Winter 2005

Science and Journalism Fail to Connect

‘How can we expect Americans to know anything beyond what they happen to remember from science class? Journalists certainly don’t tell them.’

By Dan Fagin
Evolution is “only a theory.” Global warming is “unproven.” And science itself is “just another opinion.”

Critics of mainstream science seem to be everywhere these days, and we, as journalists, just can’t seem to get enough of them. It’s just about impossible to pick up a newspaper or watch CNN for an hour without being confronted by someone attacking ideas that most scientists think are so settled that they aren’t even worth discussing any more. Meanwhile, the topics that many scientists are working on—the almost daily advances in nanotechnology and genetics, to pick just two—are largely absent from mass-market media coverage. What’s going on?

Nearly 50 years ago, the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow published his famous “two cultures” essay, which deplores the widening gulf between scientists and their intellectual counterparts in the arts. If Snow was alive today, I think he might have extended his argument to apply to the chasm that now exists between science and just about everyone else in society, including journalists.

No longer seen as the public figures that many were in the days of Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, scientists now are more reluctant than ever to venture out of their ivory towers. Shunning messy public controversies, they tend to communicate only to each other and through the rarified language of peer-reviewed journals. Meanwhile, far below, where the air is thicker, warring special-interest groups hurl slogans and accusations, their every fractious word amplified by media companies struggling to catch the attention of a jaded public, if only for a moment.

A few respected scientists do make it a priority to speak out on the compelling issues of the day: E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, to name two, though neither has the public profile of his predecessors. And a few mass-market media outlets still cover scientific developments in a sophisticated way: The Economist and The New York Times, to name two, though neither is as comprehensive as it once was. The best coverage, as always, comes from many niche publications, but they reach relatively small audiences. Most consumers of news never hear about the work of contemporary science: the meticulous testing, honing and retesting of hypotheses—the process that ended the Dark Ages and continues to illuminate dark corners of our world.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that about 46 percent of American adults don’t know it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun, according to a 2004 survey by the National Science Foundation, and that more than half of Americans think the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, not 60 million years later. But those errors of fact aren’t nearly as damaging as the widespread ignorance of what “science” is and what it isn’t. Most of us know almost nothing about bedrock scientific ideas such as the importance of being able to replicate an experiment, the meaning of statistical significance, and the use of control groups. According to the same survey, for instance, most Americans wrongly think that it’s better to test a drug by giving it to 1,000 people than to give it to just 500 and compare their health to 500 others who weren’t given the drug. It turns out that most of us not only don’t know science, we don’t even understand why it matters.

How can we expect Americans to know anything beyond what they happen to remember from science class? Journalists certainly don’t tell them. When is the last time you heard a reporter explain in print or on the air that a scientific hypothesis is elevated to a “theory” only after it is supported by overwhelming observational and experimental evidence and is widely accepted by the scientific community? Sure, evolution is a theory—and so is Mendelian heredity and Newtonian gravitation.

When is the last time you heard a journalist explain that the scientific process is not about “proving” anything? Instead, it’s about constructing a hypothesis, disproving it, and then developing a better one that offers a slightly fuller explanation of the natural world as we experience it. The cycle never stops. Science will never prove, in an absolute sense, that emissions of carbon dioxide from man-made sources are contributing to global warming, but science can show—and has shown—that no other idea comes anywhere nearly as close to explaining what’s happening to our world.

And when is the last time you heard a journalist explain that science’s supposed “weaknesses” are actually its great strengths? Always self-critical, the best scientists freely acknowledge the uncertainties that remain in even the most sophisticated theories. That’s the way science corrects its mistakes, but it is a grave shortcoming in a sound-bite world that prefers brash sloganeering. Nor is science adept at feeding the media’s craving for novelty, since the credibility of science depends on a meticulous process in which each hypothesis builds incrementally on all the work that has come before. In science, nothing ever really comes out of left field. In journalism, it’s our favorite position.

Scientific Reasoning for Journalists

We shouldn’t be naive about efforts to bridge the chasm between mass-market journalism and mainstream science. The market forces driving journalism away from serious science coverage are too strong to wish away with a five-point action plan. But surely there are some steps we can take to improve coverage.

For starters, teaching journalists scientific reasoning is vital. We should give that training not only to reporters who are new to science-related beats, but also to those who cover business, politics, culture or work in just about every other corner of the newsroom, and to editors, too. In one way or another, all of those journalists cover science, whether or not they realize it.

Just as importantly, graduate and undergraduate journalism programs must offer, and even require, more science-related courses. Again, the emphasis should be on scientific reasoning, not merely the acquisition of dry facts. At New York University (NYU), I help to run a program that has been training science journalists for 24 years, but I also teach science writing to students in the general journalism department because we believe that journalists aren’t fully prepared to thrive in the professional world unless they know something about statistical analysis and the scientific method.

With this training, our goal should be to give reporters enough confidence to make reasoned judgments about the scientific legitimacy of competing arguments whenever they’re doing a story about a controversial issue, whether its global warming, stem cells, intelligent design, or something else. We need to show reporters how and why to resist the journalistic perversion of Newton’s third law of motion: For every assertion in a news story, there must be an equal and opposite assertion. Phony “balance” is the bane of science journalism.

And finally, we have to be obsessive about the importance of storytelling, especially in science journalism geared to mass audiences. At NYU’s Science and Environmental Reporting Program, even as we teach the subtleties of cutting-edge science, we never stop talking about compelling narrative, clear explanation, and coherent organization. Because if a reporter can’t tell a story, it doesn’t matter how much science she knows.

In short, we need to do all we can to show reporters how, even within the tight constraints of the sound-bite society, it is possible to cover science stories in ways that do credit to both science and journalism. Once we start doing that, you can bet your Bunsen burners that scientists will start climbing down from those ivory towers, and maybe our readers and viewers won’t be quite so quick to assume that all opinions are created equal.

Dan Fagin is an associate professor of journalism at New York University (NYU) and the associate director of NYU’s Science and Environmental Reporting Program. Now a writer of books and magazine articles, he was the environmental writer at Newsday for 14 years. In 2003, his stories about cancer epidemiology won both of the best-known science journalism prizes in the United States. Last summer, he was a Templeton-Cambridge Fellow in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge. Fagin is also a former president of the 1,500-member Society of Environmental Journalists.

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