Monday, February 23, 2009

The Future of Science Journalism

 
Chris Mooney warns us that science journalism is in trouble. He notes that many newspapers are firing their science writers and he warns of the dangers [The Death and Strangulation of Science Journalism].
What's disturbing, though, is to see a meta-discussion of the "trouble" with the practitioners of science journalism without any discussion of the real "trouble": the economic realities that are killing them off, one by one.

Memo to scientists: If you don't like science journalists, you're going to like even less what you get once they're gone.
I responded by saying ....
Not to worry. We'll figure out some way to frame it so that it sounds like a good thing!

:-)

Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it.

Maybe the general public would have been more interested in science if science journalists hadn't been writing so much hype about "breakthroughs" for the past twenty years. Maybe the public would have been more interested in science if so-called "science" journalists hadn't been confused about the difference between science and technology.

Science isn't about what the latest discoveries can do to make your life better. It's about learning how the natural world actually works. It's all about knowledge and not application or politics.

Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.
Now Chris has started a separate thread in order to disucuss this point [Science Journalism: When Things Get Rough, You Find Out Who Your Real Friends Are].
My post last week about the death knell of science journalism prompted some incredible responses. Here's Larry Moran, putting it more bluntly than I expected, and enunciating an opinion we'd better hope does not prevail:

...

Breathtaking, huh? I seriously hope opinions like this are not very widespread in the scientific community.
Well Chris, I hate to tell you this but there are plenty of scientists who share my opinion, even though they may not have put it so bluntly.

And you know what, Chris? You and Matt are partly to blame for this sad state of affairs. I know you don't want to talk about framing because you have "moved on," but your criticism of scientists didn't do a lot to inspire our confidence in science journalism.

But let's move on and look at what you have to say today.
Honestly, based upon the foregoing, I have to question whether Larry Moran knows what a science journalist is--or at least, whether we're talking about the same thing. For it seems to me that virtually everything he's complaining about, a real science journalist would complain about as well.

Take the media slights against science described above--the hyping of "breakthrough" findings, the confusion of science and technology, and the swapping of serious science coverage for "feel good" or "news you can use" infotainment fare. Although you will certainly find exceptions, in general these aren't the fault of dyed-in-the-wool science journalists, of the sort that proudly claim membership in the National Association of Science Writers (as I do). In fact, you can bet that within their respective media organizations--when they still were working within them; most of NASW today is freelance--science journalists have fought against many such calls over the years.

And you can also bet that they frequently lost out in those internal battles.
I don't believe you.

But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that you are correct. Let's assume that most science journalists know full well that science doesn't produce weekly breakthroughs (all evidence to the contrary). Let's assume that most science journalists know the difference between science and technology. Let's assume that what they really want to do is write about how science leads to advances in understanding of the natural world instead of sensationalizing the subject by writing about, .... oh, let's say, "hurricanes, politics, and the battle over global warming."

Even if everything you say is true, the bottom line is that science journalists failed to make their case and were "forced" to do the bidding of senior editors—or whoever it is you blame.

If that's case, why should we support the status quo and stand up for the people who have (according to you) failed to deliver the goods?
The point is that nobody loves science more than science journalists--and nobody more devoutly wishes to see it covered accurately and widely, so that the "general public" thereby benefits, and comes to appreciate science more thoroughly. So how is it that now, a scientist like Larry Moran won't stand up for these science evangelists in the media, and blames them for a host of failings that, in truth, they themselves most assuredly abhor?
I gave you my answer. It's because I don't believe you. Is George Johnson one of your examples? How about Graham Lawton?

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that every science journalist is doing a bad job. I've tried hard to pick out the good ones and give them the credit they deserve. What I'm saying is that, from my perspective, the majority of science journalists do not behave in the way you describe. It's all too easy to find articles that get the science wrong and articles that are more hype than reality.

Face the facts Chris, science journalists have not been very successful at finding allies among scientists. There's a very good reason for that. Try reading about the kerfluffle over the New Scientist cover to get a feeling for the problem.

Here's another exercise for anyone who cares about the quality of science journalism, as I do. Read the press releases on ScienceDaily. You won't find very many scientists who are impressed with that kind of science journalism.


29 comments :

  1. While I wouldn't have quite put it the same way you did, I would echo your rough sentiments. Dealing with wildlife issues, it seems that the first half of the battle is removing all the garbage `nature` reporters have loaded people's brains with. Our actual science is badly portrayed, when it is at all.

    Someone brought a New Scientist issue in when I asked where they got some of their plain silly ideas about wolf biology, and the introgression of domestic dog genes. I was flabbergasted by how astoundingly wrong New Scientist got the story. If that, Pop-Sci, and their ilk are what we have, we're better not having.

    And I'd add to your list, `science trivia,` while great for parties, seems to make up the bulk of science reporting in my academic neck of the woods. `The Planet Earth,` as visually lovely as it was, was rife with science as described by writers with ADD. It's high time documentaries start to be weeded out, too.

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  2. One thing I know; George Johnson's biography of Murray Gell-Mann is excellent. You may argue that that's not a science book though.

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  3. I think a lot of Science Daily articles come direct from university press releases. In which case, can't scientists have some input?

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  4. I think you are unfairly picking on Mooney's hurricane book. It is not supposed to be a purely scientific book, so picking on it is criticizing a straw man. Also, hurricanes have undoubtedly been one of the main items in the global warming controversy, so I am not sure that this is "sensationalizing" science. In any case, have you read the book? It's pretty good.

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  5. Re wavefunction

    Apparently, Prof. GellMann didn't think so as, acording to Mr. Johnson, the former has refused to speak to the latter since that book came out.

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  6. Interesting. I guess I am not too surprised. Prof. Gell Mann is well-known to be a difficult person to get along with. But the book has been praised by other people; in her recent readable book for instance, Louisa Gilder calls it one of the two best physicist biographies she has read (the other is Gleick's biography of Feynman)

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  7. Re Wavefunction

    1. Prof. GellMann is a very arrogant person who has much to be arrogant about.

    2. Speaking of James Gleick, he also wrote a biography of Issac Newton who was even more difficult to get along with then was Prof. GellMann. Newton feuded with most of his contemporaries, including Liebitz, the Bernoullis, Robert Hooke, and Christiaan Huygens.

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  8. Wavefunction says,

    Interesting. I guess I am not too surprised. Prof. Gell Mann is well-known to be a difficult person to get along with. But the book has been praised by other people; in her recent readable book for instance, Louisa Gilder calls it one of the two best physicist biographies she has read (the other is Gleick's biography of Feynman)

    This brings up another point. Science journalists often comment favorably on the writings of their colleagues.

    Here's the problem. Let's assume that scientific accuracy is important in science writing. Let's assume that getting the scientific facts correct was important in George Johnson's book. How does Louisa Gilder know that he got it right?

    You can hear a similar example on the George Johnson video where he complements one of his colleagues for writing excellent articles on molecular biology. How in the hell does Johnson know that the articles are excellent? Is it just because they read well? Apparently.

    I have a radical suggestion for science writers. Hold off on your compliments until you hear from the expert scientists in the field. If they praise the work then the science is good. If the scientists criticize the work then it's bad science journalism no matter how well it's written.

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  9. "Face the facts Chris, science journalists have not been very successful at finding allies among scientists."

    Thanks for highlighting this, Larry.

    I have been taken aback by this ferocious animosity between scientists and science writers. A few years back when I read T. Ryan Gregory's tirade on science journalism, I thought that was his personal view, but based on what you wrote it's fair to say that in general academic scientists strongly dislike science writers.

    Actually I was once concerned about this sad state of affairs in science communication. In our local context in Singapore, science articles in the papers are regularly overhyped and rife with inaccuracies. I simply attributed this to the fact that the science endeavour in Singapore is young, and that the mainstream media is still inexperienced in reporting science news.

    Then as I had more experience with the mainstream media and their readers I realized that this is a systematic problem with three sharp prongs:

    1. Senior editors of media companies are not even cursorily science-trained and are far more concerned with increasing readership and political correctness than scientific accuracy. They assert pressure on their writers to exaggerate the significance of the findings and gloss over the details.

    2. The general public who reads mainstream media don't care about science at all unless it revolves around moral values, healthcare, financial matters or the latest tech gizmos. They consider scientists to be arrogant pedants. A properly formatted, accurately conveyed scientific article with all the correct terminology and appropriately nuanced title would garner exactly zero attention from them.

    3. Scientists have an inherent disdain for science writers; they think of them as the middlemen of science communication, and often feel that scientists can do a much better job by communicating directly to the public. Many of them are arrogant (and have much to be arrogant about) and cannot tolerate the smallest technical inaccuracy, because those crucial details could be pivotal to their research direction or even an entire scientific idea. They consider exaggeration and technical inaccuracy practically as bad as outright lying.

    If you are interested in science journalism, you will likely be caught in this triple bind - editors will pressure you to write politically-correct, overhyped and oversimplified chatter, the public will demand to know the moral, medical and economic significance of everything, and the scientists will say you suck and you're wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong.

    I can't see any way out of this impasse; we are all part of the problem.

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  10. Just for fun, go read Suzan Mazur's latest piece for some perspective on the state of science journalism.

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  11. Holy shit. I don't envy Koch sitting through an uncritical barrage of nonsense from Mazur. It was like she was trying to show off her vast knowledge of twaddle to impress either Koch or the reader, or both for that matter.

    The best part is really this:
    Some of the evolutionary mechanisms being discussed, which relegate natural selection to a less important role, include self-organization--where cells organize themselves into more complex structures. The concept of morphogenetic fields, a developmental grid guiding development, is something Mount Holyoke paleontologist Mark McMenamin and Stuart Pivar have been investigating, identifying the famous Seilacher Namibian fossil that was part of Steve Gould's Scientific American article as a flattened morphogenetic torus, a metazoan creature.

    She brought up the fantastical doughnut theory by Pivar. whattt

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  12. The most inane scientific journalism is provided by local institutions.
    http://www.physorg.com serves as a rich collection of such. Stuff you find in NYT and Newsweek is pinnacle of accuracy in comparison to what the myriad of local journos produce.

    One of my all time favorites:
    http://www.physorg.com/news147363159.html

    Argonne scientists discover possible mechanism for creating 'handedness' in biological molecules.
    ...
    The basic molecules that make up all living things have a predetermined chirality or "handedness," similar to the way people are right- or left-handed

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  13. larry, i think the point that chris is trying to make is that you should not confuse science writers, people with a reasonable knowledge of science writing in-depth features and books, with churnalists, the people on a paper's news desk churning through institution and journal press-releases, without the slightest understanding of the material, and repackaging it as "news".

    the more science writers get sacked, the more the mainstream media's "science" output is represented by press-releases that have been badly rewritten by an overworked junior news office staffer with zero knowledge of science.

    of course, chris is in turn in denial about the fact that a good number of his science writers are still part of the problem, and it's not just the churnalists at fault.

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  14. As one of the science journalists picked out by Larry for individual criticism, I feel moved to make a comment here.
    My day to day experience does not reflect this supposed toxic animosity between scientists and science journalists. In my experience scientists are just as happy/eager to talk to journalists as they have ever been and they are generally happy with the outcome. I can't recall the last time a scientist refused an interview (yes, even in the wake of the Darwin issue - which was one of our biggest selling of recent years, btw - discuss)
    I can recall lots of occasions when scientists have said to me "I like/love your magazine". Maybe they're lying through their teeth. I dunno.
    Larry, out of interest, what do you do when a science journalist asks you for an interview? Do you refuse to talk? Do you talk off the record? Do you agree to talk on the condition of some kind of copy approval? On a similar vein, what would you advise your fellow scientists to do next time a journalist comes knocking? Judging from your comments above the answer ought to be "ignore them or refuse to talk".
    I’ll get flak for this, but from where I'm sitting the animosity towards science journalism is mostly coming from bloggers, the self-proclaimed heirs to the science communication throne. That sets my alarm bells ringing about motives.

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  15. Larry--Your citation of Science Daily as part of your criticism of science journalism is ridiculous. It's a website that recycles press releases in a format that apparently deceives you and others into think it is written by journalists. It isn't--it's all writen by science writers at universities/gov agencies/ect who are promoting their own work.

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  16. Larry, I am not commenting on Johnson's opinions and comments on biology. They may be hideously wrong. But Gilder is a physicist who has interviewed many leading theoretical physicists. I would trust she knows more about physics than you or me and she should at least be given the benefit of doubt. Again, I am not commenting on Johnson's lack of expertise on biology; in fact I agreed with your comments when you lambasted him in your post.

    Regarding your last comment, one author who is not a scientist but whose description of science has been praised by many top scientists is Richard Rhodes. The book I am talking about is The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and it and the science in it has been praised by people like Hans Bethe, Robert Wilson, Luis Alvarez etc. Rhodes' book by that definition would be a great example of "science journalism"

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  17. My day job is in genetics. I'm also formerly educated in science writing and freelance on the side.

    As long as science is done there will be things to write about. I'm not worried about the death of science journalism anymore than I am about the death of print media.

    I think Moran has done an outstanding job highlighting the science writing particular to his field that is exceptional. Mooney either doesn't read his website or isn't paying attention when he says Moran doesn't understand science journalism.

    I also think Moran is too quick to assume that scientists are capable of running the science writing show. Scientists that spend time writing are not typically high-output scientists and vice versa.

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  18. Graham Lawton asks,

    Larry, out of interest, what do you do when a science journalist asks you for an interview? Do you refuse to talk? Do you talk off the record? Do you agree to talk on the condition of some kind of copy approval?

    I speak on the record.

    I try as hard as I can to convey accurate scientific information and I often take the time to explain to the journalist what the problems are and what the context is.

    I did this with Suzan Mazur last summer, for example. I think she over-reacted (see above).

    I did this with Stuart Laidlaw a few weeks ago and I'm pretty happy with the result [Darwin still spurs tributes, debates].

    On a similar vein, what would you advise your fellow scientists to do next time a journalist comes knocking? Judging from your comments above the answer ought to be "ignore them or refuse to talk".

    Nope. My advice to my colleagues is to be frank and honest with journalists and to make sure they understand the context of the work. I advise them to ask the journalist what tack they intend to take in the article and to take steps to correct the journalist if they seem to be off track.

    If you had contacted me before publishing your story I would have warned you that it's not a good idea to bring up Charles Darwin in a story about lateral gene transfer in the early history of prokaryotic evolution. I would have told you that such a tact is not only irresponsible pandering to a general misunderstanding of evolution but it will make scientists angry.

    You probably wouldn't have listened to me.

    I warn my colleagues to avoid dealing with journalists who have an agenda and to terminate the interview if they are being used only to provide "balance" in a story.

    I’ll get flak for this, but from where I'm sitting the animosity towards science journalism is mostly coming from bloggers, the self-proclaimed heirs to the science communication throne. That sets my alarm bells ringing about motives.

    I would dearly love to see high quality science journalists who could write well and get the science right. I don't think bloggers are ever going to replace CNN, the New York Times, or even New Scientist.

    BTW, Graham, I bought up your name as a counter-point to Chris' claim that science journalists were always fighting against hype and selling out to commercial interests. Have you told Chris that you don't fit this image?

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  19. John says,

    It isn't--it's all writen by science writers at universities/gov agencies/ect who are promoting their own work.

    I know exactly where the press releases are coming from. They're coming from science journalists who don't exercise the least bit of skepticism. They're coming from hacks who have sold out to the very things that Chris Mooney says they should be fighting.

    Last year at this time I was sitting in a room listening to one of these science journalists who writes university press releases. She was bragging about how good a job she does and how hard it is. She was complaining that, in spite of her hard effort at low pay, she didn't get enough respect from scientists.

    The other journalists and writers in the audience applauded when she said this. The scientists didn't.

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  20. gillt says,

    I also think Moran is too quick to assume that scientists are capable of running the science writing show.

    I never said any such thing and I don't believe that scientists can replace the excellent science writers who are out there.

    Scientists that spend time writing are not typically high-output scientists and vice versa.

    What's your point? Are you implying that the only scientists who should write about science are the "high-output" scientists? If that's what you are implying then I think you're dead wrong. Those "high-output" scientists are usually part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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  21. Just a small comment from the other side of the Mediterranean. I'm a science journalist who after an interview tries hard to send the text to the interviewee to check the results. Most of the time the scientist is happy with that, but sometimes an error slips in, though everything is done in bona fide. Mr Moran, I think you expect too much from science journalists and, to adopt a genetic analogy, you think they should behave as transcriptors. They (we) are not, we are translators (your language and the layman's are way too different). And, as you know much better than me, the process of translation is really error prone. But without it (us), there wouldn't be any protein in the cell. Nor any good article in a newspaper

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  22. Bad science reporting (although not necessarily by science journalists) actually causes harm. As an example, the furore over the MMR jab. The impact of some poor science was inflated and embroidered by the main stream media, and some people have been harmed as a result.

    There are good science writers, as well as poor science writers - but the daily papers and television programs are driven by the need to find content, any content, over the requirement for accuracy or balance.

    If you have ever observed first hand a local event (eg a road accident, or a political meeting, or a disciplinary matter at a local school) you will almost certainly find that the local paper or TV will make a mess of the 'story'. It will either be inaccurately reported, or bent to fit some preconceived bias or even to fit the photographs taken.

    After the infamous New Scientist 'Darwin was wrong' article (which I thought was poorly written) I am seriously considering cancelling my long standing subscription. I always knew that the aritcles were not up to the quality of a peer reviewed paper (obviously) but I was willing to accept a 'flavour' of the science news in a weekly update. Over time however the quality of reporting has declined tending more towards entertainment than enlightenment. I believe that this is a trend in science reporting - general but not universal.

    Yes we need good science writers, but we also need better places for them to write in.

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  23. Graham Lawton said,
    "(yes, even in the wake of the Darwin issue - which was one of our biggest selling of recent years, btw - discuss)"

    Okay. It was one of the biggest selling of recent years, great. That's precisely what one should expect from sensationalism and the whoring of science by sell-out science journalists - discuss.

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  24. uh oh, the science taliban are in town

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  25. Marco F says,

    Mr Moran, I think you expect too much from science journalists and, to adopt a genetic analogy, you think they should behave as transcriptors.

    No I do not. I expect science journalists to be knowledgeable about their subject. I expect them to filter out the hype from scientists and to express responsible skepticism about "breakthroughs" and "revolutions."

    I expect them to reveal their knowledge and skepticism in their writing. Sometimes this means stating flat out that the people they interview are wrong or misguided. Sometimes this means not going out of their way to provide a "balancing" opinion if it means getting a quotations from a kook.

    I do not expect perfection. Small errors happen all the time and I don't sweat the little stuff. It's the big picture I'm worried about and, as a general rule, science journalists don't get it.

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  26. "I do not expect perfection. Small errors happen all the time and I don't sweat the little stuff. It's the big picture I'm worried about and, as a general rule, science journalists don't get it."

    Is this true? I see the running theme in your blog about the drift vs selection, and it seems that whenever somebody fails to mention drift while talking about evolution you'll get on their case pretty quick. But it doesn't look like you are that interested in the relative importance of drift vs selection per se.

    Woe betide any unlucky writer who gets caught in your disagreement with Dawkins over drift vs selection. Omit the word "drift" and somebody instantly becomes an adaptationist.

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  27. Lim Leng Hiong said...

    Is this true? I see the running theme in your blog about the drift vs selection, and it seems that whenever somebody fails to mention drift while talking about evolution you'll get on their case pretty quick.


    This is not a small error, and Larry should get on people's cases about being sloppy this way. It may sound like a semantic argument but it is not. Drift / selection is a huge debate in the field. The predictions based on "selection important" versus "drift important" are very different.

    There is a recent commentary on it by Laurence Hurst in Nature Reviews Genetics 10(2):83. Read it.

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  28. Lim Leng Hiong writes:

    But it doesn't look like you are that interested in the relative importance of drift vs selection per se.

    Dr. Moran seems to me to be tremendously interested in questions of the relative importance of various mechanisms of evolution, and related issues such as contingency vs. repeatability. He cites quite thorough discussions by acknowledged experts like Gould (others might disagree with Gould, but I think they'd concede his expertise), and has written some thought-provoking (at least for this layperson) essays on the matter.

    Thus ISTM the charge of being uninterested in the facts is not an accurate one. The most I think one might accurately say is that Dr. Moran seems at times to make intentionally provocative statements, not entirely a bad thing in a blogger, eh?

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  29. No I do not. I expect science journalists to be knowledgeable about their subject. [...] as a general rule, science journalists don't get it.

    Too late for you to read this, but I'll treasure every word of it. Expecially the "quotations from a kook" part (one of my pet peeves). Thanks.
    But read this, too: http://spedr.com/444w2

    Marco

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