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/