Journalistic fairness

It’s a fact of human (replicator) psychology that we often omit inconvenient facts, because facts are stubborn things that stand in our way. Because we have this tendency someone who is completely and totally in the wrong on some issue (a trespasser who hurts themselves and then sues the land owner for instance) will produce a tale that makes it look like they are the wronged party (Jimbob left tires stacked in such a way as to fall easily and they fell and broke my leg) and the journalist needs to go see what the other party has to say, to see if some crucial fact was left out (Jimbob mentions that the stack of tires wouldn’t have fallen so easily if the trespasser hadn’t broken down his gate and cut the cables that were holding the tires up). In mediating a narration of two biased parties a journalist needs to reserve judgement for themselves and their readers in the same manner a jurist might. So the court of public opinion can cut through our webs of deception.


Science has its own means of cutting through deception. By trying disconfirming tests and rewarding predictions over explanations science is able to do away with most forms of human bias (not as effectively with things like the file drawer effect) and produce a nearly pure distillate of knowledge so powerful that empires have crumbled before it. The process of publishing science opens a scientist to a world of disconfirmatory opinions and ideas, alternative interpretations, every scientist who want to can take a crack at offering an alternative hypothesis and drawing attention off the first author and onto themselves. When the scientific community reaches a consensus it’s because the hidden facts have been exposed.


When a non-science journalist meets this state of being the matter seems too settled, it seems like the one sided story of someone party to a social conflict. The journalist can’t accept the science as settled because it’s not in their habit to simply paraphrase someone else’s  findings, they don’t feel like they have done their jobs and they don’t feel that they have crafted their story in a way that their readers will respond to because it doesn’t fit the mold for virtually all other stories they report; in fact many of the best stories, the greatest pieces of journalism, come from a journalist riding into a false consensus and exposing some overlooked fact or party and really telling it anew. The journalism field has the same sort of incentive system as the science publishing world, even if the reality it corresponds back to is decidedly a more subjective one.


It’s not so much that science reporting is an unfamiliar field, it;s that is seems like an all too familiar field, and they respond inappropriately. They ask people who clearly have no business talking about science to weigh in on the matter. They take some beautiful explanatory story, something really clever, and they rob it of its uniqueness by shoehorning it into some conflict angle and letting some buffoon blather on about their alternative theory. If you look at some of the sloppy reporting done where people who are totally cranks managed to get as many words in as the real scientists, but with out ever running the gauntlet of science, it just makes you want to cry. If everyone who got rejected were let in for balance (as if the science machine never got to crunch its way through at all, the din would be recognizable as deafening and ultimately futile exercise in replacing science with journalism.  So now the journalist still wants to practice their craft as they have been trained to do and those intermediary people often know that they have lost, it’s just the nutters who never got into the starting gates who don’t realize that they aren’t in the race at all, the Duning-Kruger effect. So the total incompitent who hasn’t any business speaking on the subject at all is the only other side who wants to speak. It’s as if a player lost a game of pee-wee football and then came back after two decades and demanded to be the starting QB in the superbowl, but they are the only person who wants the job, so they get to QB in the superbowl of science journalism.


Perhaps the last metaphore got a little buddy, but you should get my point by now. Science and modern journalism are just darn near incompatible, and it’s a crying shame.



About opcnup

Emerson White is a biology student working on post grad while doing private research on the side.
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