John Mashey made a comment over at Deltoid that was so incisive, Tim Lambert decided to turn it into a post of its own. In the comment/post, Mashey outlines several steps scientists can take to pressure reporters to do a better job reporting science. Indeed, the list is a little daunting. Among other things, he recommends that you
Pick a modest handful of reporters with which to build up rapport, even if it takes a couple years, and half a dozen emails. In particular, try to take good care of any reporter who actually replies (non-negatively) to an email.
That’s a pretty big commitment. A more common response to bad reporting is something like this one from T. Ryan Gregory:
This is not science, it is not news, and it is not something I want cluttering up my aggregator feed. So long, LiveScience, it’s been a slice.
It pains me to say it, but in light of other complaints from scientists in the blogosphere (e.g., here and here), I am actually beginning to wonder if, despite the efforts of some excellent writers, science reporting on the whole does more harm than good. I despise the ivory tower approach to academia (hence this blog), but in my opinion misinformation is worse than missing information.
You might note that the article that sparked Gregory’s tirade is one I blogged about a couple days ago.
Gregory dismissed the entire report as unfounded speculation. My approach was to consider which aspects of the report were plausible, and focus on them. But I agree in principle — any article that causes thoughtful readers to throw up their hands in disbelief is probably not reported very well.
I also agree with Gregory that it’s probably not a good idea to subscribe to publications that regularly skew or misreport science. But I don’t agree that science reporting overall does more harm than good. I do agree that it can do a lot of harm, though. This “report,” for example, offers no sources for its bizarre speculation that looking at a spinning nude silhouette can tell you something about your personality. What’s more, the article doesn’t list an author, so we can’t even follow Mashey’s guidelines for encouraging better science reporting.
I think a lot of learning on Cognitive Daily occurs on our Casual Fridays posts. The research isn’t scientifically rigorous, but readers regularly engage in discussions of what would be required to make a particular argument. They learn that science isn’t simple or easy, that answering complex questions can’t be done in a single step.
Science doesn’t have to be perfect to be informative; to me, the worst science reporting is the kind that suggests that science is infallible, a set of facts. The next-worst is the type that assumes there are “two sides” to everything (what’s the “other side” to the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun? Or to the Stroop Effect, for that matter?).
There are those who suggest that scientists need to do the reporting on science. That may be part of the solution, but do we really want to toss out great reporters like Carl Zimmer in order to get rid of the bad ones?
To me, a more important reform in science reporting would be to stop treating science like news. Does the general public really need to know what’s going on at the messy, bleeding edge of science? The major journals put out splashy press releases and try to hype the “latest” discoveries, many of which won’t hold up under the scrutiny of additional study or have much more modest results than their promoters suggest. This PR is easy for lazy editors to plug into “science” sections without further thought. Yet this is precisely what we’re likely to get from scientists promoting their own research. I don’t think putting the scientists in charge of science reporting will necessarily solve things.
It would be better if science journalists could give readers a sense of the current state of a whole line of research, instead of focusing on the latest splashy result. The larger question remains, though: How do we get from here to there?
Mashey’s suggestions are a good start. I happen to think a site like BPR3 will also help. Any other ideas?