Cognitive Daily

Yesterday I spent a delightful several hours having lunch with Chris Mooney (of Seed, Scienceblogs, and war on science fame) and attending his talk in Durham, NC. I also got to meet fellow ScienceBloggers Abel Pharmboy and Coturnix.

At lunch, the conversation centered on a favorite topic here at ScienceBlogs, Science Journalism. Chris made what I felt was a very cogent point which explains the Greg Easterbrook phenomenon: from the perspective of the top magazines, good science journalism is journalism that makes a controversial point. Easterbrook provides controversy, so he keeps getting assignments. Until magazines begin to also value scientific accuracy, we’re going to keep seeing more of this careless journalism.

At his talk, Mooney expanded on this notion. Science journalists must not fall victim to the “fifty-fifty” reporting formula. In science (and arguably in other areas of journalism as well), the debate on an issue is usually not split evenly across two “sides.” On questions such as whether evolution exists, or whether human activity contributes to global warming, experts are nearly unanimous in their views. Thus, partisans who can benefit from a different spin on the facts can easily bias media coverage by finding maverick “experts” who “oppose” views that in fact are not at all controversial.

But knowing that journalists often do fall for these ploys, Mooney argued, scientists are also partly to blame for the problem by not presenting their research to the public effectively. If a scientist spends three months or more on a research project, and many more months seeking publication and responding to peer reviews, how can she allow a press release from a think tank to “rebut” her work in three hours? Scientists should have their own advocates, standing up for good science and pointing out when partisan organizations try to skew the facts to support their selfish agendas.

Where will these advocates come from? From the ranks of scientists themselves. Some scientists clearly have a knack for clear communication with the public, while others don’t. But currently only peer-reviewed research is viewed as reason to give scientists jobs and promotions. Effective communication isn’t valued by the scientific community, so effective communicators don’t get promoted unless they are also effective researchers. Why not promote a few effective communicators independently of the quality of their own research? What if two or three articles a year in TIME magazine could get you tenure just as surely as two or three articles in Journal of Electron Spectroscopy and Related Phenomena?

It would require a massive shift in the academic culture, where “popularizers” are now often shunned by their colleagues. But shifting the influence of science on government will also require a massive effort. This is simply one step along the way.


  1. #1 Steve Y
    November 3, 2006

    An interesting, NSF-funded program is being conducted at the University of Montana incorporating communication training into an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in the Ecology of Infectious Diseases. You can see more about it here:

    Although I agree that competent communication has probably not historically been overtly valued in the hard sciences, it has always been a concern, and now seems to gradually be acknowledged as essential to effective scientific practice.

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