ICE blogs

September 25, 2011

Rescuing science from the media

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 5:27 pm

Barry Turner, senior lecturer in law at the University of Lincoln’s School of Journalism, argues that science reporting ‘needs to drop conventional media values’

The portrayal of science in the media has long suffered from a lack of congruity between the values of science and journalism. Science as a philosophy is a search for the truth, not the finding of it; journalism cannot exist without a conclusion. Proper science is about innovation, method and a willingness to accept that for each discovery many inquiries will lead nowhere. Journalism needs to be ‘right’ and, in that correctness, ‘righteous’.

There has, perhaps, never been a greater urgency for the media to cover science. We entered the 21st century with a heady optimism, the decade after the end of the Cold War offered promise of directing science away from more than four decades of ’science for war’ and a peace dividend that could be spent on solving many of the remaining threats to our existence. But then it all went wrong. The forces of anti-science struck back and the press did not live up to the challenge.

The media has failed in a number of ways to propagate scientific knowledge. Science in the press has become anything from a rough and tumble contact sport played between opposing scientific theories (where one must batter the other into submission through a vehicle designed to polarise political and ideological positions) to often facile entertainment.

The current controversy in the media over climate change epitomises this approach. Climate change is a fact: the climate of the world is changing, its causes are complex, perhaps even beyond our current scientific understanding. But our mainstream media prefer the ding-dong debate between those promoting the case for ‘anthopomorphical climate change’ and those advancing the ‘natural climate change’ case.

The idea that the global climate debate can be divided into two camps is absurd but that is the picture our press projects. The reason is simple since it is the model they use in coverage of a whole range of subjects. The world is divided into two opposing camps, right wing and left wing, good guy and bad guy, scientist and anti-scientist. The media love this model because it allows them to indulge in their biggest fantasy of all, that of balanced reporting.

Along with climate change a recent trend has been the creation of the ’super atheist’ now often lionised as a bulwark against religious fundamentalism. This media created dichotomy deliberately ignores the fact that faith and science can live together quite comfortably and that the human instinct for faith is not in every case hysterical fundamentalism and, therefore, incompatible with scientific endeavour.

Balanced reporting in science is a destructive force and at its extreme leads to the absurdities of creationism taught as an alternative to evolution and to right wing politicians in the world’s most scientifically developed country describing stem cell research as if were genocide.

This is not to say that scientific theory should not be challenged: the whole point of science is to question the conventions - but the challenge should be rational not simply dwelling on opposites. The media should robustly challenge beliefs that are not only ridiculous in theory but dangerous in their application.

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