Uncritical Science News

In Nature, Colin Macilwain says science reporting is too uncritical:

[Science journalism] converts original scientific findings, via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities, into a steady stream of largely uncritical stories. … In stark contrast to proper investigations of issues such as public corruption, corporate maleficence or industrial health and safety — essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts.  Some science reporters are uneasy about this situation, but most accept it. … Most [scientists] seem to be largely content with a system that disguises the very human process of scientific discovery as a seamless stream of ingenious and barely disputed ‘breakthroughs’. Like other elites, researchers feel no great yearning to be held to account by the press. ….

There is a need for dedicated newspaper sections, radio and TV programmes, more akin to existing sports coverage, that can provide detailed, critical assessment of the scientific enterprise for people who really like science.  Reporters and editors could then engage with sets of findings and associated issues of real societal importance in the news pages, asking the hard questions about money, influence and human frailty that much of today’s science journalism sadly ignores. …

The machine … serves the short-term interests of its participants. … Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler. … Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process.

Yes, science reporting is less critical than political, business, or sports reporting.  Since the media is very competitive, readers/viewers must prefer it that way.  But why?

First, we are far more suspicious of bids for dominance-status than for prestige-status.  We see politicians and businesses as threatening to dominate us and so we are eager to watch out for illicit power grabs.  In contrast, we see science, arts, literature, etc. as only awarding prestige, not power, and we are less worried about illicit prestige grabs.  We mainly care about prestigious stuff as ways to see who is more impressive, and a tricky “illicit” prestige grab is itself pretty impressive, so little harm done.

Also, we like some critical reporting on sports, music, and literature because we are expected to choose sides in these areas as part of our identity.  We are supposed to have our favorite band, team, or author, and so we appreciate news rehearsing arguments we might offer for or against such things

But we are not supposed to have favorite positions on science disputes.  Science is more like our communal religion, something that distinguishes us advanced insiders from those ignorant outsiders, and we are eager to signal being part of us and not them.  It is like how, aside from worrying about power-grabs by our military leaders, we are not each supposed to have a different favorite war strategy for our troops – that would be divisive and we prefer to show that we are united against them.

Sciences of politics or business are of course the obvious exception, as we suspect illicit power in politics or business might be supported by illicit scientists.  So we do see critical reporting in these sort of sciences.

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  • many people have a visceral first-person experience of sports or music. they were never good enough, or exhibited enough virtuosity, to get very far, but they imagine that the professionals are simply many standard deviations better than they are, not a qualitatively different breed. by contrast, many people have basically no real experience of science. yes, they have taken science classes, but those are qualitatively different than *science* in its normal state of production. so most people wouldn’t benefit from deep critical science stories since they lack the requisite foundations to gain any value out of such pieces. this applies to disciplines where you don’t have much experience with in relation to the sciences; your network of background facts is too thin for you to differentiate hype from stellar substance.

    • michael vassar

      By the way, my roughly ten years of experience with martial arts and ten years of yoga leads me to believe that people are mistaken to believe that the good musicians aren’t a different breed. About 8 years after taking up yoga things changed pretty radically over a period of less than a year. No similar shift happened with martial arts, but in retrospect I can clearly see that it could have. I assume that competent professional athletes and musicians have such shifts in their experience of their activities when they are quite young, and so don’t remember, as I did with analytical reasoning, but just as I had such a transition as an adult with yoga, my wife Aruna clearly had one with analytical thought (years AFTER doing well in a Columbia University bachelor’s program), so that is also possible.

  • bcg

    Isn’t a better explanation for why we don’t have favorite positions on science and war strategies because these have objective measures of superiority, that they can be tested? It seems they would have this in common with “favorite stocks” or “favorite racehorses.”

  • Norman

    The key here is “Science is more like our communal religion […]”. The priests are always right, especially when they contradict each other.

  • Trevor

    I will admit that this is somewhat of an aside, but I just couldn’t let this particular statement go:

    Since the media is very competitive, readers/viewers must prefer [science reporting] that way.

    What absolute drivel. Me-thinks the “communal religion” most apparent here is belief in market efficiency.

    Actually, this statement doesn’t even make sense if I’ve drunk the efficient market Kool-Aid:

    1) If we’re talking about the US. There are perhaps six major players (if we throw CBS and GE a bone). That doesn’t sound like a particularly competitive and hence not particularly efficient market.

    2) The statement ignores the growing trend of people voting with their dollars *against* media outlets for the first time in the history of the market. Television viewing is down amongst specific demographics and news viewing is down more generally. Newspaper/magazine reading is down amongst the key market demographic of people with pulses who breath. Spending *less* money is an awfully odd way of rewarding a market for giving you what you want.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      Your points contradict each other. The “six major players” in your first point aren’t just competing with each other. They are also competing with the “growing trend” in your second point.

      It’s not like people stopped consuming media. They’re just getting their media from free online sources. It’s the existence of these sources that keeps life in the mainstream media competitive. So it is still a mystery why these outlets would choose not to publish more critical science journalism if that’s what people really want.

  • One of the most important science stories at the moment is climate change. Lots of the coverage of the science of climate change transcends criticism; it’s positively hostile. Media take sides, like they do on political stories. It’s not just taking sides on the political questions of climate change, either – the more frequent debate is about whether it is happening at all, even though the scientific consensus points one way, rather than about how to respond to it. So if “science is more like our communal religion”, it’s a communal religion with a heck of a lot of powerful apostates.

    Science and technology are often subtle in the ways they promote and harm different people’s interests. Nobody reported on containerisation in world trade as a cause of future outsourcing and port unemployment. Climate change is more obvious this way, so it’s more often debated. But there’s just not a lot to say about how scientists do things that only affect most people at two or three degrees of separation.

    Salience matters more than hypothetical divisions of status.

  • Ann

    Perhaps it is more that we don’t feel qualified to have favourite positions on science – we want someone to do that for us.

    I also think that we may be at the beginning of a change now – that there are more critical viewpoints opening up – such as Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian – and also there seems to be a growing interest in science and skepticism.

    Perhaps one benefit of vaccine denialism and climate change scepticism is that more people are beginning to see they have to learn to make judgements for themselves on these issues.

  • razib, do most people feel that have a visceral sense of how to run a large business or political organization? They like hard-hitting critical reporting on those.

    bcg, testing war strategies is at least as expensive as testing business strategies.

    Trevor, I count blogs, magazines, etc. as part of “media.” Can you point us to any particular collusion, where readers want something but the media conspires to keep it away?

    Edward, since climate change is seen having big business and political implications, many want critical reporting there. Others prefer not, to affirm their faith in science. Yes it matters how obvious is the connection between any part of science and wider business and political implications.

    Ann, but why do we feel qualified to have opinions in all the other areas we know so little about? E.g., business regulation.

    • You conflate a dislike of critical reporting with a dislike of hostile reporting that disguises itself as science. Some say “they are irresponsible to publish attacks on UEA”, but most also believe “they are still wrong, look at this NASA evidence that corroborates the case”.

  • Ann

    Maybe in the other areas we assume that common sense, or everyday ideas about fair play are all that is require – although no doubt business experts and politicians would argue they do have special knowledge.

    Perhaps there is something in your argument about status. It used to work for religion, when the Bible was in Latin and we were convinced that the priesthood had special access to superior knowledge.

    Yet there isn’t really any special moral status attached still to the man or woman in the white coat, is there? We’ve all known for some time that the ideal of a disinterested search for truth is just fantasy, that personal bias can creep into everything.

    And yet I suppose I do feel that someone who can understand statistics, or work out what the strengths and weaknesses there are in a particular double blind trial, or who is a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist….

    Hmm, looks like I am in danger of agreeing with you, after all.

  • josh

    Don’t you have to go to j-school where Universities teach students (and cull others) how to be “responsible” journalists, i.e. how to present the truth in a way favorable to Universities? A simple explanation is that “science” and journalism are part of the same political faction.

  • Thanks for raising this important issue. Sharing some thoughts (hope it’s < 500 words!)…

    One reason for science reporting to be less nuanced could be that people (including the reporters) do not feel equipped to opine on it. Compared to the number of people who would readily admit, "I do not understand the science behind this" how many would say, "I cannot discuss this as I do not understand politics" and similarly about sports. Everyone has an opinion, and many get into the intricate data and arguments. Maybe science has become too opaque for its own good.

    IMHO, the modern problem with science and science reporting is due to the forces of:
    -competition driven by complicated funding and patent systems,
    -sound-byte-oriented media in various forms, and
    -a general incapacity of people to handle information explosion or understand science.

    Science itself is based on a solid foundation of mathematics and the scientific method, which allows new evidence to disprove and replace older beliefs. However it is people who not only perform the science but also manage the business of science. All the foibles of human nature have always underlain the scientific enterprise. The many cases of fudged results by scientists in the past few years can at least partly be attributed to the high stakes involved in being the first to qualify for awards, grants and publicity.

    Science reporters were a special and small subset within the profession of journalism. Today anybody can broadcast a provocative article title from an obscure source that would ricochet across the networks without undergoing any vetting of its authenticity.

    Overwhelmed with the data flood, we prefer to scan a headline that says, "Coffee prevents heart attack" while heading to Starbucks than delve into the details underneath. Reporters try to cater to this instant gratification. Even the hallowed Economist could not resist the temptation to title its piece, "Positive thinking’s negative results” though the write-up refers to specific circumstances.

    Despite all this, I am still optimistic based on the sales figures of good books on deep science written for general readers!

  • bcg

    Besides, don’t we have favorite war strategies? We strongly oppose effective measures like carpet-bombing.

    • Do you have a cite for its effectiveness? I believe the post-WW2 strategic bombing analysis as well as Robert Pape’s “Bombing to Win” found such strategies ineffective. That’s why Robert Farley proposes abolishing the airforce.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I think part of the reason is that most readers assume scientists aren’t blinkered by bias, path dependence, or money, because the scientific method is all about objectivity, openness, clarity, and ‘the facts’. Compared to business and politics, this is true, but these factors are still very important in science.

    Further, in most business or political arguments, one knows ‘the other side’. What’s the alternative to real business cycle models? Keynesianism? Behavioral psychology? The proponents caricature the other side, setting up a straw man, and that’s not as easy to do in selling Windows or tax cuts.

  • tylerh

    The answer to your question is in your description: “via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities”

    Unlike much of what journalists process, much “hard hitting” has already been done for embargoed science pieces.

    Anything getting to a science reporter has already been through two rounds of peer review. First, academic peer review has assessed “is the claim consistent with objective reality, as best as we can tell.” Next, if the story has been embargoed, a professional science editor has assessed “how is this relevant to society.” So inputs from this embargo process are the result of a fundamentally different process than other “raw” material a journalist must process. Much “hard hitting” has already happened (you’ve been involved in peer review, right?), unlike a press release from Seagate touting the latest “breakthrough” hard drive.

    So why should the journalist’s evaluative process be the same?

    • Ah so contrary to Colin, the reason science journalists aren’t critical is that there is nothing to criticize; scientists have already eliminated all errors before journalists hear about anything. Good to know.

    • anon

      Next, if the story has been embargoed, a professional science editor has assessed “how is this relevant to society.”

      This is the interesting part. Should we expect these “professional science editors” to be biased (unduly optimistic) about the papers they assess?

      If not, we can blame readers for treating science as their communal religion and wanting optimistic, uncritical science coverage.

  • Karthik

    Science and to some extent engineering are more esoteric than the other subjects mentioned. The truth is there are no daily breakthroughs in science. May be a few breakthroughs in a decade. Engineering, uses the scientific fundamentals, to undergo a process much akin to evolution. Several permutations are tried, and they all work in varying measures, but the best ones are ideally adopted. Hence the improvements are incremental, and constant, and very hard to detect except on hindsight.

  • Nick Ernst

    These reasons make sense, and can also explain why Ann’s hypothesis otherwise feels right. The average person doesn’t feel qualified to have opinions (and they’re usually right), and most science headlines either demonstrate prestige status plus magic babble, or promises of technology that will empower the average person at best, and not work at worst. But the exceptions make the case.

    The two most visible attempts at science criticism in media recently have been climate change, and the Large Hadron Collider. There has also been negative attention toward the H1N1 Vaccine. Before that the media was on about GM foods.

    Climate change policy affects people directly, and has to do with their money (easy territory for suggesting dominance signals), so people will often form an opinion and then rationalize it. People do convince themselves that they understand money, or at least that certain arguments by columnists “feel right”. It’s comfortable territory, in which the average person has formed some means of judgment, in order to survive, and detect signals of dominance.

    With the LHC, the media found success with the doomsday notion, because it was easy to argue that the odds that the world would be destroyed were equal to or greater than the odds that the average viewer would lose anything directly from stopping the experiment.

    In both cases, it’s when scientists sent what could easily be rationalized as a dominance signal that the public was receptive to criticism.

    Then there are the people who don’t trust any scientific study (food science being the biggest target I’ve seen.) I’m in Santa Cruz, a town with a fair share of anti-intellectualism, and it’s always accusations of a corporate so-called-science conspiracy which seeks dominance of some sort. Only a small number of non-scientists ever question scientific integrity without mentioning power or money.

    Beyond scary dominance-signaling headlines, it seems that the best hope science writers have is to combat peoples’ science inferiority complex, so that enough people can make judgments in the realm to play the science status game too. It seems gross to me, encouraging people to express interest in science as a status signal, but it would elevate its worth in society, certainly no detriment to scientists with other motivations like curiosity.

  • I’m not convinced that science journalism is any worse than other forms of journalism. I think it’s bad, but I get the impression that all journalism is equally bad. I am not at school so I can’t read the full article, but nothing in the excerpted text makes the case that non-scientific reporting is any better. I think that it is very likely that, in general, the world is a very nuanced place and journalists feel that are in the business of telling us fairy tales about that world.

    Think about it: How often are polls reported uncritically? How often does the business section contain stories about what seem like obviously voodoo indicators?

    I’ve found that any time that I’ve seen an article that deals with something with which I am familiar that it is often wrong in at least some minor way, but often also in some major and fundamental way.

    I think before you start hypothesizing about the reason why science reporting is “different” you should probably establish that it is, in fact, different.