This morning (for me, afternoon in the U.K.), Ananyo Bhattacharya offered up a very frustrating opinion piece at the Guardian, arguing that the inherently flawed practices of mainstream science journalism are ideal, because journalists apparently know better than scientists. Excellent responses have already been posted at geologygeek and Southern Fried Science, but I figure there’s still room to jump into the fray.
My first concern with Dr. Bhattacharya’s editorial is his assumption that science and scientists are fundamentally boring, and it is up to journalists to liven things up. Even if it means spinning the original paper beyond recognition, fabricating an irrelevant hook, dropping quotes out of context, or inventing controversy where none exits. Now, Dr. Bhattacharya’s background is in physics and protein crystallography, so maybe he has a point about that being dry. However, he is drawing on the myth that all scientists are stodgy boffins incapable of expressing anything without the jargon of their own esoteric specialty. Such people exist, but in my experience many, if not most scientists are engaging and skillful communicators. I dare anyone to hear a public lecture by Matt Carrano and not be impressed. Scientists have to be able to communicate to a wider audience; these days it’s a requirement for getting grants. Science is already interesting, and there is no more engaging source of information than a passionate and knowledgeable expert. As such, it is condescending for Dr. Bhattacharya to imply that scientists need journalists to “contextualize” the story (read: miss the point of the paper entirely in order to make it palatable). In particular, I must take issue with the assertion that journalists know better than the scientists who did the research which caveats are critical to understanding the issue being discussed.
I’m also concerned that Dr. Bhattacharya defends brevity out of “respect for readership”, but goes on to argue that journalists should be free to spin, exaggerate and misrepresent stories at their own discretion. If media outlets are only offering asinine and inconsequential science stories, rather than information that is actually relevant and useful, I would not call that respect for readership. But then Dr. Bhattacharya drops this bombshell:
There’s a fundamental misapprehension among many in the scientific community that the principal job of science journalists is to communicate the results of their work to the general public. It’s not.
I think that’s the problem in a nutshell. Actually communicating (accurate and reliable) information is not the media’s concern.