Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Science Journalism at its Worst

 
This video is an embarrassment. At a time when we are trying to convince the public that science is credible, along comes a trashy exploitation that sets science back several decades.

This is not how science works. It is not accurate science and it is not an accurate depiction of how scientists will react to the discovery of Darwinius masillae.




18 comments :

  1. I am not exactly sure what the hubbub is about. I mean, sure it's exciting, and an excellent specimen, but no one ever doubted that the "missing links" were there.

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  2. Did you notice that they are publishing this finding in PLoS ONE?

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  3. It's worth pointing out that most of the clip consists of scientists talking, not science journalists.

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  4. "They may have found the first ever link to human beings"
    Pththththt.

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  5. Pretty meaningless hype (rosetta stone, asteroid) , rather carelessly put together by someone who includes a very stupid phrase 'may be the first link ever to humans". Veeery badly expained, to the point of careless fodder for creationists.

    I think the only thing I can value is that they put a question mark to the "link" part, which is appropiate since they did not make a phylogenetic analysis. A new phylogenetic analysis is required, that includes darwinius to actually know if its closer to the lineage leading to human, which is not a laughable possibility giving that most early fossil taxa are veeeeery fragmentary indeed.

    The only hyping that is probably true is that this fossil will probably be making a long-time appereance in the textbooks. Everybody agrees this amazingly complete and well-preserved fossil is crucial for understanding the early evolution of primates.

    I don't think there is much to make against PLoS ONE than there is to make about nature or science, which have published TRUE pieces of crap (much worse than this!) . These magazines in their short articles rarely provide in-depth descriptions of the fossils or in-depth phylogenetic analyses.

    In all cases, we can only be glad SOME information about the fossil has become available

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  6. Carl Zimmer said,

    It's worth pointing out that most of the clip consists of scientists talking, not science journalists.

    Yes. It's a good example of the problems with scientists who try to do science journalism. Scientists find it hard to report objectively on their own work.

    Good professional science writers, on the other hand, should be able to step back and put things into perspective. This is what they're supposed to be good at.

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  7. It looks like we need to coin a new term: "tabloid science".

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  8. History channel should be renamed the Mythology channel

    -Truti

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. Larry: Scientists find it hard to report objectively on their own work.If you can't report your work objectively how can you interpret your results objectively? I'm not suggesting scientists should be able to write readable prose, just that if they can interpret their results accurately, they should be able to convey the caveats and subtleties of those results as well.

    Good professional science writers, on the other hand, should be able to step back and put things into perspective.Reporting science is a combined effort. It requires scientists who can communicate to a certain degree and writers who can convey what they say accurately. This is a case where both failed. Instead of suggesting that scientists can say whatever they wish and that science writers have to figure out the puzzle, why can't we hope that both parties do their job accurately?

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  11. Thanks for pointing that out, Carl. Too often when Moran thinks he is criticizing science journalism, he is not. He needs to spend less time bashing other people and more time thinking about what he is doing (and what he is not doing but thinks that he is doing).

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  12. anonymous says,

    Too often when Moran thinks he is criticizing science journalism, he is not.

    Really? I've been very critical of science journalism whether it's written by scientists or non-scientists.

    I've also done my share of criticizing actual scientific papers for bad science. So don't think I'm letting scientists off the hook.

    You and Carl are making the same mistake. You are assuming that when scientists write for the general public they are not practicing "science journalism." I suppose it's OK to adopt such a definition but you shouldn't assume that everyone else thinks like you.

    By the way, what term do you use for popular science articles written by scientists? Presumably if a scientist writes about science in an op-ed piece is isn't science journalism by your definition. What is it?

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  13. Jeremy Labrecque asks,

    If you can't report your work objectively how can you interpret your results objectively?

    You can't. That's the problem.

    Reporting science is a combined effort. It requires scientists who can communicate to a certain degree and writers who can convey what they say accurately. This is a case where both failed. Instead of suggesting that scientists can say whatever they wish and that science writers have to figure out the puzzle, why can't we hope that both parties do their job accurately?

    That would be wonderful.

    Given that scientists are going to spin their data and misrepresent their work—an unfortunate fact of life these days—it is incumbent on science writers to make their position clear.

    They have two choices.

    1. They can simply act as cheerleaders for the scientist and relay the opinion of the scientist to the general public as though it were fact.

    2. They can be skeptical and professional about the claims of individual scientists and seek other opinions in order to report the real importance, or not, of the work.

    The thing they can't do is #1 while claiming to do #2.

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  14. In Larry's defense to some of the commenters here, he can be just as tough on scientists as science journalists. But I must say I'm a little confused by his taxonomy. As soon as scientists speak on camera, they're science journalists?

    From my perspective, there are a few different sources of trouble in science journalism, whoever is involved. A couple: Too many journalists don't understand the science and don't have the time or inclination to learn it. Scientists sometimes hype up their own results, or don't do much to make sure journalists don't hype them.

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  15. @ Carl: Too many journalists don't understand the science and don't have the time or inclination to learn it.

    Agreed, but as I have seen too many times, many scientists don't understand communication either, and are simply unable to put their work on perspective, bashing communicator and hyping their own "discoveries". Most of critiques to Darwinius are coming from journalist bloggers, at least from what I've read.
    As an aside, I don't always agree with Mr. Moran, but as I see it, most of the time is criticizing bad science journalism, not journalists. And everybody can "perform" bad journalism, not just journalists.

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  16. Carl Zimmer asks,

    But I must say I'm a little confused by his taxonomy. As soon as scientists speak on camera, they're science journalists?

    I didn't realize that this would cause such consternation.

    "Science Journalism," which is the term I used, refers to any attempt to communicate science to the general public. It doesn't matter to me whether the author is a scientist, a professional science journalist, or the fashion editor.

    Now that I've explained *my* definition, perhaps you could explain yours? How do you define "science journalism"? Is it just science writing by a professional science journalist?

    If so, would you prefer that I use "science writing" instead of "science journalism"? In that case, is a "science writer" anyone who writes about science whether they are a scientists or not?

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  17. When I use the phrase "science journalism," I mean writing (or radio, TV, etc.) that's created by someone in the hopes of reporting as accurately and objectively as possible about a particular aspect of scientific research.

    That seems different to me from a scientist sitting down in front of a camera and answering a series of questions from someone who will take the footage and go off and turn it into a documentary. That *other* person seems like the science journalist.

    I'm not sure if I'm advancing the conversation here or drifting into semantics...it's Friday.

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  18. This is a breath of fresh air. I was beginning to think I was the only one who was unimpressed with the way they're hyping this.

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