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Friday, August 22, 2003

Chris Bertram blogged about Crazy science, crazy reporting a few days ago. Chris cited an Observer article by WIll Hutton that wonders:

When our media are more interested in reporting opinion as fact, how will we ever discover the truth?
There are two issues in the problems noted by Hutton:
  • Lack of media accountability and self-critcism
  • Scientific Misconduct
The two issues mingle in that bad science is eagerly reported by sensationalist media when it fits their agenda and generates revenues. Scientists that have dodgy studies not well received by peers or qualified for publication in reputable journals seek out sensationalist media. In some cases these scientists anticipate peer rejection and seek publication in the popular press before peer review. Usually those scientists have political agendas they consider more important than sound science.

Scientists can face rejection for heresy when their work is revolutionary. Consider Hannes Alfven, 1970 Nobel Prize winner in Physics:

for much of his career Alfven's ideas were dismissed or treated with condescension. He was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals; and his work was continuously disputed for many years by the most renowned senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Even among physicists today there is little awareness of Alfven's many contributions to fields of physics where his ideas are used without recognition of who conceived them.
But Alfven was honorable, he published in obscure journals rather than seeking an audience in the sensational popular press. Would he have acted differently if his work had political implications? Unlikely, but the question is still pertinent for those who do so today. Are they innovators hounded by the academy for heresy or are they nutters?

This is where we depend on the media to self regulate and where they increasingly fail. As Hutton notes:

Britain's least-accountable and self-critical institutions have become the media - and the way they operate is beginning to damage rather than protect the society of which they are part.
It's not just The Guardian and not just Britain that suffers from media failure. The problems in the US with the NY Times are relevant too and whatever can be said about the BBC, Guardian and NYT is even more true in other nations and languages.

The need for critical thinking skills noted by Lawrence Kuhn in the previous post in order to have strong democracies applies to scientists, media and citizens.

posted by back40 | 8/22/2003 12:18:00 PM


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