Monday, September 26, 2005

Blueprint to improve science journalism.

Is there a way to get science journalism to work better? (What do I mean by “better”? The facts are reported accurately, and the non-scientist reader has a sense not only of why the science matters, but also of how the science was produced.) Could good science journalism go beyond helping people make rational decisions about what to eat, what to drive, and how to understand various bits of their world, to helping people have a better grasp of scientific reasoning — maybe even helping them see what is creative and beautiful and cool about science?

This post at Pharyngula has made me optimistic. PZ Myers, recognizing the good work of science journalist William Souder, reprints Souder’s take on why so much science journalism disappoints. It’s a beautiful analysis (where "it" = Souder, W. (2005) Of men and deformed frogs: a journalist's lament. In: Lannoo, M. 2005. Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. U. Calif. Press, Berkeley, pp. 344-347.), and, to my mind, it points to some ways in which things could actually be improved if journalists and scientists put their minds to it. I’ll hit the key points Souder makes, and the optimistic places my mind went envisioning solutions to the problem.

[R]eporters—and more importantly their editors—tend not to see science as a developing story, but rather as a perplexing and boring process that produces "news" only intermittently, usually in the form of a readily digestible "discovery." This, for the most part, eliminates from science reporting what is elsewhere the gold standard in journalism—enterprise. A reporter trying to cover an ongoing story in science is likely to find room for only fragments of it in the paper or on the evening news. Very small fragments. Image that newspaper and TV journalists reported the results of elections, but said not a word about the campaigns leading up to voting day, and you begin to get an idea of the disparity.

What would it take for reporters to view science as a developing story? Why not a radical rethinking of the “science beat”? Reporters in the field in research laboratories and at scientific conferences. Reporters getting a feel not only for how the research is being done, but what’s motivating it, and what surprising twists and turns present themselves on the road between formulating a question and coming to something like an answer.

I just can’t imagine that embedded reporters in a lab would get in the way any more than they do in, say, a military operation. Plus, they might wash some glassware while talking with the researchers.

[J]ournalists are overly reliant on findings published in the scientific literature. In most forms of journalism getting "scooped" is a disaster. In science reporting, it's almost a requirement. The surest way to convince an editor to go with a science story is to show him or her that it has already been published in a scientific journal—or, preferably, that it will appear in one on the very same day you are proposing you run with your version. Here, I think, journalism and science must shoulder the blame equally. Journalists, in choosing only to cover periodic developments, give a false picture of the nature of scientific progress. A paper in a journal reporting a set of findings rarely represents a comprehensive view of the whole field of knowledge about a particular issue; rather it is a snapshot of one facet of our knowledge, incomplete and lacking context. No wonder the public often sees scientific discoveries as contradictory of one another. The public—that is to say, you and I—may feel a little like it's listening to a radio broadcast of a football game in which the plays aren't reported, but only a score is given every few minutes. In a seesaw game (and science is very much a seesaw game) you would never know when one reality might supplant another. At the same time, the scientific community makes better, more continuing coverage of science difficult when most journals require researchers to embargo their findings as a condition of publication. Why don't reporters do a better job of keeping track of what scientists are up to? Much of the time it is because scientists keep it a secret. Embargoing scientific findings that are in press enhances the status and confirms the supreme power of scientific journals—but it inhibits a full public understanding of what science does or does not know about many subjects of vital importance.

Souder is quite right that keeping results close to the vest until your paper in Nature or Science comes out fosters a popular picture of science as a collection of results rather than an ongoing process that involves corrections. The public sees a see-saw when the view from within science is of a jigsaw puzzle with a gazillion pieces. What to do?

Well, the scientific embeds would help by reporting on other parts of the scientific process besides the results. The fear, of course, is that the dispatches from Dr. Smartguy’s lab would undercut Dr. Smartguy’s ability to actually bring results to press in a top-flight, peer-reviewed scientific journal. (Won’t Dr. Smartguy’s competitors become avid consumers of science news?) Who in their right mind would agree to let journalists observe them if it cuts into their publication record. (And then there are grant proposals …)

But surely, just as there are certain sensitive details journalists embedded in military operations cannot report, it should be possible to specify sensitive details in the lab that are off limits until a publication has seen the light of day. Even holding those details back, there are many interesting and important stories to tell about how scientific knowledge is built. Indeed, science journalism might allow for more stories about beautifully designed experiments that didn’t work and promising leads that haven’t panned out (yet) than do the scholarly scientific journals. (Really, though, this might be something the scientific journals should rethink. I would have found it enormously helpful, when I was doing research in chemistry, if there had been a body of research on experiments that just didn’t work on my system. Would have saved me some time!)

Peer reviewing, of course, is what makes a result scientific knowledge, endorsed by the community of science. So, there is a danger in reporting (even obliquely) results that haven’t yet gotten through peer review. So another change that might help here would be to speed up the rate of peer review. To do this without sacrificing the quality of peer reviewing, you’d need more qualified peer reviewers — and they’d need to have the time to actually work through the manuscripts at a reasonable clip. To make that happen, it might be necessary for scientists (and the institutions that employ them) to recognize peer reviewing as an important scientific contribution. I’m not saying that reviewing a manuscript should “count” as much as producing one, but it could certainly be counted more than it is at present.

On a related note, an important part of the science beat should include an examination of peer review. Why is it so important to science? How does the process look, through the eyes of the reviewer and through the eyes of the reviewee? Once a paper has passed through peer review, why is that not the last word on the subject (and how do scientists deal with post-peer-review differences of opinion)? If the lay reader got even a bit of her head wrapped around this, it would be a big improvement over the status quo.

Finally, journalists, and (to a lesser but still substantial degree) scientists as well, place an inordinate significance on human health concerns with respect to ecological problems. Human health, of course, is a paramount consideration, but you should not have to have evidence of people keeling over or growing extra legs to sell an editor on a story about deformed frogs (or ozone depletion, global warming, endocrine disruption, water scarcity, shrinking biodiversity, etc., etc., unto oblivion).

Did I mention that Souder wrote about deformed frogs? But the point is generalizable. There are plenty of stories about science that the public would benefit from knowing even if they don’t have immediate implications for what we eat or drive or whatever. My hunch is that the public’s natural tendency is to be curious about what scientists are doing and what scientists think they’ll learn by doing it. Only the combine force of science education that makes science seem boring and impossibly hard, and scientists saying, “Look, don’t worry what it does, you wouldn’t understand” has deadened this natural curiosity. (C’mon, people are curious about Paris Hilton. Ain’t no way Paris Hilton is more interesting than a superconducting supercollider!)

Here again, I think scientists need to help journalists to make the situation better. Scientists really need to work out at least a good cocktail party explanation of what they’re studying, how they’re studying it, and why it matters. And, the “why it matters” part needn’t be closely linked to human health or gas efficiency or economic productivity. Scientists, and science journalists, can help the public understand that sometimes we are benefited by simply coming to better understanding of a piece of the world that intrigues us. But, if scientists can’t explain why this matters, no fair blaming the journalists for not explaining it.

So, now that we have an idea what needs to be done, let’s get to it!

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