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More journalist’s myths about science

July 25, 2013

Ruby Hamad in the Sydney Morning Herald (here) decides to spread a swarm of wrong ideas about how science works.  There’s the old furphy of implying that science is just another religion, together with the one about science always getting things wrong because later science contradicts earlier findings.

I particularly like this line:

So often has this been repeated by certain scientists, it has seeped into the popular consciousness to be accepted as cold, hard fact.

My feeling is that the “seeping” of fringe scientific ideas into the popular consciousness is mainly due to scientifically-illiterate media which try to sensationalise them regardless of their lack of acceptance by the mainstream scientific community.

Update 2013/07/31: Several of the commenters on this post have expressed interest in an award for scientifically-illiterate journalism. It seems there’s an existing award, The Orwellian Prize, run by Dorothy Bishop, that comes very close to this idea. Here’s an article from Times Higher Education about the context that stimulated the prize: Trial by error.

And a very pertinent recent article from The Conversation: Journalism teaches the public about science, but who’s teaching the journalists?

19 Comments
  1. It sounds more like a “slippery slope” of argumentation–rather than “seeping?”

  2. Scientists and knowledgeable journalists should stress that what makes an assertion and a body of knowledge scientific is not its subject matter, but relentless testing that yields results that are firm enough to build upon. That approach requires seeking and heeding evidence, rather than basing assertions on prior beliefs and anecdotes (fallible testimony). Any assertion that has not been tested is considered to be only a hypothesis.

    To get this point across, scientists should post and publicize annual awards for scientifically illiterate punditry. Multiple awards would be needed each year.

    • Good idea. Sort of like the Darwin Awards. Now if only we could come up with a good name for these awards. The Andys? The James’s? No, too bland.

      • How about ‘The Dodo’s’?. But that would malign a blameless species. ‘Dunce By Choice’? ‘Willfully Ignorant’? ‘The Flat-Earthers Award?’

        The awards would have to come from a group of bloggers, because the formal scientific societies must avoid anything that can be construed as partisan.

        Might Richard Dawkins be interested in participating?

        • I’m interested in making it an award that specifically targets scientifically-illiterate journalism as opposed to scientific illiteracy in general (ie not the variety shown by politicians, celebrities, alternative health practitioners, and so on). For this reason, I think it should be named after a particularly culpable individual from the journalistic trade. Anyone come to mind?

          • Your idea of a sharp focus on journalists is a good one. Perhaps it could be called ‘The Sleazy Journalism Award’ (the ‘Sleazies’).

  3. I once read that the major problem in science journalism is attempting provide ‘balance’ to an article i.e. two sides of the story. This often leads to published and recognised scientists going against a spokesperson for a relatively small group with a different opinion, who may only be working with material that is circumstantial or not widely accepted. This then leads to the idea that both these groups have equally valid points, that the group opposing the scientists have the same peer reviewed research behind them, which can actually do a lot of harm to the idea of science within the public.
    The other big problem is trying to draw readers in by using scare tactics, making people panic instead of properly explaining the situation.

    • One of ScienceOrNot’s Red Flags addresses the balance issue, Sarah: False balance – cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusion.

    • That is indeed a huge problem. You can see it at work in print and TV journalism on climate change, biological evolution, toxic chemicals, and food and drug safety. This flaw is deliberately exploited by those who do not like the conclusions that were reached by the bulk of the scientific community. The cigarette industry did this for years, and now the deniers of climate change are consciously imitating that delaying tactic. They don’t care that they will eventually be shown to be wrong. They can profit by buying time.

  4. Wayne permalink

    In todays societal constraints, science does inherintly contain a dogmatic element to it, enforced by both scientists and media IMO. Dogma being defined as (by google); “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” I guess evolution would be the obvious example here, and before anyone gets on my back about the proof for evolution, I dont need any, I am a full blown proponent of the science and rationale behind evolution haha.

    So, I guess instead of scientists persecuting fringe science, perhaps they should focus on disproving that so called “science”. Scientists on behalf of, or as spokes persons for science claim to know the workings of many aspects of the known universe and its natural processes, and when they admit to not knowing certain aspects, they claim that no one else can have an idea or theory of such processes. The workings of the cosmos are the most obvious example I can high light here. Whether it be string theory and its failing ambitions to get the math to work for the last 40 years, or the electric universe theory… Richard Dawkins FB page only this morning posted this article http://www.richarddawkins.net/news_articles/2013/7/22/decapitated-worms-regrow-heads-keep-old-memories# The implications? Im not sure but the first thing that comes to mind is that maybe it gives credit to the ‘holographic universe’ theory… Thats my interpretation but without anything but some previous readings and a rational anlaysis admittedly behind it.

    I think alot of the fault comes with society short comings, why arent we teaching kids how to critically analyse an ad from Ella Bache or the like when they state that their ‘scientifically formulated’ cream works by…… Clearly this is science manipulated by people for the aims of profit or human vanity as its end purpose I guess. As for the criticism of fringe science, science as well as corporations and governements have claimed infallibility when it comes to certain aspects of how things work, should work and will work haha… Any science experiment is open to influence by the observer, quantum physics has proven this. So the idea that looking at an experiement can change the outcome, does not apply when interpreting scientific data. Besides, im not sure where you guys are from on this planet, but here in Australia, we pay for eduction, the evidence for that can probably be seen in pass to fail rates documented over the last 20 years, going from a free service to pay as you use service. Im happy to be proven wrong on that one but as I havent actually checked.

    If anything the scritiny of mainstream science has only prompted fringe science to lift its game, take Noetic Sciences for example http://noetic.org/ or MAPS website http://www.maps.org/research/mdma/

    For anyone that has strong anti homeopathy views, maybe try this one http://www.keshefoundation.org/latest-papers/pdf/1.html The editor of this paper receives harsh criticism online for not having proof. i doubt any of those criticisers have read his patent or his books he has for sale. And despite myself reading both positive and the negative sides of the debate around him, I am yet to see any math or physics from any scientist to disprove his theories, and he has many. Instead they sit idly by with many of them having irrational trust in BBC articles for science or the like haha, and criticise only. Personally re homeopathy, ill admit im unsure re the article I posted as I dont have the tools etc to proove the paper wrong. And science hasnt any counter argument because aparently its a crock because the idea of it is silly. You guys decide for yourselves.

    Agree of the article re “slippery slope” of argumentation–rather than “seeping?” guys haha… And apologies for the long response Graham (and spelling, at work), but I am in the middle of a book that is very relevant to the issues I highlighted, so its fresh, hence it fell out of my finger tips ;-)

  5. Frederick Bennett permalink

    Graham, I am not sure ihow familiar you are with Peter Hadfields “video blogs” but the following two may be worth checking out …

    They address some of the problems of “science journalism” as it is presented in the popular media.

    • Thanks Fred. I love Peter’s work.

      • Frederick Bennett permalink

        If anyone wants to have a more detailed look at how misinformation is effectively distributed through the corporate media, I can recommend the following

        Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

        The amazing thing revealed in this book is that not only are the same methods employed by the tobacco industry being used to create confusion over the Climate Change debate, the same people are doing it. It is an excellent expose on the impotence (or indeed, complicity) of the corporate media with respect to these matters.

    • That is excellent. I wish that every student (high school and above) watched that video at least once.

  6. Wayne permalink

    Great link, thanks Frederick, that will come in very handy. I already have some friends in mind that I would like to send it to haha ;-)

  7. John H permalink

    The junk science awards could be called the Hahnemanns, the Stills or possibly the Palmer d’Or.

  8. John H permalink

    Well if there has to be a journalistic reference they could be called “The Mails” or the “DMs” after that rag’s efforts to divide everything in the world into “causes cancer”/”cures cancer” (coupled with its pious and hypocritical attempt to eradicate online porn combined with all the poorly clad young girls it plasters all over its website).

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