An Esteemed Audience

This blog has in fairly exhaustive terms worked to create an awareness of the often embarassing misrepresentation of science in the media. There is however, both in the discussions carried out in the comments, and in the wider world, a significant amount of dissent as to why this is the case.

Sadly Journalists tend not to add up this well when it comes to understanding science.

Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science posits this is because journalists typically have no science background, indeed that having the appropriate educational background is generally antithetical to having had a scientific education. He believes that since journalists without a science background (As most journalists are) are unable to process science very well themselves, they actively choose to represent it in a way that seems comforting to them: That Science is a monolithic, didactic, and incomprehensible institution, where nothing is certain as breakthroughs simply erase prior knowledge. They present stories that are either ‘breathroughs’, ‘scares’, or just plain wacky, rather than simply keeping the public informed on scientific progress. In doing so, they have convinced the public that this is how science works, and made their belief that the public doesn’t understand science self-fulfilling.

It is a difficult trend to buck, since journalists who check the validity of their sources and work to ensure their own understanding of the subject is correct publish slower, and hence have their stories taken from them by less scrupulous colleagues. There are also a plethora of people willing to take advantage of this state of affairs and reinforce it, such as alternative medicine practitioners, and those who simply want to draw attention to themselves and their work:

At Reading University there is a man called Dr Kevin Warwick, and he has been a fountain of eye-catching stories for some time. He puts a chip from a wireless ID card in his arm, then shows journalists how can can open doors in his department using it. ‘I am a cyborg’ he announces, ‘ a melding of man and machine,’ and the media are duly impressed.

From Bad Science Chapter 12, page 468

Ben suggests that the 1935 to 1975 period, the formative years of modern print and television media, were a space of time in which science DID seemingly produce miracle cures and solutions to life’s ailments, things which to this day remain a part of our lives, such as tuberculosis vaccines, targeted anaesthetics, dialysis. However since then medical advances,  region of scientific progress focused on by scientists, has become more about incremental improvement rather than breakthroughs, something which makes for a poor story: the journalistic doctrines passed down from the older journalists DEMAND that a story must be portrayed as brand new, and with an absolute significance.

There are other opinions, obviously. Christopher Booker here talks about his opinion on the scare story phenomenon. He suggests that it is the scientific process, IE of announcing hypotheses prior to investigation, that results in a poor combination with journalists, who need to cover stories as soon as possible.

Indeed a youtube user ‘potholer54’ talks about this in a lot more depth, in his video “Why the Media Screw Up Science” about the nature of referencing and sourcing with respect to the media (While referencing and sourcing extensively for the video). He cites many examples of journalists simply quoting the hypothesis of a research project as its result, prior to its conclusion, and indeed sometimes in spite of the hypothesis being conclusively disproven. I followed up on this concept with the paper today: There were VERY few science stories, and they were all dumbed down to the point of being almost completely uninformative if you wanted to investigate further. In the entire of The West Australian I saw 5 articles even tangentially related to science content, having gone as far as to count one about the governments new recycling scheme.

The most prominent, about the Autism Phenome Project, went into extensive depth about the findings of the project despite stating they were to present their findings in a Conference starting FROM today. Where did they acquire this information? It is left unstated. I was certainly unable to find any mention of a press release on the APP website.

Why do the papers see it as acceptable to publish raw and difficult to interpret (For those with no education on the subject) data on finances and sport and yet Science receives no such treatment despite its relevance? Its difficult to propose any kind of motivation for media to change its treatment of science, but its pretty clear that things need to change, or the public is going to grow more and more alienated from the scientific community, until the process becomes irreversible.

Image above from

By lodoubt

3 comments on “An Esteemed Audience

  1. I think the difference between finance and sport being presented as raw and difficult to interpret (compared to science) is that ‘science’ can often refer to things that might affect people’s health, and lifestyle (which most people care at least a bit about) and hence the media wants to make it accessible to all people.

    Finance might often be geared toward people who are in the field and have prior knowledge because most lay people without investments and such won’t care too much. Sport, wellll, I guess that’s a similar concept to finance. You won’t really pay attention unless you have a vested interest or enjoy sport.

    It is a pity that some science is reduced down completely, doesn’t really seem fair in some respects.

  2. Good movie you put. It is useful for our next assign, making movie.
    I agree with you that many journalists have no science back ground so that they cannot write understandable science subjects.
    On the other day, I was talking to the guy form one of the Japanese science magazine called ‘Nikkei-Science’ and he was saying “We have been trying to employ the people who has science back ground but unfotunately, those people cannnot write.” He mentioned that those, who have science back ground do not know how to write with good grammer or effective words, which means that they are useless as journalists.
    However, I think science is getting much better as many of scientist began to try interpretting their research in easy way and at least, some of them are aware that they should change.
    To resolve the problem you mentioned above, I think science communicators have to know both of science and literature as well as the languages.
    I think this is not only the matter of science but also of politic because I do not understand what the politicians are talking about!!
    Compare to politics, don’t you think science is more understandable and entertain people?

  3. Hey Roland (did I do it right this time?)
    Nice post, although I found a lot of what you say quite contentious. I have read and reread Bad Science, and I feel I have a different interpretation of what Ben Goldacre is saying about journalists.

    I do like the comparison to finance, politics and sport. I had never really thought of it that way, but to me economics and politics are incomprehensible in the way that so much science is to the lay-person, so I do like the comparison.

    Carmen, I disagree. Sure, science affects people; health, food, medicine, materials and on and on; but so does economics and politics. The value of the Australian dollar and the United States Dollar affects us all, as does legislation in our state and nation; these things are as important to much of the public as their health, yet apparently it is okay for these to be jargon-filled gobbledigook (that’s how I find it, anyway).

    As you have said, Keiko, it is important for those writing and reporting on science to have an understanding of both, well…. writing and science. I feel I am saying the same old thing in most of my comments on these blogs; Let’s see if WE can make that happen. Well, here’s hoping. Maybe it would be good to see better writing skills in reports of finance and politics, too.

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