The Intersection

CJR has the latest, from the Woodrow Wilson Center. Now Peter Dykstra, long at CNN, is writing for an environmental website; and now Seth Borenstein, long at AP, acknowledges that we’re in a science journalism crisis (he was at time past a skeptic of this notion).

Meanwhile I sometimes worry that the science blogosphere–supposedly centrally involved in and concerned with science communication–doesn’t grasp what is happening. Take this post from Jason Rosenhouse–and it’s just one recent example. It’s entitled “The Trouble with Science Journalism,” and critiques something New Scientist put on its cover. Okay, perhaps they sexed things up a little. Glass house, first stone, and all that.

What’s disturbing, though, is to see a meta-discussion of the “trouble” with the practitioners of science journalism without any discussion of the real “trouble”: the economic realities that are killing them off, one by one.

Memo to scientists: If you don’t like science journalists, you’re going to like even less what you get once they’re gone.


  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    February 16, 2009

    So what’s the alternative, really? If the science is distorted or sensationalized, then distorted science becomes the baseline for the layman non-scientist to base their policy decisions on, because they still will inevitably act based on quote-mined excerpts and aphoristic summaries, not on real comprehension.

    Whether the lie comes from intentional distortion by someone with an axe to grind against science (i.e., most creationists and many global warming deniers), or it comes by complete accident from someone reading a “nifty-sounding” article and totally misreading the actual point or science of it because they really didn’t comprehend much past the abstracts or titles they quote-mined, the problem remains exactly the same. Scientists are forced to spend half an their of their time making corrections for every 5 seconds of wrong science someone brings up in a policy session or ignorant editorial, while in that same time another 9000 lies and incorrect conclusions get thrown out there.

    (and then there’s the chance they’ll never understand any of it because the details are too specialized – indexcc has some SERIOUSLY complicated explanations in it.)

    Bad science writing hurts, because it leaves scientists having to spend time correcting the misinterpretations, and you should know by now that regardless of how many times it gets corrected, the original distorted version continues to spread like a virus among the ignorant because it’s easier or catchier for them to understand. All the corrections in the world still can’t get some of the most basic lies out of “the system” (see Ed, who today pointed out YET ANOTHER claim that Darwin recanted on his deathbed).

    The sensationalist catch-phrases and simplified stories sit in the head like an earworm, like a rhyming mnemoic, festering to the point where the real explanation will fall of those most deafest of ears: the ones who think they already know what you’re going to say.

    It FEEDS the denialists to show how “everything we know can be wrong”, and gives them weaponry to use against science education as well as against science research and science-based policy.

    So, perhaps it would be better if there were no layman’s science journals out there (an exaggeration, of course), because then at least what science DOES get published stands a better chance of being presented correctly the first time, rather than incorrectly leading to bad decisions and wasted efforts.

    The only thing worse than basing bad policy by ignoring science is basing bad policy on incorrect science, THINKING that you’re basing your policy on real science. The ultimate Dover trap, and the Constitution won’t get us out of all of them…

  2. #2 Ashutosh
    February 16, 2009

    One of the common complaints bona fide scientists seem to have against science journalism is that it lacks rigor, is flippant and often oversimplifies matters. I think this complaint is legitimate and I can think of very few science journalists writing today who live up to the ideal. I also think it’s no accident that while there certainly can be non-scientists who can do good science journalism, some of the best scientific writings have come from people who were trained scientists themselves, in some cases internationally known for their research; Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, John Casti and Isaac Asimov to name a few. This is a fact that budding science journalists who are non-scientists should bear in mind; they need to spare no effort in talking to the experts, reading original books (such as the ones you are reading) and doing exhaustive and meticulous research to make sure they get the science as right and clear as a bona fide scientist would.

    In the end though, science journalism’s future is intertwined with the public’s thirst for understanding science. If the public does not care about science- and by science I don’t mean just the fruits of research but scientific temper and the value of the scientific method itself- then not Obama nor anyone else will be able to resurrect science in this country. And the money will naturally keep on dwindling.

  3. #3 jake
    February 16, 2009

    “Glass house, first stone, and all that.”

    That is an awfully short rebuttal to Jason’s long post. What exactly do you take issue with? Are you literally saying that because of the current economic environment, science journalists should be given a pass when their articles are inaccurate or misleading?

  4. #4 casey jane
    February 16, 2009

    I hope options for science journalists are just shifting, are not completely gone for good—i am in school for science journalism right now (at USC with K.C.) and am very apprehensive about job prospects upon graduation. The horror stories are adding up. But, im convinced as long as people want to read about science, something will come about eventually. Which means this could be a time for opportunity not crisis.

  5. #5 thingsbreak
    February 16, 2009

    Take this post from Jason Rosenhouse–and it’s just one recent example. It’s entitled “The Trouble with Science Journalism,” and critiques something New Scientist put on its cover. Okay, perhaps they sexed things up a little. Glass house, first stone, and all that.

    The problem with “sexing up” science journalism in such an irresponsible manner is that it is used to promote antiscience. Such was the case with New Scientist’s shameful article.

    For something a little more familiar, Chris, perhaps you can meditate on how the media bungling climate coverage 30 years ago has resulted in one of the most enduring yet patently untrue claims by the “skeptics” opposed to mitigating climate change.

    George Will, “leading Conservative intellectual”, is regurgitating it just this week. You don’t seem to want to face it, but irresponsible science journalism is indeed in some cases worse than no science journalism at all.

  6. #6 Larry Moran
    February 16, 2009

    Memo to scientists: If you don’t like science journalists, you’re going to like even less what you get once they’re gone.

    Not to worry. We’ll figure out some way to frame it so that it sounds like a good thing!


    Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it.

    Maybe the general public would have been more interested in science if science journalists hadn’t been writing so much hype about “breakthroughs” for the past twenty years. Maybe the public would have been more interested in science if so-called “science” journalists hadn’t been confused about the difference between science and technology.

    Science isn’t about what the latest discoveries can do to make your life better. It’s about learning how the natural world actually works. It’s all about knowledge and not application or politics.

    Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.

  7. #7 steve
    February 16, 2009

    Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.

    Posted by: Larry Moran | February 16, 2009 5:44 PM

    Where’s that baby I just had? I saw it before I pitched the bathwater out…

  8. #8 Eric Berger
    February 17, 2009

    “Science journalists have let us down. I say good riddance.”

    Science journalism is far, far from perfect, and I say that as a practitioner.

    But when you do away with mainstream science journalism you’re going to be throwing away any ability to capture the attention of a wider audience on most issues. Sure, people really interested in science are going to get great information on science blogs. But what is that, 1 percent of the population?

    Most people just aren’t that interested in seeking out information about science.

    So when newspapers and related media disappear, and the ability to capture their attention by putting science news on the front page goes away, the rest of the country will no longer be exposed to balanced science news. Instead, they’ll be getting information indirectly. I.e. their climatology will come from TV meteorologists and politicians, and their health care information from Jenny McCarthy and their evolution news from their pastor.

    In any case, Chris is absolutely correct that economics (which are relentless for traditional media) are dictating this.


  9. #9 Robert Grumbine
    February 17, 2009

    You’re in trouble when you’re even more naive about science in the public arena than I am. And at least half the time I’m awfully polyanna optimist about it.

    Still … we are long past the era when much of the public’s decisions or knowledge about science had anything to do with what science journalists reported in print or television. The bulk comes from the editorial page, not the science page. Or the scare episodes of TV ‘news’ during sweeps month. More typically, the echo chambers on talk radio, political shows, churches, and just plain assuming that wishing makes it so.

    Along with the general decline of print, the science journalists — as defended in a comment above — have been abetting the trashing of the notion of science journalists as a good source to find out about the science. Sure, the cover was ‘sexy’. I guess. If your tastes run that way. But it was also false as to the scientific content. If you’re concerned about content, this has to trouble you seriously.

    There are limits to how often you can ‘cheap sex here’, before people ignore you. After the headlines of how ‘eggs will kill you, and men should never eat them’ (1980s), we hear about “eggs, nature’s wonderful food for a long life” and men should indeed eat them (a few years later). Nice, ‘sexy’ titles. But after a run of them, which we’ve all seen and seen getting increasingly shrill, the rational observer — with or without science background — concludes that it’s all a bunch of crap. And they’re none too careful about whether they mean the journalism or the science.

    That last fact is why I can’t disagree much with Larry Moran. (We’ve known each other electronically for some eons. And we’ve disagreed about a number of matters of opinion in that time. Then again, we’ve also agreed.) At this point, those rather few people — so few that outlets do not find them worth catering to — who still look to science journalists for their knowledge of science are being actively dis-served by the ‘make it sexy’.

    It also means that Chris’s warning about us scientists not liking what will happen when science journalists are gone is 20-30 years too late. We are already effectively there. Since finishing my degree (1989) almost all 3d discussion with people who discover that I work on or near climate, has been prompted by their scientific knowledge as derived from George Will (have to get a small blog note up myself on his latest iteration), Rush Limbaugh, or the like — not from the science pages of their paper, even among people who read newspapers.

  10. #10 Ashutosh
    February 18, 2009

    I personally think that while the Mooney-Nisbet concept of “framing” science has some merit, the title was extremely unfortunate, and gave lots of ammunition to many for lambasting the framework. I do agree with both Chris and Larry. The dissemination of science should be accurate and true to its nature. No science journalism I know gets to the level of Dawkins or Gould when it comes to explaining science. At the same time, as indicated above, most laymen are not exposed to Dawkins or Gould; at most they are exposed to the NYT and related sources. The trick is to pitch the science in a friendly and accessible enough manner to appeal to common laymen, without sexing it up or oversimplifying it. To this end, I don’t think science journalists need to carry out this task; most scientists who are good popular science writers would be able to do it. I think we need to define well what we mean by a “science journalist” before we proceed.

  11. #11 Chris C. Mooney
    February 18, 2009

    Thanks, everyone. I just want to note that while I certainly helped advance the “framing science” argument, I have moved on, and the death of science journalism is a very diffferent–though perhaps related–matter. It doesn’t involve the shape of science coverage at all–but rather, its vanishing from the mainstream/traditional media.

  12. #12 Pascal Lapointe
    February 20, 2009

    One comment was saying: Seriously, most of what passes for science journalism is so bad we will be better of without it.

    I was at the Chicago AAAS meeting, last week-end, when somebody on a symposium said that science journalists were a disappearing species. That’s exactly what I wrote with a question mark 11 years ago, but I am more and more convinced that if nothing is done, that will be the case.

    Well, not entirely, because of course, there will always be people calling themselves “science journalists”, but maybe they will be PIO paid by universities to write about science in the university newspaper, which is good, but not science journalism as we would wish it would be. And there probably always have Gibraltar rocks like Nova or National Geographic, but if that’s all that’s left…

    I think, Chris —hoping you’re still reading this many days after your original post— that the comments above are saying indirectly a lot about our problem, as science journalists: we don’t have many allies.
    1) Lot of people don’t see the difference between a serious science journalist and a journalist who do science once a month, between other things, and who do so badly. And so, those observers have no reason to believe that they should defend something
    2) Lot of people are convinced that scientists can do the job —hey, they do it in blogs, aren’t they?— and so, think that scientists could take the job (while continuing there REAL job) without any problem.

    Our own colleagues are not helping much either. Science is not a priority, so I don’t think journalists in general will protest loudly.

    And I find interesting that the World Association of Science journalists, has just published last week, at the AAAS meeting, a press release to protest against the CNN science newsteam’s death, two months after the fact. I bet CNN is seriously afraid now.

  13. #13 Angela Saini
    February 22, 2009

    I am a science journalist (in the UK) and I think it’s unfair to say we have been ignoring the problem of the funding crisis… The WCSJ has written letters of complaint regarding the problems at CNN, and as a reporter myself I have regularly blogged on the scandalous cuts to science journalism budgets. See:

    I think it is scientists, rather than science journalists, who seem to fear the cuts less than they should… Partly, perhaps, because they think mainstream science journalism isn’t highbrow enough anyway.

  14. #14 Pascal Lapointe
    February 22, 2009

    @Angela: I did not say that scientists fear the cuts. I think they don’t care. Or, what is worst, that they are convinced other scientists will eventually do the job that journalists are less and less doing.

    About science journalists, yes, I should have been more explicit. Some of them, like yourselve, are doing a great job trying to maintain the alert. But we don’t have a lot of allies, as I’ve juste written on your blog.

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