Media Uncritical of Science, Journalist Says
Reporters need to stop regurgitating the self-promotion of scientists and start criticizing them, a veteran science reporter wrote in Nature News. Colin Macilwain had a lot to say about what’s wrong with science’s relationship with the mass media. “Like sausages being made, or legislation being passed, the process that turns scientific developments into headlines and into radio and television reports isn’t pretty to observe,” he said. “Nor is it optimal.” He describes the reporter beat at a typical meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the science media production line:
One of the main jobs of the AAAS meeting is to parcel up original research that has already been published, and often publicized, into digestible chunks. These then reappear as news stories in papers and broadcasts around the world, turbocharged by quotes from the scientific luminaries attending the meeting. This at least marks a change in tempo from the weekly routine, which converts original scientific findings, via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities, into a steady stream of largely uncritical stories.
Uncritical is the operative word. Macilwain thinks journalists need to take on the scientists and stop being such toadies. “Propped up by the specious authority of their jargon and, most of all, by their cheapness to report – which stands in stark contrast to proper investigations of issues such as public corruption, corporate maleficence or industrial health and safety – essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts.” The scientists accept this media circus that “disguises the very human process of scientific discovery as a seamless stream of ingenious and barely disputed ‘breakthroughs’
Partly due to recent credibility gaps in climate science, Macilwain thinks there should be “detailed, critical assessment” of science as it is really practiced. Like they do with politicians and athletes, reporters need to be asking “hard questions about money, influence and human frailty that much of today’s science journalism sadly ignores.” He called science reporting an “ugly machine” that churns out “inexpensive and safe content, masquerading as news, to an increasingly underwhelmed public.” It’s not showing the “actual cut and thrust of the scientific process,” but instead, a “cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant.”
ClimateGate showed this “churnalism” can backfire. Fragile public confidence in science was deeply eroded by that episode. Britain’s science minister was fairly uncritical of the status quo, but even he gave a “plaintive call for more investigative reporting.” Presumably that would include investigations on scientists – challenging their findings, questioning their motivations and their funding sources, exposing the issues their pronouncements would have on public policy.
The “alarming trends” Macilwain described are not likely to change in a time of high reporter workloads, editor demands, budget cuts, the rise of public relations, lack of time for original research, the need to stuff columns with content just because competitors do, and the embargo system that creates a pack mentality among reporters. Scientists themselves, he said, need to be far more willing to engage the public honestly about the “strengths, weaknesses and missteps that characterize scientific progress.”
Hear, hear! Great column. He must have seen Creation-Evolution Headlines, because we’ve been preaching that sermon for years (04/18/2003, 04/01/2005, 04/05/2004, 07/19/2004, 08/13/2005, 08/10/2007, 03/20/2008, 06/25/2009). We even showed them how to do investigative reporting (04/15/2003, 03/23/2007, 09/30/2007). Macilwain only slipped up once by using the term scientific progress. He should have specified that progress is not guaranteed by the passage of time, but by the quality of the evidence. Say, where have we heard that phrase “strengths and weaknesses” before? (see StrengthsAndWeaknesses.org for a hint).
Popular science reporting is often a wretched stench of triumphalism written by gutless wusses trying to be clever. They treat scientists’ announcements like food from the gods to be served on golden platters to the common people. They chew it first and barf it up on our plates, thinking it will aid digestion. Look how they stood by the rascals of ClimateGate and lectured us on how we didn’t understand “science.” Only lately have some of them been acknowledging that the skeptics had some valid points.
Can you imagine what would happen if reporters actually broke rank with the pack and actually did investigative reporting on scientists? What would happen if they brushed past the “specious authority of their jargon” and asked the hard questions, challenged their “findings”, the motivations and funding sources behind them, and the quality of the evidence? For one thing, the public would suddenly become a lot more interested in science. For another, the Darwinists would slither into dark corners to make their baloney in secret. Imagine a time when an evolutionist’s pronouncement like “Cooking is what made us human” (01/21/2010) is met not by genuflections from the press but by howls and belly laughs. It wouldn’t take long for them to get religion.