Science sifters: How a good story relates to perfume and global warming

Science affects our lives in a cross-sectional way, everything from perfumes and languages to pop culture and photos. It links government policy and education. Science is life, especially for the 1-percenters.

The intersection of science and journalism has been overlooked. That’s why I value my role with the SciXchange program, where I teach journalism basics to undergraduate science majors.

Science affects everything so why aren’t journalists covering the topic on a more frequent basis than the occasional headline-grabbing storm, controversial discovery —DNA scandal! Alien arsenic scientist tells all! — or jargon-based debate?

Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s discovery of arsenic being used in microbe DNA at Mono Lake, Calif., set the scientific and journalistic worlds ablaze for the wrong reasons. Popular Science‘s article on the aftermath correctly places blame equally on the media and the scientists, noting “the entire affair was rife with oversimplification and unearned celebration.”

At the same time, Wolfe-Simon was misquoted and misrepresented by “scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths.”

There are a few fundamental problems that blockade good science journalism.

1. Finality
Scientists will say, “This appears to be related to that” because science is an ongoing process. Journalists, however, want a concrete statement for their readers. “This causes cancer. That doesn’t.” Correlations versus causations.

2. Speed
“The productive collision of ideas and personalities and opinions has long been refereed and filtered by science journals. If that process has made science seem, from a distance, civilized and rational, it has also made it slow and undemocratic” (from the PopSci article).

The gap is being bridged by the Internet’s “open science” and sites like Futurity and PLoS. Both allow science to reach the public faster, and ResearchGate is a new social network for scientists and researchers.

3. Stigma of journalism
Scientists can be outright shunned by their peers for talking to the media. In the world of science, published articles in academic journals are the currency. Journalism is perceived to stand in the way, partly due to Point No. 1.

Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of PopSci, wrote about this in his Oct. 2011 letter. “When we in the mass consumer media get our facts so wrong, we’re just validating the suspicion that scientists harbor against any colleague who would willingly enter our spotlight.”

4. Stigma of science
An old stereotype exists that goes something like, “Journalists are creatives, and thus, cannot comprehend math or science. Those topics are scary.” Frank Nuijens, editor-in-chief of the university newspaper and the science magazine at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, says some editors might think any journalist can cover a science beat because “it’s a matter of asking the right questions.”

“That’s partly true, but only a good understanding of the field you are covering lets you know what the right questions are.” These skills can be taught. There are training programs and fellowships.

Take environmental sciences professor Andrew Watson, of the University of East Anglia in England, and his answer to whether extreme weather is linked to global warming.

“My answer to this question as posed is no. However, if you were to ask instead whether I expect that human-caused climate change will lead to more extreme weather events, the answer would be yes.”

5. Bad and ugly
More than any other field — again, because science touches everything — there are piles of bad science out there. Although the Internet holds the future of open science, a definitively good move, the Web also complicates that same idea by conflating the good with the bad.

So…

Ideas, research, innovations and data are useless without a story. Even the dry, obtuse journal articles some scientists so covet are stories at their heart. And as Nuijens says, specialized content (hey, science) is how news outlets compete for audiences.

Those problems up there need addressed, surely, but the most important component to a future with solid science journalism will be the recognition of the need for better stories by both the researchers and the writers.

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2 Responses to Science sifters: How a good story relates to perfume and global warming

  1. David Sanders says:

    >Wolfe-Simon was misquoted and misrepresented by “scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths.”

    The above is a quotation from Wolfe-Simon, not a statement of fact, as it appears in your post. There were no strengths in the research. It should never have been published; the Science article misrepresents the data reported.

  2. Dustin says:

    The quote is from the PopSci article, where W.-S. was paraphrased.

    Full quote — “She told me she had been misquoted and misunderstood by both her scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths.”

    “No strengths” is too absolute. Also from the article:

    “In the meantime, Benner — who says he would be ‘more than astonished’ if arsenic replaces phosphorus in any genetically relevant molecule in GFAJ-1 — says Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is ultimately useful if it motivates people to look in new places and ask bigger questions.”

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