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Bad Science in the Press 647

Posted by Zonk
from the who-needs-perspective dept.
An anonymous reader writes " An editorial in The Guardian presents a good run down of what is wrong with science reporting today and tries to point out why this is. From the article: 'Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? Like a proper little Darwin, I've been collecting specimens, making careful observations, and now I'm ready to present my theory.'"
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Bad Science in the Press

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  • Science is complex. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CyricZ (887944) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:32PM (#13535201)
    Science is complex. More often than not very well-trained and experienced scientists get it completely wrong. That said, somebody with a minimal scientific background (ie. a Journalism major) will very often screw up more complicated scientific articles. But likewise, many scientists dislike writing such articles. So we end up with a situation where those in the know would rather not write, and those not in the know are the ones who do write. And the result is lousy scientific articles.

    • by dtdns (559328) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:34PM (#13535208) Homepage

      BEDEVERE: And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped.

      ARTHUR: This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheeps' bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.

    • by rimu guy (665008) * on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:36PM (#13535218) Homepage

      Buy and read the New Scientist [newscientist.com] magazine. They cover complex scientific topics. And they convey them in clear (even readable) language. You will soon find that good science and good writing are not mutually exclusive.

      --
      VPS Hosting Anyone? [rimuhosting.com]

      • by orac2 (88688)
        As a science journalist working for Another Science/Tech Publication, I can second that -- New Scientist is worth reading.
      • by Stridar (325860) <Stridar@gmail.com> on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:39AM (#13535456) Homepage

        I would add that The Economist is also usually a very good source for science news, even though it doesn't come with the frequency or pagecount to warrent calling The Economist a scientific publication.
      • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Monday September 12, 2005 @01:05AM (#13535559) Homepage Journal
        I'm a longtime and mostly happy subscriber to Science News [sciencenews.org]. It's weekly and seems to hire educated reporters.
      • by TapeCutter (624760) on Monday September 12, 2005 @05:14AM (#13536183) Journal
        I like New Scientist but put more faith in Nature [nature.com] and Science [sciencemag.org]. There are also some good narrow focus ".org's" out there such as RealClimate [realclimate.org]

        I also like the Gaurdian. From TFA, "What did you think of this article? Mail your responses to life@guardian.co.uk and include your name and address."

        I think every slashdotter who agrees with TFA sentiments should take a couple of minutes to write and suggest that they promote the author to "science editor" (if they have one?). Be sure to include any relevant qualifications (eg:B.Sc, Dr, etc) in your title.
    • Even if they didn't major in journalism, reporters usually avoided math and science, and understand nothing about either. Even sports writers make screw ups like referring to a .395 batting average as a "percentage".
      • by kassemi (872456) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:55PM (#13535314) Homepage
        In high school I did some work with the Air Force Research Labs (they had some sort of student research program, which gave me access to loads of equipment and funding I would have gotten in no other way. We were working with aberration correction on optical equipment with holograms. A newspaper in the area sent a reporter to gather some information and write an article about what we were doing. We sat down with prepared diagrams, interesting samples and simple explainations as we gave notes to what seemed like a very intelligent reporter. The next week we read the article, and the reporter had missed everything entirely. They made it seem as if we had been doing research into a brand new field which we had invented. It gave us a warm feeling inside, but was obviously wrong. Mainstream news today isn't concerned with giving us accuracy, but rather about stirring the public, and keeping them asking questions that only their sources can answer. The only way to get accurate news in the science field we need to review the scientist's own, peer-reviewed papers. And even then, we need to be very skeptical until we see the research become popularly accurate.
        • by meta-monkey (321000) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:58AM (#13535525) Journal
          Hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

          My favorite is the flurry of "Could it happen?" stories after some new sci-fi disaster movie is released. When it was "Deep Impact," and thoughtful scientists reflected on the chances Earth could be struck by a giant asteroid and what the aftermath would be like, that was one thing. The "could it happen" stories surrounding the release of "The Core," however, made me want to drill a hole to the center of my head :(
      • by Rei (128717) on Monday September 12, 2005 @02:26AM (#13535800) Homepage
        As a journalist, I resent that remark. We're very good at spotting pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment to make for my next piece; a scientist operating out of an annex of Grace Baptist Church is going to give a presentation on his electronium hat which harnesses the power of sunspots to produce cognitive radiation.

      • "reporters usually avoided math and science"

        Yes, but it seems to me that sometimes the scientists themselves give misleading information to journalists, possibly to make their work seem more important. Here's an example: Effort to Create Virtual Brain Begins [slashdot.org]. Here's another far worse example, in my opinion: Can Cell Phones Damage Our Eyes? [slashdot.org]. Here's my opinion about Dr. Henry Lai of the University of Washington: Distinguish between real science and junk science [slashdot.org].

        Also, it seems to me that editors take advantage of readers by encouraging mis-interpretation so that they can get more readers. Here's an example of a story that didn't deserve attention: Report Claims Men More Intelligent Than Women [slashdot.org].
    • by rebeka thomas (673264) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:05AM (#13535354)
      Not only the science, but the interpreting of the results.
      The world's bad reporters would have us believe tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people died and are in ill health because of chernobyl, but when it comes down to facts and reality 56 people are known to have died, and there are no profound negative impacts to the surrounding population.

      Bad Science is all about getting attention for personal, political or financial gain.
    • by SuperBanana (662181) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:30AM (#13535426)
      More often than not very well-trained and experienced scientists get it completely wrong.

      GOOD scientists don't purposefully make statements that are absolute. Good scientists are guarded and pick their words carefully.

      That said, somebody with a minimal scientific background (ie. a Journalism major) will very often screw up more complicated scientific articles.

      Quite on the contrary. It is the same reason you only get reports about murders and status updates on Bennifer- media, on all levels (at least in the US) is owned increasingly by large holding groups. Holding groups do one thing well: try to squeeze every penny.

      Scientific articles require more legwork, and that means fewer stories per person per day. "Entertainment" stories practically pay for themselves (free plane tickets, free hotel stays, free footage, free access to a popular star). Murders are easy to cover- listen to the scanner, show up and stand there for the live-on-scene footage, maybe interview a hysterical family member or friend. Tada, done. Celebs and blood sell; nerdy stories that are hard to research won't.

      Science also doesn't jive with the "cover all viewpoints" they teach in journalism 101 (case and point, "intelligent design" vs. Evolution. Evolution is something the church gave up on decades ago, and the rest of the world knows is fact- but the American press feels "Intelligent Design" deserves presentation on equal grounds and parrots the President when he says it deserves "consideration".)

      • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday September 12, 2005 @04:13AM (#13536049) Journal
        "Evolution is something the church gave up on decades ago, and the rest of the world knows is fact- but the American press feels "Intelligent Design" deserves presentation on equal grounds and parrots the President when he says it deserves "consideration"."

        Well, actually here's a link to a poll that contradicts the "the rest of the world knows is fact" assertion:

        Natural selection fighting to survive in the US [theregister.co.uk]

        It's scary, really. Basically only 26% of those polled actually believed Darwin. (Ranging from 27% among the whites to as low as 14% among the blacks.)

        To make ignorance even scarier, even in this group, 15% of them said that life existed from day 0 and never changed, and 10% said evolution was guided by some supreme being. Makes me wonder if they even have a clue wtf they're talking about, if they think "evolution" means life staying unchanged.

        So, anyway, now let's subtract those 25% (10% + 15%, since both are really are creationists or ID fans in disguise) from that 26% group, and you're left with 26 * 0.75 = 19.5% who actually do believe in the real evolution theory. That's it. Less than 1 person in 5.

        So with all due respect, I'd challenge that assertion that "everyone else knows evolution is a fact". It may be so for you and me and our equally nerdy, educated friends, but if we're talking the bulk of the population, less than 1 in 5 are anywhere _near_ sharing that point of view.

        Also 64% supported teaching Intelligent Design in schools.

        So basically when the press is giving ID equal opportunity, rest assured that it's not just for Dubya's sake. It's really cattering to those 80.5% who actually do believe in creationism or ID, or those 64% who are obviously ignorant enough to not be able to tell the difference between science and pseudo-science babble.

        Seriously, whenever I start thinking that maybe we nerds are just elitist with our snotty attitude about the ignorant, uneducated masses... such a study comes along and proves it in hard numbers and percentages that we _are_ right, after all. The majority really _is_ that dumb and uneducated.
        • by Mike1024 (184871) on Monday September 12, 2005 @07:41AM (#13536619)
          It's scary, really. Basically only 26% of those polled actually believed Darwin.

          To me, it seems a bit odd that you chose that statistic. Consider the original report [people-press.org]. It says:

          Life on earth has:
          * Existed in it's present form from the beginning ot time: 42%
          * Evolved over time: 48%
          * Don't know: 10%

          Granted, some people believe evolution was guided by God, but if they're Christians (and there are a lot of christians in the US), that seems like a fine way to reconcile scientific fact with thier beliefs.

          What I thought was interesting was that a clear majority thought republicans were more likely to protect religious values while democrats were more likely to protect individual freedoms.... and the people who hold these views elected a republican president.

          It's an interesting study, and I advise anyone interested to look at it.

          Michael
      • by JonathanBoyd (644397) on Monday September 12, 2005 @06:28AM (#13536341) Homepage
        GOOD scientists don't purposefully make statements that are absolute. Good scientists are guarded and pick their words carefully.
        Evolution is something the church gave up on decades ago, and the rest of the world knows is fact

        Irony.

    • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday September 12, 2005 @02:36AM (#13535829) Journal
      As TFA pointed out:

      1. It's not about articles written by actual scientists, and not about articles published in real scientific journals. It's the mainstream media that makes a mockery of science.

      2. There is a group that seems to be on a crusade to present science as just hocus-pocus babble, as some new religion where self-serving high-priests spout obfuscated nonsense, and where if you asked 10 different scientists about any topic you'd get 11 different conflicting theories.

      The article blames it on humanities students, but personally I think that's pointing the finger at the wrong group. In my personal limited observation -- but bear in mind that it's no scientific sample or anything, and generally it's just "IMHO" -- it's just a case of the dumb and uneducated feeling a _need_ to drag everyone back to their level, and articles that catter to that dumb and uneducated majority.

      The article itself skirts with that answer when it says that those articles treat you like you're dumb and couldn't possibly understand any real scientific terminology or statistics. Well, bingo. Because they're written for people who don't, and who _want_ some positive reinforcement that the muck of mediocrity (and sub-mediocrity) is cool- That any kind of academic achievement, humanities included, is (A) just some nonsense techno-bable, (B) irrelevant in the real world, (C) a scam, and usually (D) all the above.

      And a lot of publications are basically just prom-queens. They'll print what sells. That means what their intended audience wants to hear. If that audience wants to hear that the nerds they mocked in school still didn't really achieve anything, and nowadays are a bunch of quacks and witch-doctors bickering over whose techno-babble religion is better, they'll publish just that.

      (Before I go any further, let me mention though that by "education", I don't only mean strictly school. I also mean, in fact even _especially_ mean studying on your own, above and beyond just sitting and daydreaming in class. So if you've made the effort to learn something and improve yourself, even without an university degree, you're _not_ the category I'm talking about.)

      And outside magazines, it gets even worse. Every single example is taken out of context and polished into shining proof that education is irrelevant, and sitting on your ass in front of the TV is just as good. Examples you occasionally see even on slashdot include:

      - Start with the fact IQ test results are irrelevant for a lot of jobs, and indeed many would even question if they measure "intelligence", or that something as complex as the many aspects of human intelligence can be squeezed into a single number. But then extrapolate it to mean that _intelligence_ as such as irrelevant to any real jobs, or indeed a _handicap_ in the real world.

      (In the words of a Slashdot poster in a recent post, the less intelligent have more other (presumably better) advantages, like empathising better with each other, since they're the majority. And, I quote, "So the next time, someone praised you for being intelligent and well-off....just bear these in mind.....seriously, it may not be a good thing in my not-so-honorable opinion ;P")

      - Take some speech of someone rich and successful, e.g., Steve Jobs, and cut out of context the part where he mentioned he quit college. But conveniently ommit that he also says that he went to study on his own the things that interested him. So we're talking someone who still worked hard at improving himself, _not_ an example of a couch-potato that made it bigger.

      Or even going as far as making up a fake speech of such a successful person where he calls college students losers again and again. (See the fake Larry Ellison speech being occasionally waved around.)

      - That some prominent scientific figure, e.g., Einstein seems to be the favourite poster child, didn't do that well in school either, so it's ok for us to sleep in maths and physics classes too. But conveniently mi
      • by mwrm (563444) on Monday September 12, 2005 @06:06AM (#13536300)
        That some prominent scientific figure, e.g., Einstein seems to be the favourite poster child, didn't do that well in school either

        While Einstein left his secondary school early without qualifications, it was not because of academic slackness. His work in primary school had been excellent. Here his mother writes to her sister:

        "Yesterday Albert received his grades, he was again number one, and his report card was brilliant."

        He went on to a further education college to obtain the qualifications for university entrance. He got fairly high marks here (top in maths and physics, etc).

        Some of the "Eintein did badly at school" reputation comes from the difference in Swiss and German marking systems. Switzerland where Einstein studied used 6 as the best grade and 1 as the worst grade. Germany used 1 as the best and 6 as the worst. In time his results of 5 and 6 (good results in Switzerland) were transposed into the German system, making them seem bad. I'm not sure, but I did hear that Switzerland now uses the German system, thus compounding the problem.

  • by jtangen (861406) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:35PM (#13535212)
    There are many efforts directed at educating scientists about the journalistic process, but fewer that aim to educate journalists about science. One of the arguments for the imbalance is that it is more efficient for scientists to learn about media constraints than it would be for journalists to learn about science. Some argue that a lack of scientific knowledge on a journalist's behalf may actually benefit their interpretation of science publications, allowing the author to be less biased when translating the information for public consumption. Others believe that introducing science journalists to the scientific process will help to correct inaccuracies and omissions of important information in the media.
  • I disagree ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by oostevo (736441) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:36PM (#13535214) Homepage
    The author says that:

    "It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science. This week we take the gloves off and do some serious typing."

    Granted my sample space of random, anecdotal evidence is probably much smaller than his, but he seems to attribute the poor reporting to some sort of grand conspiracy, or at least malice.

    From what I've seen of bad science reporting (my professors often give examples in lecture for us to laugh at), the cause is nowhere near as malevolent -- it's simply writers who are not educated enough about science and the methods of discovery that surround it trying to simplify for their readers a scientific breakthrough like they'd simplify a speech or debate.

    And they just don't understand it anywhere near enough to avoid cropping out hugely important parts.

    • by vena (318873) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:19AM (#13535404)
      ...if not malice?

      Not to mention that, as the AC above touched on, they serve two masters -- one of whom pays their salary, and it's not you and me. It's not like there's any big backlash against their reporting of science, but as much as some of us may think we've evolved beyond it, there is still a lot of distrust, ignorance, and general animosity towards science in the world. The media exploits this for ratings, it's not a new accusation by any means. And when it keeps people ignorant, it's malicious in my book.
    • Re:I disagree ... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bm_luethke (253362) <luethkeb@comcastOPENBSD.net minus bsd> on Monday September 12, 2005 @01:01AM (#13535540)
      You are making the mistake many do in looking at bias - there doesn't *have* to be a coordinated effort for what the original article wrote to be true. In fact it's very very rare and usually not productive/widespread for it to be coordinated. It's too transparent.

      You need look no further than slashdot - it's moderation tends to be heavily biased in many topics. I can assure you (and a little looking around will confirm it if you do not already know) that there is no controlling entity that seeks to impliment this bias. Yet there is still a VERY strong bias for pretty much similar reasons through many of slashdots readers.

      It's like an ant colony where there is no "hive mind" to control things. Each participant does it's thing and the whole ends up being something specific.

      It can be that a very few want this and hire people who are like minded (that is usually self sustaining - you usually only hire people you think are correct). It may be that the nature of the job pushes people who think that way into the field. It may be just random chance that one day went over the saturation point - it could have went anyway and just chose that one. There are many other explaination than "Grand conspiracy" - group think happens all the time with no controlling authority or grand conspiracy.

      Personally I think the original authors are correct. At least in my experiance (in real life and when I was in the university) 3/4 (and note the 3/4 - there were some very nice very broadly educated people there also) of the humanties distrusted science and journalist students were mostly humanaties people (rare person who is really interested in science but chooses to do non-science for a living - nature of the job chooses people who think that way). If they believe that to be reality, thier editors believe that to be reality, then it's just the nature of the beast.

      Just as there is no grand conspiracy to make science minded people think and write that the "Earth is 4000 years old people" are crazy (and our writings are VERY biased against them because we think they are, at best, wrong), so too does the average journalist do that. That's why if you want news about science you need to look to specialised journalist - not the times, cnn, fox, abc, nbc, or whatever general news rag (and don't look at a science journal for general news - they are usually pretty poor at it).
  • by CyricZ (887944) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:36PM (#13535217)
    .. stick with the science journals! At least there the articles will have been written by scientists, rather than mainstream media journalists. Let the everyday individual read the consumer newspaper and magazine articles, while people looking for correctness can go right to the source.

    • Exactly. Mainstream journalism, by design, was never meant to be a reliable source for scientific information. It was meant to inform the masses by creating excitement which generates interest and therefore sells papers. Science isn't always interesting to the masses.

      Another problem with mainstream journalism, and some pseudo-scientific publications may fall victim to this as well, is puff pieces that are written by PR firms. Much of what you read in the mainstream news, especially in the "Lifestyles" secti
      • I remember an essay by Paul Graham: "The Submarine [paulgraham.com]", where he discusses the effect of PR firms on journalism in general. Extrapolating from Graham's article, it seems like an honest blog by someone genuinely interested in scientific topics might be a better place to get good science news than mainstream media. Heck, in many of the science articles here on /. it seems that some of the comments make for better science reporting than the articles themselves.

    • Read "The Economist" (Score:3, Informative)

      by mbkennel (97636)
      A mainstream news magazine which can, in fact, get science generally correct.

      As well as most of their other reporting. They have a clear editorial bias, but it is at least open, and mostly rational unlike the Wall Street Journal (editorials).

      Yes, I am a professional scientist myself, and I have fairly high standards on this. The Economist does well, sometimes the NYTimes science reporter, and few others.
  • by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:37PM (#13535228) Homepage Journal
    and that's about it.

  • by curteck (910935) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:37PM (#13535232)
    ...a scientific article stating that 73.3% of all scientific studies and statistics are wrong...
  • by magarity (164372) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:38PM (#13535233)
    Reporters who have never touched a rifle report on the military, reporters who grew up in the city report on farming, reporters who never broke a sweat at heavy labor report on construction projects...
     
    Actually, this is a lot like public primary education where teachers without specialties in any field teach specific specialty classes.
    • The difference is that journalists covering those other fields they know nothing about are expected to do their homework and, by the time they finish writing the story, know something about it. They don't always succeed, of course, but the editors' and readers' expectation is that they'll at least try. When it comes to reporting on science, OTOH ... well, TFA has it exactly right.

      One point that's touched on in TFA, but perhaps not given enough attention, is the spurious idea of "balance," usually personif
    • by jd (1658) <imipak @ y a h o o .com> on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:10AM (#13535370) Homepage Journal
      I'd be wary of a crime reporter who "kept current" by robbing the bank every time they went on location.


      A science reporter doesn't have to know the subject, but they DO need to know how to do critical thinking. (Which, IMHO, is important for any journalist who wants to have integrity.)


      Most importantly, they need to know:


      • How certain are the scientists of their result?

        • Statistics will usually be given with a percentage, which indicates the highest confidence level that can be given to the results. Because of the curious nature of statistics, these are given as the area of the tail on the stats chart, not the body, so the LOWER the percentage the better. A 5% confidence limit is generally regarded as evidence of a total LACK of confidence. You really want 1% or better. You'll see some results, though, with a confidence limit of 10% or even 20%.

      • How well-designed was the research? (ie: How ambiguous was it?)

        • The "null hypothesis" (what you are trying to disprove) should be something clearly-defined, with well-known bounds. It's preferable that the "null hypothesis" is whatever would be either whatever the system would naturally gravitate towards, or the norm, whichever you know better.


          In non-statistical studies, you use basically the same method. You assume that whatever you are testing shows nothing at all different, and attempt to falsify this hypothesis. It is extremely dangerous to go looking for something specific, because you'll normally find it - even when it's not there.


      • Were the scientists unduly influenced? Did they have a disposition towards a certain result?

        • You can pay a scientist - or anyone else - to say anything you like, if you've enough money. What they say, then, is important only if they have credibility as an impartial observer. As most science, these days, is funded by corporations, this is unbelievably scarce. However, paid-for work has zero credibility unless it can be verified by an impartial observer. At which point, it is still the impartial observer who matters, anyway.

      • Do the results actually say what the scientist(s) say they do?

        • This one is hard to guague, if you're not in the field, but you can look for tell-tale signs of a problem. If you can't see the methods used, if they didn't keep logs or lab notes of what they did, if they are vague about how you get from the data to the conclusions - these should tip off any competent journalist that something isn't right.


      • by orac2 (88688)
        This one is hard to guague, if you're not in the field, but you can look for tell-tale signs of a problem. If you can't see the methods used, if they didn't keep logs or lab notes of what they did, if they are vague about how you get from the data to the conclusions - these should tip off any competent journalist that something isn't right.

        I think that you make some excellent points, but I'm afraid that ferreting out the state of logs, raw data, notebooks, etc (even to verify that they do in fact exist in a
      • by Decaff (42676) on Monday September 12, 2005 @01:20AM (#13535604)
        You can pay a scientist - or anyone else - to say anything you like, if you've enough money.

        Not my definition of a scientist.

        What they say, then, is important only if they have credibility as an impartial observer. As most science, these days, is funded by corporations, this is unbelievably scarce. However, paid-for work has zero credibility unless it can be verified by an impartial observer.

        This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is for and how it works. Virtually all scientists do science for one reason - to discover things. They will use whatever funding they can get in order to do this, but this does not result in them producing false results - what would be the point? Corporations pay scientists in order to discover things. If they wanted biased results they could simply make them up! Furthermore, any scientist caught deliberately publishing false or biased data would find their career cut short.

        Of course paid-for science (like any other) has to be verified, but to suggest that it has 'zero credibility' is to seriously misrepresent science and scientists.
    • Not where I come from. The country report is done by people from the bush. City reporters wouldn't understand the issues, so they wouldn't ask the right questions, they'd write incomplete stories that wouldn't fly...

      To address your examples specifically, not everything in the military is about rifles. Oftentime, what happens in the military can be the same sort of thing that can happen working for any other larger employer: people are concerned about pay, health care, retirement benefits, etc. If commentary
  • by supabeast! (84658) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:39PM (#13535238)
    "Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?"

    Because those things get ratings. Nobody wants to hear the truth - to most people it's boring and threatening.
    • It isn't just science journalism.

      Newspapers hype everything and do their best take things out of context.

      A few headlines that would show that this is not the case:

      • Bush average president, but life good anyway
      • Terrorism overestimated to keep Pentagon funding, chance of dying from terrorist hugely less than that from auto accident.
      • US not major player in dispute, but analysts claim everything result of US.
      • Technology keeps on gradually improving but nothing really huge happening this year
      • Unemployemnt wi
  • by Velox_SwiftFox (57902) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:40PM (#13535245)
    It resolves things. Jornalism is about exciting people into anxiety about whatever important (preferably unsolveable) problems or stupid crap is available at the time to do it with.
  • by sasha328 (203458) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:45PM (#13535266) Homepage
    It looks like he's found:
    So far I have captured the formulae for: the perfect way to eat ice cream (AxTpxTm/FtxAt +VxLTxSpxW/Tt=3d20), the perfect TV sitcom (C=3d[(RxD)+V]xF/A+S), the perfect boiled egg, love...
    Wow. Icecream and Love. What else would anyone want in life?
  • by postbigbang (761081) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:56PM (#13535315)
    About 80% of the zines on the stands are owned by just a half dozen publishers these days. Their job is to sell zines, not benefit scientific understanding, unless their readership has some decided and saleable interest.

    Journalists, bless them, aren't often scientifically trained. Look at the poor quality of the computer industry zines of the late 90's and early 00's. Most them are gone, and good riddance, These guys were better at covering sports than bus architectures and burgeoning CPU and OS monopolies. Getting scientists to write cogent articles for people that aren't buying an academic/discipline article is really tough. They get no recognition for that, just some cash. Only a few scientists can cross over to mainstream writing and be successful more than their research career gave them. So, there's a good reason why we don't get good science writing: publishers don't understand the need for quality; researchers are busy publishing in journals within their disciplines, and journalists make rotten scientists-- but better beer drinkers.
    • About 80% of the zines on the stands are owned by just a half dozen publishers these days. Their job is to sell zines, not benefit scientific understanding, unless their readership has some decided and saleable interest.

      The mistake many people make is in thinking that the current situation represents some change from a golden past - it doesn't. Even if all the magazines on the stands were each owned by an individual publisher, they'd still be mostly interested in selling magazines and making a profit.

  • by WombatControl (74685) on Sunday September 11, 2005 @11:57PM (#13535322)

    Michael Chricton had an excellent piece on the decline of science reporting in an address at Caltech [crichton-official.com]. His observations should be required reading because they get to the heart of what's wrong with "science" these days. (I use science in quote marks because it's only tangentally related to real science.) A sample:

    Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible. In one context, maybe you will get some mobilization against nuclear war. But in another context, you get Lysenkoism. In another, you get Nazi euthanasia. The danger is always there, if you subvert science to political ends.
    That is why it is so important for the future of science that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly-and defended.

    Hell, I remember as a kid reading "50 Things You Can Do To Save The Earth" or some other such claptrap that argued that some massive amount of the rainforest disappared every day - and a little multiplication found that if such a figure were true the rainforest (and all forests on Earth) would have disappared in a year.

    Whether "intelligent design" or "global warming", science is being used as a tool of politics - which is something it is not and never should be.

    • It's always kind of amusing to see Crichton held up as a model of scientific thinking when, in fact, he's built a career on playing to people's worst (and silliest) fears about science. AFAICT, he's just as anti-science as the most rabid creationist, only in a different way.
    • Comparable?! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by 246o1 (914193) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:59AM (#13535533)
      Let's see if this is right: 1) Michael Crichton's remarks on science in the media should be required reading/hearing. 2) Intelligent design, which is predicated on the assumption that nothing is knowable (the acceptance of extra-natural forces in nature rejects the knowability of all natural science), is of equivalent validity to global warming (as Crichton tried to argue in his last bit of pandering pulp). The difference between the two theories, besides the fact that they are often on different sides of a political divide in America (no doubt the reason you chose them as your examples), is that one of them is science, the other is fundamentally un-science. Intelligent design is not only unproven, it is un-provable and also not dis-provable. Global warming, while still a topic of debate among a certain fringe, is as scientific in its predictions and foundations as any environmental science can be. While many physicists and the like may look down on environmental science, they'll be wishing they'd listended a little more closely when their coastal homes get destroyed.
    • It is caused by the Flying Spaghetti Monster as punishment for the fact that too few of us wear pirate regalia in his honor. The evidence on this [venganza.org] is very clear.

    • by StefanJ (88986) on Monday September 12, 2005 @01:06AM (#13535561) Homepage Journal
      Here's a nice analysis of the dubious claims made by Crichton in his speeches and in the footnotes of his novel State of Fear.

      http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74 [realclimate.org]
    • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Monday September 12, 2005 @01:14AM (#13535588) Homepage Journal
      >Whether "intelligent design" or "global warming", science is being used as a tool of politics - which is something it is not and never should be.

      You can't do this by reading the mainstream press, but on the web you can disentangle scientific information from politics by reading what climatologists think [realclimate.org]. That site draws a sharp line between political questions (should we ratify the Kyoto treaty?) and scientific questions (why do ice ages end before CO2 levels go up?).
  • by i_should_be_working (720372) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:00AM (#13535335)
    1) 'Breakthroughs' overhyped as if they're about to change everything. We see this all the time on /. 'Breakthrough in quantum-computing/ nanotechnology/ quantum-cryptography' The stories are overhyped 'cause it gets readers. Then here we get a bunch of armchair scientists hypothesising about the terahertz fast, petabyte large, unhackable computer everyone will have next year.

    2) The media focusing on one or two scientists as if they have the ultimate say in how things are. Ignoring the fact that scientists aren't some monolithic beast with one scientist at the head.
  • by JChung2006 (894379) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:00AM (#13535336)
    that the article's author just got dumped by his "humanity graduate student" significant other.
  • You can apply this to any subject of journalism, not just science. There is no grand conspiracy, as the poster seems to think.

    Journalists exist to be published. That is their function -- that's what they love, to see their name in print. They don't really care what they say exactly; they only care that their article pleases their editors, which in turn sells more newspapers or magazines.

    I got a real education when I lived next door to a fairly high-up Sports Illustrated reporter. In watching him do his work, he would basically try and find an angle, and then shape the facts to fit his angle. Technically, he wouldn't "lie", but he would definitely flake and form things to give the impression that he'd decided to write ahead of time. That was generally for background pieces that he would write, but even for sporting events he followed that formula. He would write his article before the event had even finished, sometimes with multiple endings in case things went for one outcome or another (this is Standard Operating Procedure in the industry).

    In realizing his "algorithm" to producing articles, I began to look at other journalist articles. And lo and behold -- I saw the same sort of pattern. When you realize this, you can see the "angle" they've decided to write, and the pattern shows up like a flashing red light. All the successful ones do this. They decide ahead of time what would make an exciting article to write.

    This is why people get misquoted all the time. It's because when a journalist talks to someone, they aren't interested in what that person has to say, they want specific quotes that they can use to back up whatever they are writing.

    • by aussersterne (212916) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:51AM (#13535495) Homepage
      I work in "the industry" (media/journalism/publishing) and I can tell you that it's nothing to do with wanting your name in print.

      The fact is that this is capitalism, not some grand inquisition for the truth. No paper will flat-out lie because that would ultimately hurt sales, but papers and media outlets do and will push the truth as close as possible to sex, violence, or rock and role in a bid to increase sales.

      You can't say "well, my writing will have integrity and I won't sensationalize" because then you simply won't sell while your competitors' editions about the end of the world being caused by radioactive cheerleaders are selling like hotcakes, and soon your paper won't be in business anyway.

      The general attitude of our culture has a lot to do with sales, too. The buying public does not like harsh realities. They won't buy truth. They want to be "inspired." They want stories that tell them that they are in control--that if you just "believe" in something, it will happen, or that love conquers anything, or that the affair they're having is okay because 75% of the other people in the country are also having one, etc.

      Basically, because we live in a capitalistic economy, copy must sell in order to continue to be written. Fiction and reader-affirmation sells. Truth and harsh facts don't.
  • by orac2 (88688) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:15AM (#13535390)
    I think the type of publication is a very significant contributor to the prevalance of Bad Science reporting, even more so than the article's thesis of "Humanties Majors run amok."

    If you look at many general interest news publications, whether they be monthly magazines or daily papers, you'll find they don't often even have a dedicated science reporter. Even when they claim to, it's really a "Health" reporter, who's often much more likely to cover the latest exercise craze or green tea fad than actual metabolic research from the NIH (incidently, at least one major science journalism prize now specifically excludes "health" articles for this reason.) Even when they do have science reporters, the Guardian's article makes a good point: unlike the financial or politics pages, the science beat reporter must assume no, or very little, prior knowledge of science, and this is enforced by their editors. While this may (sadly) be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, as scientific literacy among the public is appalling, you can see how it's a vicious cycle kind of thing. And it's the rare general interest publication indeed that would have more than one staff reporter or editor dedicated to covering science.

    But I think there's still good science journalism out there, in the science and tech magazines, like New Scientist or Discover. Not only can you assume the audience knows what the terms "volt" or "DNA" mean, you can get much more space to give a real explanation of what's going on. While stories are still supposed to be timely, they're not usually tied to the daIly press release cycle either. And this type of publication is much more likley to employ people with science backgrounds. Here I should state my possible bias: I'm a science journalist for a monthly emerging technology magazine with a university education in experimental physics! But I should say that one of our best writers here, if not the best, was an English major in college. But after a few years now on the semiconductor beat he probably knows more about, say, dielectrics, than I ever did, not least because he had the time to learn, time often in short supply when one is the sole science reporter on a newsstand publication, and so have to cover the entire scientific waterfront. Reporters for science/tech publications can usually focus on a few areas at a time and really learn them in depth, and that makes a huge difference.

    This is why I feel the publication makes a much bigger difference than some seething secret Romantic resentment from journalists to the quality of science reporting. It's the publishers and editors which set the standards for articles, not individual reporters, after all.
  • Humanics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:23AM (#13535416) Homepage Journal
    The real problem is the perpetuation of a war between "science" and "humanities" students/grads/researchers/writers. Even this Guardian article points its (stereotypical) criticism at "humanities" people, implicitly defending "science" people. Humanities writers, including many "social scientists" like historians (and especially the underlooked lawyers in that class), are just as antipathetic.

    The division itself is a disservice to each profession. Scientists have to communicate science with humans, even other scientists. And humanities workers, even mere newpaper reporters, are governed by physical laws of evidence, causality, statistics. We're all in it together. And we all have to realize that we've each got our own languages, from mathematics to hiphop, that are just ways of representing the real world we're all struggling to understand and share with each other. Prioritizing one of those aspects is no excuse for neglecting competence in another. And seeing the struggle as scientist against humanist discards the real struggle, against misunderstanding and ignorance, thereby working for the enemy.
  • by Ogemaniac (841129) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:33AM (#13535435)
    Unfortunately, science via the media is almost worthless, and there is a pretty broad consensus around here from what I can tell. It is even worse when politics are involved. Here is my reasoning as to why.

    1: Scientists who work in a particular field are self-selected to work in that field. Of course a cancer researcher thinks fighting cancer is important, or a global warming researcher thinks protecting the environment is important. This is not meant to attack these people, but I hope that you realize that one should take account of this when listening to their opinions. The result of this is one layer of hype for their research.

    2. The second layer of hype is funding. If you want money to cure cancer, save the planet, or build better Legos, well, the first step is to scream bloody murder about how big the problem is and how wonderful your solution is. Like it or not, but scientists have every reason to hype their research - and as a research scientist myself, I can assure you that this is the way things really happen. This is a second layer of hype.

    3: Then we get to the media, which receives this already-double-hyped information from the scientists. Well, what is the media's job? Selling information...and we all know their basic strategy is....hype!. So the "science" the average Joe reads in the newspaper is now triple-hyped.

    4: Finally, we get to the big issue - politics. Most politicians get their information not directly from scientists, but from various media sources, lobby groups, and think tanks. But as noted, this information is already triple-hyped. Do you want to guess what the politician does? He/she then selects the information that best backs his or her position, and then hypes it.

    By the time your favorite politician spews anything related to "science", you can be rest assured that it has been hyped so many times that it now bears no resemblance to anything approximating fact, and should be duly ignored. Before you start finger pointing, please get over the fact that both parties do it and are equally as bad (research anything related to Republicans vs Global Warming, or Democrats vs genetics/race/sex for all the anti-science details).
  • US Centric Post (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rolfwind (528248) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:45AM (#13535474)
    Perhaps it has to do with our daily TV & pop Magazine (Times, Life) and Newspapers that assume we're stupid and write/talk/present things to us as if we're at the 6th grade level.

    If that's all you see, read, or hear 90% of the time - it will eventually filter down into your communication unless you actively prevent it. It will eventually spread to all media.

    The british newspapers, I'm told, write at a 12th grade level.

    If you ever watched the Daily Show where they showed the difference between George Bush's Social Security town hall meetings and the one PM Tony Blair did before his election - you will see the stark contrast in how the media treats it's viewers - intelligent adults vs. idiotic grown children.

    (In short, it was 1000000 x more confrontational with people asking intelligent questions versus here where everybody had to kiss GWB's balls to ask a stupid & simplistic question)

    I tried to find the clip but I can't find it.
    • Interesting. I think I recognise your point although I should say its a little unfair to expect a US president to be able to cope with the situation Tony Blair put himself in. As you might see on C-SPAN (I'm told) Blair stands up answers direct questions for opposition MPs every week. Every week. And he's more or less in jail if he gets caught lying as well. So by the standard he has grown used to, a public Q&A session for Blair is a holiday. British voters demand a level of oratory from their politicia
      • Re:US Centric Post (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rolfwind (528248)
        Actually I would think that difference only underlines as a product of my domestic media and it's weakness and not an inherent difference between our peoples.

        Our media willingly plays softball with politician X - they get invited to the news conference or WhiteHouse or some such as a reward.

        If the media banded together and refused the politicians coverage that the politicians so desperately seek - politicians would be willing to answer hardball questions.

        But they are let off the hook and the spin gets out t
    • Re:US Centric Post (Score:3, Interesting)

      by skwang (174902)
      One should point out that George W. Bush's Social Security town hall meeting was a scripted event. That is to say the audience members were screened beforehand and the questions known to all. While President Bush had to give real answers and the questions were real (albeit softball) the whole event stank of spin. I didn't take it seriously and neither should you.
  • by BlightThePower (663950) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:55AM (#13535515)
    As a scientist myself I'm very unhappy about the way the reporting of science has created a vicious circle. Journalists misreport science, the article comes up with some arguments as to why but in the end I'm tempted to think it has a lot to do with trying to summarise very complex things when you don't entirely understand them. But scientists are also to blame here; there is a general lack of both ability and interest in communicating our work more widely (the phrase "media don" is considered pretty offensive in certain circles). Unfortunately the kind of climate the journalists have created for us makes this venture even less appealing than it was in the first place. The eventual result is that people like myself don't like talking to journalists because we don't want to be involved in perpetrating a load of hype and making ourselves look unscrupulous in the eyes of our peers. The answer is probably getting scientists to try to write their own "popular" articles directly and to facilitate this would require that the systems that measure academic performance in terms of publication in impact-rated journals begins to pay some sort of recognition to activities of wider dissemination. Right now, you could be on the news once a week and have your own TV show discussing your work and it would do less (technically at least) to help you keep your academic job than publishing a two-page note in the back of an obscure journal. You might say that an academics job is to produce new research, not go on the TV. I think this is where the real question lies; what role should a scientist be occupying in the 21st century?
  • by Fractal Dice (696349) on Monday September 12, 2005 @12:56AM (#13535518) Journal

    What interests me is how good astronomy reporting seems to be compared to all other science reporting. It faces the same guantlet as other articles, avoids the math and loves to fear-monger possible disasters, but somehow it seems to communicate the more-or-less current theories in a way that seems understandable, interesting, even inspiring.

    Is it a difference in how the media approaches the subject? Astronomy seems to have an aura of purity (biology seems to only be reported to create ecological or evolutionary flamewars; medicine research sounds more like infomercials than news; engineering ... well, doesn't exist in the media). Have astronomers learned how to package their data/analysis in nice neat packages?

  • by sam_handelman (519767) <.skh2003. .at. .columbia.edu.> on Monday September 12, 2005 @02:18AM (#13535773) Homepage Journal
    He begins by claiming - and at this point no one familiar with it will argue - that science journalism is in a sorry state. He provides ample evidence of this, should anyone be inclined to disagree, and it is persuasive, as far as that goes.

    The article then descends into a completely unsupported, purely imaginary tirade against the humanities, romanticism, "cultural relatvism"(by which he means what exactly?) and the hatred of science.

    He ascribes to each and every philosopher, the entire community of writers, artists and historians, and of course journalists, a heart full of secret malice arising from the repressed awareness that they have made a fundamental mistake in turning their back on reason and objectivity, which they reject absolutely.

    Does he have any evidence to back this, shall I put it lightly, extreme claim? He seems to believe it follows logically from the existence of bad science journalism, and maybe some anecdotal experiences he may have had (but doesn't much discuss) with jouranlists (N=1?)

    While we're making up sinister motivations, he couldn't get anyone in the humanities to sleep with him in college, so they all must hate science. Especially this particular "science communicator" woman, who, despite the fact that he is good-looking, has turned him down. I offer this up purely to demonstrate how ridiculous his assertions are.

    The article contributes in some small way to the (already overwhelming) body of evidence for the low quality of science journalism, and promotes a reasonable, but not particularly enlightening, classification scheme for bad science stories.

    But does he go through the articles he has collected as "specimens" in any systematic way? Does he actually check the educational background of the authors? Try to find real causal relationships?

    No, just like the bad science journalism he lambasts, he presents THE REASON that bad science journalism exists and expects us to believe it's true.

    At the very end there is a tantalizing mention of the process by which university press releases are converted into news articles, along with some unsubstantiated claims (which I do not think are true, but I'd like to see some hard numbers) about the qualifications of the individuals involved at various stages of the process. If he'd thoroughly investigated that, reported what he'd found, and then given some kind discussion of that finding, maybe this would be an article worth reading.
  • by xPsi (851544) on Monday September 12, 2005 @04:43AM (#13536123)
    Here is an except from an article entitled 'Doomsday Fears at RHIC' [findarticles.com] published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1999 that addresses some of these issues of science reporting (more from the alarmist misinformation than pure ignorance or apathy side). The main article was originally discussing the various doomsday scenarios that were bandied about when the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider was about to be turned on.

    On one level, the answer is obvious: scientists, members of the media, and the public, using open lines of communication, need to work together to combat ignorance. However, the tension between the three sectors is clear. One can't help but wonder if the public and the media perceive scientists to be so righteous and arrogant that, out of spite, they simply want them to be wrong. And let's face it, some scientists clearly enjoy the wall of mystique and complexity surrounding their fields of expertise.

    Personality conflicts aside, if a member of the public reads an article from a major news source that quotes experts who claim doomsday is nigh, this should be a cause for rational alarm. Public safety is clearly important. However, individuals should act responsibly on such concerns. People have a right to demand accurate media reporting, but they also have a right to demand clear and unpretentious explanations directly from experts--especially when safety is a concern. Physicist Daniel Cebra, director of the Nuclear Group at the University of California at Davis, and active member in the RHIC project at BNL, personally phoned a number of openly worried members of his small community to calm fears after seeing their letters in the local paper. These individuals demanded a response from an expert and got it. This kind of outreach can only improve the relationship between the public and the scientific community.

    However, if a scientist generates a media event by using phrases that are flippant, "brutally frank," or unintentionally alarmist, they probably need to rephrase themselves to match the language of their listeners. Mismatches between colloquial and technical language are at the source of much turmoil between science and the media. For example, scientists often speak differently from nonscientists when it comes to assessing degrees of probability. When expressing a "scientific opinion," without the direct benefit of experiment, most scientists are open to possibilities and enjoy using their imaginations as much as anyone else. A priori, truly unquestionably impossible things are indeed rare. If one discovers something that is really absolutely impossible, that's important and you remember it. Everything else can be categorized in varying degrees of possibility ranging over many orders of magnitude between probability equals zero and one. Considerable room for smallness exists between those two numbers. There is an art to assessing such probabilities responsibly and appreciating "effective impossibility" when you see it. But there is also an art, which many scientists seem to lack, to expressing impossibility to nonscientists; scientists feel guilty saying something is unquestioningly impossible. Consequently, ask a scientist if something is "possible" you may be asking for trouble. Be prepared to have all of your fears and fantasies confirmed with a heavily qualified "yes, but.[ldots]"

    In turn, scientists should expect the public and the media to be able to apply basic critical thinking skills in order to process important information. Complex and heavily qualified answers from scientists are usually nor the forte of the public nor the media. Shades of possibility are generally ignored. Depending on the audience, events tend to be divided sharply between two choices: "possible" and impossible. In our cynical culture, raised on Murphy's Law, many interpret the word "possible" to mean "if the outcome is bad, it will happen; if the outcome is good, it won't." Many responsible atte

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