Monday, January 05, 2009

George Johnson Revists His Defense of Scienc Journalism

John Horgan and George Johnson are at it again. They clarify some important points in a followup to their earlier discussion about science journalism (see Who the Heck Is George Johnson?).

John Horgan asks the key question when he says, "Where do we get informed criticism of science these days?"

George Johnson points out that there's a lot of junk on the internet and this includes most science blogs. He does go out of his way to mention the best science blogs but he seems to be surprised and upset at the amount of junk masquerading as legitimate science.

He's right, of course, but that's not the point. What Johnson still seems to ignore is the criticism of traditional print science journalism. I'm not saying that science blogs are perfect—far from it—what I'm saying is that the hubris of science journalists is unjustified. They're not nearly as good as they think they are. As a matter of fact, in my opinion the quality of science on science blogs is superior to the quality of science described by science journalists in the print media.

As a general rule, science journalists are better writers but they are not necessarily better at describing the correct science. It's the content of articles by science journalists that I'm criticizing, not their literary style. I don't think George Johnson gets this. He seems to put all of his emphasis on the literary aspect of science journalism and not enough on the scientific accuracy part of science journalism. Johnson admires good writing.

John Horgan gets it. His main complaint is that it's the scientists, and not the science journalists who are hyping their discoveries and misrepresenting the importance of their work. Horgan points out that scientists are often too deeply immersed in their work to see the big picture. George Johnson is happy to agree with him. I agree too—it's scientists who are behind bad science.1

However, both Horgan and Johnson see themselves as writers who are able to rise above this self-interest on the part of scientists and put things in proper context. According to them, the role of a science journalist is to pick out the real breakthroughs and to present an accurate view of the science, unencumbered by the prejudices and biases of those scientists who are down in the trenches.

I agree that this should be the goal of science journalism. What I expect of good science journalism is that it avoid the hype and put the science in context. In that sense, Horgan and Johnson are correct—they have identified an important role for science journalism.

So, how's it working out? Badly, I'm afraid. Most science journalists who write about the things I know are failing miserably at this important task. Their prose may be good but they are completely taken in by the scientists who exploit them. This would be unacceptable if we were talking about political reporting or the writings of an art critic. It's just as unacceptable when we're talking about science reporting. That's the issue.

While scientists are responsible for bad science in the first place, it also seems to be scientists who recognize bad science. I don't see too many examples of science journalists who recognize bad science. As a group they seem to be very gullible.

Here's the excerpt where Horgan and Johnson discuss the future of science journalism. Horgan is pessimistic and Johnson is more of an optimist. The first part of this excerpt is where Johnson defends the effort that science journalists put into their work. Science journalists may work hard but you don't get "A's" just for effort.

It's interesting to hear Johnson defend Scientific American and Discovery as good examples of science journalism. It's more evidence that he doesn't know the difference between good science and bad science.

1. Listen to the exchange when John Horgan describes evolutionary psychology. Horgan knows that a lot of it is garbage. Johnson doesn't. I think this is part of Johnson's problem. He doesn't seem to have a good feel for the difference between good science and bad science in spite of the fact that he (Johnson) brags about the amount of work that goes into good science journalism and how important it is to have good sources. Johnson seems to think that most articles written by science journalists must be accurate because science journalists are supposed to do their homework. That's a bad assumption.


  1. Larry, you've said you like New Scientist best, but are there any other popular periodicals/newspapers that you think generally do good science journalism? American Scientist? Seed?

  2. I have a masters in science writing from a respected university. Emphasis on writing and good sources were paramount in my classes. If the range of topics a science writer must report intelligibly on spans astrophysics to brain imaging, then we have to count on our sources and common sense for accuracy. I don't think that's ideal in any respect.

    The way we keep hype and b.s. in check is to interview other experts in the field. In reality, at best the few remaining science journalists at newspapers and magazines have general knowledge of a field or two in one of the life sciences. And from this, they are expected to write engagingly on topics ranging from Hubble to Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumors.

    If the problem is accuracy it is because there are not enough of us around to do the job correctly.

  3. George Johnson's biography o Murray Gell-Mann is fantastic