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Convergence 2010 -- Science and the Media

Ways in which scientific findings are reported and distorted by the media.

Notes from a panel at Convergence 2010.

Panelists: Bridget Landry, Rachel Maccabee, Stephanie Zvan, Greg Laden

The media are sensationalists. They do not want to hear the qualifiers that are an essential part of science, just the sound byte. They do not talk about the process of science. They want to present results as conclusions, not as steps on the way.

A science story usually starts with a press release, which may actually be quite sound. But by the time it gets through the reporting and editorial process it can get thoroughly garbled.

The media idea of an "expert" is highly suspect. They may simply keep looking for "experts" until they find one who says what they want to hear. Or they might present two "experts". One will represent the scientific consensus. The other will be from the fringe. The media will grant them equal time. As for a "panel of experts", that is a cage match.

"Science is not just another point of view."

Many major media sources, e.g. CNN and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. no longer have science reporters.

If you are looking at a story from outside the USA, try to get a local source. This will at least get you past the US media spin.

You should try to read the actual journals. This is hard, but with some effort you can progress. There are ways to at get them if access is restricted.

There are new open science journals, e.g. at the Public Library of Science.


Some cranks masquerade as legitimate science blogs, so you have to check your sources.

There are some good science blog collectives, e.g.

Blogs can be very good. When they have comments they are dialogues. This makes it possible to have corrections and clarifications.

There are endorsed science blogs, e.g. Wikio was also mentioned here, but it is not clear to me what "endorsed" means there, although the list seems quite good.

The above is focused on the supply side of getting good science news. It is also important to work on the demand side. E.g., Bridget Landry has been able to get some of the women in her sewing circle interested in science.

A couple notes on global warming

  1. Back in the 1970's there was some debate about whether the trend was toward global warming or global coolling. Both were legitimate scientific positions. That was then. There has since been a lot of research and the overwhelming scientific consensus agrees that anthropogenic global warming is happening.

  2. There are a few prominent scientists who doubt global warming. However they are not climate specialists. Consider an analogy:

    Suppose you went to a cardiologist and were told that you had to have a complicated and expensive operation or you would die. It would be perfectly reasonable go to get a second opinion. But would you go to a dermatologist?

    [Analogous cases are William Shockley on race, and Linus Pauling on Vitamin C.—GTM]

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Each year, when my students are about to do some literature searching, I remind them that stories in the popular press are written by journalists, i.e. English majors. Then I ask them how many of their friends in the humanities understand the sophomore-level biology that my students are studying? Very few can name even one.
So don't expect a POEM member to report accurately on stem cell research.

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