Scientists about media: put up or shut up?

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.

10 thoughts on “Scientists about media: put up or shut up?

  1. I love all those defenses of the New Scientist cover that basically boiled down to “well they need to make money, so we shouldn’t criticize their misleading behaviour”. That’s right folks, it’s ok to lie as long as you are lying to make money.

  2. I think more of the blame has to be put on scientists who make irresponsible comments rather than journalists who pick up on them. Where did all this “Darwin was wrong; the Tree of Life doesn’t exist” bullshit come from in the first place?

    An awful lot of the blame can be traced to the sensationalistic hyping of horizontal gene transfer by people like Ford Doolittle who claim that Darwin’s Tree of Life has been falsified by it.

    Not that horizontal gene transfer isn’t interesting (I’ve published on it myself), but the hype needs to be toned down — journalists can’t be blamed for simply quoting what scientists say.

  3. Jonathan, you are right of course that scientists should strive to be honest in their communications and avoid baseless hype. However…

    “journalists can’t be blamed for simply quoting what scientists say.”Yes they can! It is their job not to be credulous naifs.

  4. I do my fair share of criticizing scientist who say stupid things.

    But it’s the role of good science journalism to sort out the wheat from the chaff and write accurate articles that summarize the current state of science.

    If they can’t do that then what good are they?

  5. Contrast the New Scientist cover with that of National Geographic — “Darwin Was Wrong” vs. “What Darwin Didn’t Know”. NS could have been more responsible by just putting the verb first: “Was Darwin Wrong?”
    It’s been said before, but the article was pretty accurate — it’s the cover that sticks in my (and everyone’s) craw. Since the cover is not made by the author I don’t think it’s fair to tar him with the same brush. It’s the editor who needs to taken out behind the woodshed.

  6. I think she takes the compromise position by default because she seems preoccupied with communication between sciences and the lay audience. For instance, she has some BBC interviews about alternative medicine where while she found no evidence for alternative medicines, she asserted that conventional medicine probably had lots to learn from alternative medicine. I haven’t seen the actual BBC program she hosted, so I can’t comment on whether she took a reasonable and rational approach to it. But her general approach does seem to be to take the compromise position.

  7. Jon Badger makes an excellent point – Bapteste and others cited in the articles make unnecessarly hyperbolic statements, as did many associated with ENCODE. Sure, they are excited about their work, but to declare to a reporter that they’ve torn down a central dogma or their work will require a complete rethinking of a field and this sort of thing just plays into the hands ot he anti-science crowd.

    Several years ago, a colleague of mine wrote a letter to Bernard Wood after he had penned an article on the newest ‘human ancestor’ at the time. The usual hyperbolic language was employed, as is so often the case with paleoanthropologits for some reason, and creationists jumped on it. My colleague suggested to Wood that he discuss with his peers perhaps toning down the rhetoric as it gets ji-jacked by creationists and the like. Wood replied that he had no intention of altering his language because some of our countrymen misinterpreted it.


  8. The stance that the New Scientist editors were too harshly criticized is hard to take. This magazine has a specific readership to whom statements like the one made have no impact. If New scientist wants to recruit new readers who are interested in science, they should use non-hyperbolic language which is representative of the language science uses. It is not too much to ask that those who report on science apply the same level of scrutiny to findings as researchers do in the first place. Science could still be sold by presenting truths which are far more interesting and worthy of acknowledgement than the sensational claims that stoop this magazine to People’s level. Perhaps one way we can ensure more accurate reporting is to allow only reports that have some background training in science.

  9. “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.”

    They should have just borrowed the cover model from Maxim and plastered the word “Darwin” over her chestacular area. Same effect on sales, and less chance of a creationist waving it around at a school board meeting.

  10. And you are a little disconnected from mainstream society. Are you aware of how few people visit, let alone actually spend the time to read, these science blogs? Most of them, including Genomicron, are dull dull dull, to pretty much everybody but a handful of folks.

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