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I have a theory about science journalism.

Well, perhaps “model” or “hypothesis” would be a better word. Also, the basic idea isn’t original with me, but I think I can pull together pertinent evidence from a wider variety of stories than most writing-watchers have done, thereby casting (I hope) a little more light.

I don’t know how many of my skeptical blago-friends are in the habit of reading Mind Hacks, so I figured I’d convey along this post by Vaughan about “electronic smog”.

The Independent on Sunday has the dubious honour of publishing one of the worst pieces of science journalism I have ever read on today’s front cover — claiming to ‘reveal’ that children are at risk from Wi-Fi computer networks because of their developing nervous systems.

The headlines include “Children at risk from electronic smog”, “Revealed: radiation threat from new wireless computer networks”, “Fears rise over health threat to children from wifi networks” and “Danger on the airwaves”.

This is despite the fact that not one single study has found a health risk for wifi networks.

Gotta love those extra letters in funny foreign words like honour.

It’s interesting that, at least in my experience, some of the more illuminating examples of the way science communication fails and pseudoscience thrives come from sites like Language Log and Mind Hacks, slightly off the skeptical beaten track. I suppose it just goes to show that creationism is not the sum total of human folly.

Earlier, I wrote a little about one example of bad science journalism caught and tagged by Language Log, the “female brain” nonsense of Louann Brizendine. If you want more in the same genre, check out Greg Egan‘s smackdown upon New Scientist and the “EmDrive” and Russell Blackford‘s description of media inaccuracies regarding Wikipedia. The first and last cases, in particular, are not exactly technical: they involve numbers but not theoretical physics. They are also, more or less, free from religious and political distortion effects.

I say “more or less” to cover the odd bits of trivia, like James Dobson’s uncritical promotion of the “women talk more than men” meme, or the three-week wonder which was Conservapaedia. Sure, there’s religion and politics in all things during these degenerate days, but they’ve affected the examples I listed far less than they have the public discourse on evolution and global warming.

I have lately been knocking around the hypothesis that in the limit of zero accountability, science journalism devolves, and all stories become one of a few archetypes:

  1. Scientists Glimpse God/Secret of Life. This would include anything like the COBE Cosmic Microwave Background results, about which Victor Stenger memorably said, “I’ve looked at the picture of the COBE results that has been widely published and am afraid I can’t make out the words ‘I am, who I am’ spelled out in the sky.”
  2. David vs. Goliath of Scientific Establishment. Into this folder go most of the free-energy schemes along with the pre-Dover reports on “Intelligent Design.”
  3. Think of the Children! Originally, I had only listed the previous two archetypes, but Vaughan’s take-down of the Independent story brought this classic trope to mind.
  4. Modern Science Confirms Folk Wisdom. Do women talk three times as much as men every day? Do men think of sex every 52 seconds? Studies say: no and no (the latter claim, it appears, is in fact off by 23,736 percent).

My little hypothesis is still too flexible to be quite falsifiable, of course. If you provide a counterexample, I just have to say, “That story’s not bad enough to count,” or I can add a new archetype to accommodate it. Still, I think it has some predictive power, and could potentially be sharpened into a useful idea:

Consider the popularized treatments of string theory presented in books by professional scientists. I’ve come across several of these, including the illustrated edition of Hawking’s Brief History of Time (1996) and the concluding chapters of Ian Stewart’s Flatterland (2001). They do their best to motivate string theory for a lay audience and give some flavor of the subject; Stewart’s treatment is noticeably more mathematical, but it ties up an entire book crafted to lead the reader into mathematics. Both treatments give clear indications of what has been done and what hasn’t, at the time of writing. Neither of them shy away from the prospect that the whole shebang will be a wash-out.

In other words, Hawking and Stewart are professionals.

Then consider what happens when this material gets boiled down for book reviews, magazine articles and so forth. Question marks become exclamation points; “may discover” becomes “will discover”. Caution grows into hype. We find ourselves living through archetype #1.

Next, along come Smolin and Woit with books full of complaints (some reasonable, some less so, and most requiring a physics background to grasp fully and debate clearly). What a wonderful opportunity to turn from scenario #1 to archetype #2!

George Johnson has traced this process by looking at New York Times coverage from 1985 to 2004. I’m having a Demiurge of a time getting the video or audio to play from the aforelinked site, but Clifford Johnson had this to say about the session:

He went back to look to see what exactly some of those early articles said. . . How much coverage was there to start with? When did it start? When did it begin get out of hand? Did it get out of hand? Is this all just part of a standard bubble that happens for any field that the press decides to cover, a sort of manufactured (my word not his) boom and bust cycle? All issues that were touched upon in the discussion. Note also that the discussion broadens out considerably -as it should, (finally!)- to talk about the broader issue of coverage of topics in physics and science in general. The positive and negative effects of press coverage on attracting the next generation of students was also discussed. The discussion (this aspect in particular) was especially interesting because of the remarks by a number of senior people in the audience who were able to talk about their experiences over the years having seen the cycles recruitment of students in their own departments.

And, in a later post, Johnson writes,

To those who know the field, it is clear that there’s a failure to present credible detailed arguments, which somewhat undermines their entire position, but to the general public it seems like it might be a balanced discussion between proponents of equally well established and well developed alternatives. It is frustrating, but that is the beauty of their ploy of turning this into a public “David vs Goliath” attack. The press love that sort of thing (it is one of the few ways they care to present a science story), and the representatives of the Goliath or so-called Establishment position can’t help but come off as complacent at the very least.

Back before he got into the storm-window business (2004), Chris Mooney wrote about this effect in the Columbia Journalism Review. The whole thing is worth reading (it’s one piece of evidence that Mooney has better things to offer than the memes which recently made all feverish), but I’ll only quote two paragraphs:

Journalists face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. First, reporters must often deal with editors who reflexively cry out for “balance.” Meanwhile, determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise on the issue at hand. Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they’re suddenly asked to cover.

Moreover, the question of how to substitute accuracy for mere “balance” in science reporting has become ever more pointed as journalists have struggled to cover the Bush administration, which scientists have widely accused of scientific distortions. As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who’s actually right.

In the limit as accountability tends to zero. . . .

As the silicon dioxide crystals of our lives slip through the hourglass, I’ll be posting more about the flaws in science journalism, doing my best to group the problems I find into a coherent taxonomy. I have a fair amount of stuff already written about this, floating out there in the Blagnet, and I’ll also be watching places like the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for more specimens. (The Tracker is definitely a handy tool, but I’m pretty sure nothing closes the “accountability loop” back upon the newspapers, magazines, editors and journalists.) In the meantime, enjoy the conclusion of the Mind Hacks piece which got me thinking about all this earlier this afternoon:

In fact, a recent study that measured wifi emissions found “In all cases, the measured Wi-Fi signal levels were very far below international exposure limits (IEEE C95.1-2005 and ICNIRP) and in nearly all cases far below other RF signals in the same environments”.

Personally, I’m more concerned about the smog that comes from whatever they’ve been smoking at the Independent on Sunday.



    • manigen
    • Posted Monday, 23 April 2007 at 09:32 am
    • Permalink

    I suppose this might just fall within “think of the children”, but what about categories for:
    “Oh no, we’re all (possibly) gonna die!”. This would include all those badly reported risk stories about apples/parking meters/shoe leather giving us all cancer/autism/wrinkled skin.
    “Staying alive is far too complicated for you to understand”. This would be for those stories that are the exact opposite of the ones above, where we’re told that without product X or diet Y we’ll all wither and die.

  1. manigen:

    Good points. I’ll hopefully be updating this rather crude taxonomy as time goes along and new examples arrive.

  2. This is wonderful – please keep up the good work. I hope when you’re done you’ll put the entire thing together into, at the least, a list of links to previous posts. Believe it or not there is a significant amount of hand-wringing about just these issues in the science journalist community. Most of us really do want to get the story right, and probably every one of us can name a time when we failed to do so in some large or small way.

  3. Christopher:

    Thanks for the kind words! I’m sure that I’ve explained things poorly or downright incorrectly more times than I can comfortably count (some of them doubtless immortalized out there on the Internet).

    CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

    I will probably re-post this “thesis” as I develop it, so that my revision process is at least partially transparent. My first detailed examination of bad reporting is the next post, New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere.

  4. Two archetypes common in the UK Newspapers are:

    1) X causes/cures* cancer. (*Ed. Delete as applicable)
    2) Apocalypse nigh. House prices affected

    Number one is the more common, and probably could be considered a sub category of Type IV story, using your new taxonomy.

  5. Does the often-seen “previous research all wrong; stop doing X (which we told you about last year) and start doing Y” fit into one of your categories? I’m thinking here of all the people who tell me they don’t trust science because obviously those scientists don’t know what they’re doing.

  6. I’d say that’s related to the “David vs. Goliath” archetype. If I rewrote this essay today, I’d spend more time talking about “Revolution disease,” the tendency for discoveries to get inflated and their place in the progress of knowledge misrepresented. This may be a superset of both your example and the David-vs.-Goliath case.

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