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.