Trust is at an all time low for Science Journalism in 2017, even off an already abysmally low performance from the last time trust in influencing professions was measured and ranked in 2012/2013. I would daresay now, the data is showing that science communicators are ranked right alongside Congressmen and used car salespeople regarding their established level of public trust. They have worked hard to earn this notorious accolade. These are not the sharpest tools in the drawer. We deserve better than this.
This blog article seeks to outline some of the characteristics we deserve and should demand from our science communicating journalists. And here is a thought, it would also be nice if they actually were real scientists, technicians, engineers or medical professionals.
Science Communicators are Ranked Alongside Used Car Salespeople in Terms of Trustworthiness
Now I do not pretend in the least that the solution to this is anything close to being easy to devise; as I advise my alma mater from time to time regarding what industry needs most from its science and engineering graduates. In my labs, advisory and operating companies, I grew frustrated at having to retrain every STEM graduate over their first three years of work, in order to unlearn them the quasi-baloney they were taught in undergraduate school. This was becoming very costly in terms of time and useless salary burden. Instead, I shifted to a program of hiring interns as soon as they had passed their Freshman year at three particular universities, and systematically training them alongside their college education – ending up hiring 100% of the interns which I had used in this fashion inside a variety of STEM analytical, design and research job functions.
I found it interesting to note how much a person can accomplish, if you do not tell them beforehand that they don’t know how to do it.
Interns served to provide creative new approaches to industry practices which were long tried, true and worn out. This was refreshing and surprising, and in small ways reflected a mutual positional symbiosis between the intern and the company.
My interns did not spend the summers partying in Europe and learning how wonderful a snowflake they were. They learned the hard lessons of client demands, complicated design challenges and demanding bosses.
Shifting the advance and transfer in the course of these schools’ rather large ship, in order to keep up with the pace of changing technology and economic understanding is monumental in the least; only accomplished through the work of literally hundreds of advisors, instructors and textbook authors for each university school alone. Developing professionals prepared to deal with modern science, engineering and business challenges is a daunting task, no doubt. So when it comes to extrapolating this process into changing the course of the ship of journalism, I can understand that this is no simple matter. Yet it still needs to be done. In his Westview Press opinion piece, “Good News Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest”, philosopher Jeremy Iggers laments about the role of journalism being ethically more suited to the measuring and exposition of public sentiment and not as a mouthpiece for corporate indoctrination interests.
“Although journalism’s ethics rest on the idea of journalism as a profession, the rise of market-driven journalism has undermined journalists’ professional status. Ultimately journalism is impossible without a public that cares about the common life. A more meaningful approach to journalism ethics must begin with a consideration of the role of the news media in a democratic society and proceed to look for practical ways in which journalism can contribute to the vitality of public life.” (Iggers, J.)†
We believe that science journalism’s betrayal of this ethic is the primary contributor to its decline in perception. Indeed, trust is at an all time low for Science Journalism in 2017, even off an already abysmally low performance from the last time trust in influencing professions was measured and ranked in 2012/2013 (depicted to the right, from two polls).¹ ² I would daresay now, after the horridly bad year of political advocacy masquerading as science, that science communicators are ranked right alongside the Congressmen and Car Salespeople chart data in their level of public trust. They have worked hard to earn this notorious accolade.
And Here are Some Examples Why
As an example, some summaries below come from the bio’s of Tier I Science Communicating journalists. I am not really wishing to focus on the persons, rather the ideas entailed here, so these are posed anonymously. The persons involved are high quality individuals in matters other than their claim to represent science. I am critiquing practices of an industry, not the people themselves. However, that being said, none of these people are even remotely qualified to comment or communicate the topics about which they boast as authorities – and worse than that, boast as spokespersons for an entire super-discipline called science itself.
…career working in government relations and public policy, ended up as an entrepreneur before landing at NASA where fell in love with its openness and limitless ability to inspire. Dedicated the last few years of life to extending that openness to space fans and journalists everywhere, using social media and a warm “class clown” persona to connect with the people who most want to hear the message. Holds no STEM education or employment background.
…received master’s in journalism at the University of ______________ (also my undergrad alma mater), and teach journalism at _______University in _______. I previously taught high school and often think of my journalism as a form of teaching, by helping others understand science and medical research and by debunking (despite holding absolutely no skills or quals whatsoever) misinformation about vaccines, chemicals and other misunderstood topics. Biggest life qualifications were hiking and diving in Europe, getting married and having a child within the last two years.
…an inquisitive (non-degree holding) agnostic born in _____________ and living in _____________, with her nerdy husband, curious toddler daughter, infant son, and needy dog. Her interests and pastimes fluctuate wildly, but always consist of family, reading and writing, cheese, and the world of genetics/bioinformatics. Most significant publication is a polemic attacking a person they did not like.
…has been an adjunct professor (largest accomplishment) in the graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program at _________ University for the past few years. A frequent lecturer and has appeared at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Yale University and New York University among many others. Was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (a non-expert volunteer organization of non-scientist political activists) for the Section on General Interest in Science and Engineering. Holds no science nor engineering employment or degree history.
…previously, spent nearly 14 years at ________ in positions culminating as executive editor. Work in writing and overseeing articles about space topics helped garner that magazine the Space Foundation’s Public Outreach Award (Appeal to Authority Reach Around). Was Science Writer in Residence at the ___________. Chapter on science editing appears in A Field Guide for Science Writers. Former chair of Science Writers in New York and a member of the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Mostly ceremonial, low activity and high visibility accolade-infusing positions. Holds no science, engineering, environmental science, astrophysics positions, experience nor degrees.
In the end, there exists a distinct difference between a mom advocating on behalf of finding out why her children are chronically sick, and seeking to establish as sponsor, plurality under Ockham’s Razor – and an unqualified mom who pretends to represent broad sets of scientific knowledge, final conclusions and attempts to squelch and bully the voices of those who have been, by a sufficient threshold of Ockham’s Razor evidence, arguably harmed. Science communication habitually evades ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ in favor of social psychological manipulation specifically because of an inability on the part of the participants therein, to recognize what indeed is fact and evidence to begin with.
If, in similar shortfall to Kevin Folta, you cannot understand the difference between a sponsor seeking necessity research based upon direct observation science, and a pretender enforcing ‘correct’ ‘settled’ science through journalism, who is not even qualified to make such a determination – then you don’t understand the first thing about ethics, morality, logic, argument, skepticism and most especially the scientific method or science. You are ignorantly celebrating and enabling a cabal of writing, speaking malevolent idiots.
These people are not journalists, they are hired guns of propaganda. They are stupid, insensitive bullies, except where their progressive agenda tells them to feign compassion. Their inability to spot their role inside the game being played, constitutes a key feature of what Nassim Taleb calls the Intellectual Yet Idiot class of science communicator. They have not been educated, they have been trained to do a job and perform a crony role. Which introduces the issue, of what needs to change inside this training pipeline, in order to correct this enormous pathway of social damage.
What We Need and Deserve
These are abysmally poor, unqualified and telltale propaganda-laden and indoctrinated biographies. Common themes promoted by these authors include: identifying the bad guys first, identifying ‘pseudoscience’ immediately, identifying the ‘anti-GMO-science-technology’ among us, associative condemnation and strawman as ‘tin-foil hat’ types, plagiarizing pre-written propaganda, targeting working Americans, misandry and class hatred, liberal socialist politics and hatred of working moms & the middle class. Often crafting articles which leverage all this condemnation through employment of explanitude based disciplines such as psychology, in pretense of being and doing science (there is a notorious #1 ranked social skeptic who is both a psychology Ph.D. and science communicating journalist, examine the chart to the right and take a hint here).³
These are not the sharpest tools in the drawer. What is being exploited is the relative lack of aptitude (see SAT by Selected Major chart to the right) and experience on the part of these celebrities; a gap of competence which affords crony entities the ability to craft, pass without scientist or peer input, and promulgate straight to truth, specific unchallenged agendas. The individuals sacrifice their integrity by taking celebrity and book deals as payment for their unethical service role. They become giddy as to how many people they can impart harm, and yet at the same time deceive as many people as possible into thinking that they represent science. It is the joy of magicianship and sleight-of-hand for the intelligent ones, and the heady rush of sudden fame for the not-so-bright ones. All payment for surrendering the will and the critical mind, and regurgitating the correct things which they are handed.
We deserve better than this. Our journalism schools are key in this formula of weakness.
In particular, our journalism schools (to be fair, some of these science communicators above did not even attend journalism school) should prepare to deliver:
- Better logic mastery, science & analytical aptitude
- A keener understanding of the Scientific Method
- A modern understanding of the Public Trust and accountability inside the context of a constitutional-rights driven free nation
- A keener ability to discern between actual skepticism versus corporate or social doubt-ism/cynicism/profiteering/bullying
- Ethical integrity to avoid groups who tout fostering their careers through compliant reporting & plagiarized regurgitation
- Exposure to a major portion of the US Demographic, not simply their liberal arts college, fraternity/sorority and 4 months of partying in Europe and having babies.
- Understanding that republishing prepacked material/phrase-lifts/propaganda without recitation (from any source) is plagiarism. Even if they perceive it to be OK because the sources wants the material spread widely. Sometimes we cite sources because the information is wrong too, and we need to know who is crafting/spreading it.
- Understanding The Art of Scientific Research
- Spending significant time (2-4 years) serving in impoverished nations or in a mission-oriented field such as the military or an objective charity in a tough environment.
- A background in diverse sets of interests other than homemaker puffery and liberal think-tank cocoons.
- Two to four years of experience actually doing something other than being a celebrated journalist or academic journalist.
And here is a thought, it would also be nice if they actually were scientists or even STEM graduates. This is what we deserve and should demand from our science communicating journalists.
† (Iggers, J.) Iggers, Jeremy; “Good News Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest; Westviewpress (1998); abstract summary, PN4756.I34 1998.
¹ Gallup Survey: The Least-Trusted Jobs in America; Nov 26 – 29, 2012; http://www.gallup.com/poll/159035/congress-retains-low-honesty-rating.aspx
² YouGov Survey: Trust in Journalists to Accurately Report Science; Dec 6 – 7, 2013; http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/tabs_HP_science_20131209.pdf
³ Chariot Learning, Average SAT Score By Intended College Major; Mike Bergin; Nov 03, 2014; http://chariotlearning.com/average-sat-score-by-intended-college-major/
Pollsters and those who fund them, you have to ask yourself: If 59 to 70% of the population in any given year believes that your media outlet pushes biased/corrupt propaganda† – would that not mean that ANY poll conducted in your name will automatically contain extreme levels of skewed collection data? A scientist might think so; might think so for nine specific reasons listed herein. But a deluded political group, might strategically use such an effect to their advantage. They might want to even swing an election by means of exploiting, but not acknowledging, such a bias effect. This reality exemplifies the nature of the new poll and electorate gaming underway in American politics.
Believe it or not, I actually had the nine points inside the critical redress of this blog post written a week before the 2016 US Presidential Election. However, I had not yet gathered all the material I wanted to elucidate and support each point. So, with risk of appearing to provide predictive power through having 20/20 hindsight, I want to point out several factors which notoriously influence, especially political polls, into reflecting unanticipated or purposeful bias. Pew Research has provided an excellent outline of the dangers of collection and analytical bias here. While most of this material is derived from sampling bias I have observed over the years, it does align well with, and is supported by, the Pew Research principles defined herein and in the footnotes. (1, 2, 3, 4 Pew Research)
If there existed any question about the political goals entailed inside the Agenda of Social Skepticism, let’s dispense with that notion now – a direct observation by millions of scientists and persons as a result of the 2016 US Presidential Election. It became poignantly clear in the aftermath of this election that Social Skepticism is not by any means a democratic movement. The same tactics which Social Skepticism applies inside enforcement of their pretend science dogma (and wild claims to consensus), are the same exact tactics employed inside the election poll taking and the fake protests ongoing across the US right now. They both bear features of manipulation by agenda bearing forces and hate-based paid protests against a race, a gender, and a people. These are the same tactics employed by the shills who infest social media and are paid to push dogmatic pseudo scientific messages, all relating to one set of political goals and one single religion. These are tactics, tradecraft, signature practices developed and implemented by the same minds behind these various expressions of tyranny.
Employing that segue into pseudoscience, let us examine one tactic of social manipulation which is practiced by Social Skepticism. This tactic is the art of poll and consensus manipulation. Polls in American politics notoriously skew to the left, towards the hate and talking points agenda of Social Skepticism. They also claim to incorporate ‘science’ in their collection and statistical protocols – no surprise there. The astute American citizen has learned that nothing could be further from the case. Here are nine specific reasons why polls are notoriously unreliable, especially polls generated for the sole purpose of effecting and influencing the outcome of an election.
Poll Skewing Factors
Well known in industry, but ignored by ‘statisticians’ in highly contested or manipulated public polls:
I. Means of Collection – bias-infusing polls use exclusively land line phones as their channel and means of respondent communication – a tactic which is notorious in excluding males, mobile professionals and the full time employed. (2 Pew Research)
II. Regional Bias Exploitation – call sampling is conducted in the New England states or in California, reflecting a bias towards tax oriented businesses, such as healthcare, insurance, government offices, and the corporations who work and contract with such agencies. (4 Pew Research)
III. Bradley Effect – people have a tendency to express opinions and intent which fit a social pressure model or keep themselves out of the ‘bad guy’ bucket when polled on polarizing issues. This tends to skew polls notoriously to the left. (1 Pew Research)
IV. Crate Effect – impact of persons who purposely give the opposite response as to what they really think because of animosity towards the polling group (especially if non-free press) and/or their perceived history of bias, and/or animosity towards the circus around elections or the elections themselves. This false left leaning bias is generated most often inside groups who believe media outlets to be left-leaning and unfair. (5 Political Hay)
V. Crate/Bradley Power Effect – the misleading impact of the Crate and Bradley Effects falsely convinces poll administrators of the power they hold to sway the opinion of ‘undecideds’ and misleads their sponsors into funding more and more polls which follow the same flawed protocols and traps. (5 Political Hay)
VI. Trial Heat – the overall pressure which is placed on respondent results based on the structure of or questions inside the poll itself (1 Pew Research)
a. Leading preparatory questions – employing questions which are pejoratively framed or crafted to lead the poll respondent, in order to skew undecided voters, prior to asking the core question, and
b. Iterative poisoning – running the same poll over and over again in the same community and visibly publishing the desired results – akin to poisoning the jury pool.
VII. Form of Core Question – asking different forms of THE CORE question than is implied by the poll, or different question by polling group. 1. Who do you favor, vs. 2. Who will you vote (will vote) for? vs. 3. Who do you think will win? (3 Pew Research)
VIII. Follow Through Effect – only 35 to 55% of people who are polled, on average, will actually turn out to vote. (6 2016 General Election Turnout)
IX. Oversampling – declaring a bias to exist in a population a priori, in the larger S pool from which an s sample is derived. Then further crafting a targeted addition of population members from S, to influence sample s in the opposite signal (direction and magnitude) from the anticipated bias. (1, 4 Pew Research)
Ironically, item IX above, Oversampling is typically addressed in the Notes section of the polling analytical reports. However, such oversampling signal compensation typically only is practiced as a means to address prima facia and presumed S-pool biases, and rarely reflects any adjustment attributable to items I – VIII above.
Until polls are conducted by low profile, scientific, unbiased collection and analytical groups, and not these agenda-laden parties listed below, they will continue to mislead – and to be used as a lever in this pretense to effect a political end-game. For the record, below are the polls indicating both the retraction-back-to numbers the day before the election (reflecting the shock of the early voting results which had them pare back their wild landslide victory they had predicted for Clinton). In other words, the poll models never actually resulted in the final November 7 differential – as that was a manual intervention in panic – so that the models did not look so badly errant in the end.
A note about models and prediction: If you adjust and tweak your model or its parameters, so that it now results in numbers which are more in concert with actual early return data – you have not increased the predictive reliability of your model. Simulation and modeling professionals get this – poll statisticians do not.
Enjoy a laugh, but remember – these are the same people and the same methods, which are employed to advertise to you what it is indeed that scientists think. (7 Real Clear Politics). But such conclusions are derived with much less confidence bearing methods of data collection, as are even election polls. Also, for the record, as of November 18th 2016 at 7:26 pm PST, the preliminary outcome of the popular vote was Clinton 62,523,126 – Trump 61,201,031; a 1.0% Clinton edge, with respect to the number conventions used below. So no one below really got the final results right, with the exception of the conservative IBD/TIPP tracking poll for a Trump Clinton race only. (Source: CNN Election Results Update, 11/18/2016 Election update).
Actual Final 2016 Election Result Clinton +1.0 (average skew = 5.2 points left bias or a 10.8% error rate)
† The 2015 State of the First Amendment Survey, conducted by the First Amendment Center and USA Today; 7/03/2015
1 Pew Research: U.S. Survey Research, Election Polling; http://www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-survey-research/election-polling/
2 Pew Research: U.S. Survey Research, Collecting Survey Data; http://www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-survey-research/collecting-survey-data/
3 Pew Research: U.S. Survey Research,, Questionnaire Design; http://www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-survey-research/questionnaire-design/
4 Pew Research: U.S. Survey Research,, Sampling; http://www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-survey-research/sampling/
5 Political Hay: How Poll Bias Obscures Trump’s Likely Election; https://spectator.org/how-poll-bias-obscures-trumps-likely-election/
6 2016 General Election Turnout Rates; http://www.electproject.org/2016g
7 Real Clear Politics http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/latest_polls/