We Need Scientific Thinking, Not Scientific Commentary

Thursday's tempest-in-a-teapot was kicked off by an interview with Dan Vergano in which he suggests science reporting is a "ghetto:"

The idea, and it comes from the redoubtable Tom Hayden, is that science reporting has largely become a secret garden walled off, and walling itself off, from the rest of the world. Instead of reporting on the scientific aspects of news stories — whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation, whether Peak Oil is a real concern — we write pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks. All that stuff is great, but it is a news diet of ice cream and cookies without any sirloin. And it has contributed to the trade being regarded as a low-prestige, low-value part of news.

Predictably enough, this upset a bunch of people who write "pretty entertainments," and led to a bunch of discussion about whether or not that stuff is worthwhile. Equally predictably, I end up thinking the whole thing is kind of off base.

On the most superficial level, my initial reaction was to be shocked-- SHOCKED!-- that a guy who writes about health and environmental issues for a major newspaper thinks that people who write about health and environmental issues should have more prominence and prestige in the mainstream media. That's a ground-breaking scoop right there, and in an equally shocking follow-up, we'll report that English professors think people who teach literature should have higher academic status, and the night cleaning crew thinks that people who sweep the floors and empty the trash deserve some goddamn respect, y'know?

In comments, Vergano even admits that it's not really a coincidence that the kind of stories he lauds happen to be the sort of thing he writes about, while the stuff he dismisses as fluff is the sort of thing he doesn't care for. But that's not really a basis for generalizing into a global statement about science writing as a whole. I mean, as far as that goes, health reporting and environmental stories bore me and I could do with less of that, while I think exploding stars are pretty cool and would happily read more. About the only thing Vergano and I agree about is that there's too much writing about duck dicks.

(Well, that, and the absurdity of David Brooks explaining neuroscience (in a bit I didn't quote). But that's just because David Brooks explaining anything at all is breathtakingly inane.)

But, you know, people seem to like duck-penis stories; there's no accounting for tastes. Not everything I find pointless is actually a blight on the media landscape.

But that criticism is maybe a little petty. Maybe there's more than self-interest in this, and he has a point about the failure to connect science in a concrete way to the essential concerns of ordinary citizens. Maybe science reporting has lost its relevance to the things that are important to daily life, and that's why dedicated science bureaus are on the wane.

I mean, after all, the lack of concrete importance to daily life is why major national newspapers are shutting down their sports and entertainment sections, right? I mean, it's not like USA Today would dedicate much reporting to, say, the birth of a British aristocrat, since that will have an utterly insignificant effect on the lives of their core audience of people staying in mid-range hotels reading the paper at the breakfast buffet. Oh, wait.

Concrete relevance is great, and all, but news media report irrelevant garbage all the time. In fact, the usual complaint about the mainstream media is not that they're overly focused on hard-hitting pieces explaining the concrete effects of important issues but that, well, they're peddling drivel about celebrities and made-up pseudo-scandals. You know, pretty entertainments.

The fact is, media will report and promote anything that sells, even if it's irrelevant drivel. Possibly especially if it's irrelevant drivel, as irrelevant drivel is much cheaper to produce than actual reporting. Science writing isn't low prestige because science writers fail to make it relevant, it's low prestige because not enough people care to buy it. Vergano has the causality backwards.

But going even beyond that, let's look again at his examples of stories that ought to have a scientific component:

whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation, whether Peak Oil is a real concern

There's basically no science to any of that. I mean, I suppose if you consider economics a science, the Quantitative Easing question is scientific, but that needs to be addressed by an economist or economics reporter, and those generally aren't found in science departments. I suppose you could find an ex-physicist to take that one on, if you really want somebody with a science background, but it's hardly essential.

And the other questions are not really more scientific. The success of Iran's nuclear program doesn't hinge on scientific issues-- nobody in 2013 is all that confused about what it takes to build a nuclear weapon-- but political ones: Will international sanctions work to prevent them from getting the necessary materials? Will Israel take military action against Iranian nuclear sites? Will diplomatic negotiations produce a deal acceptable to all parties? That's stuff that needs commentary and analysis from people with a knowledge of the politics and culture of the relevant countries.

I mean, yes, you can use the Iranian nuclear program as a hook to talk about the science of nuclear weapons, but you can also use the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a hook to talk about the Zionist movement in the post-WWII era. You don't see a lot of front-page stories on Zionism, though, because it's pretty much faded into the background. It's not totally irrelevant, but the central issue right now doesn't have all that much to do with what was going on in 1946. In the same way, what's going on with Iran doesn't have all that much to do with the technical details of uranium enrichment. The physics just isn't a big enough part of the process to demand input from a physicist, or even a science writer with a physics background.

Likewise, Peak Oil is a story with mostly political content-- there's a bit of science in the question of how much oil is still in the ground, and in the possible replacement technologies, but most of the stuff that matters is just not scientific. The important questions have to do with the implications of running out of oil-- what will this do to OPEC countries? How will the transition affect our economy? Are we investing enough in alternative energy? This is the most scientific of the three, and even there I'm less interested in hearing from, say, a petroleum geologist than an economist or a Middle East expert.

These issues have some scientific content deep down, but they're not really science stories, save in the sense that everything is a science story because deep down, we're all governed by the Standard Model of particle physics. When it comes to what matters for understanding what's going on, even people with significant scientific experience don't have all that much more to offer than David Brooks. Subject matter knowledge in science just isn't helpful.

Which is not to say that science has nothing to offer to these problems-- science has a lot to offer. But it has nothing to do with the specific credentials of the people writing stories about the issues in question-- I don't particular care whether the people reporting these stories have a scientific background or not. I mean, if the New York Times called me up and offered me an editorial page slot to talk about the physics of nuclear weapons, I wouldn't turn it down, but I'm not outraged at their failure to do so.

What I do think we need, though, is a more scientific approach to thinking about these issues, and dozens of others. We need people who approach problems the way a scientist does: with confidence that the questions you are asking have definite answers, and that you can evaluate those answers through the collection of evidence. You can at least make a stab at answering the Peak Oil question by collecting data about oil reserves, pumping rates, commodity prices, and so on, and you can absolutely determine when somebody is completely talking out their ass about this stuff. And you can report that.

The problems of the modern American media and political culture can, in large part, be traced to an inability or unwillingness to approach the world with a scientific mindset. But this isn't a problem that can be attributed to the tiny handful of science writers on staff having an unseemly fascination with avian genitalia-- it's a culture-wide problem, a failure to employ what is, after all, a defining characteristic of our species. What we need is not scientists and science writers speaking out on stories that are, fundamentally, outside their area of expertise. Instead, we need people with relevant expertise to think and act more like scientists, and the same for the consumers of mainstream media. This isn't something the requires advanced degrees or scientific subject matter expertise, just a particular mental stance that has somehow become unfashionable.

But, to return somewhat to an earlier theme, I am sure you will be shocked-- SHOCKED!-- to learn that the guy writing a book about scientific thinking in everyday life thinks the problem is we need more scientific thinking...

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Amusing and on the money. For what it's worth, I have spent the last 12 years organizing twice-a-month public forums on science and gone to pains to attract people across the religious, political, and cultural spectra in hopes of inculcating an appreciation for scientific thinking and its fruits. (See http://www.nebscience.org/) We've got four university scientists who attend faithfully (if you will) and a kaleidoscope of characters from the skeptical public: a Tea Partier, a doubting dentist, an immigrant welder, a couple of retired ministers and more, all of whom attend regularly. My drop in the bucket of better thinking -- I hope.

Cheers and good luck,


By Clay Farris Naff (not verified) on 02 Aug 2013 #permalink

As a card-carrying writer of stunningly useless astronomy stories, I liked Dan's idea of the science ghetto. Part of the reason was that he probably spends his days trying to get a damn science story into the paper at all let alone on the front page above the fold. Part of the reason was that I can't get the big general interest magazines to pay the least attention to science and the problem -- if not my writing or story ideas which of course it could be -- is that science is in its little ghetto. Dan proposed one fix. We all agree the bigger fix is societal. Which, fine, somebody fix it, I can't.

By Ann Finkbeiner (not verified) on 02 Aug 2013 #permalink

Nate Silver seems to have made quite a nice spot for himself by taking a mostly scientific--or at least mathematical--approach to politics. And it looks like he wants to broaden the range of issues he wants to deal with.

By Whomever1 (not verified) on 02 Aug 2013 #permalink

The second to last paragraph says it all. The answer is somewhere in between radically changing our educational system and having the most attractive scientists start to put out a series of sex tapes.

By William Hendrixson (not verified) on 02 Aug 2013 #permalink

For an example of science writing done right, look no further than IEEE Spectrum. The articles are not overly technical, but neither do the writers pander to the supposed ignorance of their audience the way that a mainstream news article will. Obviously, Spectrum articles don't operate under the same constraints as a writer submitting to USA Today will, but they at least provide a glimpse of what high-quality, relevant science writing looks like.

So maybe "How to Teach the Scientific Method to Your Gerbel." is in your future.
Hope this doesn't sound snarky, good post as usual.

By Kevin Brown (not verified) on 03 Aug 2013 #permalink

Like quoting politician so and so, emphasizing ecological sustainability and economic growth practically in the same sentence.
No journalist ever seems to think; hey, but if we're over the edge of sustainable expansion already, how can any more economic growth be ecologically sustainable?

By informania (not verified) on 05 Aug 2013 #permalink