Science Reporting in the Scales

25 June 2009 at 9:05 pm (Uncategorized)

More and more, it has become plain that many popular media vehicles are guilty of decidedly unbalanced reporting in several areas.  While certainly not limited to them, this is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in trendy women’s magazines when they report on matters that have a scientific background (and – let’s face it – what these days really is beyond the pale of science?)  In most such cases, the blasé facility with which some of the key underpinnings are summarily glossed over is disconcertingly close to carefree distortion.  That this is likely born of uninformed habit or habitual obliviousness does not even begin to lessen the potential seriousness of its consequences.  Moreover, that most such stories are syndicated does not absolve a publication’s management of responsibility for errors in them.  Not righting an observed wrong is tantamount to condoning it.

When, to name a particularly glaring example, a Jenny McCarthy stands up and clamours on the very flimsiest of evidence that vaccination causes autism, these media swiftly seize upon such a story in their never-ending pursuit of ever more sensational drama and titillation.  (Important to note here is that the case of McCarthy is used to illustrate general principles that pervade the publishing industry, not to analyse specifics of her averments.)  Some of the reporters and columnists will perhaps consult a relevant demurring specialist (or two if they’re feeling especially energetic) so as to add some interest to their stories and to flesh them out a little, but mainly to pride themselves on that in doing so they are being fair and impartial and – above all – balanced.  Mostly, subeditors and editors will approve those stories for publication because, after all, they include the establishment or contrary position, thereby presenting opposing sides of the issue, and therefore they cannot be other than “balanced.”

Or can they?  Are they really balanced?

No, they usually are not, and for several reasons.  First, contra the postmodern conception, reality is not generally subjective.  There are objective criteria for consistent, observer-independent and repeatable assessment of the validity, or otherwise, of material claims about the real world, and these are the currency that science deals in.  The success thereof is radiantly manifest.  While every person is entitled to their own opinion and their own interpretation of the facts, it is not true that everyone is entitled to their own facts per se.  That is to say, an opinion about the merits of an actor’s performance is a very different thing to an opinion about precisely what the actor’s body mass index is.  The first, lacking any unified yardstick, is a wholly subjective assessment that can, at best, attain some consensual agreement among critics, whereas the second is objectively verifiable.  Writers often simply ignore this obvious distinction because nobody really wants to be a stodgy old stick-in-the-mud, a naysayer, a slayer of comforting fantasies.  Consequently, the writers and publishers, obeying the inapt dictates of an industry gone astray, perpetuate juiciness and controversy as somehow laudable ends in themselves instead of facing up to the somewhat harder task of doing adequate background verifications of the salient facts of the story.

To use again the prior example, Jenny McCarthy’s “facts” are shot full of holes, something a decently thorough investigation would have revealed ab initio but which would have turned the story into a non-story – annoyingly so for the shallow-minded excitement junkies that are its target.  That way, it’s just too damn boring, and never mind that the promotion of McCarthy’s beliefs has cost people their herd immunity to polio and measles in some places.  Collectively, the publishing industry thus fails to exercise due critical diligence in the headlong rush to galvanise an otherwise bored audience and to publish ahead of competitors (and, indeed, in its hurry to stumble over its own easy credulity).  Where is the balance in this equation?

Second, there is the cautious jargon employed within the scientific community.  When publicly critiquing some or other ill-founded notion, scientists often use euphemistic terms such as “unconvincing” or “poorly substantiated” or “misunderstanding” or “improbable.”  It is a mistake to think that their soft-pedalling belies hesitancy, incomprehension and/or a lack of certainty.  They do so because those are the norms and conventions within the scientific enterprise itself, and such language means exactly what it says: “unconvincing,” “poorly substantiated,” etc.  It is used to render impersonal assessments based on an impartial review of the evidence and reasoning offered in support of a given contention, insofar as impartiality is practically achievable by an individual.

That is, scientists do not generally understate in order to signal that theirs is a subjective opinion, supposedly as valid as any other.  In contrast, the purveyor of unsustainable nonsense will usually state their case with much forceful conviction and sincerity, even in the face of strong countermanding information, thereby giving the false-but-emotionally-laden impression that their view is considerably more solid.  And therein lies what may be one of the scientific enterprise’s most notable practical failings, i.e. its reticence to issue clear declarations concerning the veracity of an interminable array of common superstitions, myths and popular delusions.  That scientists, unlike stockists of pseudo- and anti-science, are generally loath to make firm declarations is symptomatic of the scientific method and an upshot of adhering to its practices.  Where is the balance in this equation?

Third, the writers and publishers of such stories almost invariably neglect to mention perhaps the most important facet, probably the overriding one.  For each doubting, soft-spoken expert who, based on well-established scientific findings, objects to a fringe claim, there are literally hundreds, possibly even thousands, of other relevant soft-spoken experts who are eminently qualified to deliver an appraisal, and who, when asked, would criticise the idea in question on much the same grounds and in much the same way as the cited one does.  That they are rallied unobtrusively behind the one whose objections are mentioned cannot be taken to mean that they aren’t there.  The same is hardly, if ever, true of cranks because each one has their own, usually exclusive brand of baloney to sell.  Failing to draw attention to this noteworthy matter of scientific consensus among specialists does a significant disservice both to the readership and to the upholding of truly balanced reporting because it creates the slyly misleading impression that the truth of the thing in question is about 50:50.  This is near enough never so.

Preposterous claims are not at all hard to come by simply because there are infinitely more ways of being wrong than there are of being right, and we would all like to think of ourselves as not much short of infallible in our perceptions and reasoning.  Good, well-founded sense is not so easy to find because it demands effort, discipline, humility and a healthy respect for certain rigours.  Attempting to offset one voluble crackpot with one expert is “balanced” only in the most trivial sense of that word, and it is a large part of why so many varieties of nonsense proliferate – so much so that it facilitates the emergence of essentially self-styled “experts” and aids the accumulation of a faux respectability, thereby making it all the more difficult to dispel.  That, together with much unchallenged repetition, is how we end up with alternative/complementary “medicine,” astrology, the asinine goo punted on Free Spirit and Journey to the Core (and sometimes 3Talk too), “psychic” dating show hosts who apparently converse with speech-impaired dead people, and Danie Krügel.  Furthermore, celebrity status notwithstanding, a Jenny McCarthy’s pronouncements on scientific matters are no more compelling or plausible than those of a petrol pump attendant.  Celebrity does not automatically confer authority or expertise in another field, and to conflate celebrity and expertise in this way is an insidious lapse of sound judgement.  Where is the balance in this equation?

Finally, in all such matters, it is wise to heed Bertrand Russell’s guiding principles and to apply them assiduously:

  1. When the experts are [mostly] agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;
  2. When the experts are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert, and
  3. When the experts hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary person would do well to suspend judgement.

Are we so focussed on revering, even vaunting, every kind of mediocrity just in case we miss an opportunity to tell a story, or to enjoy a transient thrill, or in case not doing so might give offence?  Are we so hungry for relentless novelty that we feel it safe to sidestep our painfully-won evidentiary standards and requirements?  Because if these are the motivations then their price is wholly disproportionate.  It will cost us nothing less than the injudicious and unwitting subversion, the gradual erosion, of proper journalistic balance.

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8 Comments

  1. flashplayer said,

    Gut!

  2. Objective said,

    While i would agree with Russel’s three principles i would venture that more effort should go into learning to think critically, establishing sound principles…meaning putting in the effort to acquire a knowledge base sufficient for evaluating all claims because experts are often wrong and sometimes maliciously so. Ultimately accepting the fact that only the empirical exists and is the only yardstick to evaluate all claims.

    An excellent piece all the same and one that all authors of blogs can profit from.

  3. defollyant said,

    Thanks, Objective.

    In an ideal world, everyone, including journalists, editors and publishers, would be diligent about being factual and rational. They would have both the capability and the discretion of discerning, in most cases, the real from the rubbish. Grey cases would be framed in suitably cautious terms.

    Regrettably, this world is not sufficiently thus. Gone are the days of the Renaissance Man, of the prodigious polymath, because there’s simply too much for any one brain to grasp sufficiently, and so Russell’s admonitions should serve as a handbrake on what is, bluntly put, journalistic abuse.

  4. Objective said,

    “Gone are the days of the Renaissance Man, of the prodigious polymath, because there’s simply too much for any one brain to grasp sufficiently,

    This is no doubt true and I am not expecting a polymath merely that people will accept the premise of the material. The rest follows automatically…one does not have to be a genius to recognise when a claim is funded from the supernatural no matter from which dissipline it issues and to reject it with the contemp it deserves.

  5. Mark said,

    I agree with much of what you say, and would argue that the problem lies in our education system. It is possible to pass through the school system and on to university without having the faintest idea of what the scientific method is, how science is done or even having basic numeracy skills. Then, armed with their BAs in English Lit., the ignoratti slot into jobs at the newspapers and magazines of the land and commence fulfilling their vocation of perpetuating nonsense. We need a curriculum which ensures that students (sorry, lenners) leave school with the ability to THINK, not merely give opinions.

  6. Objective said,

    Mark wrote: “We need a curriculum which ensures that students (sorry, lenners) leave school with the ability to THINK, not merely give opinions.”

    Cannot agree more. The problem however is that you first need for the people who lern the lenners to know how they are thinking and how humans think. In the sorry history of philosophy and science this is the one subject that has never been in the petri dish. It is at the same time the most important subject imaginable if we wish to succeed as a species.

    To teach the lenners the scientific method or ‘how science works’ will not establish science as the dominant cognitive modus operandi. Matter, as Defollyant notes in his article above, matters. It is in fact all that matters because there isnt anything else. The fact that we make a distinction between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, that we have to address the most basic of principles, namely that only matter exists, over and over again is evidence of this point.

  7. defollyant said,

    Mark, it would be foolish to deny that it is an issue of educating correctly. But, as Objective points out, the educators themselves are often apparently not properly up to their chosen careers. Furthermore, we all have a duty to our peers and ourselves to keep ourselves appropriately educated but when our sources of ostensibly reliable information (i.e. publications) become corruptible by way of ignorance and apathy then everyone loses. In particular, we lose awareness that there is a problem and we don’t notice that we are in fact losing. We’re already at that stage and I’m at a loss to think how the situation can be rectified without a radical shakeup of our extant educational systems. Sadly, I doubt that that will happen anytime soon because too many sundry toes are idly strewn about for them not to be trodden on, hobnail booted, and to rouse a loud chorus of squeals. That is why sceptical activism is so important. It is also why sceptical activism is generally unpopular.

    I think most people would readily support the notion that perhaps the most important skill one can impart to a child or another person is the ability to think critically and independently. The problem is that there will be wide disagreement over what such thinking entails in practice. Why, for example, are we squabbling over whether schools can give to their charges religious instruction, rather than comparative religion classes? The case is clear enough in my view: schools are places of learning, not indoctrination, and therefore religious instruction is of necessity disqualified there – even more so since religious instruction in any case already happens at home and at church.

    Another problem is the widespread belief that anyone can do anything anyone else can if they set their mind to it. One doesn’t need to look very far to see that that’s hogwash. I suspect that in our working lives we have all encountered individuals who have all the right experience and qualifications (degrees or diplomas admirably attained no doubt through much unrelenting hard work) but who simply do not have what it takes to excel or even to be very good – and regrettably, they seem oblivious of it. In such cases, I feel that their educators have actually failed these people for not advising them that another career might be more suitable. It’s undeniably a tricky business, one that is aggravated by the running of institutes of learning as businesses where throughput trumps product quality.

    Be that as it may, there is a dire need to inculcate an appreciation that, while the output of science in the form of knowledge and technology may be hard to understand, the essential methods by which it proceeds and arrives at those results are actually easy-peasy, and, moreover, that they are applicable to just about everything we do, think or believe. It would be wonderful if employing those principles could somehow become second nature to humanity.

    P.S. I get a little twitchy whenever some puffed-up cretin starts nattering on about “lenners.” I want to smack them in the gob with the OED, preferably the full set of volumes.

  8. Balanced Truths said,

    It is a very good piece of writing. Your grievance is perceived to be about everything that makes us human though.
    The human race should have been extinct a long time ago with virulent diseases like the Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, Influenza. Not being prepared for natural disasters like an ice age or an asteroid strike or a nearby star going supernova.
    Today we can even create our own demise with nuclear war, creating a Strangelet or a black hole. Why are we not, what has saved us? What does it mean to be human?

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