Too many carcinogens, not enough time

I think we can all agree that science reporting is pretty spotty. I know a load of people, students of the sciences themselves, who refuse to read popular science articles in the press.

So it’s kind of refreshing, kind of unnerving to hear this on Material World (yes, I’ve been listening to the radio recently);

“[The public are not] a bunch of ignorant imbeciles who have to be told everything… They can actually figure out that, y’know, they’re gonna get contradictory findings, science moves on in an iterative way and so on; I think they’re smarter than we give them credit for.”
Curious. It gets worse.
We need to be doing better than this, at any rate.

That was Roger Highfield, the editor of New Scientist of all places. This sentiment is all well and good, and interesting if he’s considering that his readership is the public, people who are uninformed but sensible. That may be true of the science sections in broadsheet newspapers. In my experience, though, the people who read New Scientist tend to be more informed, and I rather think that a large proportion of of the people who take The Sun’s cancer death warnings seriously are less sensible. But I digress.

His next* quote, however is more bothersome.

“Some people like to think journalists should be there issuing truths to the public; they’re not. They’re there to sell newspapers.

Really? I will admit that papers are there to sell papers. Of course that’s the case; it’d be insane if they did otherwise.

But that’s not their function! The function of a newspaper IS to “issue truths”, so to speak. The reason why they do this is SO they can sell papers. It doesn’t hold that they can’t do both, and while I can, to a certain extent, forgive writers for letting some falsehoods pass through, I think it’s lazy to claim that the reason for you doing this isn’t time constraints, but that it’s not your job to report facts.

In the interview, he likened what he does to conversations in a pub about gossip and rumours. This is fine for the start of articles, when the idea has just planted itself in your head. But the end result should be doing it’s best to issue such truths as are possible. It is not the job of science articles to merely chat to people about science, in just the same way that it’s not the job of the BBC to gossip about what’s going on in warzones.

Listen to it yourself. Despite my raging, he does raise some fair points, such as about having 1000 words to do in an hour, on a paper you haven’t read. He did seem glib in his treatment of “good” science reporting, and it seemed to me he thought it was pie in the sky. While we can’t be perfect, it won’t be hard to do better.

Rant over. I think this was made worse by having U2 on, muted. Rage against the Idiot Machine.

*Well, technically previous, but I had to rearrange it for narrative effect. Deal with it.

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Posted on June 24, 2011, in GLOOP, Normal Type and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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