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« Weekend update: Science of Science Communication 2.0 -- Tamar Wilner confronts the "belief-comprehension" question in teaching evolutionary science | Main | Using likelihood ratios -- not pee values -- to weigh the evidence on judges & motivated reasoning »

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 12: science journalism!

Okay-- the   "Science of Science Communication 2.0" session all 7,937 real-space & on-line enrolees have been waiting for: science journalism! Reading list here, & study/discussion questions below.


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Reader Comments (3)

1. “Balance.”
Science-informed policy advocates often complain that the news reporting norm of “balanced coverage” overstates the strength of scientifically unsupportable positions (e.g., climate change skepticism). What is the norm on “balanced coverage”? What value is served by the norm? Is the charge a reasonable one?

The norm on "balanced coverage" requires that a journalist present not only the best arguments in favour of a proposition, but the best arguments against it as well.

Several values are served by the norm. These include:

1. To enable commonly held beliefs that a journalist wants to present that are either insufficiently supported or actually incorrect to be detected and corrected. This is the 'immune system' by which humanity's knowledge base is protected from corruption. This both corrects typos and misunderstandings of correct science, and allows science/knowledge to progress by allowing incorrect science to be overturned and replaced.

2. To motivate the development of better arguments and explanations. To motivate science educators to provide the evidence and argument to back their claims up.

3. To address common alternative beliefs and misconceptions before they take root in the public understanding. If public dissent is not allowed, then people will spread contrary ideas in private, which will thereby acquire a certain glamour as 'forbidden knowledge', and which cannot be answered/corrected in the public arena. Forcing the supporters of alternative positions to present their arguments and evidence in the public arena for scrutiny, where they can be challenged, poses severe difficulties for those without evidence for their claims. It also prevents them claiming that they've not been given a fair chance.

4. As a public demonstration that the claims being presented are the best supported. If in showing the best arguments against the claim it is made clear that those counter-arguments are unconvincing,

5. To educate the public on how to assess scientific claims for themselves. Examining the best evidence against is a required part of the scientific method. Showing examples of this, making it appear like the normal and standard way of doing things, encourages the public to apply the scientific method in their own lives, and challenge authorities.

6. To protect free speech, and public support for it. People have a right to hold and express unpopular and subversive ideas, and rights have to be exercised if they are to be retained. Making it clear that contrarian arguments are allowed and normal, no matter how crazy, reassures people that the right is still in effect.

7. To protect against authoritarian suppression of dissent, persecution of minority beliefs, and miscarriages of justice. If a political faction can get their ideas into print and prevent anyone else challenging it, it both 'locks in' their ruling paradigm by persuading the majority that this is the 'normal' or only view, and means the media itself can act as a tool of oppression, attacking and persecuting individuals or minorities with no right of reply or to offer a defence. Politically that's extremely dangerous.

The charge isn't a reasonable one. The problem appears to be that the critics see science as an 'authority', and science journalism as a declaration of what the authoritative position is, that the public are required/expected to believe. As such, they believe that science journalists should only give alternative positions if those alternatives are authoritative too.

However, they are quite right that presenting alternatives confuses the public, but only because both the critics and the science journalists believe that the function of science journalism is to tell the public what to believe about science. I would say that the function of a science journalist is to digest the competing technical arguments and present them in a more easily comprehensible and organised way, all in one place rather than scattered across multiple sources and experts, and enable the reader to make their own mind up on the evidence. It is not the role of the journalist to decide which is true and present it. It's the role of the journalist to decide what evidence is relevant to the decision and present that.

The charge is doubly unreasonable because in this case the critics have got their facts wrong. There isn't a (oxymoronic) 'scientific consensus' on it, and it's a lot more uncertain than it is portrayed as being. While the journalistic norm still needs to be applied even when the ruling paradigm is correct, it's value is even greater here in a case where it isn't.

2. Civic function.
What contribution does science journalism make to informed democratic deliberations over science-informed policy debates? What contribution should it make? Is it consistent with that role for journalists to advocate particular positions?

Science journalism enables more people to access the arguments and evidence needed to come to their own informed decisions, based on their own priorities, preferences, and prior beliefs.

Science journalists telling people 'what to believe' subverts the democratic process, substituting the journalist's judgement in place of the people's. There is no problem with science journalists expressing their own opinions, if they are clearly identifiable as such. Journalists have as much right to free speech as everyone else. But in providing the "science journalism" service to the paying public, journalists are ethically obliged to provide the service expected. If the public expect science journalists to be impartial, and if they've advertised the superiority of their services on that basis, then they're obliged to deliver.

3. Audience.
Generally, who consumes science journalism? What do consumers value in it? Are there identifiable subgroups of consumers, and if so, what distinguishes them? Are there interests served by distinct elements of the science journalism community? Do you think there is any potential subgroup of consumers that isn’t being adequately served?

There are different levels of science journalism. Everyone consumes some bits of it, only interested minorities consume the deeper, more technical parts of it.

Consumers may want to be entertained, informed, their curiosity satisfied, their dreams inspired, they may want to gain status via their knowledge of matters scientific, they may be seekers after occult knowledge (in the original sense of the word), or they may want to be told comfortable lies.

There are certainly separate specialised outlets for different sorts of science journalism. Whether the community providing those services is correspondingly split I don't know, although I assume so. Although I would also assume there are journalists who write for multiple different sorts of outlets.

Science journalists’ craft norms rest on empirical assumptions about the aims of science journalism, about its consumers’ interests, and about how to effectively attain the former and satisfy the latter. Are you satisfied that those assumptions are all well founded? Do science journalists themselves all agree on them? Do they discuss them amongst themselves and compare their experiences? Are you satisfied with the amount and quality of evidence that would help to evaluate those assumptions? With the institutions that collect it and the methods they use? Do you think it would be of value to journalists to participate (or increase their participation) in collecting evidence that bears on these assumptions?

Clearly, since there's a public debate about it, science journalists don't agree on the aims or methods.

The norms are based on more general public norms of the scientific method, Enlightenment rationality, and the liberty of belief and speech. Evidence backing these norms is not just about journalism.

In line with the principles set out above, I'd definitely regard it as valuable for journalists to participate in the collection of evidence and argument backing these principles up, and presenting it in their output.

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


If you need to discuss your final project, send me an email (you are on track for "A" w/ class participation, but the proejct is 50% of grade)

April 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I am just going to duck my head into the classroom door to ask a disruptive question: Why all the fuss about science journalists? Who cares about balance, civic function or what the audience needs to know?

I think that we ought to focus more attention on what the media deems to be worth providing to its audience, and how and why that diverts attention from matters that those in control of things would rather that audience not be paying attention to.

Take for example the California drought. Much science here but so what. The important thing to focus on are the ideas of William Shatner. He has figured out what the controlling forces of the media will accept as information with which the public can be fed be fed. Cleverly, he is doing this in a way that inserts himself into seemingly every media outlet's major headlines. No deep science here, you just have to be willing to step out where no man has gone before. I figure he has taken the time to look at a map. Seattle is up, and everybody knows it is wet. Los Angeles is down and everybody knows it is dry. Lake Mead is conveniently located just a very little bit off to the side. Run the water in a 4 ft pipeline down I 5. Store it in Lake Mead until needed. Problem solved. The amount of time that people here in the Pacific Northwest are spending being upset about this is unbelievable. Plus those in LA can keep their pools filled safe in the promise of new water supplies to come.

Meanwhile, very important people can keep up business as usual, either fracking for oil and gas or using that wastewater to irrigate their crops without so much hassle from others: Because who needs the public to see a whole bunch of headlines about that?

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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