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Reporting Science: Accuracy, Partiality, and Advocacy

This post is one of several intended to provide some starting points for the session John Timmer and I are moderating at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science.” The general topic has to do with when scientific findings call out for advocacy, and when advocacy is appropriate in the reporting of science. Feel free to join the conversation even if you’re not part of Science Online. This is an unconference that works to see as many viewpoints expressed on its topics as possible.

The basic point behind reporting is to add to the readers’ body of knowledge as accurately as possible. Impartiality or lack of bias is considered a key aspect of this accurate conveyance, but we know that impartiality is a tricky subject. Not only do all humans come with a stack of biases, but there aren’t any simple mechanisms for overcoming bias.

Attempts to simplify the elimination of bias in reporting have led to “both sides” or “he said, she said” reporting, which is mostly good for informing the reader or viewer that there is a dispute. It doesn’t add much to a body of knowledge beyond that, in part, because it fails to fit information into its context, instead leaving the work up to a consumer who may or may not be qualified to do it.

Context is an important part science reporting in particular, simply by the nature of the scientific method. The results of research are meaningless without some knowledge of the research design. Research applicable to humans is often done in artificial environments in order to protect human participants–or eliminate them entirely in riskier research–and we need to know the track records of those research environments if we want to predict the applicability of those studies. A single study may not be duplicated, or its results may be contradicted or complicated by the results of other studies.

Outside of the scientific endeavor itself, context is still important if we want to understand how scientific knowledge is applicable to our world. We don’t have problems with reporting that says a study may help us better understand how to fight a particular disease, although we often rail about inaccuracies (“Cure for Cancer Soon?!?”) in this type of reporting.

What we see almost none of in the corporate press, and still very little of in reporting done on blogs, is the effort to explicitly put research in its political context. If research can change how we understand a disease, it can certainly change how we generally understand a contested issue. A study may have implications for how research money is spent. It may have implications for legal policy or legislation currently under consideration. At some point, highly accurate reporting where there is a factual disagreement that can be settled by science may begin to look indistinguishable from advocacy.

Those who report science are not experts in the same sense as the scientists mentioned in my first post for this session. Does that make their rights and responsibilities with regard to science and advocacy different from those of scientists? Are there important differences between their requirements for impartiality and those of scientists–or for the appearance of impartiality? Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed by people reporting on science, out of either ethical or practical considerations? And are there differences on this topic among the types of reporting being done?

Comments

  1. says

    There might be a little (useful) overlap with the Science writing in and for developing nations session, which includes an aspect of encouraging initiatives happening within these countries (and with that potentially issues of standing independent of politics – both national government and international aid, etc., politics).

  2. Indra D. Kriner says

    Thank you for this discussion. I’m a communications student with a particular interest in science journalism. As journalists in general, we do have a certain responsibility to provide context in reporting without depending too heavily upon “he said, she said,” which can often give false balance. That being said, we must be very careful to be fair, to back up everything we write with adequate facts and to ultimately let the reader come to her own conclusion.

    If a science journalist presents certain facts based upon heavy research, assuming the research is sound, does that qualify then as opinion and advocacy? I would argue that no science writer is under any obligation to entertain the notions of a flat-Earther to appear “objective” or “balanced” when all evidence supports the fact that our Earth is spherical in shape. But is he now an advocate for the round-Earthers? Is it now simply his opinion that the Earth is round? I contend not.

    Once again, we must always be fair, we must always look for people who legitimately disagree with findings or who are improperly influenced by money, and we must find and present the facts the best we can. Yes, we must place those facts into proper context, but we must do so in a very transparent manner. When we do all of these things, there can be no doubt left that the evidence on which we stand is correct. These, anyway, are the standards I intend to follow with my own work when I enter the field.

  3. says

    False balance is a HUGE issue. There is not equal weight on both sides of either the creationism or the global climate change issue (for example).

    But if you looked at the media, you would never know that there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community on both those issues.

    Sigh.

  4. willv says

    I think I maybe I should put this here: http://youtu.be/PnbFgRv8-Kw
    “[a] bloke who’s a professor of dentistry for forty years does not have a debate with some idjit who removes his teeth with string and a door” – Dara O’Briain

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