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Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier reports from Doha, Qatar

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Kendrick Frazier

June 30, 2011

The first day of the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, June 27–29, could at times have been mistaken for a classic skeptics conference.

That is not altogether surprising, considering that science journalists, as the intermediaries between scientists and the public, encounter the same kinds of public misunderstanding and misperceptions (plus outright distortions) about science and the natural world that skeptics combat.

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More than 700 science journalists from ninety countries—half of them from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, an intentional push by the main U.S. and Arab science journalism professional organizations to encourage science journalists from developing countries—are meeting in a new sprawling university/academic/research complex of the Qatari Foundation on the outskirts of Doha to consider all the issues they encounter in their professional lives. Among them: dealing with contradictory medical studies, the burgeoning digital media forums and whether science bloggers are science journalists, bioethical issues, reporting about risks when perceptions of risk are distorted, ethical issues facing science reporters, secret science, managing the transitions of science magazines to the digital age, journalism in the age of denial, and on and on.

I participated in a first morning session on “Investigating Pseudoscience,” together with skeptics and science journalists from Russia (moderator Tatiana Puchigina and Alexander Sageev, who emphasized cases in which pseudoscience can be a criminal activity), Hungary (István Vágó, former head of the Hungarian skeptics group and a prominent Hungarian television host), and Argentina (freelancer and skeptic Alejandro Agostinelli). We all outlined some of the characteristics of pseudoscience and gave some of our experiences battling it, and then we answered questions from other journalists about how best to deal with pseudoscience.

That breakout session was followed by a related one in the afternoon bearing the intriguing title “Warriors Against Claptrap: Are Myth-Busters the New Generation of Civic Scientist?” New myth-busting groups and efforts are springing up all over. The session addressed such questions as, Should we all confront bad science? Will that create public skepticism or cynicism? That panel addressed the impact of some widely publicized myth-busting campaigns that have captured the public imagination. The popular U.S. television show MythBusters (which U.S. President Barack Obama recently appeared on) was just one of the forums described. Julia Wilson and Leonor Sierra of Sense About Science, a U.K. group that promotes public myth-busting by young people, headed that fascinating discussion along with science journalists Ylann Schemm of the Netherlands, Alaa Ibrahim of American University in Cairo, and Pallab Ghosh of the BBC in the United Kingdom. Wilson described an effort in which a group of young people in the United Kingdom decided to challenge companies’ claims about “de-toxing.” They asked what evidence supported the de-tox claims. When the companies had to admit they had none, the group publicized that fact (with transcripts of the responses) and gained wide attention. Veteran BBC science broadcaster Ghosh concluded with some good points of wisdom. Among them: Science journalists’ prime responsibility is to act in the interests of their audience, that sometimes one needs to brave and take on important stories, and that they have a role and responsibility to bust myths. He called it “kick-ass journalism.”

And that session was followed by a plenary on “Evolution and the Evolving World of Science Journalism.” Scientific American Editor Mariette DeChristina, representing the National Association of Science Writers, moderated a panel that included participants from South Africa, Argentina, and the United States. But the lead talk was by our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry colleague Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who began by noting how the journalistic principle of “balance” can be a problem in reporting on evolution. As she says, fairness and balance applies to opinion. “It is not an opinion that the Earth goes around the sun…. It is not a matter of opinion that living things have ancient ancestors.” (The “balance” problem is well understood by science journalists, but it remains a serious issue in general journalism, in which non-expert reporters frequently feel they must give creationist views equal weight to the long accepted scientific facts of evolution.)

Scott is an anthropologist, not a science journalist, but she is widely respected by science journalists for her efforts in helping them deal responsibly with the evolution/creation issue.

She forthrightly condemned a case in 2009 in which a noted science magazine, the British weekly New Scientist, published a cover announcing in large print, “DARWIN WAS WRONG.” (The article itself was about horizontal gene transfer and, says Scott, wasn’t the real problem.)

“The New Scientist cover is simply wrong,” Scott bluntly told the assembled journalists. “This cover was extremely irresponsible.” She noted that just two days later opponents of evolution on the Texas Board of Education cited the cover as evidence that evolution is wrong. New Scientist Editor Roger Highfield lamely responded at the time that he knew creationists would probably “take it out of context,” hardly any surprise to Scott, who wondered why he then did it. “Cover the science,” she said, “but don’t make it easy for creationists to take it out of context.”

So in the Qatari Foundation’s cool, modern facilities (video camera booms roam overhead, live radio interview programs are underway down the hall) surrounded by the blazing hot desert winds of Doha, science and skepticism was a prominent early theme as this largest ever world conference of science journalists—and the first ever held in the Middle East—got underway.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.