Apparently, it’s time to dump on science journalists. Plenty of bloggers, it seems, just accept it as a statement of fact that science journalism sucks, and is in desperate need of fixing. Various solutions have been proposed, from the supply side (educate ignorant journalists) to the demand side (make people want to know more about science).
Personally, I think these complaints are ridiculous, and that scientists don’t know how good they have it. Let’s review the facts, shall we?
1) Most science stories in the mainstream media are simply paraphrasings of press releases put out by the scientists or their academic institutions. This sad state of affairs is not a result of journalistic laziness. Rather, it is a direct result of the way modern science works. For those who don’t know, here’s a primer: breaking science stories – such as the latest paper published in Science or Nature – are embargoed until the journal is published. (Scientists are almost always not allowed to even discuss unpublished research. If they do, they put their research at risk.) The morning the paper is published, journalists are sent a press release. A mad hubbub ensues. The scientists in question are forced to recapitulate the same sound bites over and over, and stress that these results are preliminary, clinical trials are years away, etc, etc.
Nobody likes this process except for the science journals. Scientists don’t like it because the resulting stories are always oversimplified and uninteresting. Journalists hate the process because it renders them impotent. Instead of doing actual reporting, they end up writing banal summaries of sketchy but sexy research day after day. So why does this terrible system persist? Because scientists will never challenge the journals that control their career. Nobody wants to piss off Nature by talking to a writer.
So we are left with the following situation: scientists are pissed because we write what they (or their academic institutions) tell us to write. It it they, after all, who control the flow and timing of information. Excuse me if I’m not sympathetic to their whining.
2) Scientists are almost never subjected to critical coverage in the mainstream media. Quick: name the last newspaper or magazine article that dared to criticize or skeptically analyze a piece of published research. If you had trouble thinking of an article, it’s because it almost never happens. And this isn’t because science is perfect. As a JAMA study reported last year, almost a third of medical studies published in the most prestigious journals are wrong. Flat out false. These are the same studies that get that get faithfully recited in our daily newspapers day after day. This gullible reporting stands in sharp contrast to the way scientists actually perceive things. When I talk to scientists, I’m always impressed by the way they criticize the research of their peers. To take a recent example: a few weeks ago I spent over an hour listening to a neuroeconomist elegantly dissect a very influential fMRI study. (Other scientists subsequently echoed his criticisms.) And yet this same study has been covered extensively in the press, with nary a hint of skepticism. The fact is, science journalists suffer from an excess of politeness. We are intimidated by all the acronyms, and forget to ask difficult questions. But this is our duty. Most researchers, after all, are funded by tax dollars. They have an obligation to explain their research to the public.
But this doesn’t mean that science journalism is all it could be. Although we live in an age of science, for the man-on-the-street the scientific enterprise has never seemed so remote. This is clearly a significant failure. And while part of the solution requires a better educated citizenry, and science journalists could use some better scientific training (who couldn’t?), I think the most important reform we could make would be to change the way scientific information is released. Once we stop letting scientific journals control the flow of scientific news, I think you will start seeing less regurgitated press releases and more of the stuff that defines great journalism everywhere: stories about the scientific process, stories that reveal science as a human enterprise, stories that put research in its proper context. One possibility is that the public likes science; they just don’t like reading press releases.