Free Book on Science & Media

For Immediate Release: Oct. 14, 2010

Contact: Paul Karoff, pkaroff@amacad.org, 617-576-5043

“Science and the Media” Explores Challenges to Scientific Literacy in U.S.

Essays Published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Scientists and the journalists who cover their research approach their roles from very different perspectives, yet they depend on each other to do their jobs. Science and the Media, a new volume from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, examines this dynamic though a series of essays by scientists, journalists and public relations specialists.

At a time when the general public depends on the media for information about the scientific or technological components of pressing challenges facing society, such as climate change, energy, national security, and health care, many newspapers are eliminating science sections, and the science beat reporter is an endangered species.

The Academy convened experts to examine the sometimes conflicting cultures of journalists, who value timeliness, speed, simplicity and clarity; and scientists, who grapple with and embrace nuance and evolving states of knowledge. The study was led by Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University and former editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, and Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s journalism program.

The authors in Science and the Media find:

  • The journalistic tradition of presenting opposing sides of an issue in order to ensure unbiased reporting may actually cloud scientific issues when views that fall outside the mainstream are given equal weight with consensus scientific thinking.
  • Adults over age 35 never learned about relatively new areas of science like stem cells, nanotechnology and global warming in school and thus depend on the media for information about such topics.
  • Some scientists may shun the media limelight for fear that colleagues trivialize work that is highlighted in the popular media.
  • Online science information is a double-edged sword: some sources may be unreliable, yet feedback on blogs allows responsible science journalists to gauge followers’ understanding of issues.
  • General education requirements unique to the American higher education system usually require that students study science. As a result, only Sweden has a higher rate of scientific literacy than the United States.

The accumulated facts and observations of the essayists point to the need for scientists, journalists and public relations specialists to become partners in promoting scientific literacy. Contributors to the volume include:

  • Donald Kennedy, president emeritus, Stanford University; former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; former editor-in-chief of Science
  • Geneva Overholser, USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism; former editor of the Des Moines Register
  • Alan Alda, actor, writer, director; host of “The Human Spark” on PBS
  • Robert Bazell, chief science and health correspondent for NBC News
  • Rick E. Borchelt, director of communications for the research, education and economics mission area, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Cornelia Dean, former New York Times science editor; teacher of seminars on the communication of science
  • Alfred Hermida, University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; former news editor, BBC News web site
  • Jon D. Miller, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
  • Cristine Russell, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School; president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing
  • William A. Wulf, University of Virginia; president emeritus, National Academy of Engineering

A copy of the volume may be downloaded free of charge at http://amacad.org/publications/scienceMedia.aspx.

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Props for Jay

Jay Rosen is the person best at making sense of modern journalism, especially in America.

He doesn’t usually think of science journalism in particular, but his comments are often strikingly on target for our interests as well.

There’s an excellent interview with Rosen in The Economist

Some of it reflects on the quandary that someone like Revkin faces:

I do not think journalists should “join the team”. They bridle at
that, for good reason. Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different
behaviours, and this is how we distinguish politics from journalism. I
think it does take a certain detachment from your own preferences and
assumptions to be a good reporter. The difficulty is that neutrality
has its limits. Taken too far, it undermines the very project in which
a serious journalist is engaged.

Suppose the forces that want to convince Americans that Barack Obama
is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the United States start winning, and
more and more people believe it. This is a defeat for journalism—in
fact, for verification itself. Neutrality and objectivity carry no
instructions for how to react to something like that. They aren’t
“wrong”, they’re just limited. The American press does not know what
to do when neutrality, objectivity, balance and “report both sides”
reach their natural limits. And so journalists tend to deny that there
are such limits. But with this denial they’ve violated the code of the
truth-teller because these limits are real. See the problem?

Yep.

That’s the whole problem in a nutshell, along with the fact that journalists are stunningly blind to the problem.

There is a tradeoff between valid goals: on the one hand, journalistic independence, and on the other, journalistic participation in actually evaluating the truth of competing narratives. On the whole, journalists overvalue independence and undervalue truth. In the limiting case they become utterly useless.


Portrait of Jay Rosen lifted from the cited Economist piece

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Tim Lambert asserts that the high profile article in the London Times claiming that former IPCC chairman, Prof. Robert Watson, says that IPCC has a warming bias, is flagrant and willful distortion:

Yes there is bias here, but the bias is in the media that only reports the errors that overstate the problem and also reports as errors things that are not errors at all. This seems pretty obvious and Robert Watson is no fool, so I asked him if The Times had accurately report his views. He replied:

The article distorted my statements – I was interviewed for an hour and it was obvious that the reporter wanted me to say that the authors were biased – I said I did not believe that.

Watson said that the authors were not biased, but The Times reported him as saying that they were. That’s outright dishonesty by Webster and Pagnamenta.

This is serious business if true, and is easily verified. If Watson will talk to a blogger (albeit as distinguished a one as Tim) he will talk to another major newspaper. The press had better get off investigating IPCC and start investigating its damn self.

Keith’s Lament

On a recent article here, Keith (I am guessing Keith Kloor) laments:

I’m not defending my professional pride. I know well that journalism has its shortcomings. (See Iraq war for for obvious and tragic example.)

I just happen to believe that your expectations of journalists are unreasonable. You seem to think it falls on journalism’s collective shoulders to rescue humanity from imminent climate catastrophe. Or you at least hoped so at one time.

But now that you’ve apparently given up that hope, I’m asking you or any of your readers to demonstrate an alternative means of communication for the daily reporting of climate-related news.

Forget about long-form magazine stories or investigative pieces. Those are different beasts. Let’s stick to the guts of daily journalism–the reporting of events, meetings, research findings, et al. That’s the cog in the wheel.

I doubt your grassroots effort will supplant the reach and influence of the mainstream media on this front. Nonetheless I welcome whatever innovation you can bring to climate change journalism. In the meantime, if you’d like to help make us poor wretches part of the solution (as opposed to being “part of the problem), show us how it’s done.

I’d like to see a blog out there that actually stops bitching about journalism and starts showing us how to do a better job. Criticism is easy and lazy. I can find a story I don’t like everyday and carp about it.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to set up a parallel universe journalism web site, where someone like yourself writes up an alternative story to Pearce’s. (I had high hopes that Grist would do this back in the day…but that’s not going to happen now.)

At least then you and so many other climate advocates could constructively channel all that antipathy towards the press.

This is a thoughtful and constructive query. I’d be happy to have more discussion of it.

I’m not sure I have any advice for the individual journalist caught up in the day-to-day of conventional journalism. My beef is with the system.

There are at least two primary complaints that come to my mind.

Much has been made of the false balance problem. When there are two political parties, and the press implicitly is obligated to “split the difference”, that provides a huge polarizing mechanism, motivating the most extreme possible positions to drag the “middle” slightly in the desired direction. The consequence of this, a particularly American journalistic ethic, have obviously been disastrous, not only on the climate question.

The second issue, though, is the “timeliness” one. My wife went to see a talk to budding journalists by Jim Lehrer, who spoke of a report on the Ogalalla aquifer as one of his worst mistakes as a young journalist; after all, the effects were not anticipated to even begin for forty years. But in fact it was not a mistake! It was an issue that people should have in mind forty years in advance, because the planning and coping for such a thing takes a very long time!

Any scientist (leaving aside economists, apparently) understands that phenomena have specific time scales associated with them. Science itself has a time scale of about a decade – it takes about five years between a paper being published and it being recognized as an important advance. This can vary, typically between, say, immediate and twenty years. An attempt to do a “This Week In Science” (and once say an awful eefort at this on TV) is therefore utterly ridiculous. News hooks in science simply don’t have that shape! Biasing toward obvious “hot stuff” completely skews what people understand.

I think it might be better to identify fifty scientific disciplines, and do a “This year in solid earth geophysics” once a year; even then most of the items should be expected to be a year or two out of date.

Finally, every single person who talks about “the scientific method” as if there were one and they know what it is needs to have their mouth washed out with soap. Especially schoolteachers. Some of what needs to be conveyed is what scientists actually do, where these results come from, and how understanding actually emerges from these efforts.

As Clifford Johnson once said to me, “We need to explain that we are not special people. We are people doing a special thing.” We try. But y’all journalists are supposed to be the professionals at explaining things.

In short, my advice is simple. Understand things. Explain them. Pay no attention to who wants which facts emphasized, and don’t ignore stories just because they have long time scales. Is that so difficult?

Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the “climate beat” for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader’s position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:

As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”

Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:

In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”

which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I’m always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren’t juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:

“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”

Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:

Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.

Dykstra’s advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It’s certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn’t mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:

  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?

It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn’t feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More “not taking sides” like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:

he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:

The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported … but that is simply not the case … in April, 2009.

Where’s Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?


Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from livius.org is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis “Two-Face”, but, well, ewww.


Sustainable Science Journalism Toward a Sustainable World

This is something of a rant about science journalism and my place in it. 

The core of the matter is this.

In our peculiar circumstances, science writing has an ethical component.

Although speech is free in a free country, individuals or corporations aren’t free of ethical responsibility for what they write. The problems we face these days are so vast, the decisions we collectively make so consequential, that the ethical responsibility is greatly magnified. 

That said, here is the problem.  I heard Clay Shirky say this at the ill-fated #sxswbp: filtering (editing) is everything. “The filter is the single most important function on the internet today.”

Before the internet, anybody could say anything, but nobody could get anybody to listen. The Brits maintained their soapbox tradition in Hyde Park, I imagine, but I doubt anybody gathers much of an audience that way anymore. The action, for almost a century now, has been in the mass media. Consequently, for the lifetime of everybody living and until just a few months ago, it was the moneyed interests who decided who would speak and who would be silent.

This broke down a bit in the period of 1966-1974, often called “the sixties”, a brief period when radicals understood media better than the people who owned them. Soon enough everything interesting about that period was sanitized, obfuscated and duly forgotten by everybody who wasn’t privileged to come of age exactly at that moment.

Control of intellectual input by the corporate sector is totally shattered now.
There is no governance on the internet. It’s totally mob rule, as a Google search on “global warming consensus” will instantly reveal. The corporations run a bigger chunk of the economy than ever; even our barristas are publicly traded. But they have lost control of the media in a way that makes the revolution of the sixties look like a fraternity prank. (Which, in a way, it was, come to think of it.)

The corporate control of the Overton window (thanks to Eli for teaching me the concept) was already weakening before the great AIG screwup proved what many of us had always suspected about the Phil Gramms of the world. Now it’s hopeless. Speech is uncontrolled but it doesn’t matter very much, because nobody trusts anybody anymore.

This is both very good news and very bad news. Freedom is the good news. If you have something interesting to say, you can find the audience to whom it is interesting. There is much more interesting stuff to read nowadays. 


Unfortunately, we also have the bad news. Lies are cheaper than truth, vague misgivings cheaper than balanced analyses, and wild-ass guesses cheaper than interview and investigation. In short, noise dominates signal. As things stand, most people lack effective filters. 

An important function that the corporations used to provide for us, and before that the culture and the churches, was to provide a sense of what was reasonable and what was outlandish, what was worthy of polite conversation and what was certifiable. As we lose this imposed sense of propriety, we are in desperate need of filters, of reliable mechanisms to connect the people who have lost faith in every institution to the people who really do mean well and really do know what the f*** they are talking about.

Now, one could argue (I used to argue this more vehemently) that science at least provides a model for how this could be done. It turns out that for a vast range of reasons, that science is struggling to scale up to its modern circumstances as well.

Instead, it surprisingly appears that the most functional corner of civilization nowadays is the software design community. (The reasons for that could fill books, and better books need to be written on the subject.) Many people are already  looking to the software community, particularly the open source community. for models of how to better organize ourselves at scale. This is promising, one of the few trends that is promising. And indeed, that model may solve science’s internal communication and validation problems as it tries to scale to unprecedented complexity. That isn’t the problem that has been occupying me, though.


The problem that suddenly fell into my lap was not that of George Will, nor of Roger Pielke Jr., nor of Mark Morano, nor Glenn Beck (nor Laurie David or James Kunstler either). These people’s successes and failures all shine some light on our collective dysfunction in one way or another, but
the moment I slapped my forehead and said, that’s it, I’m in the wrong game, something has to be done, was specifically in reference to Andy Revkin.

Three things, to me, are fairly obvious about Andy Revkin:

  • 1) he has a wonderful job and enjoys it and does it competently and successfully
  • 2) he thinks he is helping
  • 3) he isn’t.

And it’s point three that specifically galvanized me into rethinking whether this blog is really a hobby.


 It started with removing Revkin from my blogroll, but of course I don’t think he cares. At worst it will cost him a handful of hits a month, and honestly, I am not going to stop reading it. To his credit, despite the extent to which I am on his case, Revkin still takes my comments, too. Delisting him on my humble little blog seems a pathetic and futile gesture, and maybe it will turn out to be. It’s meant as a gesture. What matters in substance is replacing the Times as an authoritative source for scientific reporting. If Revkin thinks his family’s comfort is more important than the survival of the planet, if he doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to the publisher and say “kill the Dyson crap or I am out of here” or something like that, he is not doing us much good. As my good friend John M says, “you can’t achieve anything if you’re not willing to quit your job over principle“.

Revkin might say that somebody else will be glad to do his job at the Times. A problematic excuse, of course. One thing you can easily say is just, yes, Andy, but not as well. We need you telling the truth full time, not 50.00% of the time.

The problem, of course, is that the Times is a pre-internet institution, and is incapable of blunt honesty that might be inconvenient for its owners or its advertisers. This is just a human foible under ordinary circumstances, but the time for hemming and hawing is over. The world is changing in ways that are casually obvious and are likely to become overwhelming if not grappled with soon. If these ways are embarrassing to the corporations that own newspapers, they simply must be replaced. I know that sounds grandiose, but I am not just windmill-tilting here. The Times is not serving effectively in science journalism of policy consequence. (The same phenomenon likely applies to the rest of their reporting, but that’s not my topic here.)

In the huge tangled quandary that the world faces today truth is the commodity in most desperate shortage, and its lack is traced to the lack of its raw material, trust.

So what will replace the Times given that the Times has gone out of its way to prove that we cannot actually trust the Times?

A good place to start is from analyses of the future of the press in general, and Steven B. Johnson has that one right. And here is his figure, which I am lifting from his sxsw talk.

It seems that there must be a role for me in developing some corner of Johnson’s model for scientific communication to the general public. But what? What’s the business model? It’s obvious to me that filtering is crucial.

The issue in scientific reporting is about trust. One has to create mechanisms for individual science writers to establish trust with their audience. This isn’t without precedent. I trusted Asimov, I trusted Sagan, I trusted Gould. Didn’t you? The writer is the brand. It is only with the individual human voice that trust develops. I read those guys because I trusted them. I trusted them for at least three reasons:

  • they wrote things I could understand,
  • they were close enough to science to know how it works,
  • they spoke with their own voices in ways that average everyday people around me never seemed to manage.

The great pop science writers of my youth were lucky to be on relatively uncontroversial turf (less so Gould, I guess, but I always found doubts about evolution to be laughable.) Nowadays though, I just discover someone like the unspellable Hrynyshyn and find myself trusting him, whether he is being controversial or not, whether I agree with him or not. When I take the time to read Hrynyshyn I get something out of it; it alters my point of view. When I read Revkin, I expect him not to get the facts wrong, but now that I understand what he does better, I am very surprised if the experience affects my behavior or beliefs in any way. Revkin is not wrong, usually, but a scientist is usually right, and usually in a non-obvious way. There is a difference. And in the quandary we are all facing, that is the difference we desperately need.

In the course of becoming a not entirely anonymous blogger I’ve met a couple of science journalists in person, some of whom I admire more than others, some of whom are quite commendable. I hope I’m not out of line in singling out John Fleck as a standout. But unfortunately he also seems to me still something of an exception. For the most part, I get a lot more out of reading scientists, or journalists who were trained as scientists, on science than I do from reading trained journalists on science, even if that’s their beat. Don’t you?

(Less profoundly and with more exceptions, but still strikingly, I get more out of reading scientists on politics and economics than I do journalists, politicians and economists. For instance, Steinn Sigurdsson has been “indispensible” on the Iceland story, but has opened my eyes to many other aspects of the economic crisis as well. Steinn is an astronomer.)

It doesn’t matter what level of sophistication the article is pitched at. Scientists writing at the 11th grade level are usually much more interesting to me than journalists writing at that level. See Grumbine, for instance, or my scientific colleagues on the imperfect but lamented Correlations blog.


So, let’s pretend a business model has emerged in my fevered brain out of all these constraints. What would it be like?

What I’m willing to say about it:

  • reporters must own their content and be their own brand
  • filtering is crucial and must be achieved by a collaborative infrastructure
  • new software is involved
  • I think I see how the people who work hard enough and produce a good enough product can get paid even though the content will be free. Anyway after pondering it intensively for six weeks, I have an idea worth considering.
  • Science journalism is my target, but the core idea will probably work for some other branches of reporting.

I’d like to talk this through with someone willing to confer in confidence. I need allies to make this work (even as a nonprofit, which is definitely a consideration). Which is really the point of this great long rant. I am looking for somebody to talk business who understands the nature of the problem, something about how the web works, and a little bit about making a business concern go. 


The business model chart, as I said, is lifted from the linked Steven B Johnson article

The comic clippings are from an episode of Tom the Dancing Bug
I thought Bora Z might be having some similar thoughts so I deliberately avoided reading his recent article on science journalism until I got this out to avoid undue influence. So finally I looked at it. He did indeed say some similar things among many ideas. His recent article on blogging, journalism and science is excellent indeed and very highly recommended for those who care about communicating science.