The death of science journalism - and what could replace it

Science journalism is dying - but John Cook's new iPhone app on climate questions points the way to something much better: an at-your-fingertips database of accurate, up-to-date information at multiple levels of explanatory power, addressing common questions on potentially any subject. John's app has been covered in major media, on Real Climate, and on various blogs - I probably should have included his website in the basic climate references list I compiled some months back as well. Read on for why I think this new iPhone app, and the approach it embodies, is so important...

Journalism is going through a period of transition - Jay Rosen has been chronicling some of the challenges particularly in political journalism. I've written a bit before on Rosen's ideas on the sphere of legitimate debate that the news media present us with, along with some implications for understanding the way we think in the first place. On any subject, getting that sphere right depends on the in-depth knowledge of the reporters and editors; with political journalism it is generally not possible to take a fully objective stance due to the myriad underlying assumptions that differing ideologies embody. The attempt to do this leads to articles that are often self-contradictory in some sense, and is part of the reason newspapers and other media have been losing trust lately.

Given the interlinking between reporting on politics (and celebrities, and on business and the economy also to some degree) and the opinions and actions of the public that determine political (and business) outcomes, there is a natural harmony between the tempo of whatever dominates communication about the subject and the subject itself. The growth of electronic communications and particularly politically-focused blogs has dramatically accelerated the political news cycle, and newspapers in particular have been left largely in the dust. But at least there is a new medium here that is taking over some of the role of the old.

With science the story is rather different. In fact, thinking about science as "stories" is where journalism gets it wrong. Science journalists already have challenges rather different from their colleagues, and the nature of the news media almost inevitably forces some of the worst attributes of science reporting to be accentuated, as exaggeration and conflict are what draws people in and satisfies advertisers. "Balance" is more an excuse to stir up conflict and ratings than anything approaching an attempt at fairness or objective analysis of the reality of things. One of the saddest examples seems to have been environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, no longer employed by the NY Times but still blogging there. Climate blogger Michael Tobis emphatically called Revkin out in one instance of "false balance", featuring one of Revkin's favorites, Roger Pielke Jr. I chronicled the resulting blow-up, an event that further emphasized how divorced much media coverage is from reality.

Revkin almost makes up for his egregious lapses with some pretty good pieces; other journalists seem to have fewer scruples. Tim Lambert has been documenting a horrifying series of misleading claims and misrepresentations of scientists by London Times reporter Jonathan Leake (this is the first one Tim posted). Leake was a primary source touting errors in the IPCC reports, and RealClimate has an excellent post on the (exceedingly minor) substance of those claims. Pointing out the major errors in newspaper coverage of minor errors in scientific reports seems only to have spurred the journalists to greater heights of sensationalism, as seen in RealClimate's recent review of some of the coverage.

There are a few good reporters out there who have consistently got the science right. Interestingly the best seem to work for more slower-paced publications, magazines rather than newspapers. In particular I've long admired Sharon Begley's reporting at Newsweek - her latest piece reviewing a book critiquing Lomborg is an example of her careful, thoughtful, analytical work.

The sorry state of science journalism and communicating science was the subject of an interesting NPR Science Friday discussion from the AAAS meeting (transcript included) - interestingly, climatologist Stephen Schneider was the only scientist in the group. The whole theme of the 2010 AAAS meeting is Bridging Science and Society, so science communication is central to that discussion. In the NPR round table they illuminated some of the problems, but I don't believe they came up with any new solutions - as pointed out in this review of the discussion, the call for scientists to go out into their communities and sell what they're doing is not an adequate response, or even fundamentally the right approach at all. What we need is greater scientific understanding among the general public as a whole - thoughtful questioning of "dogma" is a good thing, and the goal should be to help people improve their ability to assess the situation themselves, rather than just trusting in any particular authority.

So returning to the new iPhone app, I'm beginning to think that this (and the website) is really the harbinger of a new kind of communication system, one which is able to represent science to the public in a fashion much more suited to the restraint, quest for absolute accuracy, and general tempo of science as it really is than you can ever find in the general news media or in any one "story" written by any one person. Science evolves slowly - even new results almost never have an immediate impact: they have to be verified one way or another, replicated. Science builds on itself - a new result doesn't stand alone, it relies on layers and layers of previous work. Each result weaves itself into a web of understanding that increases our explanatory power over the world around us, increasing our ability to predict the consequences of future actions. Scientific results can never be proved to be true; every result has some level of uncertainty, a perhaps tiny possibility that it might be wrong. On the other hand, something that has been shown to be logically wrong or in contradiction to observations is much more unlikely to ever turn out to be right in the end. Scientists do make mistakes too, as the recent noise about the IPCC has shown, but some claims are far more wrong than others; what is really needed is some way to communicate that wrongness in a fashion that explains it clearly to a cross-section of the public that would otherwise be confused, especially by typical media coverage. The iPhone app (and skepticalscience.com itself) is a great start in that direction.

The new app doesn't quite do everything we need, though - there were some thoughtful comments on the realclimate thread that suggest where a deeper look at this could go, in particular Comment #6:

" I keep on mulling over the following idea: a visualisation of the scientific literature and the main claims on climate change – viewable by date, subject, which papers built on evidence, which ones shifted away, contradicted, altered other conclusions. The same underlying framework could be used to visualise any set of arguments and – hopefully – illustrate the incoherence of ant-AGW attacks. (Not to mention keeping the focus on the evidence itself, not false headlines and personal attacks.)

and comment #27:

But my basic idea was for a web database of “facts” (applicable to any debate, but designed with AGW in mind), each with related, supporting or refuting facts and documents (e.g. papers, web sites, datasets, etc.), as well as short and long elaborating explanations. This would let the facts be fairly atomic (e.g. “CO2 has been increasing at roughly 2 ppm/year”) while still letting people new to a concept delve deeper, and then deeper, first through the explanation, and then by following paths of related facts.

I also knew I’d never be able to populate the database, and I didn’t want it to be “one sided”, so I created a structure where it would work like a wiki, and visitors could add to it and edit it (with a moderator helping to clean it up, and an ability to lock out trolls).

Visitors could also identify their allegiance on the overall issue (pro/con) and vote on the correctness of facts. They could also request to be identified (by site administrators) as “experts” (and yes, the skeptic camp could have their experts, too, but it would be based on credentials, not media-frenzy popularity). In this way, the site could reflect both common-man and expert voting percentages.

Something like these are desperately needed. I wonder what the best way is to create and support them going forward?

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Arthur, Skeptical Science now

Arthur,

Skeptical Science now has a Facebook page also. It appears that Facebook and Twitter are where people are getting their information nowadays. I know my students are using these tools.

Given that, I bit the bullet today and signed up for a Facebook account with the purpose of creating a Group. The group is called Global Warming Fact of the Day.

I will post a small factoid each day related to climate change that is geared toward the general public. From what I gather, anybody who joins the group will get this daily factoid automatically on their Facebook page. I like the concept because people will get information without having to go find it. I started with three factoids to wet appetites.

Scott