Science, hype, and the troublesome “balance” habit

Maija Saari

Maija SaariThe comment was a point of evidence, volleyed politely at me by as part of some small talk over an appetizer.

“Of course, scientists have yet to settle the issue of climate change.”

Maija Saari

Maija SaariThe comment was a point of evidence, volleyed politely at me by as part of some small talk over an appetizer.

“Of course, scientists have yet to settle the issue of climate change.”

My brain rifled through my quiver of counterpoints, filtering for those I thought we might have in common. What about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? What about David Suzuki and Al Gore

“Do you, by chance, read the National Post?” I asked.

We don’t often consider what people do with our work, but my friend reminded me how much journalism matters.

That Saturday's national edition front-page headline read “A coup for junk science; Gore’s ‘truth’ nets Nobel prize”.  

Journalist Terence Corcoran lumped Gore’s prize with other “fringe movements and futile causes” that have seen Nobel’s favour in the past.

Gore was mentioned in nine items in the Post that day, for a total of over 7000 words. “Straight news” about the announcement ran for 411 words on page A18 and consisted of the verbatim statement from the Nobel Prize committee itself.  
Four negative opinion pieces about the award – including Corcoran’s front-page piece and an item by neoconservative political commentator David Frum – took up over 2800 words.

Four additional news stories included one which focused on details of a legal judgment finding fault with the veracity of Gore’s documentary, two stories covering speculation about a possible presidential bid, and a peripheral mention (although right in the lede) linking Gore’s win to a longer story about another annual prize awarded for controversy in science.

Silly Nobel organization. As Frum’s headline read, including “panic-monger” Gore in their honour had just “subordinated science to hype.”

Wait a minute. The science is hype?

I’ll ask again. Do you believe climate change is really happening? Can you think of a few facts to support your claim?

A rebuttal editorial, critical of climate change deniers, did run. On Monday. And yes, the Post does have some positive coverage on environmental issues.

Science creates new knowledge. The process of determining if an idea – a theory – holds true in the natural world has been honed since The Enlightenment and is a pretty impressive toolbox.

The coolest thing about the scientific method – and the peer-review system that requires scientists to prove they've followed it rigorously – is its ability to minimize the effects of investigator bias on their results.

In other words, the procedures scientists employ are designed knowing that human beings might just have a personal stake in the results and may see what they want to see.

That means a lot of dashed hopes and trips back to the drawing board. That’s the process.

Sometimes the facts are hard to swallow. And others might have an interest in perpetuating our denial. Think back to convenience store owners, bars and Big Tobacco. The scientific theories connecting smoking to cancer hit them all where it hurts.

It’s hard to break a habit.

So I wonder how journalists will react to the hypothesis that climate change coverage is so variable because the data are actually pushing innovation in the way we do our craft.

To be fair, this drive isn’t new. Journalists have always struggled with science stories. We don’t have a high level of science literacy.  Generalist newsrooms don’t tend to understand the scientific method and aren’t great at judging the difference between a translator and a researcher, or where a scientist might fit inside her family of peer-review.

Our standard practice of lining up a few sources and letting them duke it out conceals the important fact that scientific theories are not wishful guesses on the part of self-interested speakers.

Because of our journalistic practices, it has become sufficient to raise doubt about the science simply by painting the source himself with some sort of taint. Balancing one source (the scientist) with another (opposing scientist), creates our own court of peer-review, sans the collective body of scientists with expert knowledge about the area.

Intended or not, our routines perpetuate a public impression of science that’s fundamentally inaccurate.

And public impression matters.

Cell biologist Ken Miller knows this all too well. His was the American biology textbook slapped with a warning sticker by a school board because its content on evolution threatened local people who believe in creationism.

Miller took on the intelligent design community in court. He won.

People assumed the judge was a liberal. He was conservative.

Sometimes it’s so hard to believe.

Miller works really hard in the public sphere, fighting what he perceives as an attempt to put a wedge of doubt in our trust in the scientific method. He and others hammer away at the big difference between journalistic facts (the opinion of a speaker), and scientific facts (the result of rigorous and reviewed studies).  His website and video of a public lecture articulate this very clearly.

He’s not alone.

In the July/August issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Christine Russell offers expert guidance through the minefield of the climate change beat.

Andrew C. Revkin at The New York Times writes openly about the professional challenges of reporting climate change on his Times blog and in the CJR. He takes a critical look at coverage over time. He notes how the natural ebb and flow of the scientific process can clash with journalistic practice, generating a “whiplash effect” that might be the source of some public confusion.

Their decisions are built upon data. And the data have already been through a lot.

Generalist journalists might want to think about that the next time a science story lands on their desks or an unsolicited denier op-ed from some think tank shows up in their email box.

How many scientists and journalists will it take to change standard practice?  

Trust in science isn’t the only thing at stake.

And yes, my friend did read the Post. It showed up for free in his driveway.

Maija Saari is a professor of journalism and researcher on science journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University and a J-Source contributing editor.