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The Media Education Science

Bad Science Journalism Gets Schooled 212

Posted by kdawson
from the how-science-works dept.
TaeKwonDood writes "Biology post-doc Dr. Michael White takes a look at the '2007 Best American Science and Nature Writing' and doesn't like what he finds in an article called Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog. Turns out it's not just political writers who pick a position they want to advocate and then write stories to confirm it. Science journalism gets a scolding and it's been a long time coming."
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Bad Science Journalism Gets Schooled

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  • Rather obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Ancients (626689) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:33AM (#22697208) Homepage

    This is quite logical, as it's human nature to do so, and not a direct result of one's career field.

    Even simple background research on the authors of articles in many different fields reveal that yes, the majority of writers are biased, either consciously, or otherwise.

    • obvious != right (Score:5, Insightful)

      by More_Cowbell (957742) * on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:39AM (#22697232) Journal
      Science journalism would perhaps be the one area where you would expect the author to concisely go out of their way to be unbiased.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by kongit (758125)
        It would why? Grants don't just come on trees.
      • Re:obvious != right (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Rei (128717) on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:08AM (#22697594) Homepage
        And yet, you see it all the time. For example, the article about the cook/tax dodger/inventor who came up with a perpetual motion machine which was posted on Slashdot a month or so ago. Or Pimentel's annual widely publicized reports on ethanol being energy negative, despite everyone else's studies coming up with numbers of about 30% positive. Or pretty much every article about anyone who challenges anything about global warming. It's always the plucky renegade scientist who discovered some brilliant notion that everyone in the scientific community had missed but the other scientists are too jealous/blinded by hubris in their ivory towers to see and accept what should be so obviously true to everyone else.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:26AM (#22697660)

          scientists are too jealous/blinded by hubris in their ivory towers to see and accept what should be so obviously true to everyone else.
          If your job or grant pays well enough that you can afford to build a whole tower out of the tusks of poached exotic animals, it's not hubris to be defensive of your place in the world, it's your duty as a red blooded American.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Pollardito (781263)
            i had always assumed they were made out of ivory soap. given the expected lifetime of a building made out of ivory soap in a climate that sees any sort of rainfall, i was never that worried about the phenomenon
      • by Joce640k (829181) on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:37AM (#22697696) Homepage
        The scientists who make the most noise are the ones with the biggest personal agendas and the ones most likely to appear in the popular press (because they're the ones constantly calling them and submitting articles).

        The real problem is that the public want science to be wrong. Look at global warming, it's been known for over a hundred years, there's tens of thousands of studies which back it up but you publish one article or make one documentary which says it's wrong (eg. the Channel 4 one) and you'll have an army of followers. It's human nature.

        • Can you cite these? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2008 @04:23AM (#22698150)
          Can you cite these thousands of studies over one hundred of years? I am truly interested in them.
          • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

            by TFGeditor (737839)
            As a journalist myself, I, too, am most interested in seeing those thousands of studies, especially those dated more than 30 years in the past. I have done a lot of research (into extant literature) on climate change and never ran across any references to global warming that predated the 1990s. If global warming theory indeed surfaced 100 years ago, that's huge news. Please, poster of the grandparent, pony up with the citations. Enquiring minds and a "world in peril" want to know more about this inconvenien
            • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Monday March 10, 2008 @09:35AM (#22699846) Homepage

              As a journalist myself, I, too, am most interested in seeing those thousands of studies, especially those dated more than 30 years in the past. I have done a lot of research (into extant literature) on climate change and never ran across any references to global warming that predated the 1990s.
              Well, turning to the bookshelf sitting immediately to the left of my desk, how about An Introduction to Atmospheric Radiation, Kuo-Nan Liou, Academic Press 1980. It's a relatively standard text about optical absorption and scattering processes in atmospheres. The greenhouse effect is brought up in chapter 4 (Infrared Radiation Transfer in the Atmosphere) and discussed further in chapter 8 (Radiation Climatology).

              Greenhouse-effect studies before the 1990s lacked the detailed numerical models that we have developed since the 1990s, since these depend on massive amounts of computer power, but the effect has been known for a long time, and it was definitely discussed before the 1990s.

              This isn't an exhaustive search of the literature-- this is the first book that I happen to have handy. If the very first atmospheric science book I put my hands on that predates the 1990s has the reference, yet you say you never ran across any references to greenhouse-effect induced global warming that predated the 1990s, this seems to be an indication that you are unfamiliar with the literature.

        • Look at global warming, it's been known for over a hundred years, there's tens of thousands of studies which back it up...

          Hmmm... I guess sometimes it *seems* that way.

        • Yes indeed, look at climate change. I personally see it the other way around -- as soon as a few scientists came up with a doom and gloom story about the world ending any day because humanity is ruining it like so many great movies, they got flocks of followers and all detractors are burned at the stake.
      • Science journalism would perhaps be the one area where you would expect the author to concisely go out of their way to be unbiased.

        WTF?

        A good journalist has a strong understanding of the biases of his intended audience, and writes with those in mind. He may suppress his own biases to do this.

        If he is writing for a scientific journal, then yes, he will probably strive to present an unbiased POV. But if he is writing for the popular press, he will strive to express his findings in ways that are understandable within the context of his readership. Which usually means accepting many of their biases as constraints on his wording.

    • Re:Rather obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ChameleonDave (1041178) * on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:40AM (#22697238) Homepage

      yes, the majority of writers are biased, either consciously, or otherwise.

      More than the majority. I'd say that everyone is necessarily biased about everything, because we can never avoid the fact that we approach every issue with some sort of background or perspective.

      However, there are those who are biased, and those who are biased and also throw all logic to the wind.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vux984 (928602)
        However, there are those who are biased, and those who are biased and also throw all logic to the wind.

        AND there are those who are biased, know they are biased, and do their best to present the other side of the story and choose neutral words...to help mitigate their bias and be as balanced as humanly possibly.
        • AND there are those who are biased, know they are biased, and do their best to present the other side of the story and choose neutral words...to help mitigate their bias and be as balanced as humanly possibly.
          Well, I was kind-of counting those people in the first group — the ones who are biased but don't throw logic to the wind.
    • Re:Rather obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

      by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:44AM (#22697258) Homepage

      This is quite logical, as it's human nature to do so, and not a direct result of one's career field.
      You're absolutely correct. Think of all the stories of some technological innovation you've heard that follow this same pattern. ("Everyone believed that building a kerbudle with transducing fleebs was impossible, but one lonely inventor decided to try it. [Story continues, ignoring that the inventor was paid to do the investigation, however long a shot it was deemed, by some well-known company, etc.]") Or even business: "Everyone said that Microsoft's/Apple's/Intel's/etc's hold on X market was unassailable, but this plucky [they're always plucky] little start-up set out to fight the Goliath." It's human nature and it's good story-telling, which is what sells science articles.

      Question is, is there another way to tell the stories that isn't so formulaic and that doesn't give such an incorrect impression?
      • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:18AM (#22697634) Journal
        "Question is, is there another way to tell the stories that isn't so formulaic and that doesn't give such an incorrect impression?"

        Actually, there is a way: just stick to reporting, don't turn it into an entertaining story. We're talking science, FFS, not the Hero's Journey archetype. It's not about the everyman who discovers his calling and ends up single-handedly fighting the super-villain, it's about a more mundane process where basically they're all on the same side.

        But science is boring for most people. There's really two kinds of stories that you can make out of it, that anyone outside that profession will read. (And those inside that profession already have the relevant peer-reviewed journals instead.)

        A) It's a BREAKTHROUGH!!!

        B) The Hero's Journey in disguise. The lone maverick who slays the dragon. (Except sometimes the climactic confrontation hasn't happened yet, so you're left to infer it.)

        And unfortunately both end up used by the journos as ammo against the real science. TFA already thrashes B, so let's just say that bogus A is what PR carpet-bombs the media with.

        So other than banning science completely from the non-peer-reviewed media, I can't see how that's solvable.

        Or if you were merely asking if it's possible to make it entertaining without being a case of lone heroes versus tyrannical super-villains... well, maybe. But consider this: the current generation of storytellers can't even tell any story except the Hero's Journey. We could live without it very well until, IIRC, the 60's, but then all of a sudden everyone had to obey the monomyth to the letter. And if two movies are the same length, they have to have their first turning point in exactly the same minute.

        So incidentally for whole classes of movies, once you figured out who's protagonist, who's antagonist, etc, you can know in advance what will happen... and in exactly what minute of the movie.

        Unfortunately, ever since, that structure has been hammered into the heads of every single story teller or screenplay writer. There are course, workshops, and the knowledge that Hollywood will chuck your manuscript in the garbage bin if it doesn't fit the mold to the letter. Not many people still know how to write any other kinds of stories any more.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Jens Egon (947467)

          So other than banning science completely from the non-peer-reviewed media, I can't see how that's solvable.

          It would help if (more of) the peer reviewed media was accessible to the public.

          Somebody has to pay, though.

      • Question is, is there another way to tell the stories that isn't so formulaic and that doesn't give such an incorrect impression?

        That's an excellent question, and I think the answer is; yes, there are numerous ways to tell a good story regarding science. One slight modification to the lone-scientist-against-the-establishment narrative might be to cast the scientific method itself as the hurdle for our budding young scientist to overcome. This approach would allow the writer to detour into describing what the scientific method is and why it's important to scientists. That's one obvious avenue to better frame the story, but I sus

        • One slight modification to the lone-scientist-against-the-establishment narrative might be to cast the scientific method itself as the hurdle for our budding young scientist to overcome. This approach would allow the writer to detour into describing what the scientific method is and why it's important to scientists.

          Of great interest to Science, Science Teachers, and wanna-be Scientists, but basically boring. This is not the way to write a story that causes the reader to Continue-On-Page-32.

      • by PCM2 (4486) on Monday March 10, 2008 @03:52AM (#22698014) Homepage

        Question is, is there another way to tell the stories that isn't so formulaic and that doesn't give such an incorrect impression?

        Yeah. Sure -- if you're, like, good at your job.

        (Though I would add that criticism like yours is what we in the media field need more of.)

      • by ultranova (717540) on Monday March 10, 2008 @08:07AM (#22698996)

        Question is, is there another way to tell the stories that isn't so formulaic and that doesn't give such an incorrect impression?

        Everything thought it was impossible. But one lonely Slashdot poster decided to try it anyway. This is the story of how a plucky upstart, CheshireCatCO, took on the Goliath on the moderation market and won.

        To read the full story please subscribe to our archive and submit your credit card info to...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ILuvRamen (1026668)
      speaking of that, your post implies that you seem biased against biased people ;)
    • The "friendly article" is about a specific narrative, "the establishment and the underdog", not about bias. The submitter got (as always on /.) it wrong. I have no idea whether the submission is an example of stupidity, bias, or maybe a different narrative. The "they are biased" narrative is very popular on /. for some reason.

      And while journalists of course have bias as everybody else, what characterize the profession is not bias (in fact, they are probably better than average at hiding it), but the sear
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      While bias is a problem, I think a larger problem is that journalists are by and large either lazy or over worked. Yes there are a few good ones, but like politicians most are caught up in the established way of doing business and either cant or wont work against it.

      The problem is this. Researching a story properly (not just science), a good story, should, unless it is breaking news take anywhere up to a month to perfect. First you have to understand the field the story is in, be it science, politics etc. M
      • The problem is this. Researching a story properly (not just science), a good story, should, unless it is breaking news take anywhere up to a month to perfect. First you have to understand the field the story is in, be it science, politics etc. Most Journalists specialise so getting the basics for this process shouldn't take too long. However most journalists aren't specialised enough. Having a science correspondant with a major (or worse minor) in physics is pretty close to useless if the story is about som

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Understanding the science within a publication is not the same as understanding the entire subject. Nor is the understanding a journalist needs the same as the understanding a specialist needs. However, with access to suitable experts, yes I think I could understand a single short paper in microbiology within a week. I doubt that I would be able to use that research to make an original contribution. I doubt I would know anything outside of the narrow confines of the very specific subfield in which that pape
  • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:38AM (#22697226)
    If you're a Phd who has spent your whole life researching and proving something then you're likely to opposed someone proving eactly the opposite. That's just human nature and has been the downfall of many scientists including Einstein and many other greats.

    That's why Max Planck said: "A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

    On top of personal professional bias we must now add those extra pressureses exerted on scientists to toe some line so that their funding/department/ access to publishing/whatever does not get cut. Gotta say the right stuff to keep the backers happy.

    Anyone expecting unbiassed science to come out of that lot is just a misguided idealist.

    • by eli pabst (948845) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:51AM (#22697300)
      To an extent that's true, but science is science and sooner or later the facts will win out over dogma. Eventually someone is going to do the experiment that incontrovertibly proves that said underdog theory is true. Look at the prion guy. He took all kinds of shit for years, because *nobody* believed you could have an infectious protein, but eventually he won out. He can now send the haters a picture of his Noble prize.
      • To an extent that's true, but science is science and sooner or later the facts will win out over dogma. Eventually someone is going to do the experiment that incontrovertibly proves that said underdog theory is true.

        Certain things, although treated as science, are not really open to an experiment... And while disagreements over, say, some aspect of Cosmogony can be discussed in a friendly manner, issues like Global Warming tend to polarize people along their political persuasions...

        Since academics' inco

        • by 10101001 10101001 (732688) on Monday March 10, 2008 @03:30AM (#22697932) Journal

          Certain things, although treated as science, are not really open to an experiment...

          Certainly. It's very easy to think everything is covered under science. But, there are many things (mainly, philosophical questional) that some would try to group under science because they believe they can conjecture out an answer.

          And while disagreements over, say, some aspect of Cosmogony can be discussed in a friendly manner, issues like Global Warming tend to polarize people along their political persuasions...

          Perhaps you haven't heard of cosmology and WIMPs vs MACHOs? Seriously, though, people who tend to quickly polarize over Global Warming tend to do so because of the seemingly obvious ramifications of admitting whether Global Warming exists. In short, the issue has more to do with people unwilling, on both sides, to go over the evidence and accept the proof that's available and leave it at that. But, then it's the same issue that came up ages ago when discussing the racial relations (especially, any claimed superiority) of various ethnicities. And *that* issue is still unresolved because dogma can override common sense.

          Since academics' income depends greatly on the taxpayers' money, they tend to be Statist and/or rather Illiberal.

          Sorry to break it to you, but universities existed long before there were governments to fund them. And, they will continue to exist long after governments refuse to fund them. Academics, in general, are interested in their work above all else. Now, this may lead to dogma and pet theories without any evidence. But, that doesn't translate into trying to sustain a revenue stream (well, at least, it only does so in the sense of funding their research, not in padding the academic's pocketbook). And sure, there are academics who are in it for the money, just like there are charlatens in any field. But, there isn't any evidence (at least, none I'm aware of) to hint at some sort of inherent academic conspiracy, no matter how good such conjecturing looks good on paper.

          Hence the dominant "scientific" opinions about Global Warming predicting gloomy scenarios and demanding drastic actions mostly from "the rich" (citizens and nations), of course.

          Or, people with evidence they think will be helpful are trying to warn people of the potential risks of merrily continuing our current actions. Most, realizing they *don't* know the long-term consequences (at least for humanity) of what happens if we continue, urge those with the most power to effect change (citizens and through them, their nations) to effect change. Of course, they realize they can't do much (at least, not without advocating military force) to push "the poor" countries or dictatorships to do the right thing. So, the tend to focus on "the rich".

          Anybody disagreeing (or even questioning) is "anti-science" (even if burning at a stake is no longer practiced) even though no experiment could possibly be conducted on a planetary scale.

          We're already engaging in an experiment on a planetary scale (you know, burning all that oil, coal, etc). And it happens that people are constantly making predictions based on those fossil fuels burned and how that affects the global climate. And all those scientists with their measurements of ocean CO2 absorption, temperature stations, measurements of ice sheets, etc all provide the data to confirm or deny those predictions. The only real question, then, is if the people on either side are actually looking at the theories that repeatedly pass and the evidence collected (to verify that it does, in fact, not contradict the theory). And if one side, after seeing the evidence, dismisses it based upon their own beliefs without any proof, then they are being anti-science. But, that says nothing about Global Warming.

          Watch angry responses to this posting for more :-)

          I'll try to be more angry next time.

      • The confusion can last years, decades, even centuries. Take the human genome work: a lot of that work is of only modest reliability, or was prone to systematic errors in the computer programs used to analyze the DNA. But the process of going back and correcting it is going to take a quite long time, especially when the companies that published it are now out of business or lack the current knowledge to realize there was a serious bug in code 10 years old, and no one is really pursuing that particular gene o
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by gardyloo (512791)

      we must now add those extra pressureses
      We HATES them, the nassssssty pressureses!
    • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:59AM (#22697354) Homepage

      If you're a Phd who has spent your whole life researching and proving something then you're likely to opposed someone proving eactly the opposite.
      This is true to some extent, but it glosses over another even more important point: most newly proposed theories are wrong. (It's a lot like mutations in evolutionary biology.) Many of the theories are still-born, never making it past someone's blackboard before they're shot down, but quite a few get floated. Some get floated quite adamantly by their adherents. A few are better than the older models. After even a little while in science, you see the ratio and it's natural to want to stick to the tested theory until the new guy has been able to provide some strong evidence for itself.

      That's sort of the rub, though, isn't it? Only a few new theories which suplant the old model do so with a really compelling single test. We can think of a few of the exceptions: General Relativity and the 1919 eclipse, the Big Bang (which was already pretty widely accepted, but never mind) and the discovery of the CMB, the giant impact theory of the origin of the Moon and the numerical simulations of the 1980s, etc. But these *are* the exceptions. Most theories which will eventually take over do so by slow accumulation of evidence in their favor, not with any slam dunk. As a result, convincing scientists to abondon the older model is difficult and there's no magic cut-off where you can say, "Now the new theory is better than the old one." So are the scientists being bad at science? Sure, it's easy to spin the narrative that way, but I'd say no. They're at worst being conservative and not wanting to leap onto a new model until they see that it's really better.

      Anyone expecting unbiassed science to come out of that lot is just a misguided idealist.
      Now I feel like you're being insulting. Individual scientists are human, we have our flaws and our blind-spots. Some of us have real agendas and a few are even downright dishonest. But as a group, we're contradictory, curious, and anti-authority. As a result, science is pretty good at self-correcting. A single scientist can lie to himself or even lie to others. But that always gets caught eventually because someone starts asking questions and we collectively have no vested interest in covering up lies.

      (Any time you hear about scientists being involved in a massive conspiracy, like some anti-global warming fanatics will try to tell you, you can bet it's wrong. Any person who could prove evolution or GW conclusively incorrect would have just made a career and world-wide fame for herself.)
      • by Ambitwistor (1041236) on Monday March 10, 2008 @03:54AM (#22698032)

        Only a few new theories which suplant the old model do so with a really compelling single test. We can think of a few of the exceptions: General Relativity and the 1919 eclipse,
        Actually that one got more credit than it deserved. The error bars on that result were huge, and it's now questionable whether Eddington's experiment was able to distinguish general relativity from competing predictions, such as the Newtonian prediction of half the light bending. (To forestall possible comments from others, yes, Newtonian gravity predicts light bending for zero mass photons.) An interesting example of the opposite phenomenon: a new theory being hailed perhaps too eagerly. (On the other hand, there was also Mercury's perihelion precession.)
        • From what I read, while Newtonian mechanic can predict light bending for a small weighted photon, it don't predict light bending for zero mass photon.
          QUOTE
          However, there is a problematical aspect to this "Newtonian" prediction, because it's based on the assumption that particles of light can be accelerated and decelerated just like ordinary matter, and yet if this were the case, it would be difficult to explain why (in non-relativistic absolute space and time) all the light that we observe is traveling a
          • I think you did somewhat misread the above paragraph.

            Newtonian theory predicts light bending even for zero-mass particles. (The amount of deflection is given in the article you linked.) But it does not explain why zero mass particles all have the same speed. That is where relativity differs from Newton.

            By the way, I highly recommend Kevin Brown's web site (the mathpages.com site you linked). It contains many interesting calculations and musings.
        • From what I've read, you're probably right, although it doesn't negate the example. (Precisely because, as you noted, the theory was adopted too readily.) I actually don't feel like Mercury's perihelion precession was a good test since the theory was designed around that observation. It definitely gave the new theory extra merit, but it doesn't count for as much as post-theory experiments that support the new theory.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Ambitwistor (1041236)

            I actually don't feel like Mercury's perihelion precession was a good test since the theory was designed around that observation.

            From what I recall of the history, that's not true. Einstein already had almost all the field equations, and then applied them to the Mercury problem in his November 18, 1915 paper. He was quite excited when the result turned out to agree with the observations, precisely because he hadn't designed the theory to get Mercury right. On November 25 he modified the equations to their final, current form, but the prediction for Mercury did not change.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Now I feel like you're being insulting. Individual scientists are human, we have our flaws and our blind-spots. Some of us have real agendas and a few are even downright dishonest. But as a group, we're contradictory, curious, and anti-authority. As a result, science is pretty good at self-correcting. A single scientist can lie to himself or even lie to others. But that always gets caught eventually because someone starts asking questions and we collectively have no vested interest in covering up lies.

        I thi
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MidnightBrewer (97195)
      If you're a Phd who has spent your whole life researching and proving something then you're likely to opposed someone proving eactly the opposite. That's just human nature and has been the downfall of many scientists including Einstein and many other greats.

      More than just human nature, it makes sense. If I believe strongly that something is the truth, then it seems only logical that I'd oppose somebody who says that my theory is completely wrong. Also, I think that Max Planck might have been being just a
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by xenocide2 (231786)
      If you had actually read the article, the gentleman's point was that the journalism is wrong, not that bias doesn't exist. Critics wrote papers not to defend some scientific truth, but to improve both ideas, by reconciling the two. They point out that her paper's explanation of sexual selection misses published advances in scientific understanding, and suggest ways the existing formulas can be tweaked to accommodate the new theory.

      Even you're buying into this fallacy that the two ideas must be exclusive, wh
  • Par for the course (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheMeuge (645043) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:39AM (#22697230)
    This is merely par for the course... and the observations made in the TFA are not new either. I encounter them every day on Slashdot!

    HIV not causing AIDS conspiracy, Fluoride in the water conspiracy, Cancer being cured but evil corporations in league with all scientists not releasing the cure... I have to endure this every single day.

    I think the more interesting subject to explore, is the psychology of why people are so eager to believe the improbable, and far more likely to accept an outrageous exaggeration, a halftruth, or an outright lie, merely to spite the establishment. As a scientist, that's a subject that interests me the most, because I would like to locate the part of the brain that will believe that the herbs in "Airborne" will miraculously prevent you from getting a disease, but will refuse to accept scientific principles and facts that have held firm under scrutiny for decades.
    • by Hao Wu (652581)

      but will refuse to accept scientific principles and facts that have held firm under scrutiny for decades.

      The answer is so obvious, that you are doing it yourself- rejecting the facts for an alternative conspiracy (ie. seeking some obscure "part of the brain").

      People are just dumb, and they want easy answers. That's all.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Belial6 (794905)
      I would say that a lot of comes from the fact that people who are supposed to be experts are routinely caught lying, and actual, real live conspiracies are regularly exposed with not even an apology. A perfect example is the whole Al Gore Fiasco. He flat out says that you can reduce your carbon output to 0. That would require you to stop breathing, and either complete the decomposition process, or die in a place where you will be permanently frozen. His entire movie was full of errors and contradiction
      • by DeadChobi (740395)
        Did Gore really say that we could reduce our carbon emissions to 0? Because I just farted, and I'm pretty sure that that was a carbon emission.

        On a more serious note, I don't really find the "supernatural" to be irreconcilable with science. Science just emphasizes the parts of the world that we can understand through logic. The only contract one signs when they become a scientist is that they will not bring up questions which are not scientifically verifiable. The biggest one that comes to mind for me is th
    • by aztektum (170569)
      Because it's easier to accept a halftruth that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside rather than a reality that suffering or not getting what your want all the time is a part of life.

      Exploration over. Where's my grant check :)
    • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday March 10, 2008 @04:07AM (#22698082) Journal
      Well, ironically, a large part of that can be blamed on the press too. There's this whole bombardment of stories telling Joe Sixpack that science is a clique of self-appointed arse clowns. In no particular order:

      1. The lone researcher vs the evil establisment stories, like in TFA. Invariably the establishment is evil, you know. Well, these stories are just ammo then for the quacks, who are invariably all too eager to present themselves as that oppressed underdog.

      2. PR-sponsored and -wrote "breakthrough" stories, the sillier and more contradictory the better. "Chocolate is good for you! Cocoa beans have valuable enzymes!" (Yes, but they're no longer present in chocolate.) "Wine is even better!" "No it's not!" "Scientists prove: Beer is better than both!!!" Etc. If you can't distinguish those from real science, and Joe Sixpack can't, it looks like "science" is just a bunch of guys saying contradictory things and telling you one day that X is good, and the next that Y is bad. That what passes for bulletproof science one day, is disproved the next day, so you might as well ignore the whole clown posse.

      3. Probably the most damaging: the fucked-up idea of journalistic impartiality. See, the idea is that impartiality means presenting two conflicting views as equals, without taking sides. So if you run a story about, say, why vaccines are good, you have to also find a quack or two to go, "no they're not!!! They cause autism!!! They kill your immune system!!! Buy our 100% natural and hollistic snake oil instead!!!" And present the two as equal. It's not that one of them is bogus, it's that it's a "controversy", see. Taking sides and telling people which one is backed by solid evidence, well, that would violate that impartiality.

      This creates a false image of, well, everything being equal and equally unproved and dubious. Everything is a controversy. The Nobel prize winner in that corner of the ring is just about as likely to be right or wrong, as the quack with the fake diploma bought on the internet in the other corner. So you can take your own pick. If you want to believe the earth is flat, go ahead, even that is probably a controversy.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jay-za (893059) *

      I think the more interesting subject to explore, is the psychology of why people are so eager to believe the improbable, and far more likely to accept an outrageous exaggeration, a halftruth, or an outright lie, merely to spite the establishment.

      Not having explored this more than looking at my own willingness to believe some things, what I've found is that in many instances the establishment (or more specifically, doctors and scientists) are responsible for pushing people down this road.

      That above state

    • by gsslay (807818)
      The bottom line is that people in general love conspiracy theories. They love the idea that someone out there, some where, is trying to suppress knowledge/liberty/happiness. That's what explains why life (and theirs in particular) isn't wonderful and perfect, and we're not all living together in harmony on the planet as god intended. It is, in short, the easy answer that makes a good 90 minute movie.

      And it gets even better than that; people love being the ones in on the secret. Yup, the poor, ignorant
  • by grassy_knoll (412409) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:43AM (#22697252) Homepage
    Given the example in the article, and this quote:

    What gets lost is the scientific method, the idea that novel proposals need to be thoroughly vetted and tested, no matter how intuitively attractive they are.


    Perhaps the bias in reporting is due to the "intuitive attractiveness" of the conclusion?

    The opposite might be true as well. For instance, I didn't hear much about this study [wikipedia.org]:

    In recent years, Putnam has been engaged in a comprehensive study of the relationship between trust within communities and their ethnic diversity. His conclusion based on over 40 cases and 30 000 people within the United States is that, other things being equal, more diversity in a community has a correlation [expressed as a beta equal to 0.04 in a multiple regression analysis (see Putnam, 2007)], to less trust both between and within ethnic groups. Although only a single study, limited to American data, and the Census tract Herfindahl Index of Ethnic Homogeneity only explaining 0.16 % of the variance in trust in neighbours in the regression model presented (Putnam, 2007) it claims to put into question both contact theory and conflict theory in inter-ethnic relations. According to conflict theory, distrust between the ethnic groups will rise with diversity, but not within a group. According to contact theory, distrust will decline as members of different ethnic groups get to know and interact with each other. Putnam describes people of all races, sex and ages as "hunkering down" and going into their shells like a turtle. For example, he did not find any significant difference between 90 year olds and 30 year olds.


    You'd think a Harvard professor saying in effect that diversity has a down side might be news worthy, unless that idea isn't attractive to the majority of the news media.
    • You'd think a Harvard professor saying in effect that diversity has a down side might be news worthy, unless that idea isn't attractive to the majority of the news media.

      Is it really news? I'd have thought that the existence of such downsides should have been perfectly obvious who has opened their eyes. Indeed, the interesting discovery from that article seems to be that the downsides aren't quite as existing theories suggested, not the mere fact that downsides exist.

      The trouble is we're all perched on

    • Thousands and thousands of studies get published every week. That one didn't get picked up by the media doesn't prove anything, much less a general bias.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I'm not even sure those results make sense.

      What the hell is "diversity" in this case? My high school was 96% white, but by 1900 standards it would probably be incredibly "diverse," with folks of English, German, Polish, Irish, and even (gasp!) Jewish "descent" intermingling. But ironically, once this "diversity" reaches a critical mass and a few generations pass, it all gets folded into the norm and nobody considers it "diverse" anymore.

      So if this guy's right and "diversity" has a caustic effect on communit
  • by l2718 (514756) on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:45AM (#22697266)
    1. The people who have the qualifications to understand scientific papers (the ones with science education) can usually get better-paying jobs in science, rather than science journalism.
    2. Worse, our society as a whole is anti-intellectual and specifically anti-scientific. This does not only apply to the readers: many people who study journalism have a weak science background. As long as society can accept someone as "educated" who cannot explain how a refrigerator works, or accept some definitions and follow a mathematical proof based on them, it is hardly surprising that science writers and readers can't understand a scientific argument.
    3. Today's readers are trying to be entertained, not be informed. A piece that reinforces the reader's prejudices will make the reader feel good, and hence buy more copies of the publication.

    For an example for the second point, remember the "gravity-powered lamp [vt.edu]" concept that was advertized last month? I saw several independent write-ups in newspapers all repeating the canard of "this will work if only we have better LED technology" when an elementary calculation shows that even with 100% efficient lighting elements the lamp will need to weigh about a ton.

    • by n6kuy (172098)
      > remember the "gravity-powered lamp"

      Did you notice the "Feb. 21 Update" on that article?

      While many people want to know when the lamp will be available, many others point out that it won't actually work.

      The criticism is that a great deal of weight -- tons -- would be required and current LEDs are not sufficiently efficient.

      Designer Clay Moulton acknowledges that the current state of the art isn't sufficient to actually build the lamp. The news release should have said: "based on future developments in LE

      • by l2718 (514756)

        Even though they acknowledge that others have criticized the design on the amount of weight required to make the lamp work, the news release goes on to correct itself only in the matter of "future developments of LED technology."

        Did you read my comment? you seem to have missed the point entirely. It's true that with current LED technology, the lamp would weight tons. However, current technology is already pretty good: it converts about 10% of the incoming energy to light. A 100% efficient LED from the

  • That's Not Kuhn (Score:5, Informative)

    by logicnazi (169418) <logicnaziNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday March 10, 2008 @12:47AM (#22697280) Homepage
    Kuhn is very very explicit about the normal state of science being the evolutionary expansion of the paradigm/work within the paradigm. It's only when the extremely rare paradigm shift occurs that there is an overturning of the established order. Even there Kuhn seems to think these shifts often occur because the strain on the previous paradigm grows too great to sustain, i.e., a wide variety of experiments taken together require such unsatisfying explanations that the paradigm is overthrown for a new one.

    I think it would be more appropriate to say that Kuhn is mostly rejecting the idea of science proceding via revolutions. The sort of view that preceded Kuhn was that science proceeds by formulating hypothesises which in turn are overthrown should they be contradicted by experiment. Thus Kuhn is actually arguing against the idea that science primarily progresses via the disproof of the prevailing view.

    In fact I think it's a fair interpretation to say that Kuhn does not even believe there is an objective fact of the matter of which paradigm is better. It's quite clear that Kuhn holds out evolutionary expansion of the paradigm to be the stereotypical example of progress in science.

  • there are some luminous exceptions. carl sagan. stephen jay gould

    but most are, frankly, asocial. they would rather exercise their minds in the pursuit of science. actually explaining what they do to other people is a drag and a waste of time. not that you can blame them. this ability to tune out the rest of the world and engage their mind in silence is actually a very valuable skill for a scientist, and it is a mindset that probably led them to science in the first place as a life pursuit

    the result is that
    • by going_the_2Rpi_way (818355) on Monday March 10, 2008 @01:35AM (#22697484) Homepage
      I'm not so sure this is valid any more (and maybe it never was). Generations of scientist are trained to communicate from the earliest parts of their training -- believe it or not, lots of emphasis is placed on this. What scientists are not good at are sound-bites that fit nicely in on shows like Crossfire or Lou Dobbs where the 'we were attacked!' or 'we're losing jobs' or 'NAFTA!' 10 second catchphrases that feel awfully good but don't stand up to scrutiny generally prevail. But that's ok, science isn't meant to be good at that. It's meant to be able to say 'we're not sure', 'this is our best available knowledge' and, oh yeah, 'our previous best theory was wrong in several respects'. The public isn't good at listening to tempered, well-balanced arguments. And when 'luminous minds' DO speak up -- say, a bunch of nobel laureates put together a one page ad against economic folly (remember that one?) or Jared Diamond writes a book titled 'Collapse' -- who listens? And more importantly, who listens enough to suffer short term financial hardship because those minds tell them they'll lose more in the long run.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by blahplusplus (757119)
        "Generations of scientist are trained to communicate from the earliest parts of their training - "

        I would disagree. They are trained to communicate with other scientists, not to just anyone. So "communication" in this context is a vague term, what really needs to be done are studies on how to break down complex topics into vocabulary that people can understand to get the main principles and points across without alienating them. I find it quite curious that scientists have yet to learn from marketing and
        • They are trained to communicate with other scientists, not to just anyone.

          Well, broad generalizations about large groups of people (and programs) are almost always simplified, but most of the programs I've looked at at least try to address communication in a variety of contexts. Which one are you talking about, out of curiosity?

          Look at a Brief History of Time, Guns Germs and Steel, Fermat's Last Theorem etc.. there have been very good (and very successful) books written by scientists on very complex
    • by Bowling Moses (591924) on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:18AM (#22697632) Journal
      "the monklike state of existence of many scientists, to investigate and research in silence, and then the looking down disdainfully upon the common man and his mispercetions: this is part of the problem. this anti-populist attitude of many scientists is part of the problem. an arrogance, a classism, an us-versus-them way of looking at the world. it is the lack of communication efforts of scientists themselves that leads to the dangerous and stupid ideas many common people swallow in the first place"

      That's quite the caricature. I've been employed as a scientist for going on a decade now, and your depiction of John/Jane Q. Scientist works for only a tiny minority of the people I've worked with. I've worked with a hippies, hipsters, single moms, Norman Rockwell-esque family types, religious people, nonreligious people, sports fanatics, geeks, barflies, rednecks, people of all different races, colors, creeds, nationalities, and in general a wide, wide slice of humanity. Maybe you ought to not paint a group of people with a wide brush until you've at least met one or two of them first.
  • It is unfortunate that this tendency plays right into the hands of global warming deniers. When applied to that controversy, the whole debate becomes a he-said-she-said that takes place in the absence of any evidence (or, to be precise, in the absence of reporting of evidence). That is to say, most deniers' arguments fall apart at even cursory comparison with actual evidence, but by then, the story is already published.
  • Nearly every journalist is biased in some way or another. While journalists may not necessarily inject the bias directly into their story like the example given in the article, the very choice of topic may be indicative of bias. Take for example the Reuters science articles [yahoo.com] on Yahoo! News. Nearly all the articles consist of biology stories or NASA/space related stories. In fact, when was the last time you read a news story in mainstream media on physics or chemistry? It was probably about the LHC or the "Exceptionally Simple Theory". This might be because it is harder to put the same spin on these types of stories. In fact, Garret Lisi's theory is so well known because he's been cast as a brilliant young surfer dude railing against the establishment. (Admittedly, the guy is no where as pig headed and arrogant as the biologist quoted in the article). Even Slashdot seems to be home to plenty of anti-establishment "scientific thinkers" who attempt to claim that nearly every other scientist has got it wrong and dark matter was simply invented to fit into an existing theory*, or our calculations of the age of the universe are complete BS. While I don't claim that the established theories are always right, they are considered to be "established" for a reason: they have a good deal of evidence in their favor.

    To get back to my original point however, I would argue that this sort of selective reporting shapes the public view of science negatively. If you only hear about how scientists are wrong, then you might never even believe that they are right. Perhaps of more direct impact to scientists, the fact that the prevalence of this sort of scientific reporting seems to favor biology, can shift the spending of public money. After all, it seems like biologists are making breakthroughs every day and overturning established and outdated ways of thinking while physicists build expensive machines (even condensed matter physics research is expensive) and twiddle their thumbs. There's no excitement in a story that says "BaBar confirms that CP-violation in B-mesons fits within the parameters of the Standard Model" or "Researchers at (insert university/national lab of your choice) discover a method of sub-wavelength optical transmission". But without stories like that, the public sees almost nothing getting done in physical sciences.

    Before a bunch of biologists start to flame me, I'd like to note that I don't think that biology is meaningless, or that biologists are pretentious pricks. It's just that journalists seems to draw an excessively large amounts of attention to biology, at the expense of other fields, almost always through no fault of the scientists.



    *Dark matter does in fact have plenty of evidence for it. See the earlier Slashdot story of galaxies that don't have dark matter and gravitational lensing in the Bullet Cluster. Dark Energy, however, may in fact be a purely theoretical construct.
  • Once a week I have to explain the speed of light barrier was not broken. Anyone remember this story?
  • Factual newspaper articles on science are boring as hell. That doesn't draw readers, so journalists dig up (or invent) intrigue. I'm shocked no one has mentioned this yet.
  • by Bo'Bob'O (95398) on Monday March 10, 2008 @02:09AM (#22697598)
    It's a pity so few will see this article. It reminds me of something I saw briefly on the discovery channel about discovering Atlantis or something. The point was brought up to the effect "We don't have a lot in the way of resources because the scientists are too afraid what we will find will shatter everything they believe." Now, I know that you can't take too much on TV seriously, even the so called educational channels, but this was downright absurd. Wouldn't any scientist with the slightest bit of passion about his work be -thrilled- to take part, or help a peer with work that would have that sort of impact? It's just sad to see the Discovery Channel airing these sorts of things that completly misrepresent what science is. It's not even the MythBusters sorts of shows that bother me, it's exactly these sort of underdog stories the author is talking about that I think does a huge amount of harm to the education of people watching. It's those sorts of shows that lead people so far astray on what science is that lets the "Intelligent Design" nonsense take
    root.

    Someone else summed it up much better, though:

    But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
        - Carl Sagan "
    • by DingerX (847589)
      when, in fact, they only laughed at Bozo.

      Columbus is the worst case of this underdog narrative. Many people (evidently Dr. Sagan was one of them) believe A. that he set out to prove that the world was spherical, and B. that the dogmatic 'scientists' of the time believed the world to be flat.

      This is pure fiction developed to sustain the myth that scientific and moral progress are intertwined.
  • I know this isn't specifically about scientific journalism, but I think it must be said. People will always be biased, no matter how much they claim to provide a balanced view. In the end, the writer has an opinion, and this will appear in the writing.

    In some cases, the bias is deliberate. The news reporting that you receive on television and in the papers is the best example of materials that are biased. This is done in a rather sophisticated manner. Information isn't necessarily modified to favor one view

  • That's the way it seems to go. If it's science for entertainment you have to leave out the math, over-simplify every idea so that an illiterate red-neck could follow the argument, and preferably have something explode spectacularly. In lieu of exploding chemicals you can occassionally subsitute a story about someone brilliant being oppressed by those pesky scientists that don't understand a thing.

    If you want good science at a popular level you do fair better leaving out the popular press. There are some goo
  • by dj_tla (1048764) <trbekolay@@@shaw...ca> on Monday March 10, 2008 @03:18AM (#22697870) Homepage Journal
    I'm an amateur science journalist, writing for my university's newspaper. I don't claim to know anything about journalism (just science), but one thing that I continually hear from experienced journalists is that every article needs to have a story. It's not enough to say that a theory that has undergone rigorous testing has now been extended in an esoterically exciting way. As much as the discovery is truly newsworthy, the effort to convince the audience that something is newsworthy in a non-technical forum is usually not worth the effort. However, if there is a narrative behind the story -- a conflict -- then perhaps people will keep reading and be compelled to research the science underlaying the story.

    The author has a good point: mainstream media outlets focus far too much on the story and not the science, so much so that they will lie and equivocate to generate conflict. Yet, I would rather see a light science articles that are interesting and easy to read than none at all, as long as the science is actually correct.

    "Science is interesting, and if you don't think so, you can fuck off." This Dawkins quote sums up the other side of the argument. It bothers me that people would be so protective and elitist about having science portrayed perfectly in the media that they would rather it not be written about at all. We need to be criticizing the accuracy [themanitoban.com] of science journalism, not its glamorization.
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      The author has a good point: mainstream media outlets focus far too much on the story and not the science, so much so that they will lie and equivocate to generate conflict. Yet, I would rather see a light science articles that are interesting and easy to read than none at all, as long as the science is actually correct.

      The author has a good point: mainstream media outlets focus far too much on the story and not the facts, so much so that they will lie and equivocate to generate conflict.

      Just generaliz

    • by Minwee (522556)

      one thing that I continually hear from experienced journalists is that every article needs to have a story.

      I am reminded of a time that I sat on a train next to a group of salesmen on their way out to a conference. For the whole trip they were having an animated discussion about how important high numbers were and how a truly great salesman wouldn't be afraid to put the squeeze on anyone, even his friends or family, to make a few extra sales.

      Why was I reminded of this? Not because of the parallels betwe

  • by Ambitwistor (1041236) on Monday March 10, 2008 @04:15AM (#22698116)
    Try Science News [sciencenews.org]. Short, clear articles on new scientific developments and some review articles, and when they do write about sociological or historical meta-issues in science, it's usually done so in a relatively unbiased manner and confined to separate articles.
  • takes a look at the '2007 Best American Science and Nature Writing' and doesn't like what he finds in an article called Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog.


    He didn't like what he found in the article, or he wrote this article to express his dislike for what he found? TFA and some common sense make it the latter, of course, but that sentence could be clearer.
  • by drfireman (101623) <<dan> <at> <kimberg.com>> on Monday March 10, 2008 @07:08AM (#22698754) Homepage
    Ben Goldacre, who writes a regular column on bad science for the Guardian on bad science wrote a great column [badscience.net] about this once, in which he pointed out the obvious-in-retrospect: science journalists don't have science backgrounds. He regularly takes on both bad science and bad science reporting, and his blog/column is a lot of fun to read. Fun in a deeply disturbing way.

    The one startling regularity I have noticed across all science reporting is that the more I know about the subject area, the more misleading the article seems. It seems clear this pattern can't be completely limited to science reporting. I cut popular media a lot of slack in terms of glossing over details and simplifying for a popular audience. But the distortions I see are more often fundamentally misleading about the nature of the work and the details that are relevant to the story. Disturbingly, I'm still tempted to believe some of what I read in areas about which I know little. Even more disturbing, I find this mode of reporting seeping into the scientific articles I read and review. I guess this saves the reporters the trouble, but points out one of the many problems with science reporting done by people who have no ability to read science critically.

    The one time I was interviewed about my work, I had the sense the reporter already had a story outlined, based on a science-fiction-y reading of the press release, and was basically fishing for quotes to add meat to the story.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      It's an educational experience to be "backstage" in a running story. I, or my family, have been personally involved in a few things that made the news for a while.

      Newspapers are good at getting facts right. The individual facts they print are, in my experience, probably true (or, at worst, difficult to prove false). They are very good at picking and choosing facts to make a certain, apparently pre-determined, conclusion.

      There is also the arrogance factor. I was in a meeting where some of us questio

  • by protobion (870000)
    I detailed my personal experience regarding sensationalism in science journalism here : http://nachiket.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/sensationalism/ [wordpress.com]

    This is a serious issue in terms of the effects it has on the public opinion of science.

  • not a good thinker (Score:3, Insightful)

    by epine (68316) on Monday March 10, 2008 @11:27PM (#22711664)

    I call it the 'oppressed underdog' narrative, and it would be great except for the fact that it's usually wrong.
    With his keen eye for misleading narrative devices, you'd think he would have spotted the old canard "undefined denominator". Just how wide does one need to cast this net to obtain "usually"? Every crackpot later recruited by scientology? Every anti-establishment survivalist publishing in "Bullets and Butter"? Every #1 cure-for-everything they-won't-tell-you-about dietary infomercialist? Cast the net only into the fish ponds I was likely to believe in the first place, would the rhetoric still be "usually"? Nice little bit of evasive "dial a denominator" there. The rest of the paper continues to demonstrate his point from the basis step 1/1 (one out of one). Did you miss his induction step? It was that word "usually" in the lede paragraph.

    This raises a question: being gay has obvious evolutionary fitness consequences - without modern medicine, you have to have heterosexual sex to have offspring.
    This has never been obvious, though many people seem to wish it were. To begin with, for any population is it far from obvious how to define "optimal fertility". Less that the carrying capacity of their niche in the ecosystem? Less than the historic carrying capacity? Less than the projected carrying capacity? If homosexuality could be shown to lead to sustained population fertility below the "optimal" fertility rate for that population (if such a definition is even possible) you would also have to show that the basis for homosexual behaviour did not confer on the population any form of immunity to black swan events, under any hypothetical future condition.

    We've all seen this definition of "obvious" play out with road ragers on busy highways. From the road rage perspective isn't it "obvious" that if I cut past that car ahead of me, I'll get there just a little bit sooner? Why is it I can still many of the cars that dangerously cut me off ten miles later, still struggling to gain every foot with the valiant effectiveness of trench combatants in WWI? When you actually study traffic flow on a highway, what you discover is that this kind of aggressively self-serving behaviour produces standing waves which reduce the net capacity of the highway as a whole. But still, somehow, it seems obvious to many that this driving strategy constitutes a good way to gain personal advantage.

    Third, he's using *Darwin* here in an anecdote about over-reaching scientific orthodoxy undermined. Unbelievable. No, don't use Freud, Chomsky, Pauling, Schottky, or the Leaky family as an example of a scientist possibly prone to overreaching. No, use Darwin, Marie Curie, or Michael Farrady.

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