Science journalism through the thicket of science

The readers of science journalism should be as much a part of the enterprise as journalists and scientists

Updated - January 13, 2023 01:36 am IST

Published - January 13, 2023 12:40 am IST

Much to the chagrin of the science journalist, the first contact for too many people with something masquerading as science journalism is an article about how coffee (or wine) might improve (or worsen) your wellbeing — only for them to find out the next day in another article that wine (or coffee) might improve (or worsen) your wellbeing. This deceptively simple, even if confusing, experience reveals several important things about science, science journalism and journalism overall.

The last part first: I’ve been a journalist for a decade and I’ve learnt that passively consuming the news has become a luxury that no one can afford. Understanding the news is a skill and readers need to train themselves to do it well, especially science news. Thanks in part to the increasing democratisation of information, the dismal access to scientific work has become more noticeable, and that the forces keeping things that way are geared more towards good business rather than good science.

One of these forces is the ‘publish or perish’ culture: scientists in academia need to keep publishing papers, even as many journals where they publish demand more sensational findings, to hold on to their jobs, grants, etc. This culture has been exacerbated by rankings that focus on research output quantity over quality, and is responsible significantly, but not entirely, for low-quality research being produced in the first place.

Next, the press offices of many universities and research centres not uncommonly hype their scientists’ work so that it is publicised and their employer’s public reputation grows, sometimes at the cost of accuracy. Finally, reporters and/or editors often labour under the impression that everything scientists find must be fact, that the endeavours of science are agenda-free, and that science is self-correcting. These are popular ideals but not one of them is true — at least not without someone somewhere being incentivised to bend the arc of reality that way. But clichéd as this might sound, journalists in many newsrooms are rarely empowered to ponder these questions.

In a broader sense, it’s not even clear what the purpose of science journalism in India is: Is it supposed to explain and popularise science? Do science journalists produce new knowledge or are they science-adjacent? In this milieu, many journalists simply reproduce what they have been told, leading to uncritical reportage, celebration of notions like ‘prestige’ and ‘genius’, and a fixation on journals in which papers are published rather than the papers’ contents. This is the milieu that also publishes the coffee/wine reports. And this is why the reader of science journalism ought to be as much a part of the enterprise as the journalists and the scientists.

To do so, I ask all engaged readers to do two things. First, with practice, you can spot some telltale signs of dubiety. I recommend the following eight checks: I recommend the following eight checks: if the article talks about effects on people, was the study conducted with people or with mice? How many people participated in a study? Fewer than a hundred is always worthy of scepticism. Does the article claim that a study has made exact predictions? Few studies actually can. Does the article include a comment from an independent expert? This is a formidable check against poorly-done studies. Does the article link to the paper it is discussing? If not, please pull on this thread. If the article invokes the ‘prestige’ of a university and/or the journal, be doubly sceptical. Does the article mention the source of funds for a study? A study about wine should not be funded by a vineyard. Use simple statistical concepts, like conditional probabilities and Benford’s law, and common sense together to identify extraordinary claims, and then check if they are accompanied by extraordinary evidence. Finally, once you have separated wheat from chaff, identify science journalism you like and vote for it with your wallet.

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