Environment

Climate Follies

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 9, 2011 12:00 AM

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Climate blogger Eli Rabett, presumably in response to this recent post of mine, let off some steam at his site. He begins:

Kloor, Randy Olson and to an extent Andy Revkin, but a whole lot of other people appear to think that scientists are lousy communicators, and indeed, a whole lot of scientists agree and there are workshops, meetings and even, shudder, blogs, devoted to self improvement, or not. This goes into the file under missing the point. It's not that scientists are or are not lousy communicators (say that and Eli will lock you in a room with Richard Alley for example), but that journalists are lousy communicators. It's their fucking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well. It ain't just climate either. What journalists produce often makes the average cut and paste student paper blush with modesty.

To bolster his case about journalists being mostly stenographers, Eli goes on to mention a new British website called Churnalism (which, btw, I think is a great idea), written up recently in a Columbia Journalism Review post. Eli then provides a few of his own examples of badly flawed journalism:

If you wondered why every piece of crazy gets its day in the headlines here is one answer, the churnalists walking, nay sitting on their butts and printing everything that is spoon fed to them without working (shudder) to figure out whether there is any there there. There are lovely examples recently, the collapsing arsenic eating microbe story, the even faster collapsingbacteria in a meteor story, the stuff about vaccines causing autism, which STILL ten years later, after being shown conclusively to be a fraud, endures.

In the comment thread, John Fleck, the science reporter and columnist for the Albuquerque Journal, takes the bait:

Yes, there is a significant amount of bad science journalism out there, and bad journalism in general. But your willingness to generalize from that to all journalism ("journalists are lousy communicators", not "some journalists") weakens your argument here. There also is good journalism, and one wonders why you chose one from which to generalize and not the other. The cases you cite - autism/vaccines, arsenic-eating microbes and the bacteria-eating microbes - each started with *bad science*. But it would be no more appropriate for me to generalize from those cases - "scientists are lousy scientists" - than it would be for you to generalize from individual cases of bad journalism. You have to look at what happened next. The vaccine-autism issue started with an atrociously bad bit of science endorsed by the Science Establishment (published in Nature! The Lancet). The bad science got legs as a result of bad journalism. But for years the journalism on this subject has been dominated by good journalism - the debunking of the autism-vaccine link has been widespread and repeated in the mainstream press for years. There are, of course, exceptions, but as in generalizing from instances of bad science, it's important here not to generalize from instances of bad journalism. The arsenic bacteria story similarly started with what one might characterize as bad science, abetted by the scientific establishment (NASA! A paper published in Science!) and science journalists. From the beginning, there were good scientists and good journalists who began whacking it down, and the tandem of good science and good journalism kicked into gear pretty quickly to deflate the claims. The robust science blogging world helped good journalists a great deal in that regard. The bacteria-from-outer space one looked like bunk straight out of the gate, and all the science journalists I know, good ones, were in debunking mode from the beginning. (Revkin's an exception here. I saw his piece and said "WTF Andy?) But the vaccine case in particular illustrates a problem. Despite widespread, repeated debunking of the vaccine-autism link in the mainstream press over many years, the bunk endures. This suggests the importance of an observation WC made over at his blog: "If the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it." In fact, such intelligently written journalism is more available now than ever, thanks to the way the Interweb allows you to read whatever you want. Part of the blame here has to go to the reading public, which when faced with good solid debunking of the vaccine-autism link that conflicts with their world view (or good coverage of evolution or climate change), turns to Huffington Post instead.

To which Eli basically said, call off the dogs or talk to the hand:

John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and its their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk. There are a whole lot of journalists and politicians and political science types and economists out there pedaling the nonsense that it is fault of scientists that the science is not being communicated. That is the journalists' job.

Fleck, realizing that he wasted his time trying to engage seriously with Eli's criticism, writes back:

So this then is satire? You were pointing out what you view as the flaws in the Kloor/Olson argument by doing the same thing yourself? And you'll stop the "all the journalists are lousy communicators" schtick as soon as Keith and Randy stop the "all the scientists are lousy communicators" schtick? Clever rabbit, thanks for clarifying, I'll bring the issue up at our next weekly coven.

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