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Hype Vs. Fact In Science News

Audio

Aired 12/2/09

How accurate is the reporting of scientific discoveries in the media today? We'll look at the role of the media in reporting important stories like global warming and stem cell research to the public.

The Ethics Center forum: "Fact vs. Hype in Science News" is Wednesday, December 2, 2009, at 5:30 p.m. at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Earth To Bomb Moon! That's how media reports made most of us aware of a planned explosion on the moon's surface last October. After the explosion scientists actually discovered about 25 gallons of water in the form of vapor and ice. But the second half of the story, the results and what they mean, were not nearly as widely reported as the first, which was fodder for jokes and news chat for days. The Moon Bomb story is an example of a larger problem some see in the way science is handled by the news media. They say it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between fact and hype in science coverage. As part of our monthly series on Ethics in Science and Technology, we’ll be talking about some science news with my guests. David Washburn is the former science and technology writer for Voice of San Diego, and now the new managing editor for Voice of OC. And, David, welcome to These Days.

DAVID WASHBURN (Managing Editor, Voice of OC): Great to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Kim McDonald is Director of Science Communications at UC San Diego. Kim, welcome.

KIM MCDONALD (Director, Science Communications, UC San Diego): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think science is given the time it should have in news broadcasts? Are scientists themselves guilty of sensationalizing their results in order to get new coverage? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Kim, before you became Director of Science Communications at UC San Diego, you were a science writer, a journalist.

MCDONALD: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: How did the media cover science stories historically? What did it used to look like?

MCDONALD: Yeah, I’m sure it’s mysterious for most people. You know, the traditional way for journalists to find out about science stories is really through publications, and that’s through peer review scientific papers that come out in journals. Most journals put out a list of their highlighted papers, for example Science & Nature, and Cell, each week to journalists, and that really provides most of the fodder for the reporting. People like myself, who work at research institutions, know about a week or two ahead of time what those articles are going to be and then we actually look for the ones that we think are going to be the most newsworthy and we write news releases about them. And what the news releases are, are they’re really a lay language version of what we think a reporter is most interested in and how that reporter can translate that into a story. Nowadays, there are fewer science reporters—and we could talk more about that later--but, you know, what happens now is that my news releases are written for the general public and they’re posted on the web as stories themselves. But that also produces, you know, story leads for people like David to write stories about.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now David is a specialist in science but a lot of the people who get these news releases and report them on the news are basically general assignment reporters who don’t have the kind of background you or David have in science. And I’m wondering, how does that impact the reporting of what goes on? You, in the old days, say you used to go back and look through the science and read the article and understand the article and then write a story on it. So what’s the difference? What are we losing?

MCDONALD: So right now with what’s happened with the general decline of the news media, you know, since 2001 one out of every five newspaper jobs in the United States have been lost. These people are no longer employed. The first reporters really to go are some of the specialist reporters, the science reporters. So, you know, for example, when I first started in this profession 30 years ago, there’s a group called the National Association of Science Writers that a lot of science writers belong to. And when I started there were about 800 members and they were split maybe 50/50 between PR people, like myself right now, and journalists, freelancers and people that worked for media outlets. Nowadays, right now I think the membership is about 2500 members and I would say that less than 80 of those members are actual reporters for media outlets. So the – there’s been a great contraction in the number of people that are working for media outlets, so we’ve lost a lot of good science talent – or, science writing talent in those years. So, yes, as a result, most of the people that are writing science these days are general assignment reporters. That puts a lot more importance on the fact for me to communicate in my news release to the lay language, to the lay public.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Kim, and then I want to ask the same question to David, do you think that there’s a sense among news editors and news directors that people just don’t really care about science?

MCDONALD: I think what passes for science these days is more personal health, diets. You know, space is – always has a public interest but we don’t really cover basic science as much as we did in the past and I can tell you that because I find out where my news releases run, and fewer and fewer news outlets are running basic science news releases now than they did in the past. So, you know, why – I mean, you might ask me why should the public know something about basic science and, you know, the truth of the matter is we live in a – you know, we live in an information and a knowledge society that’s driven by science and technology. A hundred years ago, you could work in a factory, you could be a craftsman, you wouldn’t really know how to, you know – now, you actually know – have to know how to read, how to write, how to do math. You have to – You need to know something about science to make an informed decision about stem cells, about global warming. So these are things that people need to know a little bit about.

CAVANAUGH: And, David, let me ask you, David Washburn, as the former science and technology writer for Voice of San Diego, do you think that there’s a feeling that maybe people don’t care about science?

WASHBURN: I don’t know if there is a feeling that people just don’t care about science. Kiim hit it right on the head earlier when he said that there’s – you know, the contraction in the newspaper industry has been significant over the last decade and specialists – and like he said, specialists are very often the first people to be laid off or to be transferred to fill other slots like, you know, in cops coverage or something like that that are being, you know, that are left open from buyouts or layoffs or whatever. So that is a big reason for it. I mean, at Voice of San Diego, you know, with the help of a grant from the Legler Benbough Foundation, I mean, they established a science reporter as one of only – you know, there’s only – there’s less than 10 reporters in that newsroom but understanding that science reporting is really on, you know, there’s not many science reporters out there, they decided to make one of those slots a science reporter. So that is definitely true that there’s not enough science reporters out there. Now to move on to your question, you know, do people think, you know, that science reporting is worthwhile, I think that’s, you know, definitely true and I think one thing we have to, you know, keep in mind is, you know, in the current environment, is is that the last – over the last decade, the two biggest science stories, right, have been – Arguably, the two biggest science stories, global warming and stem cell research, have been incredibly politicized. And so – and to the point where Kim and I dealt with it yesterday, we were on the Channel 6 news, the morning news, you know, to have a very similar conversation that we’re having now. We sit down and the anchor basically just jumps into well, what about global warming and what about this report? He had some report basically talking about how scientists were allegedly fudging data or something about that. And that’s in – and it got onto is global warming for real or isn’t it? So I think there is a feeling that people may have checked out of science reporting because it’s so politicized. You know, that you’re on one side or the other on the stem cell, you’re on one side or the other on global warming…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WASHBURN: …and not focusing on the science.

CAVANAUGH: Right, I understand your point. Tell us, since you are not a scientist, David, and you’re a journalist, how do you cover a science story? What’s the process that you go through?

WASHBURN: Well, what I try to do is this. There is a challenge because what I’m trying to do is two things. I want my reader, the lay public, to be interested in what I write about but I also want – you know, I want part of my readership, I want my readership to be scientists as well. So what I try to do is, you know, I spend a lot of time talking to the scientists that are, you know, the main researchers. Like Kim was talking about, there’s a, you know, something is published in Nature, we get like a heads up on it so we might do a story on it whether it be a breakthrough in any number of areas. So what I will do is spend a lot of time talking with the scientists, really trying to get my head around it because I don’t have any science background. I don’t have any training. My whole – my entire background is journalism. So I will do that and then I will always try to really bring home what this discovery, what this breakthrough, means to, you know, to us on a – you know, that everybody can understand, why is it important? Why is it important that this is – that this discovery happened? And so that’s, you know, that’s kind of a sense of my process.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with David Washburn. He is former science and technology writer for Voice of San Diego, now the managing editor for Voice of OC. Kim McDonald is Director of Science Communications at UC San Diego. And welcoming another guest coming on the line right now. David Schardt is Senior Nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C. And, David, welcome.

DAVID SCHARDT (Senior Nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. I want to let our listeners know we are inviting their phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. First of all, David Schardt, tell us what the Center for the Science in the Public Interest does.

SCHARDT: Well, we’re a nonprofit consumer group, specializing in food and nutrition issues. We’ve been around since 1971. We’re supported entirely by subscriptions to our monthly newsletter and some donations and a little bit of foundation grant. We accept no money from the government or from industry so we’re – we see ourselves as an objective observer and advocate for consumers in the area of food and nutrition.

CAVANAUGH: Well, how good a job, in your opinion, does the media do in reporting science news?

SCHARDT: Well, my – our field is particularly food and nutrition, and I think it depends on which medium you’re talking about. I think probably the worst is TV. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time unless you’re on Charlie Rose late at night. There doesn’t seem to be enough time to really explain an issue, explain research, put it into context. Most of what I see on TV is very quick, very superficial and bewildering, I think, to many consumers who don’t know what to make out of whatever news is being presented.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. Kim, I want to ask you, we hear that – you said nutrition stories usually get some air time, space stories sometimes get some air time. What are the science stories that you really have to fight to get anybody to cover?

MCDONALD: I think just these basic science – I actually cover a couple of fields at UC San Diego, one is basic biology, physics, chemistry. Those kinds of stories unless they have a real concrete application to the average Joe on the street, as David, you know, described, it’s really hard to get people to pay attention. People really don’t necessarily find attraction to just basic science but it has to connect in a real way with them and I think that’s partly why, you know, nutrition stories, health stories really have a big following.

CAVANAUGH: And David Schardt, even when the news media – and when I say – Let me just say the broadcast news media for a shorthand, when we talk about a breakthrough or something that’s been discovered about our nutritional needs, do you get it wrong? Do we get it wrong a lot of the time?

SCHARDT: Well, I don’t know so much wrong as exaggerating the significance of what’s been found. Rarely is there one study that settles something. Usually, it’s a bunch of studies all pointing in the same direction with consistency that leads you to some conclusion. But one particular study doesn’t really – shouldn’t really change people’s behavior. And I think often the broadcasting medium highlights one particular study because it catches people’s attention but they don’t put it into perspective, what – how is that consistent with previous research? Are there limitations to the study? Does it apply to everyone? What are the cautions? There doesn’t seem to be enough time to discuss all of that and that’s essential to really understanding what research means.

CAVANAUGH: And, David, I’m wondering, David Schardt, is this really a question of time or is it also one of expertise?

SCHARDT: Well, I think it’s both, certainly a question of time. But I think a lot of reporters on television delivering nutrition news don’t – they may be consumer reporters but they’re not particularly scientists. This is an area of nutrition. And so I think they don’t know the right questions to ask necessarily or, in particular, don’t know when they’re being told something that’s not quite correct. Now there are some broadcasters who are good. I think NBC News is good, with Robert Bazell, is very good with presenting science. But those are the exceptions.

WASHBURN: And, Maureen, if I could break in here. You mentioned…

CAVANAUGH: Please do, yes. David Washburn.

WASHBURN: You mentioned something very early that I think needs to be brought up is, is that there is, on the other side, as far as the scientists are concerned, a I don’t want to say tendency, but there’s definitely a push sometimes for them to, you know – that make their research as exciting as possible, you know what I mean, and so they – You know, I think a lot of times you’ll have studies come out and the scientists themselves might overhype what it is that they’re doing.

CAVANAUGH: Can blueberries save your life? That kind of thing.

WASHBURN: Right, because I mean, they…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

WASHBURN: …you know, they need to be published. You know, it helps them when their research is, you know, in the public realm, so to speak. So, I mean, that’s just something to consider as well, that, you know, you have the journalist who’s not exactly a scientist and, you know, they get this breakthrough on, you know, you know, does this cause cancer? Does this – Is this going to save you from cancer, all that kind of stuff. You know, there is a responsibility on the – from the research side to, you know, give them the whole story right from the beginning. There’s been some recent stories that have said that, you know, if you really go back and look at all these things that we’re supposed to – whether it be, you know, everything from beta carotene to certain things, you know, do these things really prevent cancer? And the, you know, study’s coming out and saying they, you know, they don’t so much. And that definitely runs contrary to stories we’ve seen throughout and research that we’ve seen published throughout the years that says, you know, breakthrough and all that kind of stuff.

CAVANAUGH: We’re inviting our audience to participate in the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a phone call. Charlie is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Charlie. Welcome to These Days.

CHARLIE (Caller, San Diego): Oh, good morning. Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

CHARLIE: You know, I used to be a scientist. I used to be a physicist years ago and now I’m a physician. And to be honest with you, I can’t read more – I can very much identify with the idea of getting it wrong. So much that I read of areas that I do know something about, I find they miss the mark or they sensationalize it or they’re just not quite – they just don’t get the right spin on it or the right understanding behind the concept. And so when I read other stuff that I don’t know so much about, how can I trust that? How can I think that this is – they’re really telling me what’s the important element of this?

CAVANAUGH: Well, I think you’ve hit the heart of the matter there. Thank you so much for the call. I don’t know that anyone can actually answer that question. Would anyone like to respond?

WASHBURN: Well, I mean, you know, I can respond to that. That there’s – I used to have a Dave Barry, you know, you know, calendar, desk calendar, you know, Dave Barry-ism a day thing that set on my desk and he had one that just sticks out. You know, it was like a Q&A and the question is, you know, how come – You know, it’s a Q&A to the newspaper editor, and it’s like how come whenever I read a story about something I know about, it’s wrong? And so – and the editor – and then there’s a hilarious response that the editor gives. And the reality is, is that, you know, there is – if you are an expert at something – I mean, you know, the newspaper stories, the news that you see, is the, you know, the so-called rough draft of history. And so you don’t – you are going to get – miss some of the – An expert’s always going to read a science story written for the general public and be like, well, that’s not the whole story.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WASHBURN: Now there is a responsibility and that is one that is shirked all too often, is, like the caller said, get it right. I mean, at least get the basics right. And, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

CAVANAUGH: David Schardt, I want to ask you, what’s the best way to, in hearing this and hearing what David Washburn just said, what’s the best way for consumers to take in this information that they get about science research in the media?

SCHARDT: Well, we get asked the question all the time where – who do we trust? Where can we get good information about nutrition? And our usual response is, well, if it’s something important, if it’s a life or death issue like cancer or heart disease or hypertension, you should go to the big organizations that specialize in that, such as the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health, some of the major hospitals, who put out a lot of information that’s based on science, it’s reviewed by scientists and which you can generally rely on. Now often they don’t deal with some of the questions that people will have uppermost in their mind because they’ve watched some advertisement or they’ve seen some infomercial, and those organizations don’t deal with that type of information. But for the life and death issues about what causes cancer or what you can do to prevent cancer, things like that, we tell people to go to those big organizations.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another phone call. Jim is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Jim. Welcome to These Days.

JIM (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. You have another previous scientist on the phone. I was a chemist for 10 years and had a science education behind it. My biggest concern is seeing even in my own 17 year old daughter, who is certainly not majoring in science and is in a senior year of high school, basically has taken the physics and the chemistry and bio and has done pretty well in it all but there’s something missing. What I notice that’s missing in her education is the philosophy of science, is the basic tenets that we learned once we got into graduate school or when we learned it in even freshman chemistry, is that there’s a basis to the scientific method that is very profound. And more important is that the paradigm shifts that occur in science are based on very, very profound changes. People are seeing science from the science editorials and the science writers as pop science. It’s the gee, science is neat crowd. And what we notice is that that’s why we see the response we do to the mammogram issue, to the pap smear issue, to the most – to even something like stem cell or the idea of whether science interferes with religion through creationism and calling evolution a theory and that alone giving them justification for not believing. This is the basic problem.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the phone call, Jim. And, Kim, I wanted to ask you, as Director of Science Communications at UC San Diego, do you find that there is a fundamental problem in trying to get out this information with it not becoming just another political story or another story for people to bounce around but actually with the underpinnings of a scientific method and that understanding affecting the journalists that you talk with?

MCDONALD: Yeah, I think that’s part of the problem in the fact that there’s not a lot of basic science that’s covered by the news media because people really don’t know what scientists do. And, you know, getting back to this whole issue about, you know, why should the public know something about science, you know, we spend – or we will spend, in 2010, $150 billion in federal research R&D, and UC San Diego received last year, I believe, $852 million in federal R&D funds. We’re sixth in the nation in that. So people should have an idea of how their tax dollars are being spent, and most of the scientists at my university are very interested in sharing with the public what it is that they do. The problem is that the frontiers of science, what we do in basic chemistry, in basic physics, in basic biology, has now – You know, all the easy questions have been answered so the frontiers of science is very divorced from just our normal, everyday experience. To really understand what people are doing now in the laboratories, I mean, requires, you know, two or three pages of background first, and that’s part of the problem. But I think that, you know, in general, we – You know, I think Dave Washburn touched on the fact that some scientists are trying to push their own ideas or products. But there is really a culture among scientists that makes them reluctant to actually be interviewed by the media, you know, because of this nature of people getting information wrong, getting their, you know, research, which they painstakingly worked on for years and years, wrong in a newspaper article. A lot of them were reluctant to go on the – you know, news shows like this and talk about the research. So…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MCDONALD: So my job is really to try to convey what they do in a way that’s accessible to the public and at the same time try to cajole them to, you know, see the big picture that getting information out to the public, you know, in the whole is a good thing.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break, and I’m afraid so we also have to say goodbye to David Schardt but thank you so much for joining us.

SCHARDT: Oh, you’re quite welcome.

CAVANAUGH: David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C. Our conversation will continue with Kim McDonald and David Washburn. We’ll be taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about science reporting, some would say the decline of science reporting, in the United States. My guests are Kim McDonald, Director of Science Communications at UC, San Diego, and David Washburn, formerly the science and technology writer for Voice of San Diego. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I said, Kim, specifically the decline of science reporting in the United States because this is not happening all over the world, is it, the same sort of thing?

MCDONALD: No, it’s not. And as I mentioned, I keep track of the media hits that my stories get when I send the news releases out and while they’re declining in the United States, they’re actually increasing in countries like India, China, Brazil. Those are the same countries where we’re losing our technological edge and the reason is that a lot of these countries are becoming, you know, they’re becoming more important in technology. People have to learn about technology. They’re more interested in technology. And I give you an example. Every year the largest scientific association in the country has its annual meeting; this year it’ll be in San Diego in mid-February. It’s called the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And typically we get about 500 newsroom registrants, about 300 of those are U.S. and the majority of those are PR people like myself that register. About 200 of those are foreign journalists, and most of those are actual journalists. They’re people that come to the conference that write for newspapers and TV and, you know, broadcast TV stations and radio.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

MCDONALD: So there’s a big difference.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, there certainly is. Let’s take another phone call. Pete is calling from Escondido. Good morning, Pete, and welcome to These Days.

PETE (Caller, Escondido): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I called in because I actually work at the North County Times newspaper and I’m responsible for putting together our weekly science/technology page.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PETE: That’s my task, right. And I was very interested in what I’m hearing here. And what I kind of wanted to point out, and I think David’s pointed towards this, David Washburn, it’s what I like to call the economy of the inch as in, you know, copy inch in the newspaper. I can only put so much into the paper every Monday when we run the section and as a result the stories have to be shorter. Science is typically not something you can summarize, you know, in a quick and easy lead.

CAVANAUGH: Right, effectively. Yes.

PETE: And, you know, around here we have this large scientific community making breakthroughs all the time, physics, stem cell research, biotech, oceanography, that sort of thing, and we want to put out every time one of these companies or these foundations advances something, obviously we want to cover that story. But we can’t really go into the lengths of it, you know, to the length of the scientific paper, we’ve got to do it in, you know, like 600 words or so. And it’s not to say we cut corners but it means that sometimes we have to be glib or, well, I don’t want to say glib, but we have to draw people into the article and sometimes—I’m not saying we do this, you know, that we mess it up but it means we don’t get every little…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

PETE: …aspect of it covered. The other thing is that, yes, we don’t have a full time science reporter by any means. I also handle the business section. A couple of reporters contribute to science somewhat frequently. They also work other beats. They kind of do it as a side gig. As a result, I’m very reliant on the Associated Press to move stories. And without, you know, I don’t want to dis, you know, my fellow journalists at the AP but it kind of tends to sometimes get to that politicized sense when you’re covering a story especially about things like climate change or stem cell research where they would point out – they immediately start saying, well, is climate change real or whatnot.

CAVANAUGH: Right, Pete…

PETE: And…

CAVANAUGH: …let…

PETE: …we go into that angle of it…

CAVANAUGH: I understand what you’re saying but I want to get a reaction from David Washburn. David, I don’t think you have exactly the same inch constraints on the online as probably Pete does but talk a little bit about your reaction to what Pete’s talking about.

WASHBURN: Well, I think Pete obviously brings up a really important point and it speaks to what we were talking about earlier just the general – all the financial pressures on the news industry right now are as intense as they’ve ever been. I mean, one thing, and this is something, you know, I’ve been in both the online world and on, you know, I worked at the Union-Tribune for years but the – I mean, I think there can be a happy medium struck where a story can go online in a more expanded version and then, you know, the – you’re not going to get around the fact that you have the, you know, that you have the inch limits in the printed product. There’s just no getting around that. But you can have that and then have a more expanded version online. I think that’s something that you’re going to see more and more and if you don’t see it more and more, you should see it more and more where you have like, okay, well, let’s – we’ll give you the basics in the print but then if you really want the, you know, the nuances of the research and all that, well, go online and we have a 1200 word story for you. Now, again, there’s the pressures on all the reporters if they have the time to do that, but – So that’s my answer…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WASHBURN: …to that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, yes, Kim.

MCDONALD: Yeah, well, I, you know, wanted to mention that at UC San Diego, we’ve actually been trying to use the new media a lot more effectively to communicate science. And, you know, the caller’s right. The – You know, science is very hard. It’s not attractive to read in large chunks of type but there are a lot of interesting things that are going on in the laboratories visually that can be communicated by photographs and video, which we’re trying to do more of. And so I really see the online medium, you know, publications – online publications like the Voice of San Diego’s really an effective way to reach the public about basic science and that’s why Dave and I have actually been working together as a, you know, in a partnership, you know, to try to more content...

WASHBURN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take one more call. Lance is calling from north county. Good morning, Lance, and welcome to These Days.

LANCE (Caller, North San Diego County): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. This segues perfectly with what Pete from Escondido was saying and what David was saying. Where online can I find a little bit more science without having – a more generalized science that can possibly take me to a link but where I can get that, you know, 600 page or 600 word story and then be able to find possibly a link to the 1200 words or maybe even 2500 words? Is there such a generalized site out there yet or is this what you guys are trying to develop?

WASHBURN: Well, I mean, Voice of San Diego, you know, over the last couple of years has really devoted a lot of resources to science coverage, so check out Voice of San Diego, and, you know, another thing we’re doing is – I mean, one thing about – and Kim talked about a partnership of just efforts we’re putting together. Two things that we do, we have, you know, we have a dedicated reporter to science. A lot of our freelance work focuses on science. We also do the RSS feeds of UCSD, of Scripps, of the various institutions, so if you want to come on, you can read stories that we’ve chosen to do but then you can go and read all the stuff that Kim and his colleagues are writing, and they are good writers. I mean, it’s very – I mean, right when I got on the beat I was impressed with the writing, especially at UCSD. I mean, it’s interesting, engaging science writing that’s happening that you can get through just reading their releases through their RSS feed. And one last thing is that, as Kim was saying, we are really – you know, that reluctance Kim was talking about before of scientists to even talk to journalists because, you know, they get the story wrong and, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WASHBURN: …there’s too much risk involved, we heard – We have really been trying, and we’ve had some success, we hope for more success to reach – to have the scientists do their own writing. I mean, have them – You know, we would – Voice of San Diego would give any scientist the space to write about an issue or write about their research…

CAVANAUGH: David, I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there because we are out of time. But I want to thank you both for a very engaging conversation, David Washburn and Kim McDonald, thank you.

MCDONALD: Thanks for having us.

WASHBURN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And everybody who called, we couldn’t get to everyone who called so please do post your comments online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And I want to let everyone know the next Ethics Center forum, "Fact versus Hype in Science News," is tonight at 5:30 at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. The event is free and open to the public. Go to KPBS.org/TheseDays for more information. You stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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workinsync | December 2, 2009 at 10:14 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

I want to let people know about Montana State's MFA degree in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. The premise of the graduate program is to take folks with science backgrounds and train them in filmmaking, and it's based on trying to close that gap between scientists and media. I have an undergraduate degree in Astronomy as well as this filmmaking degree, and it is a great combination. I worked at NASA for many years as a TV Producer for the Astrophysics department, and each time I would meet with a new scientist, there would be some level of distrust, a certain amount of holding back at what they would say. Then, after they discovered my background, they would perk up, get a smile on their face and start talking about their research candidly. It always made a big difference.
I think having programs like MSU's that create hybrid journalist-scientists is essential in closing that gap.

At the same time, the general media needs more training in basic science principles, and the scientists need media training. From living on both sides, what I have found is that both scientists and media are being unreasonable and misunderstanding eachother's concerns and needs.

Media folks: you need to be respectful of the fact that one little word in your story can change a scientific meaning completely, and scientists are trusting you with their reputation - which is the currency of a scientific career.

Science folks: you need to accept the fact that journalists and newscasters are writing for the general public, not your colleagues, and that the general public's support is essential to getting funding for your research.

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Avatar for user 'mermaidmedia'

mermaidmedia | December 2, 2009 at 1:36 p.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

I am another graduate of the MFA program mentioned mentioned by workinsync in another comment (with a background in math, computer science, and underwater nature). Thanks to KPBS's guests, and workinsync, for putting forward the basic processes, issues, and requirements of science reporting.

An interesting case in point regarding science media hype and coverage issues--known as "climategate" within the blogosphere's AGW-- is currently unfolding: http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N57/davidson.html. This is the story of emails between U Penn's Michael Mann, and a key British researcher who coordinated the manipulation and deletion of data to support the AGW argument, and further, to suppress dissenting views from being published.

There is a long-term history that explains the lack of coverage of climategate within mainstream media:

Years ago, statistician Steve McIntyre (U. of Guelph in Canada) showed that errors were being introduced during data pre-processing for Michael Mann's (U. Penn) model, which produced the infamous "hockey stick" temperature graph. (This graph was held as authoritative by AGW proponents at the IPCC, largely driving the push for a global climate treaty.) McIntyre's analysis shows that Mann's model produces the hockey-stick shaped graph from totally randomized input data--which you could visualize by thinking of the "snow" static pattern you could see on an older TV screen.

Though McIntyre's website, climateaudit.org, long ago chronicled his analysis of this error, its corroboration by the AAAS, and McIntyre's correspondence with Mann on the subject; the mainstream media (MSM) never picked up on this controversy, particularly in America. Given our low level of science and mathematics understanding, one can understand the MSM's reticence to approach reporting on this statistical problem.

There has also been little coverage, especially within the US MSM, of solar physicist Svensmark's alternative theory of cosmic rays' and solar wind's combined effects on low-level clouds, aerosol formation, etc., as the driver of cyclical temperature variations. (A key element of this theory, about how cosmic rays and solar winds drive aerosol formations, has recently been published.)

The lack of adequate skepticism and "grey-scale" coverage by the US MSM regarding AGW, and their lack of attention to competing perspectives, leaves them now with almost no foundation for coverage of "climategate." (A few more comments in my next post....)

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Avatar for user 'mermaidmedia'

mermaidmedia | December 2, 2009 at 1:37 p.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

The Wall Street Journal (itself a politicized source) and the blogosphere have been the primary sources of info on climategate to US citizens, with the recent exception of Jon Stewart's coverage on the Daily Show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgPUpIBWGp8 . By contrast, the citizens of Northern Europe are scouring the web for an understanding of climategate, as revealed by Google Trends, as compared to the US's fascination w/starlet Megan Fox:

Google searches in last 30 days:
'Al Gore' vs 'climategate'
http://www.google.com/trends?q=al+gore,+ClimateGate&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0 (Particularly high in Sweden and Netherlands)

'Global Warming' vs 'ClimateGate'
http://www.google.com/trends?q=global+warming,+ClimateGate&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0

and 'Global Warming' vs 'Megan Fox'
http://www.google.com/trends?q=global+warming,+megan+fox&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0

It will be interesting to see if and when the US MSM finally catches up to the issues being illuminated by climategate.

In the meantime, as Jon Stewart points out, the reputation of scientists, and science as a process, will suffer, and policy-makers will remain unassisted by valid data to drive their efforts. In a policy-making process that will affect the entire planet at the cost of billions (trillions?) of dollars, impacting developing countries in particular, this situation is truly pathetic.

(And I will continue to do promotional films to generate income, because I've been unable to find adequate funding to support myself doing science filmmaking, since graduation.)

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | December 7, 2009 at 9:50 a.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

I think it is truly a sad situation for many scientists in this area. With the media we have today it's brutal and cruel. It almost seems our nation is made up of very far right/left wingers and not enough in the middle anymore. I've stopped watching any news channel simply because it isn't news anymore but more of a talk show.

I don't want to hear opinions from the reporter or hosts really. I want the data, the facts and not the opinions of one that disregards any scientific source.

Fortunately and unfortunately there is still NPR, KPBS and comedy central (daily show, colbert report) to keep me sane and in balance over issues. At least here I have the "choice" to make my own decisions instead of having someone scream and jam something that is totally fanatic to skew my viewpoints.

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