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Thursday, June 09, 2011

On why Science reporting in the media is so bad

"Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought." - Sir Arthur Helps

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Don't dumb me down | Science

"Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?... the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science... [Some] promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable...

There was an interesting essay in the journal PLoS Medicine, about how most brand new research findings will turn out to be false. It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense... Scientists never said that tenuous small new findings were important headline news - journalists did...

All stories involving science must be dumbed down... Compare this with the book review section, in any newspaper. The more obscure references to Russian novelists and French philosophers you can bang in, the better writer everyone thinks you are. Nobody dumbs down the finance pages...

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance... if they want balance... One scientist will "reveal" something, and then another will "challenge" it. A bit like Jedi knights...

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it's exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only not as well written. We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven't really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science. And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.

That's what I'd have said three years ago. But now I'm on the inside, I can add a slightly different element to the story... There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well - it's a small middle-class world after all - and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely - since they'll be the ones interested in reading the stuff - people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it's edited by a whole team of people who don't understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given "science communication" chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they've got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk."
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