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A Modern Solution to An Age-Old Problem

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Barrett Brown

October 11, 2010

Clearly it is not the science but rather the journalism that constitutes the limiting factor in the quality of science journalism.

A few weeks ago, the Guardian’s website ran a piece titled “This Is a News Website Article about a Scientific Paper,” which begins:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges.”

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist…


The piece continues in the same vein. Of course, it was intended as satire directed at the formulaic and largely counterproductive manner in which science journalism is too often conducted. Unfortunately, it was satire of the dead-on sort that will resonate with anyone familiar with the ubiquitous flaws in the process by which scientific findings are presented to the public in the modern age.

This is not to say that the modern age should take the blame for this problem, as it does for so many others. “Ask not why the old days were better, for that is a foolish question,” as the Bible tells us in an uncharacteristic fit of wisdom. Popular Science released the entirety of its archives earlier this year, and a quick perusal thereof will confirm that the science journalism of the late nineteenth century was often worse than that of our own age. One article from 1887 concerns itself with alleged differences in brain weight by nationality, which the author and researchers conclude is a result of varying climates; an even more dubious article appeared a few years later proclaiming that the myth of the Wandering Jew is based in a “neuropathic compulsion” by which Jews are collectively “possessed by an irresistible inclination to travel.”

In neither of these cases is journalism itself really at fault; as best as can be determined, the authors provided an accurate and well-composed representation of the wacky subject matter in question, which itself would not have raised too many eyebrows among the average scientists of the time. Comparing that age with our own, it would be difficult not to argue that science has progressed tremendously both in terms of the quantity of the data accumulated and the protocols by which that accumulation is now carried out. If we make a similar comparison between the journalism of the late nineteenth century and that of the early twenty-first, though, we find that the progress is decidedly mixed.

Clearly it is not the science but rather the journalism that constitutes the limiting factor in the quality of science journalism. If one examines a copy of Time from the ’60s and compares it to the most recent edition, the first thing one will notice is a steep decline in thickness; upon flipping through the pages of both issues, one will notice that the earlier specimen is not only thicker but includes far more words per page than its descendant. Upon actually reading the articles on science, one will have trouble making any comparison at all because the latest Time does not have any articles on science (although it does have an article on Burger King’s new Pizza Burger, which begins with the sentence, “I just ate a pizza made out of hamburgers.”).

Of course, Time and its counterparts in the magazine, newspaper, and television industries do indeed run science pieces on a fairly regular basis, and many of these are indeed composed and presented in such a way as to have a net positive effect on the understanding of the general public. But to an extent that makes the above parody sadly relevant, the process by which scientific developments are translated from the lab to the page tends to entail the amplification of the insignificant, the de-emphasizing of the inconvenient, and a general sacrifice of accuracy in service to the unfortunate pressures inherent to modern media.

There are a number of limiting factors that define the upper limits in terms of the quality of those science articles that find publication, and these may be divided into those that stem from the outlet and those that stem from the writer. The outlet tends to make demands that are compatible with good scientific journalism (a maximum word limit, quotes from relevant sources) as well as those that are often not compatible (subject matter that is perceived to be of interest to a large portion of the readership, a storyline that may offer more than is warranted). Meanwhile, the writer brings to the table certain limiting factors of his own, including his ability to write cogent and readable articles as well as to track down and accurately convey scientific developments, and his necessity to do these things with sufficient ease and rapidity so that the sum he makes as a result is worth the time and effort invested.

If we seek to improve the state of science journalism, we have the best chance of doing so by influencing the writer rather than those who run the outlet; the latter will not be convinced to abandon the pursuit of readership and profits in service to mere science, whereas even the most mercenary of freelancers will happily accept any assistance that makes his work easier and more profitable while also making it better. More to the point, there are a great number of writers who are quite mindful of making a positive impact on public understanding who would consider any help in doing so to be similarly attractive.

As such, I’d like to announce the launch of the Science Journalism Improvement Program, the first of several efforts being undertaken by the distributed think tank Project PM since its founding earlier this year. The procedure by which we’ll be operating, which I’ll describe below, is the result of input by a group of participants, including Todd Essig, PhD, a training and supervising analyst at the William Alanson White Institute and a columnist for Psychology Today, who founded an online network for mental health professionals in 1992, which itself gave rise to the first post-graduate psychoanalytic online continuing education course as well as an annual conference on the subject; and Mano Singham, director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western Reserve and adjunct professor of physics, who is the author of several books on evolution and philosophy of science, in addition to being a fellow of the American Physical Society and an active blogger.

The process by which this program operates centers around the pairing of freelance writers with scientists and science-based practitioners (such as healthcare professionals or engineers) who will assist their partners by identifying potential story ideas, providing assistance with research, and putting writers in touch with other qualified sources for background information and quotations. Participating scientists can expect several benefits: more media attention given to one’s own area of expertise; publicity for themselves, their institutions, and their sponsors; and even byline credit if the level of contribution merits such recognition.

Participating journalists can expect to produce articles and presentations of better quality and higher accuracy than the current norm without losing popular appeal. Hopefully, they will also be able to see more of their work published.

Project PM’s participating media experts, including editors and more established writers, will assist in getting these articles published. If, for example, a freelancer requests assistance placing an article, Project PM will help by identifying the best publications for placement, providing the freelancer with contact information for the relevant editors, providing tips on formulating the pitch, and otherwise assisting in getting the piece sold.

This process begins by enlisting interested scientists and freelancers, all of whom will be included in our database along with information on their areas of interest and expertise; such information will be used to designate journalist-scientist pairs, members of which will together decide on the particulars of the articles to be produced as well as the specific nature of their partnerships. Aside from facilitating the initial introduction and providing any assistance that a pair might request, Project PM and the administrators of the Science Journalism Improvement Program will otherwise refrain from supervising the working relationship of the pair, which will be governed by nothing other than mutual respect and a shared intention to improve the degree of scientific knowledge on the part of the general public.

At this early stage, Project PM has already recruited a handful of prominent freelancers and established scientists to participate in this effort, and the program is now open to applicants of both sorts. If you’re a freelance writer or science-based practitioner interested in working with us, send me a brief e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com, and you’ll receive a short questionnaire regarding your background and expertise. If you’re a layman who might be interested in working with other skeptics on activities involving media reform in general, get in touch with us at the same address.

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Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.