In her usual forthright manner, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder asks, by blog post and Youtube video, “Why does science news suck so much? It’s hardly an original question but among her suggested answers are some thoughtful reflections, including
9. Don’t forget that science is fallible
A lot of media coverage on science policy remembers that science is fallible only when it’s convenient for them. When they’ve proclaimed something as fact that later turns out to be wrong, then they’ll blame science. Because science is fallible. Facemasks? Yeah, well, we lacked the data. Alright.
But that’d be more convincing if science news acknowledged that their information might be wrong in the first place. The population bomb? Peak oil? The new ice age? Yeah, maybe if they’d made it clearer at the time that those stories might not pan out the way they said then we wouldn’t today have to cope with climate change deniers who think the media can’t tell fact from fiction.Sabine Hossenfelder, “Why does science news suck so much?” at BackRe(Action) (June 18, 2022)
The difficulty, of course, is that a great many people read science news looking for certainty — certainty of a specific type. People who worry about a rising human population, for example, want to be told that their fears are real and Something Should Be Done About It. They don’t want to be told that the birth rate in most places has been slowing for decades or that a key contributor to rising population is the fact that humans are not dying as young as they used to. That’s a big change but it’s not one that requires the prompt, authoritative action that would make them feel more secure.
Maybe we all feel the need for a bit of existential panic now and then. Science news is often carefully crafted to provide that fix. People who don’t need the fix can get as annoyed about it as Hossenfelder:
Their reporting, almost as a rule, seems more like they are crafting a press release than objectively probing the claims of their subjects, namely scientists. Although mainstream journalism as a whole has come increasingly to resemble state propaganda, there is at least, sometimes, a semblance of skepticism. What is it, then, with science reporters?David Klinghoffer, “Why Are Science Reporters So Credulous?” at Evolution News (March 21, 2022)
Well, in fairness, it’s not so much that science writers lack skepticism as that their skepticism tends to be a one-way street. The writers who would like to censor doubts about climate change today, for example, would probably have reacted in much the same way fifty years ago to doubts about the Population Bomb.
For them, science is, as Carl Sagan (1934–1996) put it, a “candle in the dark,” a certainty they can cling to in the (usual) absence of any religious commitments. But science is not well-equipped to bear that load.
Nicholas Wade, a longtime science writer for the New York Times, reflects on one regular feature of the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic: derision aimed at the hypothesis that the virus escaped from the Level 4 virus lab in Wuhan. But that derision did not spring from thin air; it served a purpose:
Unlike most journalists, science writers seldom consider the motives of their sources. Few or none remarked on Andersen’s deep personal interest in the result he was trying to prove. He and his colleagues concluded on January 31, 2020, that the Covid virus did not have a natural origin. But Francis Collins, then director of the National Institutes of Health, immediately decreed this view to be a conspiracy theory that will do “great potential harm to science and international harmony.” Not to mention to his own reputation and that of his lieutenant Anthony Fauci. Both have long advocated for gain-of-function research—enhancing the infectivity of natural viruses—and they funded such research involving bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Technology.
No scientist wishes to get on the wrong side of NIH administrators, the major funders of biomedical research. If Collins said the lab leak was a conspiracy theory, why then, so it must be. A mere four days later, Andersen changed his mind and derided lab leak as a conspiracy theory. No one in his group has provided a convincing explanation for this 180-degree reversal. Andersen’s new paper, if true, would go a long way to justifying his otherwise unsupported second take on the issue.Nicholas Wade, “Journalists, or PR Agents?” at City Journal (March 20, 2022)
In short, science writers were generally willing to ignore the obvious conflict of interest (NIH was funding virus research at the lab that it was claiming could not have been the source of the leak). Wade surmises,
Innocent of most journalists’ skepticism about human motives, science writers regard scientists, their authoritative sources, as too Olympian ever to be moved by trivial matters of self-interest.Nicholas Wade, “Journalists, or PR Agents?” at City Journal (March 20, 2022)
Ah, a clue… Consider the implications of the word “Olympian,” that is, god-like. When science becomes a substitute for religion or philosophy, it must bear the weight of being a certain kind of truth. The trouble is, science isn’t that kind of truth. As Wade worries in conclusion, the science journalist becomes a sort of PR agent for various science projects rather than an informed source of information about them, uncertainties, warts and all.
Social media has made this problem both better and worse. While it has worsened the spreading of sensational, distorted, and exaggerated science news, and the collapse of traditional news business models has gutted the science journalism infrastructure, it has also allowed for actual scientists to rapidly correct bad science reporting. There is more information and misinformation out there, and the consumer has to find a way to sort through it all.
The entire situation can be vastly improved, however, if scientists themselves take more responsibility for the accurate reporting of their own research.Steven Novella, “The Causes of Bad Science Reporting” at Science-Based Medicine (June 16, 2021)
It sounds inspiring. But does anyone believe that Francis Collins or Anthony Fauci would rush to “take responsibility for more accurate reporting” so as to point to the possibility that the United States was funding a gain-of-function virus research program that might have started the pandemic?
The lesson, alas, is quite the opposite, and it is a stark one: If journalists can’t be skeptical, no one in the system can.
You may also wish to read: Flailing news chain Gannett cuts back on opinion pages. Younger readers say they can’t tell the difference between news and opinion. Readers say they can get opinions anywhere online these days and op-ed pages have become dead space — among the least-read pages in the newspaper.
Have newspapers simply lost touch with the mainstream public? The depressing stats tell a tale that’s a bit more complex: Readers tolerate out-of-touch media less now because they we need them so much less. Some journalists, says the New York Times’s top editor, see Twitter as the public that matters. That’s why their news medium is doomed.