The Island of Doubt

In defence of science journalists

Defending the status quo is not my default position, particularly in my own field of science journalism, but I think someone should stand up for our side, considering the knocks we’re taking from various angles. Some of my fellow SciBloggers have stepped to the plate but as I’m one of the few actual science journalists on the roster, I’m going to take a swing at it.

First, I’m not going to insist that all scientists should learn how to be better communicators. That shouldn’t have to be stated explicitly. So should every professional. And that’s just a lazy response to complaints about journalists who don’t know enough to ask better questions. But it’s clear to me that many, through probably not most, cases of garbled communications between the lab and the front page aren’t really worth worrying about. In other words, chill out, you science-types. Sometime the distinction between an accurate representation of your work and how the media actually represents it is so subtle as to be inconsequential.

Take the fuss over the reporting on the melting north polar ice cap. Rob Loftis of Big Monkey, Helping Chalk, taking lead from the CJR, castigates science reporters — and, presumably, their editors — for writing that the ice is “continuing to melt all winter long” rather than a more precise description, which is that there has been a decline in how much ice builds up each winter.

Loftis identifies a New Scientist lead as worthy of worry:

The amount of Arctic sea ice is shrinking not only in the summer but in the winter as well, a NASA scientist reported on Wednesday. Researchers are linking the change directly to global warming.

Technically, the CJR and Loftis are correct, of course. But how does this change the primary message of the story? There’s less ice up there than there used to be. This is an extremely minor quibble. Yes, scientists make their careers sorting out such details. And yes, it would be better if the reporters had chosen their paraphrases more carefully. But in the big scheme of things, surely there are more important gaffes to worry about.

Another example can be found in the gnashing of teeth over what actually keeps Europe warmer than comparable latitudes in Siberia and Canada. Back in July, one Richard Seager, senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, wrote a piece in American Scientist, arguing that,contrary to widespread understanding, the Gulf Stream does not do the job. In fact, he calls the idea an “incorrect version expounded in the popular media–thus contributing to the erroneous beliefs of millions.”

This was followed by a letter in The Economist, references to another in Nature, and finally a good discussion by Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate. Much was made about the difference between the Gulf Stream, the Meridional Overturning Circulation, the deep-ocean conveyor, and thermohaline cycles.

Again, I recognize that to a specialist, the devil is in the details. But the public is probably never going to sort out the difference between meridional overturning, thermohaline conveyors, and deep-ocean circulation, or understand how much of the current is really wind-driven. Especially when there is a lack of consistency within the scientific community. The best we can hope to drive into their collective consciousness is that the Gulf Stream is part of a larger system that drives heat from the tropics to the northeastern waters of the Atlantic.

Carl Wunsch of MIT wrote the letter in Nature , in which he notes that

European readers should be reassured that the Gulf Stream’s existence is a consequence of the large-scale wind system over the North Atlantic Ocean, and of the
nature of fluid motion on a rotating planet. The only way to produce an ocean circulation without a Gulf Stream is either to turn off the wind system, or to stop the Earth’s rotation, or both.

As Gavin writes, appealing to his peers, not the press:

… these definitional issues may seem like pendantry at times, but there is often a more subtle point of understanding at issue. It would be nice if everyone used words in the exact same way, but until that happy utopia dawns, letters like Wunsch’s are probably needed every so often to keep us all on the straight and narrow.

And so they are. It is also important that journalists try to understand the subtleties better than their readers. But as long as people understand that the northeasterly transfer of heat can be affected — dramatically — by the introduction of fresh meltwater from the Greenland ice cap, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over the ultimate vs. proximate cause and precise terminology involved. (If I may be picky myself: Wunsch omitted to note that while the system may not stop, it could be slowed down…)

But, you might argue, surely you’re not defending slopping reporting?

Anything but. Instead, I think it fair to say that the overall state of science journalism has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, which is as long as people have been paying me to write. The fact that so many people are complaining about relatively minor issues suggests a general level of satisfaction with — or at least an absence of disgust for — the amout of attention and treatment that science is given in the mainstream media. (Not that there couldn’t be more…)

Compare the state of science journalism over the last five years with any other media field. Who would take issue with the suggestion that political reporters and editors have a lot of explaining to do with respect to the way they covered American’s decision to invade Iraq? The New York Times ran a several-thousand-word mea culpa on that one.

Sports? Anyone remember the story of Alan Eagleson, the top man in professional hockey management? Every decent hockey reporter had heard about how corrupt the guy was for decades. But it took an outsider writing for a small paper in Massachusetts, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, to expose mountains of fraud within the NHL. And is anyone going to argue that steroid use in professional sports wasn’t well known within the sports journalism community long before someone had the guts to break ranks and spill the beans?

Business? So uninterested in explaining to readers what really goes on in high finance were business journalists that until a few years ago, one could read 1,000 words without having a clue as to what it was that the businesses being covered actually did for their profits. And still rare is the business section that covers the business of business with anything approaching a skeptical mind.

So, yes, science journalism can be a sloppy thing. But stacked up against their colleagues in other sections, I’d say science journalists have improved markedly in recent times, and their failings today are far less consequential. Perfect? No. But I’ll go so far as to say that science journalists are among the best when it comes to getting the story right. So there.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    October 23, 2006

    Sports and business journalists have a powerful incentive to make sports and business, respectively, appear like clean, fair arenas of competition. If their audiences become disgusted enough, they will no longer want to read about the objects of their disgust.

    It seems like politics is the opposite–the more disgusted the audience becomes, the more they want to read. I think most people really just don’t want to read about science. I suspect that this is because our society values the cult of celebrity, and science is not about personalities.

  2. #2 Adam Hinterthuer
    November 5, 2006

    I must say that this posting rings very true to me right now. I’m currently a UW-Madison journalism student and taking a class called Science and Environmental Communication. We’re discussing all of the issues in science reporting, and these kinds of criticisms are common. I suspect it has a lot to do with the different goals of science and journalism. As a journalist, we’ve got to come up with an informative AND entertaining way to tell a story, otherwise no one would read it. Scientists get to obsess about details, but I would wager that they would rather have a large audience be exposed to the general details and overview of their work than solely a scientific audience unraveling the intricacies. Sometimes the implications and ramifications of scientific finds are more important to the world at large than the mechanics behind the scenes…