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Truth Today, Phrenology Tomorrow: Reporting on Science in Shifting Sands

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Drake’s Note: Originally posted at Stanford’s Earthlede Blog

Would you stake your reputation on statements of someone who will keep their job even if they are dead wrong?

Every day, science journalists head into the field to report, record and publish the slow progress of human knowledge. They meet with scientists who study all manner of things, interview those researchers, and then distill their message into something that begs to be be read by someone who has neither read a journal article nor attended a conference.

This is perilous work, and not just becauseĀ  scientific progress is often slow, uninteresting, and negatively defined. It’s a kind of progress wouldn’t work for any other story. Imagine if you read tomorrow’s headline about the ongoing plane crash investigation.

“FAA inspectors have ruled out bees as the cause of the crash, and are content to spend the rest of their natural born lives slowly eliminating the list of possibilities until they are pretty sure there is only one or two left, at which point they will publish a technical report which will be inscrutable to most humans.” People like measureable change, stories and closure. Science is terrible at those.

All that, however, is not the problem I’m addressing here today. The issue is one of fact. Scientists occupy an echelon of the public trust generally reserved for firemen and Lassie. They are viewed as repositories of truth, bastions of testable fact, and ordained members of the peer-reviewed class.

“Wonderful,” says the journalist and her editor. Lets run it all as fact, put our masthead on it, and stake the reputation of our organization on it. Indeed, that’s often what The Economist does.

While all that may be true, scientists also have a privilege almost no other profession shares. Every new discovery makes many of them wrong.

200 years ago I could have gotten the day’s men of science (as there were only men) to go on record about god’s hand in creation, phrenology, and the benefits that radium brings to everyday items, such as water jars. It was scientifically proven- as journalists like to say.

We know how those three findings have stood the withering tests of time and peer review, and frankly their falling out of favor just makes me trust science further. But how do I tell which of today’s theories will be tomorrow’s head-lumps?

Right now, the method employed by most organizations seems to be a combination of balancing truth claims and the wait-and-see approach. Balancing conflicting truth claims is j-school 101, but often ends in both Bryan and Darrow’s arguments being presented as having the same merit. Unacceptable.

The other approach seems to be the wait-and-see. Writers will present the dominant argument as fact, and then follow with some waffleing phrase, “but it’s up to the policy makers to decide whether this needed change will make it into the budget this year.”

Is there a third path? One that can steer journalists reporting on science clear from tomorrow’s phrenology and do so on a time scale that will be suitable for daily deadlines?

Well, the first step is education. Yes, of course, that great liberal silver bullet: kills ware-wolves, ends urban poverty, and keeps journalists from elevating crack pots to scientist status.Teach journalists to understand how science works, and vice versa. Teach them the realities of it, the egos, the infighting, the factions that develop around different schools of thought. Its the underbelly of science, but journalists who can decode that know who to trust and how to report it.

Beyond that though, a tool would be nice. Sort of an Angie’s list for scientists and journals. A kind of respect-o-meter that journalists could reference and get a sense of the kind of esteem in which their particular academic is held. Such a tool could separate the Bob Jones University professor of creation and geology from his more legitimate colleague at UC Davis. This particular match up might be recognized as unequal by someone at a major publication, but maybe not by a smaller newspaper or the local TV news reporter on deadline, or a blogger, for that matter.

Why do we care? Well, the issue is really one of time scale. If things are left as they are, the gap between science accepting something as a reality and the public reaching that point will continue to span a generation, if not more.

If journalists can be confident enough in their sources’ statements to report them as fact, when warranted, the pace of adoption or fact by the public may increase. We could see a more informed pubic, or, at least, a public with more timely information, and as such, one more able to demand timely changes of their leaders.

And now, for some wonderfully gratuitous pulp. Here’s the full-image awesomeness of everyone’s favorite b-movie poster.
Click to Enlarge!

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