This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

8Oct/10

The often sorry state of science journalism…

I wish that this article by Martin Robbins didn't exist.  Unfortunately it does, and even more unfortunately, it's nearly dead on in its portrayal of the dark side of science journalism.  Granted, not every writer succumbs to the temptation of these hackneyed storytelling devices, but the truth of the matter is that science journalism necessarily requires a different kind of reporting than is usually seen in the national media.

Without getting too heavy in here, I think that the problem largely stems from the lack of scientific background that many of our science journalists have, and from the fact that our scientific community is often so reluctant to reach out to the public themselves.  I'm not saying you need to be a theoretical physicist or anything, but possessing a set of skills and experience that surpasses a general interest in the field is probably a necessary part of writing to the general public in an informed and unbiased manner.

That's how it should be, but it seems like these days science journalism is plagued by the same things that are slowly taking over all kinds of journalism - sensationalism, half-truths, misunderstanding, and unthorough reporting.

So why, do you ask, does this pose a particular problem for the scientific community?  I would argue that science has a particularly strong stake in being perceived as "unbiased and objective" in its assessment of a given situation.  This is an image that the public seems all to willing to throw out the window these days, and it is particularly hurt when science reporters make wild claims about weak scientific findings that have yet to be replicated or fortified with further research.  I don't know how many times I've read the headline that some new "breakthrough research cures cancer in mice," but I do know that I've yet to see cancer rates drop to zero in humans.

Ultimately, these kinds of exciting, but ultimately empty, stories do not make the journalists look like the half-hearted reporters that they often are, it instead makes it seem like the scientists themselves were distorting the data or trying to create an interesting story out of nothing.

Granted, I'm not saying that never happens in the scientific world, but as a community we've got enough on our hands what with competing for grants, writing research proposals, and taking on the (quite difficult) task of ensuring quality control and objective results.

Scientific research is one of the most important pursuits of mankind, yet it exists in a precarious and fragile position where the slightest amount of bending the truth or misreporting data poses a threat to scientists throughout the entire world.  Perhaps the data will speak for itself, perhaps thinking about how we communicate science to the public isn't the scientists' problem, but if we don't do something about this soon, then we may find our scientific credibility heading down the same path as journalism's...

via The Guardian

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