Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Objectivity or Scepticism?

To continue the thoughts from my last post about the bad science of the Global Consciousness Project, the question is: "why does bad science journalism matter?"

The reasons are many, but I'm going to stick to a few, which cluster around one key issue: the public can't make good decisions on bad information.

Who are the heralds of that information? The journalists. But we keep reporting on things we don't understand, pretending that we do understand them, and indulging ourselves in the belief that expertise is not necessary to technical reporting.

Some journalists are disciplined enough not to make fools of themselves.

Some are not: they repeatedly get into deep water because they can't distinguish between fact and hype.

The worst journalists are knaves. They know they lack the skill to assess the facts of a technical story, but they don't care. The GCP story is a case in point: it doesn't matter that the "science" has been repeatedly debunked, the journalist is writing entertainment dressed up as science.

Why worry? Because people then treat the semi-fact as fact, and make decisions based on it.

Why did people believe in the "new economy" for example? Because journalists repeated its tenets so often, even though the balance sheet evidence showed it to be a nonsense from the start.

Often, a journalist's response to being challenged over this kind of story will be to talk about "objectivity", but frankly, objectivity is a crock. Give me, in all kinds of reporting, the position of sceptic: the journalist who demands more than a string of quotes to make a story.

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