Communication Breakdown

Chad was recently at the Perimeter Institute’s Quantum to Cosmos Festival, on a panel discussion called Communicating Science in the 21st Century. (Direct link to the video is here). It’s a pretty good discussion, I think, but a few things are left open — discussions have their way of drifting off in a particular direction, and going back to cover a point isn’t always possible, especially with a moderator and a time constraint.

Very early on, there’s a general point about traditional journalism and the various requirements of it, including being balanced. Later on, Ivan Semeniuk goes into some detail about this, in the context of reporting vs. getting involved in a story — reporting science is not the same thing as promoting science. And there’s something to that, but I think a larger point was missed. A lot of the so-called controversy that is reported in various stories is not scientific in origin. I think “I’m only reporting the story” and “I have to be balanced” is a bit of a dodge, because if one is truly reporting the science, one often finds that there is no balance in what the science says — it’s very one-sided, and creating the illusion that this isn’t the case is not a responsible act. And yes, this falls under the rants-about-science-journalism umbrella that Chad mentions, early in the video.

The Large Hadron Collider was mentioned as one of the big stories of the past year, boding well for the public’s interest in science; even though the topic of “the LHC will kill us all” was discussed, it’s not clear how much that type of story is represented in the popularity numbers, but those stories were out there. Giving equal representation to Chicken-Littles grossly distorts the merit of their objections.

At least the LHC stories were about science, even if it’s bad science. Other stories where equal time is given are not. Stories involving creationism or intelligent design vs evolution, for example, are stories about ideology masquerading as science. Here the desire to provide both perspectives can be even more damaging, because it presents the illusion that this is a scientific conflict, rather than the truth that this is a political battle, with precious little actual science being presented by the cdesign proponentsists. One finds similarities with the “controversies” over global warming and vaccinations, where the detractors use rhetoric and distortion, but not a whole lot of legitimate science, and make their case in the popular press instead of in the science journals. Science is not a democracy, and equal time is not a right guaranteed to any particular proposition — scientific ideas are accepted because of merit, demonstrated by experiment. Not only is it OK to point this out, it’s something that should be demanded to consider a science story to be responsible journalism.