"There has never been a golden age of science journalism, but certainly there were more characters, better writers, more newsgathering zeal, and more originality in the recent past."
So writes a critic on The Huffington Post. Those are fighting words--and tired words. We've heard these criticisms before, and I should probably ignore them, but, as The Dude put it in The Big Lebowski, "This will not stand, man."
The critic is David Whitehouse, whose HuffPo bio says that he is an astrophysicist, a former BBC science correspondent, and the author of four books. Despite those bona fides, his criticism echoes down the line as if it were coming to us via a bad connection from the 20th Century.
He begins his argument with the contention that "science, and communicating science, is too important to be left to the scientists." It's unclear whether he believes that, or whether he's setting that up as an observation that he wants to challenge. In any case, as anyone who reads news online now knows, scientists are communicating to the public more broadly and effectively than ever before. Where once Carl Sagan stood, a thousand blogs now bloom. Science communication is clearly not too important to be left to the scientists.
With regard to his claim about "more characters, better writers, more newsgathering zeal," etc., in the past, Whitehouse doesn't offer examples. I'm prepared to say that he is flat wrong--and I was there. We had good science writers then; we have many more of them now. As an example, I offer the finalists in the Open Laboratory 2012 competition for best science writing online. Browse though them, and you will likely conclude what I did: We should not lament the loss of a once-upon-a-time science-writing Camelot. The time is now. This is Camelot.
I remember doing science journalism before the internet when we used fax, phone, crude email and ingenuity. Each science journalist on each outlet, be it broadcast or print, was working by the dead reckoning of their judgment.
I remember writing Nobel Prize stories for the AP from New York before the Internet, when an overworked AP reporter in Stockholm--one without any science-writing background--tried to explain over the phone what he thought the prize was awarded for, and I tried to make enough sense of it to write the story within minutes of the announcement. Under those circumstances, my dead reckoning was sometimes dead wrong. Ingenuity is great, but I'll take the Internet.
Whitehouse also makes the odd argument that the widespread availability of science news has led news outlets to become "bland clones" of one another. To me, the situation seems quite the opposite. With fewer restrictions on science news, the big news organizations can no longer manipulate the supply chain and dominate the coverage. With expanded competition, news organizations and science writers now have more incentive than ever to do good work.
I will grant Whitehouse a couple of points. Reporters are, as he says, far too dependent upon press releases. But that has always been true. And he says that too many science writers have become supporters, not reporters, of science. I've made the same argument myself. Writers and bloggers have every right to be supporters of science, if they choose, but we need a strong corps of reporters who see themselves as critics, shedding light in dark corners. It's fun--and important in a democratic society--to take a break from covering science news that everyone likes (Kepler 22B) and to write stories that nobody wants to see (as in many posts on Retraction Watch).
The only example that Whitehouse uses to make his case is that of climate-change coverage. Environmental reporters, he writes, are "far too concerned with doing down those they define as sceptics." On the contrary, I would argue that skeptics have received far too much coverage.
Whitehouse concludes with a prescription that I hesitate to follow:
Journalists...should not look to scientists for guidance anymore than an artist asks a bowl of cherries for advice about how to draw them!
I wish Whitehouse well with that one. I have a science degree (a humble bachelor's in physics) but if I'm writing about the Kepler mission, as I did recently, I'm not going to rely on my own evidence to challenge what scientists are telling me. I don't have any evidence. If I had a Ph.D. in planetary science and had worked on the Kepler mission for 10 years, I'd still rely on the other scientists on the team to help me understand the findings.
Once I understand them, of course, the decision about whether to be a reporter or supporter of science is still up to me. And the responsibility to write it well rests solely on me. We should not look to scientists for guidance on that.
- Paul Raeburn