Every scientists-versus-journalists debate ever, in one diagram

Prompted by this and this and this and the inevitable ensuing discussion on Twitter:

This is tedious. We’ve been doing this for years now, with no progress. Two sides, shouting at each other, shouting past each other, resorting to caricatures, and making no/little attempt at mutual understanding. Let’s do better.

There are 41 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 17, 2012

    The one issue I have with this diagram is that it might be read as saying that you won’t find good journalists or good scientists at the pub (which we both know isn’t the case). Indeed, you will find them at the pub. But they’ll be listening.

  2. Ship
    January 17, 2012

    Interesting. Similar to my precis of the issue — Crappy journalists do a crappy job. Good journalists do a good job. Scientists who don’t care about communicating effectively tend to be bad at it. Scientists who do care about communicating effectively tend to be much better at it.

    Happy to see the issue discussed in a context that moves the conversation forward (e.g., what are some tips for reporters? Researchers?). Otherwise it’s tiresome.

  3. Chris Lintott
    January 17, 2012

    Isn’t the solution to this for the good journalists and good scientists to meet in a different pub? In fact, why shouldn’t we do that?

  4. Al Dove
    January 17, 2012

    I’m sorry, I can’t hear you; this pub is very noisy. Its probably all the bad journalists. Do any of you guys want nachos? I feel like eating some nachos but I don’t think I can do a whole plate. I mean, I’ll get some nachos if someone would share them with me, but eating the whole thing is too much. I guess I can to go to the gym later. Oh who am I kidding? Steve-O!, some nachos and a PINT, mate!

  5. Jill U Adams
    January 17, 2012

    Nice diagram – truly.

    And thanks to Janet for her comment. I was worried someone might misinterpret my pub time…

  6. Ed Gerstner
    January 17, 2012

    Although I am usually loathe to leave comments that do little more than heap praise on an author or blogpost (that’s what thumbs up/likes/+1s/RTs are for), in this case I feel compelled to make an exception.

    This nails it, I mean truly NAILS IT, in one.

    And for this, I am grateful, as it means I no longer have to engage in this monotonously recurring debate.


  7. APStorm
    January 17, 2012

    This applies to more than just Journalists and Scientists, of course. Brilliant insight.

  8. geologygeek
    January 17, 2012

    As an author of one of the linked articles, I have to say you make a very valid point.

    I propose we all go to the pub to talk about it. Or perhaps stick the good scientists in with the bad journalists in one pub, the good journalists in with the bad scientists in another, then we can at least have a good beer-fuelled argument.

  9. Razib Khan
    January 17, 2012

    the demand side needs to be added. the public has a bias toward impulse purchase of sensational headlines.

  10. Zach Miller
    January 17, 2012

    I don’t pay much attention to science reporting that’s not paleo-related, but I can tell from hundreds or articles over the years that journalists who report on paleo-stories commit many sins. We’ve heard them all before. I think there are plenty of scientists and science journalists on the interwebs who are excellent communicators (including Ed Yong here, but also Darren Naish, the SV-POW guys, PZ Meyers, etc.). The problem is I don’t see that many good science journalists in print, especially in newspapers. If I want good science reporting, I have to go to something like Scientific American or Discover. Those people are trained.

    The Associated Press still can’t seem to grasp that no everything dead is a dinosaur, not every carnivore is an apex carnivore, you don’t have to reference Jurassic Park all the time, there are no “missing links,” and for pete’s sake, the public is much smarter than you give them credit for.

    The Guardian piece also defends false balance, so I see no reason to take the rest of it seriously.

  11. Miriam Goldstein
    January 17, 2012

    To add a lone voice of mild dissent (probably fueled by all the beer in this hypothetical pub): there are genuine cultural differences that divide even good journalists and good scientists, especially those that are well-meaning but unused to dealing with each other. Some examples: scientists being shocked that they can’t have “final approval” of a piece (since that is how scientific papers are written), journalists paraphrasing science findings in way that sounds fine to them but makes the scientists flip out, and so forth.

  12. Ed Yong
    January 17, 2012

    Miriam – to me, that’s the sort of thing we need to discuss, and rarely do. Which is why I’m coming to your scio12 session 😉

  13. Jesse
    January 17, 2012

    wish I could be at the scio12. Here’s something else I will throw out there: a scientist and a journalist are doing two different things.

    I’m a reporter (I really hate the term journalist sometimes, sounds too pretentious). I have to assume that loads of people lie to me every single day, because they do. My job is to ferret out stuff that people don’t want out.

    A scientist is doing something very different. They are trying to find out stuff from nature. Nature doesn’t lie to you. I don’t have to worry about whether the rats I am experimenting on have a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda.

    This breeds some fundamental cultural differences. The final approval thing is one. The reason reporters don’t like to do it is because every scientist (or for that matter anyone else in a story) thinks they are an editor. Most are not good writers. And I don’t give any politician the final say, either.

    And most research scientists I have every spoken to are not great teachers. Some are, but for people not in the field they can be pretty opaque.

    On the good side the nice thing to me about reporting on science (at least most of it) is I don’t have to assume everyone is telling me lies as my starting point. Peer review provides a bit of a crutch.

    (Yeah, I used to cover the local police beats. Outright liars, or people trying to make themselves look less sleazy and corrupt).

    Also, for most reporters thrown into science stories of any type, they aren’t specialists. I wish more people in the sciences would understand that. There isn’t any credentialing process for reporters. You get the job because you are good at getting people to tell you stuff or finding stuff and making it make sense to people. But the kinds of backgrounds we all come from are incredibly varied. Most of us — myself included — were humanities majors. Most of us aren’t in it for the money (I have never met a reporter who is but I am sure they must exist someplace). And for most of us the last math/science class we took was 20 years back.

    So what a reporter is interested in is not “the science” per se. I want to know why anyone should care (I often do, but my editors might differ). The important part to most people is almost never what’s important to the one doing the research. No, we aren’t subjecting our work to peer review, and that’s all to the good because we can say “smoking causes cancer and kills you” not “indications are in a population of n individuals above the age of 50 smoking resulted in an increased incidence of mortality of x in 10,000 with a confidence level of y.”

    This is why a lot of people accuse scientists of equivocating, by the way, and feel that they are being deceived. Not because the scientists are trying to do that but because too often they get scared of saying what is important and get too worried about being correct. Scientific correctness has never, ever, decided a political argument, and in fact has zero to do with what captures the imagination of the public. I wish it were otherwise.

    I might add — note the above has very little bearing on whether someone is a good/bad scientist/reporter. Or the converse, for that matter.

    Now I am off to the pub :-)

  14. Ananyo
    January 17, 2012

    Hi Ed,
    Your heart’s in the right place as always. And I’m sorry to have bored you. But my post didn’t really have much to do with bad vs good scientists. It was simply making the point that – even when a -good- journalist writes a -good- piece, a good scientist may not regard it as such.
    Scientists and others must learn to judge science journalism by the standards of journalism – and not by the standards of science or anything else….

  15. Rod Hagen
    January 17, 2012

    The system needs to be expanded a little to include the media proprietors & operators with a barrow to push, some of whom would much rather publish a bad journalist sitting in the pub, listening to a bad scientist, if they happen to suit the company point of view. Then there are those members of the public who buy tabloid newspapers & watch Fox, who much prefer spending their $ on simplistic pub talk than real analysis.

    Its forces such as these that keep that wheel of yours turning, I’m afraid.

  16. Ed Yong
    January 17, 2012

    @Ananyo – No, you didn’t bore me. I think the *ensuing debate* was tedious. But I think the post triggered that and it did so in a fairly predictable way. What you said here, in your comment? That seems entirely fair to me. But the way the post was framed and structured immediately threw us back into the loop in the diagram above.

    To expand: I think that if anyone enters this debate without considering the cycle in the diagram, they’re just poking a hornet’s nest. Your post had many solid points to make, and I agreed with a lot of it.

    But I think it failed to acknowledge the amount of truly awful science writing that scientists (and indeed, you and I) have to contend with. And in doing so, it immediately causes resentment because people think you don’t care about, or recognise, the fact that a lot of science journalism is poor. That creates an environment where your valid points are completely lost. Because it’s meaningless to say why scientists don’t understand what good journalism looks like without acknowledging the reasons for that – which include the fact that they see a lot of rubbish.

    Just look at the Twitter reaction. We had good journalists slapping you on the back for representing them. We had sensible scientists feeling patronised and thinking that you’re supporting PR or excusing poor journalism, when in fact it’s the opposite! That’s not writing with your audience in mind.

    My reason for creating the diagram above is to say that if the goal of these discussions is to actually have people learn something, we need to frame them differently from the start. Otherwise, the endless loop.

  17. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter
    January 17, 2012

    I agree with Miriam’s statements about the cultural differences between good scientists and good journalists, both of whom can be found in pubs – listening. A great and successful example of an approach that bridges this is the online paper “The Conversation” which is at http://www.theconversation.edu.au which I believe showcases good science and good journalism.

  18. Brian Too
    January 17, 2012

    I like the diagram. It’s shiny and symmetrical! Oh, and it rewards careful reading too.

    I’m being a bit flippant of course, but the very best writing can be like this.

  19. Amy Harmon
    January 17, 2012

    @Ananyo, fwiw, my +1 to Ed’s “tedious” tweet on this earlier today had nothing to do with your post, I was reacting to a totally different Twitter discussion in which some scientists were dissing a Times story (which I had nothing to do with) and expanding it into a diss of science journalism in general, leaving me all defensive in just the way Ed’s diagram reflects. #Speaks to its Greater Truth.

  20. DrugMonkey
    January 17, 2012

    You will be unlikely to progress until you deal honestly with the bad practices of journalism that are not merely limited to “bad journalists”, but rather an overt and defended part of the professional ethos.

    /see ya in the pub, Ed

  21. Hugo Schmidt
    January 18, 2012

    Amen to this.

  22. jayarava
    January 18, 2012

    Great. I read one of the journos slagging off scientists yesterday, and one scientist slagging off academic publishers. I wondered how so many smart people who be so dumb. Your diagram explains a lot. I literally laughed out loud.

  23. Ananyo
    January 18, 2012

    “But I think it failed to acknowledge the amount of truly awful science writing that scientists (and indeed, you and I) have to contend with.”

    Consider it acknowledged though I do always point out there’s an incredible amount of good writing out there. (eg right here for example 😉 http://www.nature.com/news/)

    DrugMonkey: It’s not about the ethos, it’s about being effective as journalists. There’s a whole community of bloggers that are out there criticizing what science journalists do and commentators who have built careers around the same thing. I feel no need to reiterate all their points. I don’t want to deprive them of a living.

    And by the way, misleading the reader with a headline, I would -personally- regard that as lying. However, we may differ on what we regard as misleading. If researchers report neutrinos moving faster than light with a high degree of certainty – even if we and they suspect that someone may find an issue with the result, I don’t see a problem with a headline that says ‘Particles move faster than light’. According to the experiment, they did. As long as the article itself makes clear why the result is baffling and is unlikely to stand, then I view that as a perfectly good headline.

  24. Oliver Sacks
    January 18, 2012

    “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

    I think the issue is solved by Oliver Sack’s words (great scientist AND writer): leave research to scientists (good ones, rather than bad) and let the good journalists spread informations correctly. Nobody should complain on someone else’s job 😉

    [In case it’s not obvious, contrary to the name, this comment is not Oliver Sacks talking about himself in third person – Ed]

  25. Larry Moran
    January 18, 2012

    I like the part about good journalists forgetting about the existence of bad journalists.

    One of the hallmarks of science is that scientists are constantly criticizing other scientists and their ideas. That’s one of the ways good science gets done.

    It’s quite rare for good science writers to criticize bad science writers. Carl Zimmer has done it several times in the past few years but there aren’t very many other examples.

    One of the things that really annoys me is when science writer organizations hand out awards to other science writers that get their science wrong. The awards seem to be based on good writing but not necessarily good science.

  26. Pascal Lapointe
    January 18, 2012

    So, if all this is the result of “two cultures” —journalists and scientists—in collision, the obvious solution would be that each of them would have to learn from the other.

    But I do have the impression, here, that journalists (the good ones) are doing more than their share on this: a good science journalist will necessarily have to understand why scientists are working the way they are. But on the other side, a good scientist, even a good popularizer, does not have the obligation to understand why journalists are working the way they are.

  27. Keith Kloor
    January 18, 2012

    Cool diagram and interesting, thoughtful discussion, which I think is worth having. Piggybacking on some of the main themes, I’ve got a short riff up at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media:


  28. konrad
    January 18, 2012

    Jesse said: “Also, for most reporters thrown into science stories of any type, they aren’t specialists. I wish more people in the sciences would understand that.”

    I think every scientist understands that – it is the core of the problem scientists have with (most of) science journalism. What we don’t understand is why no one seems interested in fixing it or even admitting it as a problem.

  29. khms
    January 18, 2012

    Ananyo Says:

    Scientists and others must learn to judge science journalism by the standards of journalism – and not by the standards of science or anything else….


    The job of a journalist is to tell me, as a member of the publci, something about the world I didn’t know.

    The only relevant standards I should judge this by, are my standards, as a member of the public.

    And by the way, misleading the reader with a headline, I would -personally- regard that as lying. However, we may differ on what we regard as misleading. If researchers report neutrinos moving faster than light with a high degree of certainty – even if we and they suspect that someone may find an issue with the result, I don’t see a problem with a headline that says ‘Particles move faster than light’. According to the experiment, they did. As long as the article itself makes clear why the result is baffling and is unlikely to stand, then I view that as a perfectly good headline.

    Whereas I, as a reader, do consider that to be lying.

    In general, I have the impression that even many so-called good journalists seem to have lost sight of their readers.

  30. Ed Yong
    January 19, 2012

    I love @khms’ comment. I truly love it.


    “In general, I have the impression that even many so-called good journalists seem to have lost sight of their readers.”

    is absolutely true and something that we need to nail over our frickin’ desks.

  31. Ananyo
    January 19, 2012

    Ed, khms,
    Erm… no. A good journalist or editor is aware of what their readers want without having to poll them or let them edit the copy for them.
    khms – I doubt you’re a typical reader that say a broadsheet newspaper would aim for – for a start, you’re here interacting with the comment stream of Ed’s post.
    As for heds, I refer you to the comment I made over here:

  32. Ben
    January 19, 2012

    Interesting comment feed. Thought I’d add my voice to the fray. There is a lot of fantastic science journalism out there. The key point that decides whether the article is *acceptable* or not is accuracy. If a journalist published something, they have a duty to ensure that it is accurate. In the case of science stories, the only real experts on the story are the people who did the research. You can’t expect a journalist to know or understand everything about the science they cover, because 1. it is often complex, and 2. they have to write many articles per week and can’t spare the time to swot up on all the relevant papers in a field. It follows that the simplest way of ensuring that the content and context of an article is correct is to give a copy to the scientist who did the work, or at least someone who works in the same field, to read through prior to publication.

    Above, I stuck asterisks around the word *acceptable*. Works of journalism must conform to basic rules, even before they are judged by the ‘standards of journalism’. The most important rule is accuracy, and it is the right of the public to expect that ‘news’ stories are actually factually correct. The bit about judging whether an article is good or not by ‘journalistic standards’ comes later, and is characterised by (in no particular order): 1. good, clear representation of the story (easy for audience to follow), 2. explanation of wider implications (in context), 3. picking an interesting story to cover in the first place (meaning interesting to the audience, of course, all science is interesting!). I like point number 3. It means you can give a clear account of the science, but don’t have to sex it up too much and risk distorting the meaning.

    Solutions: 1. Scientists need to understand the world of reporting better, and communicate their findings to the journalist in a clear manner so they can take that info and put it together in context. I believe university press offices are already helping with this. 2. Journalists need to understand the world of science better. Science is based on experimentally verifiable truths, truth is the holy of holies. When journalism reports mistruths in a science story this is unacceptable. If it is reported out of context, this is the fault of either the journalist for not checking the facts, or the scientist for not explaining it to the journalist in a clear and digestible fashion. 3. Science stories should be read by an expert in the field before they are sent for publication. I get that this is not the normal practise of journalism, but this is not normal journalism. It requires a special understanding that is is not fair to expect from journalists, especially as they have to cover such wide fields. Journalists need help, and a community of supportive academics willing to read thorough the odd story related to their field is what is required. Not to censor, but to check that the article follows the one of the basic rights readers expect from any publication: truth. The next step is to get the journalists to accept that this is necessary.

    Perhaps they could have some bridge-building exercises in the pub 😉

  33. Dr Aust
    January 19, 2012

    WRT to that example of the ‘particles move faster than light’ headline, my suggestion, made over at @laelaps’ Wired post that Ananyo just linked, would be something like:

    ‘Particles move faster than light – maybe’

    – which I reckon would be both direct AND accurate (as in ‘there’s doubt’)

  34. William Raillant-Clark
    January 19, 2012

    I’m just glad to see that PIO / PR people aren’t in the diagram :) Invisible, and that’s the way it should be.

  35. Dan L.
    January 19, 2012

    Scientists and others must learn to judge science journalism by the standards of journalism – and not by the standards of science or anything else….

    I’m not sure whether Ananya means what xe says here, but I disagree with the way this is phrased. Of course science journalism has to be held to the standards of science. If you’re not adhering to the standards of science then you’re not reporting the facts, and if you’re not reporting the facts you’re not doing science journalism,, you’re doing science storytelling.

    The biggest problems with science journalism in my experience as a reader is the sensationalism and lack of specificity. “Particles Move Faster Than the Speed of Light” is a problematic headline that could be fixed VERY EASILY. Prepend “Experiment Suggests” and it’s fine. Insert “Seem to” after the first word and it’s fine. These are not difficult edits but they convey a much more accurate sense of what science and what scientists do to the reader. Breathlessly and credulously conveying the most dumbed-down precis of a study makes scientists look more certain than they really are and makes science look like the work of magicians rather than a careful, methodical, and skeptical investigation of the natural world.

    The focus on findings rather than methodology is also problematic. Too many people already believe that science is a body of knowledge rather than a way to criticize and refine that body of knowledge and I think the tenor of science journalism — always focused on results — reinforces this error. Journalists could quite easily switch to a point of view focused on the methodology. This would make the journalist’s job easier as well: the methodology comes with its own narrative arc; any experiment can be a detective story.

  36. Theral
    January 19, 2012

    Good and bad (journalists or scientists) – not very scientific, is it?
    We could look at ‘professional’ journalists and scientists and talk about their responsibilities and what they’re paid for.
    What journalists and scientists have in common is a strong (I wonder if it’s innate) belief that they are after the “truth.” A ‘good’ writer knows that the ‘truth’ is subjective, and facts not dressed up in a story are boring.
    What I appreciate are the odd scientists who can write (i.e., James Watson and Alfred Einstein). I find their work much more appealing than most science journalists.

  37. Scott
    January 20, 2012

    I’ve had a gripe with science journalism from mainstream sources for a while, but it’s gotten so consistent I’m beginning to feel the responsibility to improve it begins with scientists. For instance, just this past week a paper came out saying statins in post-menopausal women increase the risk of diabetes 48%. To lay people, this relative risk sounds a lot scarier than saying the chance of developing diabetes rose from 6 to 9%. The result was that my friend’s mother decided she was going to stop taking her statin because she thought she had a 48% chance of developing diabetes. I am sure there were many more women like her around the country. All the while, the scientist’s conclusion that the clinical guidelines for statins are not affected goes unreported in most news outlets. That is real damage caused by shoddy journalism. The increased morbidity of not taking that statin will manifest in someone’s life before they return to see their doctor.

    The crux of the matter is that you can only make ethical decisions when you understand the topic. Journalists do not have as full of an understanding of the topic, so it is up to scientists to impart to them the ethical considerations they should make when writing their piece. Sure they may be busy (second link), but they should take the time to be kind and patient with the journalist. They owe it to the rest of America.

  38. konrad
    January 22, 2012

    @Scott: “They owe it to the rest of America.” Whereas the rest of the world can rot in hell?

  39. konrad
    January 22, 2012

    @Ben: “If it is reported out of context, this is the fault of either the journalist for not checking the facts, or the scientist for not explaining it to the journalist in a clear and digestible fashion.”

    Sorry, but I cannot accept this as being the fault of the scientist. Any halfway competent journalist would know that they have not understood (i.e. that the explanation they got from the scientist was unclear/undigestible). If they nonetheless go ahead and publish their best guess of what the scientist meant, that is terrible journalism.

    Scientists guilty of being unclear should be punished by not seeing the story in print, not by getting it mangled.

  40. gVOR08
    January 22, 2012

    The job of scientists is to do good science. Communicating to the public is the job of journalists, science writers, and public officials including politicians. Do we really want to make it necessary for scientists to advocate for policy? That would politicize science.

  41. N McGuire
    January 31, 2012

    I’m a former lab scientist (complete with PhD), currently working as a science writer. Journalists who want to interview scientists should learn the requisite skills, just as they had to learn to interview politicians, corporate executives, etc. Likewise, scientists need to move beyond the “give me the grant money and leave me alone” attitude. Politicians and scientists are indeed separate species (with a few exceptions), and should be interviewed as such. Too many of my scientist colleagues have been forced into hiding by overzealous reporters digging for dirt, and too many of my journalist colleagues have unwittingly elicited a tsunami of technical minutiae from scientists who are overjoyed that some lay person is finally expressing an interest in their work (or been stonewalled so effectively that they naturally suspect that the scientist is hiding something). Now — where’s the pub, and when are we meeting?

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