Kathy Sykes has a provocative article in New Scientist entitled Science in the media: Put up or shut up. She opens:
Most scientists want to see more science and technology in the media, but we’re making life hard for ourselves by forever criticising each other’s efforts or denouncing journalists and film-makers for not portraying science in ways we approve of. While healthy debate can improve science communication, I think we could all shut up a bit, and stop the more rabid criticism altogether. I include myself here.
Prof. Sykes is not a biologist, which may account for the fact that she sees little wrong with stunts like New Scientist’s recent “Darwin Was Wrong” inanity:
Similarly, New Scientist recently took flak over its cover that proclaimed “Darwin was wrong”. The article inside described discoveries that are leading to modifications to the theory of evolution. A cheap trick to sell magazines while giving fodder to the enemies of evolution? Sales certainly went up that week, but if more people than usual bought the magazine and read the article, more people will have found that scientists agree that Darwin was fundamentally right.
The problem, as pretty much every evolutionary biologist knows too well, is that most people who seek to undermine science will use the cover and not read the article. It was irresponsible, and it damaged New Scientist’s standing with scientists, without a doubt. I certainly have a much lower opinion of the magazine at this point.
That being said, I agree with Prof. Sykes’s frustration on another point:
I have ranted and railed at scientists and journalists who treat tentative results as if they are certain.
But, she continues:
Does ranting do any good? In some cases it does, especially if science is being carelessly mangled or deliberately distorted. But in many cases communicators are passionate about science and are simply trying to communicate it as clearly as they can to as large an audience as possible. We risk drowning out what’s good with a stream of public bickering. We also risk discouraging a new generation of communicators.
What’s the solution?
If you’re still troubled by how others communicate, why not spend less time ranting and get out there and communicate in ways you do like? Blogging is easier than ever, for example.
The thing is, lots of researchers do have blogs. And they use them for many purposes, such as: 1) criticizing inaccurate journalism (usually including clarification of the subject), 2) explaining new discoveries to a broad audience, and 3) praising good journalism. My blog certainly does this, as do many of the blogs I follow. In other words, the ranting is hardly decoupled from clarification in many cases.
My feeling is that Sykes is a little disconnected from the main issues as they are seen by scientists, especially since many of the most vocal critics of bad reporting are also engaged in communicating science themselves.
Is inaccurate science reporting better than no reporting at all? I think it is an open question.