The Intersection

Ed Brayton, who I admire greatly, has a post that runs afoul of my “death of science journalism” sensitivity meter. You see, Ed came across a National Geographic story that says something dumb about “carbon dating.” Ed is surely right on the point of substance, and National Geographic should not have made the error. I certainly don’t mind him pointing that out; but when you also get something like this–“I’ve bitched and complained about the sorry state of popular science writing for years. Here’s another textbook example…”–I get uppity.

The sorry state of popular science writing is not a matter of errors in stories. These will always occur; they’re regrettable but unavoidable; and most important, they’re relatively trivial in comparison with the carnage currently happening in the science journalism world. The “sorry state of popular science writing” is a product of the ongoing collapse of the newspaper industry–the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its last copy, and its science writer Tom Paulson, a guy I greatly admire, is now out of work–and a variety of other factors that are structural and economic in nature: The decline of newspaper science sections (the Boston Globe is the latest to go), the near total lack of substantive science on cable news, and so forth.

Or to put it another way–the writer Ed excoriates made a mistake, but by God, at least she still has a job and cares about science. That’s the broader context that I believe must be highlighted before any more bashing of individual science writers is justified.

Comments

  1. #1 Ashutosh
    March 19, 2009

    To me this essentially seems to be a debate between two camps; one camp arguing that science journalism has gotten so inaccurate and sensationalized that we would be better off without it completely. The big problem with this approach is that while its criticism is well-taken, MSM science journalism for better or worse is still the main source of science for most laymen. Unless the critics of science journalism can provide an alternative source, their criticism falls hollow. The other camp of course contends that we should fix the system, not discard it, which seems more reasonable.

  2. #2 Dylan Otto Krider
    March 19, 2009

    For me, the issue is not whether a reporter makes a mistake (Lord knows, I do), but the magazine’s willingness to correct those mistakes. Correcting errors means you are striving to be accurate. The Washington Post is not.

  3. #3 Ashutosh
    March 19, 2009

    I just commented on Larry Moran’s post related to this. I empathize with your viewpoint. Economic difficulties sadly are rendering the whole debate about science journalism meaningless.

  4. #4 SLC
    March 19, 2009

    Maybe the writer, Ms. Tasha Eichenseher didn’t frame her article properly!

  5. #5 ArchAsa
    March 20, 2009

    While I agree with your standpoint, I really don’t think that it is the answer to act as an apologist for mistakes of this calibre by large, commercial magazines that make a lot of money based on their reputation as “serious”. It’s NG for crying out loud, not Springfield Weekly.

    If science journalism is ever going to get the funding and time it deserves then it must be more than mere repetition of barely understood or completely misunderstood sciency words. I mean – if “I still care about science” is a defense, then we could just scoop up any half-wit on the street who makes that claim and give them carte blanche to write what they like.

    Beating down on mistakes like this is the public’s way of telling Editorial staff that we take note of these slip ups and expect better in the future, or their reputation will suffer. The mistake made in this case was so glaringly obvious I would be surprised (and depressed) to learn that the person who wrote it has any kind of degree in higher education. (Determining how many years old an animal is through carbon dating is something anyone who calls hem/herself a science journalist should know is not possible – never mind even that carbon dating doesn’t work on fossils millions of years old!)

    So yes, we should never forget the crass economic realities, but we should also use examples as this as a way of showing how important it IS to hire competent writers. Why else would the papers pay for this?

  6. #6 Jon Winsor
    March 20, 2009

    Nice techie bashing piece in the SF Chronicle. Sounds about right…

  7. #7 Wes
    March 20, 2009

    In Ed’s defense, I’m sure he’s aware of the broader economic situation, but maybe he just didn’t think it relevant in this particular instance. Remember, Ed’s a journalist, too, but his blog’s primary focus is more on honesty and accuracy in reporting (hence his constant criticisms of WingNutDaily and Fox News).

    And Carl Zimmer has been making a big deal of the lack of fact-checking in media reports on science for some time now, so it seems Ed isn’t alone in seeing a problem here.

    Not that your point isn’t valid. I just think that Ed and Carl have legitimate points also. But I don’t think it’s wise to divide this issue into “camps” and portray them as adversarial, as a commenter above did. That’s what happened with the whole “framing” debate, and all anybody got from it was a bunch of bickering and name-calling.

  8. #8 Christopher Mims
    March 21, 2009

    Another thing that Ed doesn’t know is that most online news outlets (yes, NG’s coverage of science online is relatively new) are staffed by folks who are relatively inexperienced. I know — I used to be one of them. It’s going to take them a while to mature, editorially. In this way, outlets like NG.com are actually a part of the solution, not the problem — as newspapers disappear, websites are taking over.

    In the process, unfortunately, a lot of the most experienced writers lose their jobs.

    Another point that’s probably relevant is that the online news cycle is so fast that these stories are not fact-checked the way a piece in, say, the New Yorker is. I’m sure if even the mighty Ed Brayton were asked to cover a dozen different areas of science under tight deadline pressure, he’d eventually make a dumb mistake. That or quit in disgust at his salary. :)

  9. #9 Robert Grumbine
    March 21, 2009

    Ashutosh: Could you provide a source to support your claim that MSM science journalists are the main source of public information on science? My experience is that if it is MSM, the source is not a science journalist — c.f. George Will, Rush Limbaugh, etc. And when not MSM, the source is again, not a science journalist, or even science blog. The prime sources appear to be talk radio hosts, editorial writers, and partisan blogs from non-scientists.

    But if you have research to support your claim, I’m appreciate it. A reason to be more optimistic would be welcome.

    If it should turn out that my perception is correct, however, then some change of emphasis from Chris’s bias is probably needed. If the majority of national view on science is not from MSM science journalists, then it is important that whatever small fraction who do rely on MSM science journalists be able to get accurate reporting. If it’s no more accurate than drafting the style section pets writer and sending them to interview the latest quantum mechanic, why should the paper have separate science reporters, and why should the quantum mechanic (et al) even talk to the pets reporter?

    Something that teachers learn pretty fast is that the hardest thing to do is unteach errors people learned elsewhere — George Will’s errors included.

  10. #10 Matti K.
    March 22, 2009

    Chris; “The sorry state of popular science writing is not a matter of errors in stories. These will always occur; they’re regrettable but unavoidable…”

    Errors will always happen, but they can be minimized with careful work. However, that takes time and time is money. It may be that the employers in today’s tight economic situation demand more quantity than quality from their science writers. Why should such state of matters be beyond criticism?

    Chris: “..and most important, they’re relatively trivial in comparison with the carnage currently happening in the science journalism world.”

    Maybe so, but these two things have nothing to do with each other. Employers are not sacking journalists because some scientists are criticising them. They sack them because they feel they cannot afford them.

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