08 August, 2010

Science and Media, or Why Laypeople Get the Wrong Impression

I've wanted to be many things in my life - astronomer, vet, private detective, rock star, figure skater.  There was once a brief flirtation with the idea of a journalism degree before I got distracted by other shiny things.  I didn't go for the degree because I decided to focus my energies on my book instead (please don't ask me how that's going), but I learned a few things along the way.  Things like verify your sources, get your facts straight, don't believe the first thing you hear.

Since I didn't actually attend classes, I can't tell you what's being taught these days.  But it apparently has no relation to the books on journalism I read, because it's become evident that the bulk of modern "journalism" consists of rumormongering, inane babble, stenography, and getting everything possible wrong.  Where's H.L. Mencken when you need him?

Of course, things have never been all that spiffy when it comes to reporters attempting to report on science.  Certainly, there are science journalists who get it right - Carl Zimmer, anyone?  But here's what I remember from the science pages of any number of newspapers and magazines:
ZOMG scientists have discovered chocolate causes cancer!  No, wait, it cures cancer!  No, wait, it just makes you fat!  No, wait, it-
I actually gave up on science for a while because it seemed like scientists couldn't make up their minds.  All of those breathless reports, the controversies and the contradictory studies, the certainty about one thing followed by the certainty about exactly the opposite, drove me crazy.  I was like, totally, y'know, get back to me when you actually know something, m'kay?

Well, as it turns out, that ignorance arose only partly because I was an idiot with a piss-poor high school science education.  A lot of it had to do with the way science gets reported.  Journalists, it turns out, know jack fucking shit about how science works.  If they did know, the public would have a good grounding in what preliminary results are, would understand the difference between press releases and peer reviewed papers, and know precisely why a promising line of research doesn't always lead to the conclusion we thought it would.  We'd understand that evidence isn't always black-or-white, cut-and-dried, nor easy to interpret.  We'd appreciate the difference between settled science and cutting-edge frontier stuff. 

It's gotten so bad that Tom Swanson at Swans on Tea came up with a disclaimer for scientists to read, slowly and with careful pronunciation and emphasis, to any journalist they're unfortunate enough to speak with:
Please understand that the following result is preliminary and should not be taken as the final word. For anyone unfamiliar with the field, an effort must be made on the reader’s part to see where this fits in with the prevailing models of the day. There is a chance that it could be wrong or have only limited applicability to broader problems being investigated by other research teams. Further investigation may confirm our findings, or show that our results were anomalous or contained errors.
Alas, I'm not sure that would help, considering that even slow and careful explanation with plenty of emphasis seems to get lost somewhere in the labyrinth of the journalistic brain:
A few years back, there was a guy working for a small paper in Newport who had, in several stories, really misunderstood coast range geology. I offered to take him on a day trip up Marys Peak, where you can see the best possible transect of the rock sequence, from sea-floor basalts through a couple of sedimentary units, and a gabbroic sill. He got the geo more or less right, but described me as a professor in geology, even though he knew perfectly well I worked for science education, and I had taken pains to explain the difference between a professor and an instructor.

Poor Lockwood.  I'm not sure how he resisted the temptation to apply a rock hammer to said reporter's head in an attempt to beat some sense into him.

Now, mind you, I do understand simple human error (I'd better, considering I changed Silver Fox's gender on her yesterday - mea culpa, Silver!).  Reporters dealing with an unfamiliar subject, under deadline pressure, can fuck up.  But is it too much to ask for a few minutes' proof-reading?  Especially when this is their career rather than a hobby?  And can the reporters whose regular beat is science, even if they're just doing it for the local rag, please oh please learn at least a little about how science actually works?

The public depends on them getting it right.  I'm not sure reporters realize just how much damage they do by fucking up very nearly everything in science reporting, but it's high time they did.  I just wish the judicious application of a rock hammer to precise parts of the brainpan could get it through their skulls.


Silver Fox said...

I love it, especially the part about Lockwood and the rock hammer - I can envision that. (Is that the same Lockwood as in the geoblogoshere?)

Turns out that by thinking I'd be so clever w/ my psuedo, changing Desert to Si
ver (some might recognize the former from an earlier time), that I chose a name somewhat commonly associated w/ gray-haired men - so you're by no means the first!

Silver Fox said...

Disclaimer: any mistakes are due to painstakingly typing these messages on my phone w/ a stylus.

george.w said...

Oh hell yeah... reading science accounts in the newspapers and most magazines makes me want to pull my hair out. Of course, that ship sailed a long time ago.

I should be inured to scare stories by now - OMFG CELL PHONES ARE COOKING OUR BRAINS - but maybe it's best I don't get used to it.