Science, journalism, balance, and accuracy.

Courtesy of Dale and the working-class-heroes, a very timely article on science journalism from the Columbia Journalism Review.
To me the take-away message is a desperate call for scientifically literate journalists, which to me means people who are scientifically trained, but who are also schooled enough in the social sciences to understand science’s social and cultural context, and to communicate this information effectively and responsibility. The job of educating the public on the issues surrounding science and technology is increasingly falling to science writers, and their role in shaping public opinion and policy cannot be underestimated.
We need also to be conscious of and vigilant about the ways in which we talk about science: the words we choose, the language we use. It subtly shapes our thoughts and opinions, and has far-reaching consequences that are often overlooked. (This is true for other disciplines, of course.)
Finally, I would like to, for the record, comment on something that was written by a friend in reaction to this article: that “science has become politicized under Bush.” While it is true that the Bush administration has brought to a head debates on many scientific issues (global warming, abortion, &c.), let us never forget that science is not and never has been divorced from politics, ever. Science, like anything else, exists in a social context, not in a vacuum. Despite the fact that it is often convenient for us to romanticize scientific endeavor as a pure, untarnished pursuit of truth and knowledge (important ideals to inspire the field, no doubt, but fantasies all the same), this leads to many problems, including the (terrifyingly prevalent) fallacies that technologies are inherently apolitical, that policymakers and politicians are the only ones responsible for any sort of “politicizing” of scientific work, and that scientists themselves are as apolitical as their work. (Granted, scientists often stay out of politics — it’s unseemly for them, as members of this priesthood of knowledge, to appear too partisan — but this presumably makes them believe in their own apoliticism, which is probably dangerous.)
Our cultural institutions — scientific, governmental, educational, artistic — are all intimately tied to who we are as a society, and we cannot forget this. It’s easy to do so when talking about science (because of what we believe science to be), but this is a dangerous trap, and if we continue to fall into it, the consequences will be enormous, and, I imagine, none to pleasant.


9 thoughts on “Science, journalism, balance, and accuracy.

  1. “Politicization of science” as a phrase is a little more difficult to condemn than “politicization of the scientific method.” Rather than evaluate evidence on its merits, the Bush administration chooses a policy position on scientific questions and then hunts down people who will support them. It’s peer review, only they get to pick and choose their peers based on political considerations.

  2. Tsk, tsk.
    This blog is too well articulated and pertinent to be blown off with shallow and distractive remarks that ignore the significance of the matter at hand precisely because they are taken as an opportunity and are meant to denigrate the curent President and his policies. Fact is this President is neither no more nor no less likely to be culpable of the sneering charge levied above, which can be proven by a revisitation of certain abuses within the CDC under a recent past and widely venerated President. Be careful that when you gore someone’s ox that it isn’t your own that bleeds.

  3. As usual, I think Amrys makes an excellent point – science, like every other human endeavor, is basically a social effort, and politics does inform it. However, I think to some extent that scientists are more likely to be persuaded to support a political view that coincides with their understanding of scientific issues than they are to choose the scientific view that flatters their political or religious agendas. Think of it this way: if you are doing weapons research, then yes, you are obviously working in a highly political environment. On the other hand, if you’re me, working on theory, then social pressures may as well not exist (except for the purposes of the occasional buzzword-laden grant proposal).
    But I must take exception to Doc’s post: Anand’s comment itself is both “well-articulated and pertinent,” and it doesn’t deserve to be “blown off” because it denigrates the President. As with comments that flatter the President, comments that denigrate him are sometimes right.
    I admire Bush, but I very, very strongly dislike him. My admiration is based on things that he has done which have either struck me by their ballsiness/flagrancy or which have indicated the respect others have for him. However, on issues such as his attitude toward science, I find it hard to muster even this kind of admiration. Here, and perhaps especially here given what many of us feek to be our lives’ work, it is important to object and to object loudly.
    It is indeed wrong for “that man,” since you don’t seem to want to use his name, to have meddled with the CDC – I don’t know if he did this, and I am simply accepting your point without looking into it further because its veracity has nothing to do with my stance. But past abuses don’t make it all right for the current President to stack the deck against the scientific consensus because he finds it convenient not to accept it; two wrongs don’t make a right. And, to be honest, it doesn’t grant your arguments much weight if you keep returning to the same tactic of trotting out a convenient comparison followed by some old saw.
    Look, Doc, I generally respect what you have to say, but you’re really lighting a flame under me. Allow me to refocus a point I made in the other thread, and maybe you’ll see why: Both left- and right-wingers need to stop operating on a level where everything is judged in comparison to Bill Clinton. I fight this tendency, not all too well at times (cf. the last thread and this very message), but I fight it. Your comments basically amount to “well, at least he isn’t Bill,” or “well, Bill did the same things.” If Bill did so many of the the same things, then, by all means, he was a bastard, too. I just think that, when you go over the ledger, he was a better, more effective bastard, and that’s for one principal reason: He believed in diplomacy, that we are one of a community of nations, a community which must operate by the same sorts of rules that govern individuals. At the same time, he understood that moral concessions must be made in the interest of our own survival (I make this point because Bush has so often attempted to claim that moral outrage drove our invasion of Iraq, a disingenuous and contemptible maneuver which tries to draw fire from the fact that Saddam’s [nonexistent and laughable even in abstract] ties to Al Qaeda and [putatively healthy, but deceased] nuclear programs were our rallying cry).
    Mr. Bush harbors no such belief and has no appetite for subtlety, and the lack of both in our government can do nothing but hasten our inevitable comeuppance. That is the reality of the present, and that is what we need to contend with, all of us, while we leave Billy behind.

  4. RE “However, on issues such as his attitude toward science, I find it hard to muster even this kind of admiration. Here, and perhaps especially here given what many of us seek to be our lives’ work, it is important to object and to object loudly. ”
    It is remarkable to me that those who passionately seek to embrace challenges of the future should be so ready to suppose that those who wish to do so within a context that permits the structure of law to “keep up with” scientific ‘advance’ must be uninterested, distinterested, uninformed, or perhaps just stupid. Mayhaps what is really going on in such debates is that those who have much to gain through grantsmanship fear that they are threatened with a loss of munificent dollars should limits be set that provide a context within which orderly government might keep up with and provide an arena for exciting and rewarding science.
    I am blowing no one off here or elsewhere and, to the degree I am able, I acknowledge my support for this President, my disappointments with his predecessor, my gladness that we now are led by a person in whose ‘the buck stops here” openness and steadfast we may take confidence, rather than a person who blames all personal errors and faults on someone else, a scapegoat, one abused woman or another, or a man in a weak position to defend himself relative to a president.
    If I never had to use the name Bush or Clinton within these concepts and confines it would suit me fully, but the flagrant charges against government policies and personal incapacities of this President that are based on largely suppositional “fact” should not go unchallenged — at least with an appeal to reason that what we may suppose to be true is not therefore necessarily fact. No matter how many times it is repeated, or by whom.
    And that has been my too frequent and unfortunate role: to keep on pointing out that point, which is what I had hoped to achieve in my earlier response here — that the charges being hurled against the President are not without just response, and that the curl of the lip of sneering intelligence is not worthy of the persons engaged in the presumably reasoned discussion/debate that take place on this blog or its close relations.
    I leave you to it, then: save one another from the corruption of what you know to be a better way. If you do not, people like me will too long and far dead to be of much use except as memory of our forewarnings may move you to redeem that future you seek.

  5. I wrote an immensely long response, and just prior to posting, Safari crashed. On OS X! Crashed! It’s too much to bear. Frustratingly, I even know what I did to kill it.
    To summarize: I’ve nothing to say on specific claims about science and the Bush administration, other than to point out that a man who appoints as the head of a Reproductive Health committee a doctor who won’t give contraceptives to unmarried women can not possibly have a rational outlook about science. Period.
    But anyway:

    I acknowledge my support for this President, my disappointments with his predecessor, my gladness that we now are led by a person in whose ‘the buck stops here” openness and steadfast we may take confidence, rather than a person who blames all personal errors and faults on someone else, a scapegoat, one abused woman or another, or a man in a weak position to defend himself relative to a president.

    My jaw dropped when I saw the emphasized part. To wit:
    Abu Ghraib. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. (The quote is, ‘I truly am not concerned about him.’) 9/11. (Still no firings.) Iraq. Civil rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. North Korea’s nuclear program. Further Israeli butchery. The largest budget deficit in history.
    All these concerns must lay on GWBush’s doorstep to one or another degree. But the man is not capable of admitting mistakes. (In the page, search for the phrase ‘thousands of decisions’.)
    John Holbo wrote a great post in which he argued that conservative aesthetics have substantially replaced conservative philosophy in America (in the context of his enormous takedown of the Frumster). Bush may present the public face of a man for whom ‘the buck stops here’. But nothing, nothing about his actual performance in office suggests that he has any of the humility and responsibility that you’re claiming, Doc. Per Holbo’s post, we might say that for many many people on the Right side of the aisle, that fact does not matter. Strictly speaking, only the first part of that claim is an indictment of Bush (there are plenty of stinging indictments of Bush, not one of which he acknowledges). The second part is an indictment of voters. None of which is about science, but like I said: science isn’t my beat. Media and culture are.
    This isn’t a pile-on! Anand and Shervin are claiming that Bush’s policies about science are completely fucking scary – and the scientific establishment agrees – and you’re attacking their (presumed) motives and (presumed) political beliefs. If Bush is actually honorable and sensible, if his record is anywhere near as good as his followers claim, then he goddamn well doesn’t need Bill Clinton’s record as defense. And neither do you.
    As for ‘sneering intelligence’ – I’m inclined to say that a sneer is the facial expression I wear least often. Same for Shervin. (Usually he’s making goo-goo eyes, I’m afraid.) Anand actually is in general pretty tense, and because of his astounding posture, there is a very slight hint of condescension to his gaze. But I don’t think it’s real – I think he’s just very, very confident, and between the posture and the authoritative nose and the fact that I don’t think that son of a bitch blinks, it’s easy to think otherwise.
    One last thing: I would absolutely love it, Doc, if instead of getting defensive about what the rest of the readers/commenters ‘suppose’ – and this is actually a pretty reasonable thing to get defensive about – you shared your opposing suppositions. ‘You don’t know enough’ is not a reasonable argument. I can’t speak for Sherv, but I know that pisses me off. Especially when I suspect it isn’t true at all.
    Is this even worth the time? Honestly.

  6. Look, you have to be consistent. First you try to divert attention from Bush’s meddling with science by mentioning Clinton’s. Now you’re saying that Bush is trying to rein in scientists and keep them going at a speed that other humans can handle, so that they can “adjust.” So, which is it? If it’s the former, then, yes, I agree with you, BC was a bad man and so is GWB. If it’s the latter, then you should’ve presented that argument first rather than avoiding the issue by stirring up some Billy brouhaha.

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