The big science reporting debate

The debate between pro-sensationalist science minister Lord Drayson and pro-detail science writer Ben Goldacre went ahead on the Times Higher Education website (archived here). Here’s a blog that covered the debate, though from the opposite side of the fence to which I’d take.

Drayson, who regular visitors here will know I’m really not a fan of, defends the sensationalist writers of quick science articles, saying it puts the articles ahead of other news items that may be on the page. However, as Goldacre points out, the soundbite science that gets through often isn’t the science that was meant to be reported – people listening to the debate on the evolutionary origins of evolution that raged recently might be interested to know the entire thing was based on a sloppy article later slated by the researcher.

The blog author also raises the ghost of putting outreach definitively into grants, forcing out simple summaries of the science. I can imagine that would actually force out quite a few scientists who are there to produce work, not spoonfeed people who want highlights without putting in the required effort. On the other hand, I would support scientists creating summaries of their work to speak to other members of their group on publishing and to have the relevant press officer there at the time.

The truth of science reporting, I’d say, lies between the Drayson-Goldacre positions. There’s no way a news article, linked to a press release, linked to a journal entry could be easily universally achieved. The journals wouldn’t like it, the journalists may not want every story triple checked by the commenting public and the step up from release to full blown journal article isn’t a small one. The next logical step from there would be to alter journal language to help with the step, and that would just be silly. As silly as demanding every scientist becomes a publicist, providing soundbite science rather than research the hard facts that are out there. Sadly this attitude under Drayson is affecting science funding (his department) as well as reporting as the research councils try to second guess him.

This isn’t a science only problem, every discipline outside of ordinary lives, from economics to the law via anthropology, medicine and history etc, is badly reported when it comes to the detail and the methodology. You can’t give your readers a university course every time a new telescope picture is out, but you can ensure there is someone on your newspaper or newspaper group who goes over the facts properly and checks them (as the blog entry I linked to also mentions). That’s all we can ask for, otherwise we end up with websites like this, from people who have heard the soundbites, but not understood the implications. An interesting cartoon on this subject is shown here.


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