Watchdogs, sniff this: What investigative science journalism can investigate


Ed Yong, echoed by Mike the Mad biologist PhysioProf asks what the heck investigative science journalism would look like. I hope to write more extensively on this soon. In the meantime, a few observations:

To ponder this question -- and to do investigative reporting -- I think it helps to have a sense of the history of science, which embeds in a writer or observer a sense of critical distance and an eye for large forces at work beneath the surface. Machinations in government surprise no one who has studied the history of government and politics. Likewise with science.

Science -- the search for empircal answers to important, testable questions -- is an extremely worthy endeavor. But that endeavor is always in danger of being compromised by both the inevitable conflicting interests that every scientist has (which range from pride, allegiance to ideas, ambition, money on or under the table) and by broad cultural forces that frame both the questions asked and the reading of the evidence the asking generates. As in politics, these human and cultural forces often push even the most well-intentioned efforts off track -- and the unprincipled into big trouble. Find an example, judiciously dig, lucidly write, and -- if you're lucky -- publish, and you've got investigative science journalism.

To see what such looks like when applied, consider my own article and blog posts on the PTSD Wars, Philip Dawdy's tireless watchdogging of the pharma industry; or, if you've a taste for longer work, Horace Freeland Judson's "The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science." (Judson's book is really history, but brings the peel-the-onion spirit of investigative journalism to bear, and draws on many good examples of investigative journalism as well.) Other examples an approaches out there; these just leap readily to mind.

I find it odd that these or other examples, particularly in coverage of pharma by the several bloggers and reporters who do that well, didn't spring immediately to the minds of people pondering what investigative science journalism looked like. The discussions at Ed's and other blogs on this tended to focus on how to do investigative reporting of discoveries or results. Discoveries are the tip. Sometimes the ice beneath is good. Sometimes it's rotten -- or the whole thing is just styrofoam, patched together or even elaborately faked to buttress up an unsupported argument.

That said, I don't see why a given writer can't be both watchdog and, if not "cheerleader," then a judicious but enthusiastic explainer. Why shouldn't good science be admired? No reason you can't do that -- while calling bullshit when you see things done otherwise.

Finally, it strikes me -- a beta observation, as I've not scanned the entire blogosphere for this, and may be suffering a selection bias -- that the science blogosphere could improve its watchdog function by giving as much attention to deep-running stories about problems in science as it presently does to problems in science reporting. I'm not suggesting we let lousy science reporting slide; we need watchdogs on science reporting. But I fear that as a group we sci bloggers (if I can be considered a marginal member of the club) suffer from some of the navel-gazing tendency that infects the broader press, which often writes about itself and its own problems while ignoring bigger, more important things going on elsewhere.

My own sci-blogger newsfeeds lately (again: possible selection bias at work) have been filled with posts about science journalism and posts about lousy framing of science, but not so much with posts about deeper running issues. (Admittedly, often the two cross, as with the reporting and meta-reporting on the genetics of schizophrenia.) But it troubles me that we seem to be giving more attention to hand-wringing about our own reporting quandaries than to, say, the present flap over the DSM-V debacle,  the country's preparations (or lack thereof) for the likely return of the swine flu this fall, the VA's disastrous approach to PTSD, or the warped evidence being used in the health-care debate. Here are stories where science meets culture, with much in the balance; and while they're getting some good attention by policy wonks, it seems to me they're going underexamined by the science blogopshere.


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Hello David Dobbs,

I am not particularly a fan of science - certainly its popular idealization - or science reporting, but I care enough about life to offer some suggestions.

First, I think you are missing the big picture. Pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated (SI) and a copy of Scientific American (SA). Both fine examples of their respective journalism genres. Note the small differences - SI is funnier and has much more visceral photos and SA is more abstract. Then note the big differences - SI is freely critical of it subject matter, SA almost never. SI will grill individual athletes, teams, and even the rules or mentality of a given sport. SA unless extremely pressed - like with the Korean cloning fraud case - does almost no criticism. It is in the vicinity of one of those alumni magazines (worship-vehicles).

How could you possibly not mention priorities when suggesting watchdogging? How many decades have gone by now in which the biggest living import of modern physics research has been the plots of science fiction movies? Never mind the neo-religious hype and the highly speculative nature of much of modern physics research, why aren't journalists asking the 'who cares' question? Also you might investigate the roadkill associated with the arrogance and rigidity of modern physics - people like David Bohm.

How well has academic science responded to our growing sustainability crisis? How many physics departments have as much research in terrestrial climate as they do in extra-terrestrial climates?

The problem underneath much of the coverage is that the "rightful place of science" amongst intellectuals in our society is effectually worship. "Science" is a modern (bad) religion in this sense, an unquestioned authority. I would be less surprised to see an NYT editorial begging Dick Cheney to run for President in 2012 than I would to see NYT run a serious critical article on science.

Would journalists such as yourself step outside the medical science box to consider the health import of simply changing to a plant-based diet? McDougall's approach,
or Esselstyn's,
are as health-potent as they are ignored by medical science and thus the associated journalists. In your case there are plenty of neuron-relevant advantages too. See for example McDougall's coverage of MS (following up Swank).

Because it is out-of-bounds for science, though, it is effectively not covered by science journalists. The pockets of closure and incompetence in science are usually mirrored by journalists.

As a closing addendum, I address climate science. If you bothered to follow some local climate metrics - like heating degree days - which climate scientists should have encouraged the public to do, then you would have confidence that the predictions are so far roughly on track. You can do your own science to see for yourself. Also climate science is really on the fringes of academia and the public should be very happy that there is a crew that cares enough about the topic to dedicate their work-lifes to it.

By Ted Christopher (not verified) on 08 Jul 2009 #permalink

Very thought provoking post. I do hope you will write more on this topic. I agree with you that it would be useful to the general public for us (scientists, science bloggers) to spend perhaps less time bemoaning poor science writing and more time exploring and explicating the important and relevant science issues that really matter to that general public.