Guest post: The allergy to science starts earlier than university

Orignally a comment by jesse on Back to reporter school.

Working journalist here.

I’ll say this kind of stuff is needed because, as quixote noted, the issue is really that a lot of communications people don’t do science in their coursework, except for the minimum.

More to the point, the allergy to science starts earlier than university, usually, and comes from the fact that in the US the requirements for high school historically went: 4 years of English, 3 history, 2 math and 2 science as the minimum to graduate. This has changed a bit, but it reflects some rather old-fashioned needs. (It used to be that a lot of engineering-related stuff got covered in shop, before those classes turned into dumping grounds). Most communications majors weren’t interested in science to begin with.

Anyhow, the requirements for journalists were historically to do with how to find information. I know that sounds odd in the Internet age, but we learned a lot about what documents to go for and where to get them, how to file a FOIA req and who to ask and how to parse stuff in situations where you have to assume that everyone is lying to you or is telling you something for self-interested reasons. (Also, most of the good stuff isn’t online).

But finding information is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another. That’s a tougher skill to teach and learn. (And it’s why I and other old-er school people resist certain technologies a bit. Knowledge, information and wisdom are not synonyms).

This is some of the source of the false balance problem. I mentioned this once to a gathering of science writers — I asked how many people had ever covered other beats. Most had not. I told them that the big difference in reporting on science, and why I like it, is I no longer have to assume that everyone is a liar. In politics or covering cops that’s a kind of undercurrent you have to deal with. (A sense of humor about it helps, but if you ever wondered why many of us sound jaded, this is why). Most reporters for big mainstream outlets are generalists, and you get told “Hey, cover this!” and you say “You know, I don’t know anything about…” and you get told “DO it.”

So when you come at it after covering stuff in which there is no peer review, where all you have is say, a budget document and three politicians all telling you it means different things, or when you cover cops and have to assume that nobody is telling you the truth, that infects what you do when you cover the sciences. I am not saying we assume scientists are liars (consciously, anyway) — just that you get used to certain forms and mental habits out of necessity even when they aren’t applicable to some situations.

I have a science background, so I was able to get away from that a bit. But more than one editor told me to get “an opposing view” on some stories. I had to explain that no, science doesn’t work that way…

On the bright side most reporters do this because we love learning, which is why people with no knowledge are willing to tackle writing about something. There’s not many other jobs where you can say you know something now that you didn’t earlier in the day. And you get to tell everyone about it. So this is a group that will be very receptive I think.

Learning how science actually works is a big step in the right direction. Many reporters don’t, or have only a cursory knowledge. So kudos to the BBC.



  1. John Horstman says

    Interesting. My biggest issue with the way science is covered isn’t that it’s not credulous enough and thus provides false balance, but that it’s TOO CREDULOUS: an unreviewed, unreplicated paper with dubious experimental design is not only reported as The Truth, but the results are generalized WAY beyond the bounds established by the selection of the experimental group and the experimental design (in all fairness to science reporters, plenty of this is the fault of the researchers themselves misrepresenting the results). Either way, the solution seems to me to be that news organizations need (to bring back) beat reporters who actually have training in their area of focus (or at least assign most reporting as beat reporting and then send the reporters to supplementary courses to get them some additional training in their areas).

  2. sailor1031 says

    Unfortunately it is becoming the norm for Universities, rather than the scientists themselves, to issue press releases concerning newly published research. These contain not the science itself but puffery generalising the research results far beyond what they actually support. In order to know what the research really says you have to read the papers themselves. They are frequently abstruse, not easily comprehensible to non-specialists and often hidden away behind paywalls. So the number of non-specialists who actually read the science as opposed to what self-interested parties say about the science, is quite small but the media-spread misinformation (sometimes disinformation) gets widely spread.

  3. palmettobug says

    Great post, Jesse. It seems you’re one of the good ones. This post and the discussion of science-phobia reminds me of when deGrasse-Tyson said that we should rename “science” to “reality”, since calling it “science” allows us to compartmentalize it and shove it off to one side and say “I’m not a ‘science’ person.”

    While there are many factors, and I don’t want to overgeneralize or make this sound like an anti-humanities tirade (I like the humanities, really! I took extra humanities classes!), I wonder (based on my humanities major friends back in undergrad at a second-tier state uni) if it’s often the difficulty that students have in parsing scientific “story problems”, due to issues with vocabulary, complex sentence structure, abstracting key information, etc., that causes them to decide that they aren’t “science people”. In other words, it might be a reading comprehension problem that leads some to major in the humanities, where, ironically, reading comprehension is typically even more important. Maybe they think it will be easier than majoring in science. Fortunately (or hopefully), college makes most of them shape up quickly in terms of their reading and critical thinking skills.

  4. palmettobug says

    As a science prof and researcher, it is my impression that at least the initial information for the press release comes from the scientist. In my experiences with press releases so far, the PR person has given me ample opportunity to comment on or try to fix the press release before it goes out. I realize that maybe I was just lucky. Of course, typically the most overhyped press releases make it onto science news websites and into mainstream media.

    I think that, more often than not, the blame for the hype and puffery rests primarily with the scientists or engineers involved. There are plenty of hucksters and inflated egos in our communities, and some department heads, etc. are always looking for anything to raise their department’s profile. NSF program officers often request hype-y material from PI’s, in order to try to promote their division within the organization, or for congress. Who is going to refuse a direct request from a program officer? While that material usually isn’t for public consumption, the scientist can always decide to send it to the PR people at the university, and are often encouraged to do so by dept. heads, etc.

  5. screechymonkey says

    John Horstman @1,

    You make a good point, but I fear that the problem of sensationalizing reports of studies isn’t because of untrained reporters. It’s the basic economics of the news business: dramatic headlines like “Scientists: Vodka Cures Cancer” get many clicks and can go viral, while “Pilot Study Raises Intriguing Possibilities for Cancer Research” doesn’t.

    Also, as sailor1031 points out, a lot of these breathless articles are more or less copied from press releases, probably because newsrooms are cutting back on their science reporting staff, but any intern can rewrite a press release.

    The “false balance” issue is easier to solve, I think, because it isn’t quite as fundamentally linked to the profit incentives of media organizations — it really is more of a cultural issue.

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