Communication, journalism and bullshit

Jun 24, 2017

A week or two ago, a scientist impressed with The Wire‘s coverage of science recommended that I stick to covering the good stuff (my syntax) and keep away from highlighting pseudoscience and other happenings of questionable footing.
Then, a few days ago, a science writer expressed an adjacent set of complaints to me. He said that (a) he had a problem with most science journalism simply being science communication, and (b) that whatever was being communicated was invariably optimistic about science’s intention itself.
Both these men are expressing valid concerns – but my disagreement with them was almost immediate. And the reason I’m discussing them here is that the scientist’s advice and the writer’s first complaint allude to a common concern: do people know how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience?
It’s a skill many of us take for granted, often because we’re aware of

  1. The investigative methods of science
  2. Common sources of inaccuracy and imprecision, and
  3. The features of scientific publishing

– all topped off with a passing familiarity with subjects most often in the news. For example, almost everyone in my social circles will suspect a news article claiming scientists have successfully cloned a fully grown human being or resurrected a mammoth. But I can’t say that all my readers will be able to as well.
So covering pseudoscience and research misconduct is a way to, first, highlight the existence of these modes of interrogating a claim and, second, to encourage readers to employ them with every (scientific) claim they’re ever faced with.
Another way to elucidate these modes – and delineate more like them – is to communicate sound science (as distinct from addressing it as a journalist). A typical example of this is for the communicator to take up a seemingly complicated piece of science and break it down in such a way that you stay faithful to scientists and their work – as well as to your intention to ensure a non-scientist gets the science and its spirit.
To “let the science speak for itself” – as the scientist told me – first requires an awareness of the boundaries within which scientific claims must qualify themselves. In a country like India, I suspect (from experience) that many people are unaware of these boundaries. It might not even be far-fetched to say that, in these circumstances, science communication is a form of science journalism. And science journalism can only benefit from a readership that knows and asks the right questions.
I’m reminded at this point of the words of Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, p. 530):

The suspicion and fear of science [in the early to mid-nineteenth century] was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

Science can have these attributes (at times more so than we might like to acknowledge) and such effects, and that’s when science journalism – a la the writer’s second concern – is required. But it has to be preceded by science communication, or Gwyneth Paltrow is going to sell you her jade dildos. Or worse.
Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

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