Society needs more than wonder to respect science

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Researchers are well placed to explain concepts, but journalists will bring the critical scrutiny needed to integrate science in society, says Susan Watts.

I don't normally watch football on television, but recently I have been paying attention. What has happened in sports presenting, with former and current players replacing specialist journalists, is creeping into science coverage too.

One television executive put it bluntly to me early this year. “We mainly use scientists as presenters, even if it's not their area of expertise. They have more credibility. A journalist would have to have a really unique selling point for us to use them.”

By unique selling point, they meant special access, or a personal link to the story being told. But surely journalists already have a unique selling point — they are journalists?

Footballers talking about what we have seen on the pitch can make for cracking analysis. But such coverage will never expose the uncomfortable side of sport that is away from the screen — the drug-taking or the match-fixing. And what about the awkward unease among former heroes-cum-presenters when confronted with the prospect of throwing a tricky question at a current star, even though viewers might be shouting at the TV for them to ask it (my sons among them)?

Sport is not a life-or-death issue, for most people at least. But science and engineering can be. Scrutiny is crucial.

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery of a wonder material, perhaps, or a new subatomic particle. Explaining the significance of sightings of the Higgs boson or of gravitational waves from the early Universe takes real skill.

Science journalism's job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.

Written By: Susan Watts
continue to source article at nature.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. Society needs more than wonder to respect science

    I guess she’s right, but I have always found statements like this absurd. To me this is the same as saying “society needs more than wonder to respect reality”. This weird idea that science is just one of those enterprises that you either believe in or not. We are talking about the nature of the real world. The fact that we often talk about good and bad science reflect this weird view of science. Yes, there are bad scientific studies and good scientific studies. Every now and then even the best qualified scientists with the best of intentions get things wrong. But, that is only due to the fact that we are humans who are fallible. Our scientific methods might be inadequate or fallible, but science in itself is infallible, per definition. There is no such thing as bad science. Scientific knowledge = an accurate understanding of the world we are living in. Whatever this reality is, science is an umbrella term for the best known methods to achieve this understanding. If religions or superstitious thinking could provide us with accurate knowledge of the world, they would be vital parts of science. That can’t be good or bad. It just is.

    There is nothing wrong with being critical of scientific studies. That is an essential characteristic of science itself. But, it’s absurd that we live in a world where the enterprise of science itself is under scrutiny. There seems to be a grave misunderstanding of what science is. Many journalists seem to think that science as an enterprise is the same as a single study. Or in other words, a single study is science. Hence, they are baffled when scientific studies contradict each other. The same goes for a large portion of the public. “You know, one day science says tomatoes are good for you but the next day you’ll get cancer from tomatoes. You can’t trust science”. This misconception that science can be reduced to single studies. Even if a single study is as scientifically sound as it can possibly be, a single study is not science. It is a scientific study, which is a part of the scientific process that ultimately gives us the knowledge that is science.

    Some might say that this is just semantic problem. But, this article shows that it is not. Every time someone criticizes science as an enterprise we should point out to them that they are criticizing the universe for being the way it is. Criticism will not change they way the world is and scientists should never have to apologize for studying the world as it is.

    • The points you make are so important. They highlight one of the biggest problems with science education in America. It is because of the attempts to educate the public on their level about science that people now believe they are capable of making informed decisions about what is taught in schools. This is not as big a problem when you have actual scientists carefully crafting a message to help people understand advances in science. However, this is a task fraught with actual risk and no one unqualified should be doing it.
      In reply to #1 by Nunbeliever:

      Society needs more than wonder to respect science

      I guess she’s right, but I have always found statements like this absurd. To me this is the same as saying “society needs more than wonder to respect reality”. This weird idea that science is just one of those enterprises that you either believe in…

  2. Journalists are not best placed to be critically analysing science findings without a scientific knowledge and a bigger picture to their point of view. The scientific findings themselves are published and understandable to those who speak the language….many media journalists dumb down science into user friendly sound bytes and its public applications for the less scientifically educated wider population… but scientific publications are a better source of science reporting…without the spin and bias of sensationalizing tabloids and anyway science does its own policing of findings too – its doesn’t need journalism to act as the judge…

    but exposing corruption in the corporate world is the job of the journalist when it crosses into the path of science as a profiteering tool… but not all journalists can be trusted to be unbiased with their slant on science either – as tricksters from religious groups disguise themselves as journalists with a disapproving slant on science findings…It can be a tool for public deception and disruption in certain communities

  3. @OP – Science journalism’s job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.

    One has to wonder what sort of mystical divining rod is used by a journalist who is not a scientist in a relevant area, to understand the intricacies, and investigate accuracy, of such issues??

    I suppose watching Faux News on a topic where you are well acquainted with the subject, could give some insight!

    • In reply to #3 by Alan4discussion:

      One has to wonder what sort of mystical divining rod is used by a journalist who is not a scientist in a relevant area, to understand the intricacies, and investigate accuracy, of such issues??

      Well, I think she has a point. Scientists aren’t the ones who should track down and investigate all sorts of bogus claims and corrupt behavior by for example large pharmaceutical companies. Their job is to do science. Take a person like Simon Singh. He of course has a thorough scientific education, but he is mainly a journalist exposing “bad science”. I think he is a good role model for future science journalists.

    • In reply to #2 by Light Wave:

      Journalists are not best placed to be critically analysing science findings without a scientific knowledge and a bigger picture to their point of view. The scientific findings themselves are published and understandable to those who speak the language….many media journalists dumb down science into…

      In reply to #3 by Alan4discussion:

      @OP – Science journalism’s job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the ve…

      In fairness to the OP, she does write this later on, so she is aware that a science journalist needs some degree of expertise:

      So what is behind the subtle shift to science communication, and away from science journalism? One enduring problem is that our media remains dominated by people who are all too often educated in the humanities. Irrespective of how talented these people may be, when the majority of the most-influential roles are filled by people who have no understanding of how science works, then it rarely occurs to them that science is populated by people every bit as interesting and as human as those in the arts or politics, or that the internal battles of science can be every bit as personal and as bitter as any in industry or business.

      In broadcast journalism at least, science journalists are increasingly viewed as dispensable as long as a programme editor can dig one out when a big health story surfaces, or in times of extreme weather. If, instead, these editors valued the input of journalists who have a science specialism in the newsroom every day, they would gain not only an eye on issues coming over the horizon, but also the day-to-day drip feed of a scientific perspective into all the stories that appear on a programme. That way, the scientific viewpoint becomes part of a programme’s lifeblood, as it should be in a healthy, modern society, and not an added extra.

      I think her point is that, because some journalists don’t understand science, their reporting can neither accurately convey the significance of current issues nor adequately challenge the malpractice of scientific research and information management. In principle, this is the same point Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have made about the inadequacies of journalism on science. For instance, Goldacre wrote an article in 2005 which pointed out where he thought the media distorted science (this article, originally published in the Guardian). Interestingly enough, he too put it down to an excess of humanities graduates in the field, which potentially means that not much has changed between now and then.

  4. Science/technology journalism is absolutely, utterly, dreadfully awful. Most times it seems the people writing the articles are not even trying, and by trying I mean skim over the Wikipedia page for about 5 mins. And I’m pretty sure I’m not aware of even the 5% of the gigantic inaccuracies they spread, since I only can talk with certainty about my own field. I mean, when they are unable to realize that the Internet and the World Wide Web are 2 very different things(internet is a global network comprised of interconnected smaller networks, WWW is one of many applications/services that run on top of this network), I shudder at the idea of how much crap they throw around when they’re reporting about the latest find from CERN or a medical advancement.

  5. I needed to read the first paragraph twice, because initially I thought it read “…but will journalists bring the critical scrutiny needed…”, and thought the lack of a question mark was a typo. Then I realized what it actually says, and I disagree, because I think that scientists need to add communication and exposition to their skills sets.

    American practitioners have I think always had a better ability to convey their messages with alacrity than their English counterparts, so it’s somewhat ironic that an English scientist is in the very vanguard of the public understanding of science.

    I think Christopher Hitchens was right when he said that Dawkins’s fellow scientists should stop carping about his demeanor and approach, and instead, as Lawrence Krauss has done, join him on the front line.

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