Indeed, this is the first reaction of universities and their PR offices when work by their faculty gets published, and it is a near reflex among scientists themselves these days. And, it works. We have not invented the issue as something to write superficially critical blog posts about: in the extreme, the likes of the Washington Post have until not long ago simply published university press releases as sent to them, though when this became known they acknowledged the problem and said they would stop this practice. What happened to journalists as watchdogs?
|Watchdog at open door (with labrys). Roman mosaic from the Casa di Paquius Proculus (I 7, 1) in Pompeii. Wikimedia|
Yes, of course better science public education would be welcome, since it is true that the public pays for most of our research games and it's good for people to understand the world we all live in. But the problem we raised is not the desirability of an informed public; it's that if scientists are trained by an actor to be even slicker in what they say than they already are, the lobbying aspect will only intensify. We hasten to add that there are excellent science reporters out there, who write excellent stories and don't just basically echo what is published or what an interviewed author says.
Our quibble is not with them. But our post struck some readers as being ultra stodgy (Twitter even taught us the French word for 'grouch'), as we were taken to be critiquing science journalists and advocating that scientists stay as boring and remote as possible, rather than being trained to be better at explaining their work to the public. Fine. We took our lumps.
Then, on Friday we discussed a WHO report on studies purportedly showing the health effects of consuming sugar. We tried to look closely at that paper and to show what's under the hood of the public story as reported in the science news media. It was not that the story is an emperor with no clothes, it's that it's all clothes and no emperor inside--but it wasn't reported that way.
We could ask why should it be people like us who give a story such as that one the scrutiny it deserves? The answer is that too much science journalism these days is not critical, in the proper 'evaluative' sense of the term. We have journalists who repeat stories announced by scientists without examining the stories and calling out scientists on their hype. We see the same thing in politics, economics, war reporting and so on, as well; too often, journalism means being a mouthpiece for the powers-that-be. It isn't Alan Alda and acting training that we need. What we need are more reporters who do their job.
So the fact that those of us who actually try to understand the science stories being told every day, or the science projects being proposed, have to do this dissection, explains why we didn't like the idea of making scientists even slicker in front of the camera.
The problem could be fixed in a more proper way. Let the scientists do their job, and let the reporters and interested personalities like Alan Alda present the results in a smooth way--that's what they're good at, after all. But, we believe that better science reporting could be done if more reporters remembered that the main role of journalism in a free society is to pick and ponder at the stories being spun to them, and report what the story really is (or isn't), protecting how the public purse is used, not just carrying the baton as if they were running the anchor leg in a relay race. And for junk stories based on awful design and over-interpretation--perhaps the most important journalistic responsibility is not to report them in the first place.