Nature Commentary Highlights Difference Between Science Journalists and Science Communicators

Former BBC science editor Susan Watts made some thought-provoking points a Nature piece headlined, Society Needs More than Wonder to Respect Science.

The piece starts with an observation that television stations, at least in Britain, are using scientists for “expert” commentary on science stories, whether or not the news in question has anything to do with these scientists’ fields. Such science communicators are great for generating excitement and wonder, she argues, but they aren’t journalists, and therefore don’t do much to expose what she calls “the murky underbelly of science.”

There is a fundamental difference between science communication and science journalism. At the science communication end of the spectrum sit the stories that show people how exciting science can be, the discovery of a wonder material, perhaps, or a new subatomic particle. Explaining the significance of sightings of the Higgs boson or of gravitational waves from the early Universe takes real skill.

Science journalism's job is to tell the stories that explore the murky underbelly of science, like the selling of bogus stem-cell cures to vulnerable patients. It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.

The distinction is equally important in the world of print/internet science writing, though it may make more sense here to distinguish not the people, but the activities – science journalism vs science communication. Journalism takes work and time – there’s the gathering of multiple perspectives and the providing of context, history and interpretation. And, as Watts points out, journalists aren’t supposed to promote science – they cover it the way journalists would cover the police, business people, or politicians. In all those areas of human endeavor, there are acts of genius, acts of courage, and mistakes.

It’s not just mistakes and blunders that journalists can pick up. It doesn’t take long in the science reporting business to find that if you call five scientists, you often hear five very different interpretations of the same experiment, observation or theory. Using just a single source would produce a lopsided, incomplete story.

Scientists who are good at explaining complex topics are a great asset, and having them on TV is certainly better than just skipping the science stories altogether. The danger comes in allowing them to make arguments from authority – telling viewers that something is true simply because they say so.  Part of the journalist’s job is to treat scientists as sources, asking them to back up their statements with logic and evidence.

Watts points out the value of having science-literate, math-literate journalists in TV newsrooms  not just for the covering scientific papers and extreme weather, but for a science-savvy coverage of the news:

If …..editors valued the input of journalists who have a science specialism in the newsroom every day, they would gain not only an eye on issues coming over the horizon, but also the day-to-day drip feed of a scientific perspective into all the stories that appear on a programme. That way, the scientific viewpoint becomes part of a programme's lifeblood, as it should be in a healthy, modern society, and not an added extra.

This is an incredibly important idea, and science and math literate people can improve not just television but all media. In my experience, even talented reporters without a science background have trouble understanding why it might be misleading to promote homeopathic medicine, or any other unlikely form of treatment. Intuition tells them that these things are likely to work unless scientists can "prove" they don't. Or to venture farther afield, how many editors at big news organizations would know how to analyze this statement:

 “Only one tenth of one percent of men who abuse their wives go on to murder them. And therefore, it’s very important for that fact to be put into empirical perspective, and for the jury not to be led to believe that a single instance or two of alleged abuse necessarily means that the person then killed.”

 The quote comes from one of the lawyers in the O.J. Simpson trial. It’s misleading because there’s a very important piece of information missing. Science and especially math-literate journalists can help explain what’s missing, why it matters and how it changes the equation. We can help expose not just the dark underbelly of science, but the murky underbelly of just about everything.

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