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Should journalists second guess the scientific truth?

My agreement with Sean Carroll couldn't have lasted. Today, he wrote something pretty incredible.

In June, medical journalist Jeremy Laurance wrote a wise sentence about the science journalists' job:

Second, reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right.
Sean Carroll hysterically disagrees. The job for the journalists is not to be messengers but to authoritatively separate the scientific truthiness from the falsity, and promote the truthiness, we learn. I kid you not.

(Carroll uses the word "truth" instead of "truthiness" but it is an obvious mistake because the carefully described method how he found the T-word shows that the T-word is truthiness rather than the truth.)

How could a scientific journalist possibly determine what is the scientific truth? The scientific truth is gradually being approached by the scientific method (you know, the exercises that include experiments, calculations, logical reasoning, and possible exchanges with others who work on similar problems) - and journalists, pretty much by definition, are not too skillful when it comes to the scientific method. To say the least, they haven't dedicated enough time to the actual scientific research.

So it is simply impossible for them to reliably deduce which answers to complicated and controversial enough scientific questions are right. If they - or someone else - pretends that it is possible to decide scientific questions by the journalistic methods, it is the biggest falsity he can offer. It is the mother of many other falsities.




Can a journalist determine whether string theory is right or whether the eternal inflation ever took place or whether the 21st century change of the global mean temperature will exceed 1 °C? Of course, they cannot. At most, they can become mindless amplifiers of someone's beliefs - or their own preconceptions. But they shouldn't.

I have mentioned a few difficult enough questions. I think that no sane person can disagree with the statement that a journalist simply can't be trying to authoritatively answer these questions simply because he or she has no tools to do so whatsoever.

But we don't have to talk about eternal inflation. The average journalists' IQ is about 112, only 18 points below an average physicist, so they can surely bring you the truth about a dead polar bear if they see one in Great Britain, can't they? ;-)



Well, here it is. On Monday, British ITV has informed its viewers that a polar bear had washed up on a Cornish beach - in the seaside town of Bude. They have brought this truth to their viewers. It's very important for journalists to be the originators of the truth, isn't it? (Especially if it includes polar bears.)

Now, imagine what the viewers may be thinking about. The polar bear should be on the North Pole! Something is surely wrong! It's similar to Czech Yellow Sisters with white skin but a black soul who become Tubab Women (good song, isn't it?). :-)

Well, as you may expect, there is a small catch. The polar bear is actually ... a cow. ;-) (Hat tip to klimaskeptik.cz.)

This is just an example showing that journalists - and even teams of journalists - are incapable to figure out things that are empirically accessible even to little babies. How can they possibly "know" the truth about eternal inflation, string theory, or global warming?

Science journalists should know some science - the more the better - and some of them do. But if they gain the same power to redefine the truth by their reports as the scientists do by their research, you may be sure that the prevailing answers won't be scientifically valid.

But in his short text, Sean Carroll is pretty specific about additional scary details how he imagines the "proper journalists". He suggests that a journalist's job should be to communicate the official opinions of institutions such as GAO.

Now, GAO may have its spokesgirl whose task is to convince others about the exact opinions of the GAO itself. But such a spokesgirl should be visibly associated with the institution that pays her.

Should a journalist do the very same job as a GAO or IPCC spokesgirl? I can't believe that Carroll is serious. This is what we have already tried during Nazism and communism. You know, I have spent 1/2 of my life in a totalitarian system and I can assure you that what Carroll advocates is nothing else than a totalitarian version of "journalism".

If institutions are ever allowed to spread any information without any external checks, be sure that they will always start to abuse this fact for their benefit and the information always becomes - sooner rather than later - distorted or downright false. The risk that a possible inaccuracy will be found by someone "else" is the only factor that may systematically keep people and institutions honest and careful; no amount of uncritical "trust" towards an institution can ever replace this risk.

Journalists have absolutely no business to uncritically parrot some institutions' opinions, especially if there are other strong enough sides that disagree with these institutions. If 40%-60% of the viewers find it plausible that someone else than GAO is right about something, the journalist is simply not allowed to assume that GAO is 100% right.

Journalists' job is to honestly report what the different sides are saying so that the viewer can find the right information that seems relevant to him or her. But the journalists simply do not know which side is right and they should never try to pretend that they do. Even if they think that they have clear evidence that one side is wrong, they should honestly present the evidence to the readers and let them make the conclusions.

In fact, much of the contemporary science journalism is so lousy exactly because the journalists often uncritically copy press releases of official institutions; they don't really verify them. Even when a paper is published together with a press release and the press release says something that doesn't follow from the paper, most journalists will copy the press release.

This is not a job done by a proper journalist. A proper journalist must exactly go beyond the uncritical belief to anyone. His or her job is to find the relevant statements about the problem but his or her job is simply not to decide which of them is right. Even if one answer seems "95% certain" to a journalist, typically because of some sociological reasons, he or she should never try to "improve" this number to 100%.

It's just not his or her business to be shifting the odds in any way. Scientific answers should only be modified by scientific evidence, not by journalists who are (or want to be) overly active - if I have to choose very polite words for their lack of impartiality.

I just can't believe that someone may disagree with these fundamental principles of journalism. Fortunately, most Cosmic Variance commenters agree with me, including one who wants an exception for the climate reporting that should be biased.

You may object: a journalist is smarter or more well-informed than the average reader, so he's more likely to correctly decide who is right and who should be trusted. So it's useful if he or she "pushes" the reader, isn't it? Except that it's clearly not the case. For example, the average journalist's IQ is around 112, above the average person's IQ near 100.

However, the average reader's IQ is close to 112, too: less intelligent people can't read or don't read too much. So a journalist can't pretend that he is intellectually superior in comparison with the readers or viewers.

Can he argue that he has access to a wider reservoir of information? Yes, indeed, he or she should. At least, he or she should have spent more time by looking at the sources. But that's exactly what he should report. He or she should report the information he or she can access - instead of his or her own evaluations of what he or she can access. Journalists have a comparative advantage in the former activity (access to the sources) but not in the latter (evaluation of the sources).

Well, there can also be "smarter" journalists who are half-journalists, half-scientists. I have nothing against such intermediate possibilities. However, I have a problem with people who are obviously just average journalists and who try to act as the owners of the scientific truth.

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reader Jack said...

I am forced to agree with Lubos on this.


reader NChen said...

I'd never thought I defend a journalist but those advocates of truth-seeking in science journalism should be defended here. Granted, most science journalists are morons and consistently get the facts wrong or misleads the public.

On the other hand, your examples are in general, not appropriate. Of course the vast majority of journalists cannot decide the scientific merits of string theory and other complex problems. But there certainly are many kinds of issues they are or at least should be qualified to judge. Instances of scientific bias, of junk science or bad science which goes against a consensus, or instances of widely accepted misinterpretations of science, etc. That's what seems to be the kind of advocacy of a truth directed approach to science journalism Carrol is suggesting.

Not all science is good science and some are obviously bad science and a competent journalist (or even laymen) should be able to expose it as such. Cranks working at the margins of science often do so with obvious ulterior motivations or other bad reasons reasons even when they happen to be scientists. Financial, political, religious, psychological factors impact scientific integrity because scientists are also humans. A competent journalist should be able to discover many instances of scientific misconduct or bias or incompetence using the resources available to him or her.

So while controversial instances within science regarding complex matters are often outside of the scope of the resources available to journalists to make substantive criticisms and take informed sides, that's not always the case. In fact, a journalists most important job in scientific reporting may be to find the cases where there is relatively obvious bias/incompetence or the misreporting and common misconception regarding some scientific area and taking a stand. This can be done by reporting the landscape of current research in that area and offering the audience the reasons why a particular incorrect view is rejected (ID theory?). They do this with a goal towards truth. They do this with the *help* of the scientific community, by standing on the shoulders of giants, they have the resources to find the truth in many cases especially in the cases of exposing junk, biased, incompetent or misconstrued science. Many issues especially in medical or social science can be evaluated on their scientific merits using resources available to almost anyone.

Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol. Just that the journalist should be motivated and actively seek to find the truth, not just agree and report whatever he or she is told.


reader NChen said...

On the IQ issue of journalists, it's their educational resources that should be the issue, not their IQs.

Though I think it ironic that some of the least qualified people are the very people doing this terribly important job of bringing us the news, that doesn't mar the normative claim of Carrol and Yong that journalists *should* get the qualifications to do minimal scientific investigation and evaluation of the available data. Yes, most journalists are probably scientifically illiterate and innumerate but that is due to their lack of training in those areas. There is room for improvement there.

Besides, the data you used is from a website which uses combined GRE verbal and quantitative subtest scores. Adding raw scores like that is not very accurate to gauge intelligence simply for the fact (among others) that the two subtest are normed differently. A 700 verbal means something very different from a 700 quantitative. Due to where that norming falls on the GRE's subtests, liberal arts majors are at a decided disadvantage. You could even make a case that the verbal section is even more g-loaded than the quantitative section (because of the analogies section). Thus a deviational comparison is probably more appropriate. I once did such a comparison adding the z scores for fun and got something like

1. Physics majors
2. philosophy majors
3. math majors
4. comp science majors.
5. mechanical engineering majors

Also, be aware that the data is for those who take the GRE test, not those who have gotten their respective grad degrees. Many don't make it into grad school because they weren't accepted, etc. Many of the humanities grad departments are much more selective than the science and engineering departments (due to a lack of funding for liberal arts) in potential applicants.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks, Jack, good to hear.

NChen, our basic moral principles and our understandings of what is the truth and how it may be looked for are so dramatically incompatible that I don't think it's possible that we will ever agree on anything.

"Instances of scientific bias, of junk science or bad science which goes against a consensus, or instances of widely accepted misinterpretations of science, etc."

What does the consensus have to do with science or the truth? The journalists have no business to uncritically parrot a "consensus" or the official opinions of some institutions.

Their task is to honestly report the facts, findings, and statements that their readers would consider relevant for shaping their opinion about a story.

The media overtaken by official institutions haven't led to anything good in the past. The tight Catholic Church's control over the communication 500 years ago or so delayed the scientific revolution by a century if not more so.

In Nazism, this control has led to the dismissal of relativity and other portions of modern science as "Jewish physics". It has led to eugenics, too. In the Soviet Union, genetics would be taboo - and instead, it would be replaced by the official sponsored Lysenkoism that believed that virgins would no longer be born if we continue to have sex with them later (in the words of Lev Landau).

In the modern Western society, the very kind of censorship of the scientific journalism that you have advocated has led to the support of the scientifically nonsensical hysterical waves about overpopulation, global warming, climate change, global climate disruption, and many other things that the institutions (and their mindless supporters) use to justify their thirst for more power.

Unlike the people who believe that the Moon is made of green cheese and who are only local curiosities, these organized movements have actually crippled whole scientific disciplines - and all of science - in whole countries or continents for whole decades or centuries. And do you want to argue that it was a superior setup?


reader Luboš Motl said...

These are no "unfortunate exceptions" in a system that otherwise work. These devastating and destructive pressures on science are pretty much the rule that follows from the dishonest standards for the science media that you defend - the framework in which you want to downgrade the journalists to uncritical parrots repeating and improving news according to the consensus of the most aggressive political movement of their era.

They add a systematic bias of some kind, and because of their vast control over whole territories, these systematic biases are unlikely to cancel against other biases. So the resulting distortion of science is guaranteed to be bigger than anything that "individuals who are wrong" can ever dream of.

The names may change - the Inquisition, the Nazis, the Communist Party, or the Liberals and the IPCC - but the main principle and the structural reason why this distortion in the media is always a bad thing, at least after some time when "random positive" influences expire, is universal.

So please shoot every other journalist who will distort the news to make it more liberal or politically correct or who will argue with the consensus or any totalitarian garbage of this kind, OK? This has no place in a functioning free society and no place at all in a scientific community.

Journalists can't be activists. They don't have a clue about inflation, string theory, but they don't know much about the origin of species or healthy food, either. Any attempt to report something else than what the average readers would report (or find relevant) assuming their access to the same data is guaranteed to be a distortion in the longer run.

You wrote: "Nobody is saying that journalists should do experiments etc to settle scientific controversies, including, I think, Carrol."

Well, I surely am. Anyone who wants to "settle" empirical controversies has to do experiments (or careful theoretical work). That's my main point. If he doesn't do it, he simply cannot ever settle any controversies. Journalists can do experiments for free in their free time.

But in the real world, because they have neither time, nor knowledge, nor intelligence, nor patience to do the scientific work, they should forget about the ambition to settle the scientific truth, OK? They're just tape recorders with some basic level of additional intelligence to be able to move and speak etc. who are paid for that, OK? And most of them are dumber than that, indeed. They're not prophets who have been told the truth from the Heaven. Most of the stuff they call the truth and they fight for is junk and lies.

I didn't understand your alternative computation of the IQs. Could you please at least write the resulting IQs for the majors if you have been obscure about the methodology and the differences from ours? Thank you.


reader NChen said...

>NChen, our basic moral principles and our understandings of what is the truth and how it may be looked for are so dramatically incompatible that I don't think it's possible that we will ever agree on anything.<

Hi Lubos,

I wouldn't say that they are moral principles that are at issue here, more like epistemic ones.



>What does the consensus have to do with science or the truth? The journalists have no business to uncritically parrot a "consensus" or the official opinions of some institutions.<

The consensus opinion of the scientific community is what the community considers to be true (and I think usually with very good reasons). Opinions that fall outside usually do so due to bias, incompetence, etc. Of course, that's not always the case and small minority views sometimes win out in the end and are eventually proven correct over the consensus but that is very rare.


>The media overtaken by official institutions haven't led to anything good in the past. The tight Catholic Church's control over the communication 500 years ago or so delayed the scientific revolution by a century if not more so.<

I'd probably agree with that and I never advocated for such “official institutions” to oversee either science or journalism. That would obviously be a bad idea.


>In the modern Western society, the very kind of censorship of the scientific journalism that you have advocated has led to the support of the scientifically nonsensical hysterical waves about overpopulation, global warming, climate change, global climate disruption, and many other things that the institutions (and their mindless supporters) use to justify their thirst for more power.<

What?! I never advocated censorship of anything. I advocated that journalist should

1. be more competent in science and 2. should seek the truth as opposed to just blindly report what people say. I think they have the resources to do that in many cases even in science though not in all cases. I think you have completely misunderstood my post.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear NChen,

sorry, it's both an epistemic and moral gap that I see in between us. If someone is deliberately hiding some data that the other person would consider relevant, because of his position determined by a majority of a group or because of any other reason, then he is manipulating him, and I think it is a moral and not just epistemic defect to fool others.

You write: "The consensus opinion of the scientific community is what the community considers to be true (and I think usually with very good reasons)."

Not at all. If someone is a legitimate member of the scientific community, i.e. a scientist, then he is totally well aware of the fact that the scientific truth has nothing whatsoever to do with some majorities in polls. The scientific truth is completely independent of the humans, and if humans can get close to it, they get close to it by the amount, strength, relevance, and accuracy of the scientific arguments, not by forcing majorities to subscribe to something.

What you say may be true for political parties or advocacy groups but it is simply not true for the scientific community.

Whoever thinks that science measures the truth by majority polls - and it seems that you have explicitly written an equivalent statement - is a hack or worse. And in my opinion, it is not just an epistemic question because many of the people who are saying or writing these atrocious things know very well that what they're saying contradicts both the basic principles of the scientific method as well as the historical record. They are almost always saying this lie for the sake of their own personal profit or the ideological benefit of their ideological group or both.

I must have really misunderstood your post. But as far as I can see, for quite some time, you have been advocating the censorship of the statements, opinions, and findings that contradict the "scientific consensus", as you arrogantly call an ideology of the most aggressive political movement of a given era that wants to distort the science to their own image. You may have failed to notice what you have advocated. In that case, you should re-read what you have written.

Judging by what I can actually read, in the understanding of English that I have been taught, what you have written shows that you are an unethical person.

Cheers
Lubos