October 19, 2008

Science on reporting and journalism ethics.

I was just catching up on my Science Friday podcasts.

Ira Flatow had a great discussion with Harry Collins, Distinguished Professor at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University in Wales about how scientists are viewed by the public.

The talk was around why people don't believe scientists.

Collins made an interesting point that should be discussed more in journalism circles. With the Internet providing people with a lot of information that disagrees with the scientific community, real consequences to health and safety.

WE can see much of this in the way the U.S. government has treated science. When the Republicans took control of the Congress one of the first things they did was disband the Office of Technology Assessment. The replacement for the non-partisan body designed to advise Congress on scientific matters was a set of scientists whose research that was paid for by the tobacco or oil industries. Many of these were not involved in mainstream scientific research.

What happened is that suddenly science became "democratic" with people wanting to believe what they want and discard what they don't agree with. And they use the term "believe" instead of "accept."

And let's not forget a lot of the stuff put forward is trash science. Especially the whole intelligent design or creationism versus evolutionary science.

Over and over again evolution has been proven as a scientific fact -- testable and verifiable. While ID and creationism depends on "and suddenly a miracle happens." Hardly science.

And you can even go to people accepting the word of movie stars about what is good for your health over scientists.

A caller to the show wondered why journalists give equal weight in their reporting to the trash science and real scientists who follow the scientific method.

And this is there the problem is for journalists. We are trained to be fair to as many sides of a story as possible. Yet when it is clear in scientific issues -- think creationism v. evolution -- there are clear rights and wrongs. There can be debate about how the experiments were conducted and can they be replicated -- think of the cold fusion fakery of a few years ago -- but none when anything begins to involve non-testable methods.

So what is the responsibility of journalists when reporting controversial scientific issues? Do we have to give equal weight to spiritual or anecdotal sources when discussing scientific issues?

For my money, and for the sake of the future of society, any objections to a scientific theory based on spirituality should be mentioned as just that in one graf and then get the story back to explaining the theory and the debate WITHIN the scientific community.


1 comment:

Jed Rothwell said...

Cold fusion was not a bit fake. It was replicated thousands of times, in hundreds of labs, and these replication were published in hundreds of mainstream, peer-reviewed journal papers.

Comments like yours are ignorant and irresponsible. You should realize that peer-reviewed replication is the only standard of truth, and cold fusion has met that standard. I suggest you read the scientific literature before commenting on it. See: