Mike the Mad Biologist

This post might have to get filed under “careful what you wish for”, but Martin Robbins’ latest column about the cozy relationship between science journalists and the scientists they cover seems to have struck a nerve, if The Twitter is any indication. Here’s a good snippet:

Churnalism is a real problem in science reporting, to the extent that it feels a bit boring to keep going on about it, but the wider issue is this lack of actual, well, journalism. As I said in that piece; if journalists aren’t contributing original reporting, or providing context, or challenging statements made by university press officers, or even just adding informed opinion, then they’re not really doing journalism. Connie goes further still:

I have this thesis which is… science journalists have forgotten how to be journalists. They’re actually science communicators, and they go into the job and… the job was to tell you what science was doing and help you understand science, and I think that’s an incredibly important function, but don’t call yourself a science journalist if that’s what you’re doing, call yourself a science blogger, call yourself a science communicator, but if you’re going to call yourself a journalist then behave like a journalist, dig for stories, ask questions of science, ask questions of scientists, look at numbers, look at figures, and do what journalism does.

This applies equally to blogging and traditional media. I would be willing to bet the contents of my wallet – £3.50, a library card and a photograph of Carl Sagan’s head on a woman’s body I printed off the internet – that most science writers/bloggers/journalists if asked would admit that they are fans of science. I certainly am. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are times when it means that coverage lacks some much-needed rigour.

We’re always explaining new cures, explaining new science, but where are the guys who are really digging down, where are our Ivan Oranskys, where are our Gary Schweitzers, we don’t have them. It’s all very much “here’s a new cancer drug”, and I’m not knocking that, it’s really important, but actually we’re in a very deficit model of journalism at the moment.

A while ago, I argued that how science is funded was a critical element missing from science journalism:

Nonetheless, how the decisions to fund science are made, which delimit who will conduct research, and what areas will researched, is important. To put this another way, the NIH, which has a $20 billion budget, is one of the least scrutinized agencies out there. Sure, sometimes a congressman gets a bug up his ass about some project or another, which results in news coverage. Likewise, the amount of the total NIH budget gets coverage. But how that money is allocated–and most allocation is done by administrative fiat, not Congressional edict, except with very broad brushstrokes–is almost never covered.

I can’t think of another federal agency with a similar sized budget that lacks routine, comprehensive public scrutiny. Think of all of the shit the National Endowment of the Arts catches with its $145 million budget.

How science is funded–and what that means in terms of translating research into applied results–would be a fantastic story, and one that is woefully neglected. There’s a niche out there waiting to be filled….

Comments

  1. #1 Neil Craig
    June 30, 2011

    Most “science journalists” have their qualifications in journalism and are largely ignorant of science. Beyond that they all serve the interests of those who pay them who are almost always part of the establishment. If they are told not to ever allow facts to intrude on their “the debate is over and catastrophic gloabl warming is real” agenda then they don’t. As we can see.

  2. #2 Ender
    July 1, 2011

    Most “science journalists” have their qualifications in journalism and are largely ignorant of science.

    Yes.

    Beyond that they all serve the interests of those who pay them who are almost always part of the establishment.

    Yes.

    If they are told not to ever allow facts to intrude on their “the debate is over and catastrophic gloabl warming is real” agenda then they don’t. As we can see.

    Lol no. Are you seriously suggesting there are no anti-global warming articles in the news? No “Here’s some false balance suggesting anti-AGW supporters have a point” articles?

    Pull the other one.

  3. #3 Wow
    July 1, 2011

    Neil is just a whinging little twit, bemoaning the fact that they’re unimportant and (worse to their mind) wrong.

  4. #4 Neil Craig
    July 2, 2011

    Wnder I am certainly suggesting that there are very few. That, for example, for every article promoting Gore’s lying film you will find almost none from the same paers admitting that they had been promoting lies. For every article over the last 20 years saying that within a few years we would see catastrophic temperature increases and the melting of \Greenland we have seen virtually no apologies saying that we haven’t. That the climategate scandal was reported widely on the net long before the minor and confusing mentions in the MSM.

    Wow has, on previous threads proven himself to be a contemptibleliar. His response here is not to what I have said but to this series of questions which neither he nor any other alarmist has been able to give a truthful and constructive answwer to:

    These 7 questions seem to go to the heart of the warming scare since if any of them cannot be aswered in a way that supports alarmism then there is no case to answer. For some reason Mr Mann has declined to answer them privately (as indeed has every other warming alarmist asked:

    1 – Do you accept Professor Jones’ acknowledgement that there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995?

    2 – Do you accept that the rise in CO2 has improved crop growth by around 10% & that the consequent influence on world hunger is more beneficial than any currently detectable destructive action of alleged global warming?

    3 – Do you accept that the Hockey Stick, as originally presented by Mann and the IPCC contained calculations that were inconsistent with good science and that Mann’s refusal to make calculations and algorithms available for checking were inconsistent with scientific principle?

    4 – Do you accept that many claims from people and organisations on the alarmist side, from Al Gore’s claim that South Sea islands had already been abandoned due to rising sea levels and Pachauri’s claim that any dispute that the Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2025 was “voodoo” were untrue and insupportable even at the time.

    5 – Do you accept that there are a number of geoengineering solutions which arithmetically can be shown would work (including stratospheric dust, the geritol solution or even just replacing CO2 burning with nuclear power) which would work at a small fraction of the cost of the war against fire, or in the case of nuclear, at negative cost?

    6 – Do you accept that the refusal of alarmists to denounce fraud or telling of obvious untruths. on their side, or even its active support or covering up, detracts from the credibility of the entire movement?

    7 – Of the alleged “consensus” – can you name 2 scientists, out of the roughly 60%, worldwide who are not paid by the state, who support catastrophic warming & if not can you explain how something can be a consensus when no member of a subset of 60% of the alleged consenting, consent?

    If any of these cannot be answered the case for catastrophic warming falls. If 3,4,6 or 7 cannot we are dealing with deliberate fraud.

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    July 2, 2011

    Neil, you’ve been answered here: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/06/michele_bachmann_for_president_1.php#comment-4172663 Yet you post the same stupid set of questions again? Do you think no one is paying attention?

  6. #6 sailor
    July 2, 2011

    Thank you Stephanie Z, you have just saved me the trouble of writing a reply. These guys really behave like ignorant creationists and take no note of the evidence.

  7. #7 Neil Craig
    July 3, 2011

    Stephanie youu must be aware, from the fact that Greg cenosred my reply if nothing else, that these “answers” are a pack of lies and that no factual and responsive response has been made ANYWHERE on “scienceblogs” or elsewhere. If an answer consistent with alarmism and truth cannot be made to all 7 questions then, obviously, catastrophic warming is a false scare and if there is none to 3,4,6 or 7 then it is deliberate fraud.

    So far no such answers but I await seeing if anybody van mange something that doesn’t depend on ad homs, obscenity or censorship.

  8. #8 Always Curious
    July 3, 2011

    I think it would be interesting to know an historical perspective. 20-30 years ago, who were the most credible sources on global warming, what were their predictions, and how have said predictions panned out thus far? From the same era, who had the most accurate predictions and how have their ideas developed in the intervening time?

    I don’t know a whole lot about global warming, but it seems that the anti-global warming side really only have this: screaming doubt inducing questions. A little history would be instructive to go alongside the science. Denialists won’t listen, but undecided people might. If such a reference already exists, I’d love to be pointed to it. Keep up the good posts Mike!

  9. #9 Jesse
    July 4, 2011

    I think — speaking as a reporter who likes to over science because it’s genuinely interesting — there are a couple of things to be aware of.

    In many cases, there isn’t much to say in terms of the kind of journalism they’re talking about there. I mean, when I write about new research in physics, I might talk to several experts to see how important it is (and how credible) and see if there is a story there. Sometimes there isn’t. And for many hard-science questions the funding isn’t so relevant. I mean, the results of experiments at CERN don’t depend on who funds them, ‘cuz atoms and quarks don’t care.

    And there aren’t too many science stories that have a “both sides” argument that can be made, at least not in something like physics. (There are a few, but they are pretty esoteric). I don’t think anyone disagrees that quantum theory, for instance, works.

    Now, we get into biology, medical science, and that kind of stuff and you have a point. One of the big issues in covering medicine is understanding how research gets funded. Even if you don’t have a science background (I do, at least for part of college, but that’s not as common among science and technology journalists as it might be) you can figure out whether research funded by Merck might have an angle, as we say.

    But that isn’t really covering the science, per se. Though it certainly touches on it.

    I think with reporting on the environment it gets even more complicated because you aren’t dealing with questions that are as straightforward as in, say, physics. I’ve done that kind of work and it’s just plain hard to parse out who is funding what and how credible a scientist is in his field unless you are intimately familiar. I don’t have a particular science field as a beat — nobody does, really– so while I can say with a good deal of confidence who might be credible in physics I can’t do that in biology.

    Now, ordinarily, if I were working a story for the Atlantic with loads of time and the promise of a fat check at the end, that’s not such a big issue. But when I have to put stuff together in a day it’s just plain harder to do. So the structure of our business kind of works against the kind of journalism you are talking about. This isn’t just true for science journalism by the way, it’s true across our field and no reporter I know likes it.

    Neil — you’ve trotted out the same questions before. The rebuttals are in (for the questions whose very premises aren’t messed up). But I’ll tell you this: if global warming was a complete hoax there wouldn’t be a scientific consensus on it the way there is. I mean it would have to mean that every single climate scientist in the freaking world was in on it. And no, no scientist “makes money” off a hypothesis — your research gets funded, but it isn’t like you get to drive a Ferrari to work.

    Other than that, the basic physics are so well-established that it’s simply silly to argue. What, CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas? So Mars is not at near- 10K on the nightside because…? Venus is at 730K Because…? If you drop tons of CO2 into the air and do it faster than it gets taken up, you add total CO2 to the air! FFS, this isn’t complicated. Since CO2 persists in a way that methane and water vapor do not, it becomes a problem.

  10. #10 Neil Craig
    July 5, 2011

    Curious the first significant public announcement of catastrophic warming was Hansen’s testimony to Congress. Here is an interview with a participant who explains the tricjs they got up to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hotpolitics/interviews/wirth.html
    Hansen predicted a continuing rise of 0.2C per decade which has not been borne out.

    Before 30 years ago the scare story was about a new ice age. Hansen was involved in that too.

    If you are going to pose as an impartial truthseeking journalist it would be as well not to use offensive terms like “denier”. The term is meanigless in that everybodty denies something – alarmists, for example, with the exception of one of Clinton’s presidential aides, deny that alarmism is fraudulent. The term is deliberately intended to give a false comparison with Holocaust deniers.

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