Here’s a myth that needs busting: a lack of understanding of the “scientific method” is what gives rise to journalists doing a bad job of reporting on science.
There are many things that lead to bad science journalism, but journalists having the presumption to write about science they don’t understand is not one of them. If you insisted that only a physicist could write a story about physics, to pick a discipline, then the physics wouldn’t get reported.
“Physics”, you see, isn’t a thing. It’s lots of things. Thinking of physics as if it were a uniform monolith is what someone says if they don't understand science. It's about as smart as thinking "Asia" describes everywhere from Afghanistan to Java, India to North Korea.
So which part of physics would I need to study to earn the right to write about it? Should I follow Brian May into astrophysics, only to exclude myself from the really cool stuff that happens in high-energy particle physics? Should I abandon the quantum zoo entirely but read up on atomic fusion?
I think you get the picture. A great many scientific endeavours need nearly-mutant intelligence just to get in the lift and decide which button to press.
Yes, you have to report facts – and woe betide the journalist who doesn’t try to find out whether they’re being offered facts or moonshine.
But: it’s actually not that hard. Here are a few random thoughts.
- Accord the journals the one thing they’ve got going for them: scientific review. Be VERY wary of someone offering to “let you in” on something “even before it’s gone to the journals”.
- Most “maverick scientists” are kooks. Journalists love the “successful maverick” narrative, so much that they overlook fifty cranks for one scientist, something I’ll discuss in more detail later.
- You can’t “balance” facts. I’ve heard people ask “so why aren’t there any ‘Relativity sceptics’ or ‘quantum physics’ sceptics?” There are, but they’re ignored. With no well-heeled lobbyists to back them, they get no airtime, that’s all (look up "iron sun theory" for an example).
- Talk to scientists. Not just the ones on the press release, and not just about the current story. Find scientists who like talking about their field, buy them coffee, and listen. You’ll get so much more than any university media office has to offer.
The reason someone like Barry Chapman – Google helicobacter pilori - is “news” is because he’s the exception, not the rule. Yes, he was a maverick who tested an unconventional theory and won, more power to him.
For every Barry Chapman, there are dozens of unpublished, unrecorded, anonymous kooks with a pet theory that will Change the World of Science As We Know it. And they are, and remain, kooks.
What made Barry Chapman a headline-grabber was novelty. Most of the time, the maverick is a kook with a barrow to push (“cold fusion” anyone?). And, by the way: Chapman’s experiment demonstrating helicobacter pilori may have been unconventional (he self-infected), but once demonstrated, his work was accepted.
Journalists like the maverick because it fits a narrative and a mindset. The narrative is the great story, the scoop, “I was the one who told the world about magic water and saved thousands of lives”. But it’s also a mindset: the individualist set against a monolithic culture – which is how a great many journalists (I don’t exclude myself) like to imagine themselves. Regardless of our political opinions, at a personal level journalists tend to be individualistic. The maverick-is-always-right is appealing.
(Oh, and by the way: Galileo is a dumb example. He wasn’t fighting against a scientific consensus. His opponents were political power and superstition. A climate scientist looks a lot more like Galileo than a coal industry sock-puppet, from that angle.)
The awful truth
The main reason there’s so much bad science writing is because, sorry to say, there’s so much bad science on offer. The reason I stick to the hard sciences – apart from their appeal to my inner geek – is that I feel comfortable on my feet, and able to trust the consensus. So I favour physics, astronomy, climate science, biology, as being demonstrable and trustworthy.
Also, there are far fewer financial interests trying to piss in the pool. I rarely write a medical breakthrough story, because I know I’m inadequate to untangle whether or not there are interests behind it that I can’t see. The same goes for pharmaceuticals. I do trust myself to play “spot the backer” in genetic research, partly because I know some geneticists.
Pharmaceutical science is probably the most polluted: every study has a drug to sell. It’s probably responsible, on a purely numerical basis, for more bad science journalism than any other single discipline, climate change included.
However, this wouldn’t be improved by a journalist having first-year science and an understanding of the scientific method – because a new drug for a freshly-minted psychological disorder is going to be backed by papers that already got past the peer-review committees. If they – presumably real scientists – didn’t ditch the publication, merely giving someone a BA Comms with a sub-major in Science Communication won’t help. Really.
I’ve probably tried your concentration enough this evening. There are other things to be said about “good science writing”, but they’re about “journalistic method” rather than scientific method. Perhaps another day.