John Rennie: Good science journalism can save kittens from drowning

Former Scientific American editor and now freelance science writer John Rennie visited us in Madison this week.  The journalism program was clearly excited, he spoke to three of my classes this week. Today, his talk focused on science and controversy, and how the hell a well meaning journalist should try to navigate.

Rennie explained the problems with the traditional journalistic style of balance with a succinct example. Let’s say there’s one person over here who wants to drown 100 kittens.  That’s pretty extreme.  Then, let’s say that there’s another person over on the other side who doesn’t want to drown any kittens. That’s obviously the other extreme.  So the best answer must be to meet in the middle, and drown only about 50 kittens, right?

This Kitten would prefer not to drown. Good science journalism can save her! Source: nicsuzor, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

Wrong. The danger for journalists in presenting one extreme view, like drowning kittens or completely denying the existence of climate change, does not need to be presented as equivalent to a well supported mainstream view, like, we should not drown any kittens or that climate change is real. Just because they are opposing view points does not mean they are equivalent opposing points. Rennie blogged about this recently after catching Andy Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the NYT giving what Rennie believes to be undue weight to a climate skeptic.

So the first challenge is weighting the viewpoints on the controversial issue.  I still believe that for most science controversies, it is important to acknowledge when there is disagreement, but if it’s one lone guy shouting out against the choir, it’s my responsibility to be honest about that, and not present it like he has his own choir. Or it there’s a whole choir, but they don’t have any good evidence, it’s my job to present that too.

But really, that’s the easy part.  The hard part is the you can do the best research, write the most accurate article, and present all of the most compelling facts, and people who disagree with you before they start reading will usually disagree with you at the end. We often reject facts that don’t fit into our world view without even considering them. Christie Aschwanden wrote a great blog post about it this week.  In a comment on her own post, she writes:

As much as possible, I make an effort to acknowledge the false story and why it seemed correct. The problem is that this usually takes space, so it doesn’t always make it past the editors.

But showing readers they’re wrong is like punching them in the face. If you can give them a little hug first (tell them they weren’t stupid for believing the false thing in the first place) and hold them up while you’re swinging, it might soften the blow. At least, that’s the hope.

While it might be tempting to punch some readers in the face, a very fine line exists for writing about controversial science. Can you write accurately and please people? Can you write balanced and please people?  This week, the Climate Progress blog accused the NYTimes Science Section of Abandoning the Story of the Century and Joining the Energy and Climate Ignorati.  Serious journalist to journalist punch in the face. And frankly, while much of Climate Progress blog’s criticisms are valid, overall, I think, the NYT does a better job that most mainstream publications at covering climate issues. And faces accusations of liberal bias for it as well.

So what’s the moral of the story for the aspiring science writer? Avoid controversy? Impossible, and probably boring. Trust only the scientists?  That’s not safe either, there are plenty of physicists that don’t believe in evolution and physicians who don’t believe that global climate change is caused by anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  And, individual scientists, being human, are often motivated by ego more that evidence.  But, scientific consensus, on the other hand, with good data, and good journalists asking good questions, that I can be a part of.  Smart writing about smart science. Right now, it seems like my only hope, and I’ll have to learn to handle some hate mail.


One thought on “John Rennie: Good science journalism can save kittens from drowning

  1. Heh. I remember a quote I’ve seen attributed to Anatole France about how “during the Inquisition, the position of sound moderation was that one oughtn’t burn too many heretics and only the most extreme suggested that one oughtn’t burn any”.

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