, how should politicians react, etc.) but I think it’s that intervening layer of evaluation that makes science a bit different.

    If you want to uncover truth in political reporting, it’s more about the facts of a given event. If you want to uncover truth in science reporting, it’s about the facts of a given event, as well as the underlying truth that the science itself is trying to investigate.

    That’s my vaguely off-the-top-of-head response. To be honest, Point Six was the one I was least convinced about and some of the other panellists made good cases during the debate against it. Also, Josh Rosneau has a nice take on that point, linked to above.

  31. Steve

    The only thing I would add to this otherwise excellent editorial is that journalists of any stripe have an obligation to inform their audience which parts of an article are fact and which parts are analysis. I grant that my dictum is not always easily followed, for as you mention the very selection of facts is itself a form of analysis. That said, science journalists have a special responsibility to a public that does not understand science and is less capable of distinguishing facts from analysis than in other areas.

  32. Nan

    People who are “neutral” to truth are actually more aptly termed ‘bullshiters’ or ‘bullshit artists’ rather than ‘liars’. See Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay On Bullshit for the interesting distinction.

  33. Ed – Not sure what worries me more here. Could it be your praise for the mob rule of Climate Progress? (Ask Richard Black, ask Andrew Revkin). Or could it be your facile use of the word “truth”? (You have had to clarify its meaning already twice in comments to this blog: I do think it’s too important, and your readers at this point deserve a whole blog post of yours on the topic).

    You’re starting to sound too much like a Defender of the Science. That might be a natural thing to do for a science blogger but risks making your output predictable and uninformative. For now, I’ll hold any judgment, awaiting to see for example your reply to #27 Larry Moran. Are you sure that critical thinking should take second place behind “truth”, whatever “truth” is meant to be?

  34. Robert (Jamie) Munro

    Great article, but why do you have to go and ruin the whole thing by saying “The world was either fashioned by a Creator or it wasn’t (it wasn’t)”. That is just silly. There is no kind of experiment that can answer that question. There is lot of theory that shows that once the laws of physics and the big bang are in place, no further intervention from a creator is required, but that’s as far as it goes.

    If the evidence for MMR being safe was the same as the evidence that says an outside creator cannot exist, then I would strongly regret getting my child vaccinated.

  35. The Creator point has been made above and I acknowledged it. Hmm… well, I thought I did, but looking back, the first bit of comment #10 is a bit ambiguous isn’t it? So here… I acknowledge it.

    And as to being a “Defender of the Science”:

    “Now before I get lambasted by straw man arguments, here are some clarifications…

    And most importantly, this is not about taking sides with specific scientists, championing specific ideas, or signing up with Team Science. That would be an equally bad breach of journalistic ethics, the equivalent of (Rosen again) “joining the team”…

    It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting.”

    It’s all there in the piece. Reading it helps.

  36. In words, you don’t belong to Team Science, but in deeds?

    Let’s say it’s 1946 and you find out that an obscure guy improbably called Reg Sprigg is claiming the Ediacara Hills show pre-Cambrian complex life-forms. Since you’re going to “take the side of truth”, how will your blog be structured? Keep in mind that (in 1946) scientifically knowledgeable people “know” that (a) there were no complex life-forms before the Cambrian and (b) Sprigg’s rocks might be early Cambrian themselves.

    IMNSHO if your starting point is to be “knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth”, there is no way you will recognise the (revolutionary) importance of Sprigg’s work. In other words, with “truth” firmly in focus you are seriously at risk of transforming scientific blogging into a reminder about contemporary orthodoxy: i.e., you are at risk of becoming a member of Team Science.

    I think it’d be far wiser to to be “knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at…analysing and critiquing, placing into context and so on”. After all that’s the power of the scientific method: it frees us from fixating on the “truth”, because it’s the method that is slowly but steadily uncovering (bits of) the “objective truth”, not any one of us in particular.

  37. It might also do to remember there can be a useful distinction drawn between impartiality and objectivity. Here’s an example from everyday life. Suppose my friend Raven breaks her arm. I can care more for her injury than (say) some sports figure because she’s (as the saying goes) “nearer and dearer to me”. But yet I still want the most effective treatment for her injury. I don’t want someone to consult their navel lint as to what “feels right”, but instead to investigate and find the truth of the matter, regardless of what they think or feel to begin with.

  38. Oh well…I still have the impression that, faced with a choice between “proclaiming the truth” and “critical thinking”, Ed is going to side with the latter. Time will tell.

  39. Excellent post, thank you!

    Keith, I got here via a link left at your site. I think this post lais out much of Michael Tobis’ problems with science journalism as well (though possibly in a less adversarial way).

  40. There’s a wonderful example in the Telegraph today of the modern art of science stenography. Headline proclaims: “Alien life certain to exist on Earth-like planet, scientists say”. The standfirst adds: “The chances of alien life existing on a newly-discovered Earth-like planet are 100 per cent, an astronomer has claimed. ” A classic example of the “I just write this crap down” school of “journalism”.

  41. Have seen that and yes, it’s brilliant. Although the 8th commenter looks like a right idiot.

  42. Bart, the current criticism of science journalism has a one-size-fits all feel to it. My attempt to broaden the perspective and introduce some recent history:

    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/10/01/whacking-science-journalists/

  43. This is a great piece! It inspired me to a taxonomic description of science communicators, I hope you don’t mind me posting it: http://traversingtherazor.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/what-species-variant-of-science-communicator-are-you/

  44. Strider

    This is why I don’t listen to NPR any longer. I tired of their false balance journalism.

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Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dive into the awe-inspiring, beautiful and quirky world of science news with award-winning writer Ed Yong. No previous experience required.
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