Thursday, May 14, 2009

Science v. Media

I had a recent comment on one of my older posts that reminded me why I'm writing a series of chemistry primers (at this stage, I may as well say I'm writing a pop-science book- there's so much to cover). The media really sucks at presenting and explaining science. It's a common gripe among professional scientists, amateur scientists, and educated followers of science. I didn't always feel this way, myself. I used to be quite optimistic about the state of science reporting.

There is an excellent book, covering much of the ground science has broken in understanding the natural world by a science journalist called, The Canon: A whirligig tour through the beautiful basics of science. It was written of course, by New York Times writer Natalie Angier, one of the better reviewers of scientific information. Mary Roach also, must be commended for her work in Stiff, Spook and especially Bonk, where she literally became a part of the scientific process. Miles O'Brien was always an excellent science reporter when he was at CNN, though his talents weren't appreciated there. He now writes at TrueSlant.

With science reporting of this caliber, I used to wonder just how bad things could be, what everyone was complaining about. It was then I realized that I'm a product of my own consumption- I don't watch the same TV the average American watches, and I don't read the same books. I mostly ignored the science sections of the papers because I got my information from places like ScienceDaily, science blogs that are linked to the right, and looking over journals themselves using my university library's privileges (they don't get ACS though- which bugs the crap out of me). Recognizing that, and looking around, I saw why scientists are so quick to complain, and I now complain with them.

When you watch television, say Larry King, a ridiculous story on UFOs suddenly becomes a two-sided controversy. Never mind that SETI has been working for years to answer the question, "Are we alone?" and that astronomers spend hours upon hours looking at the night sky. Larry King chooses to use the mantra of "equal time" to make his show more entertaining- not more accurate. Newspapers aren't much better- scary headlines sell papers and generate advertising revenue. The breast implant issue in the 80s was a clear case of a panic induced by the media. Reports of several published case studies involving women who blamed their connective tissue disease on their implants turned into a nation-wide scare. One woman who could not afford to have her implants removed picked up a razor blade and tried to do the job herself[1]. We know that such implants are not connected to connective tissue diseases. In fact, there was nothing more than a few anecdotes. Meanwhile every fringe scientist and quack was given a voice by the media.

The media is interested in entertainment and the sale of advertisement. Selling information is not in their job description because the consumer isn't paying for it. There is the popular delusion that a person is being informed by policies like "equal time". Maybe on matters of opinion this works- where everyone is working off the same set of facts, but there are many different approaches to the issue. For example, generally everyone in a community is entitled to have their ideas heard on what should be done with taxes, for example. In science however, being presented with an "equal time" discussion is like being given dog food and being told it's pâté. There is no way a layperson can determine just who is full of shit. (Some would argue there is no way to tell dog food from pâté, but I digress.)

The scientific method allows scientists to be wrong. Just because a study is published, it doesn't mean it's right! One study is exactly that- just one or a handful of scientists who think they have a good idea. Think of it as an internal memo to the scientific community, "Hey guys! I think we've found something here!" Then, other scientists who clearly understand the issues surrounding the experiment or study try to reproduce the results. This brings us to what at least one chemist terms ISHTAR. Irreproducible SHit That Aggravates Readers. When results cannot be reproduced, depending on the field, it can be extremely frustrating. Often enough, it means that the research was done improperly, or the scientist misinterpreted the data.

Generally, a study like this is a "no harm, no foul" kind of deal. If you publish too many such studies, your credibility may suffer and you'll have trouble getting funding, but there are no "science cops" who will come and hang you by your toenails while they tickle you mercilessly with a big purple feather. Scientists are wrong, happens all the time- then they go back to the drawing board and try to be right about something else. Or they can try to improve the data to see if they missed anything. Or they go completely the other way and conduct an experiment to definitively prove their old idea wrong. What a good scientist does not do is stomp their feet and run to the press claiming persecution. Like I said- there are no science cops to do the persecuting. The press of course, doesn't care, it snaps this sort of story right up. It isn't interesting to have a person on television talking knowledgeably of state-of-the-field research. What really gets a caterpillar in a viewer's shirt is when you pit the bumbling boring bozo against the magnetic malicious maverick. Controversy! Conflict! Sensation! Responsibility? Drama! Dynamism!

Not that this is new, Einstein's theory of relativity was sensationalized by the media, a case that is slightly different because Einstein was actually proven right. Yet in their rush to execute their rhetorical flourishes, the newsmen got things wrong, a writer in Berlin who interviewed Einstein wrote,

"It was from his loft library that he observed years ago a man dropping from a neighboring roof-luckily in a pile of soft rubbish-and escaping almost without injury. The man told Dr.Einstein that in falling he experienced no sensation commonly considered as the effect of gravity."[2]

One of the headlines on the article was, "Inspired as Newton Was, But by the Fall of a Man from a Roof Instead of the Fall of an Apple." Of course, this pleasant tale is entirely untrue. Einstein was fond of thought-experiments, and imagined the consequences of painters falling, riding along light beams, watching lighting hit rail tracks, and two dimensional insects. He couldn't have seen the sight described by the reporter because he wasn't living in Berlin to observe anything from that loft-window when he conceived on the theory! It was pure sensationalism.[3]

Sadly, even journalists who have a healthy respect for the scientific method and scientific discovery get things wrong. Roger Ebert famously once tried to write parody, only to have it fall flat. Not that journalists shouldn't try at all. His review of Star Trek mentioned a number of scientific issues that were right on the money, though it's mostly about the entertainment value- which is fine. Good reviews focusing specifically on the science can be found here and here.

Some have argued that things won't get better unless scientists make their fields more transparent. While I agree that more could be done to reach out to the public, this is only part of the solution. That's because the problem isn't the way scientists communicate to the public. The problem is the way the media serves as conflicted intermediary between any group and the public. The fact needs to be widely disseminated and cried loudly from every rooftop: "The media does not serve its consumers!" The media sells the attention of its consumers to the highest bidder, more attention, more money. The problem is greater than science in the media, the problem is the media, its methods, and the conflict of interest posed by its hunger for advertisers. This issue reaches well beyond accuracy in scientific reporting.

[1]Offit, Paul. Autism's False Prophets. Columbia University Press: New York, 2008. p.75.
[2] Quote is from- Isaacson, Walter. Einstein:His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2007. p. 266.


  1. Instead of a pop-science book, why not a pop-up science book? The media writes on a 3rd grade level.

  2. Instead of a pop-science book, why not a pop-up science book? The media writes on a 3rd grade level.


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