As scientists will acknowledge, most scientific findings are wrong or, at least, so uncertain as not to be certifiably true. But most people would never get this impression from the way the news media usually cover the latest research developments. Cancer has been cured so many times in headlines that it’s an irritating joke among medical researchers. Advocacy group pronouncements that appear to be based on science receive widespread coverage before confirmatory studies expose the flaws. And yesterday’s dietary advice is reversed at least as often as lower court decisions.
Why do the news media so often leap on science stories that fall apart on deeper examination? I believe it is because many reporters and editors have a curiously naive conception of what science is. They think that if a statement has the label of science—perhaps even having been published in a peer-reviewed journal—it must be true or pretty close to true. After all, isn’t science about finding truth? Many journalists appear not to understand that there is a crucial difference between the science in textbooks and what actual working scientists do for a living.
Textbook science is, for the most part, well-established fact—truth, if you like. But, of course, scientists don’t get grants to discover what is already known. Instead, they study the unknown. Working scientists work on the frontier, the cutting edge. They confront mysteries, which lie in uncharted realms beyond the textbooks.
Thus, as any good scientist will tell you, findings in any hot field of research are always hedged in uncertainty. It is rarely clear at the beginning of a new line of inquiry just how to go about finding answers. Early experiments on a new problem commonly fail. It takes repeated observations or experiments, usually attacking the mystery from different angles with results all pointing to the same answer, before honest researchers begin to believe that they actually understand something new. As the late science writer Isaac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!), but ‘That’s funny….’”
When scientists report their findings to one another in technical journals or at meetings, they normally take care to describe not just what they think they have found but are careful to include uncertainties that should temper any interpretation of their data. They know that most of the time their findings, especially in a new field of inquiry, are likely to be wrong or, at least, to be only crude approximations of the truth. They’d look foolish to their colleagues to buy into preliminary findings.
Novice science journalists, however, often skip right over these crucial, cautionary parts of a typical journal article and zero in on the conclusions, however tentative. They tend to ignore that the premises often are assumptions and “best guesses.” In science, most reports end with an argument for why further research is needed. Experienced science writers try to keep the sense of uncertainty in their copy. But, too often, editors instinctively strike out the caveats that, in their minds, weaken the story. Headline writers further prune perspective and judgment.
There are thousands of scientific journals, most published monthly, some weekly, and each is filled with reports detailing incremental steps in research. It’s part of the culture of science to put out preliminary findings, along with detailed descriptions of how the research was done—precisely in order to get comments pointing out possible errors or suggesting better interpretations. But these days, more than ever, science reporters follow those journals and make stories out of what they think they find in them. Some more aggressive reporters lurk on online chat groups to catch even more preliminary tips.
None of this is to say that the news media should not cover science. Journalists should, of course. The impacts of science, including technology, and its effects on individuals and on society, are becoming more powerful and less predictable. It is more important than ever that the public be informed of what’s happening in science. What the news media need to do is get smarter in how they cover it. Their focus should be more on increasing the public’s understanding and less on hyping apparent “gee-whiz” moments.
Science’s effects are everywhere—treating and sometimes curing disease, improving communication, making food cheaper and safer, enabling better transportation, detecting and convicting criminals, spying on terrorists, creating new materials, forecasting weather, improving our understanding of human behavior—to name only a few areas. Beyond practical effects are discoveries that simply enlighten and edify, that contribute as much to the meaning of life as do the arts—discoveries about the universe, the origin and evolution of life, the nature of matter and energy, how life works.
To be sure, the effects are not all salutary. Science and technology also have brought us vast and persistent environmental damage, unspeakable weaponry, innumerable toxic substances, and some of the most profound ethical challenges society has ever had to confront. In decades past, wrong science—often enthusiastically promoted by the mass media—has bolstered the evils of racism, sexism and other pseudoscientific ideologies.
But in nearly all the impacts of science on society—for better or for worse—it was rarely scientists alone who were to blame. Citizens and societies, including corporations and governments, make decisions about what discoveries or inventions to encourage or reject. And, of course, those decisions are made on the basis of information, much of it supplied by the news media and the framing employed in the stories.
Why don’t more editors and producers appreciate this crucial role that their newspapers and broadcasts play? Why do they settle for naive and careless stories about science when they don’t seem to tolerate the same quality of work from a sports writer or political reporter? I think it’s because of another widespread misunderstanding—not of science but of the public. Many editors with whom I’ve spoken over the years claim that the average reader or viewer is not interested in science. If only a few readers care about science, they believe, it’s better to devote staff slots and newsroom budgets to the things readers do care about.
As it happens, American adults are, indeed, interested in science. According to repeated surveys by the National Science Foundation (NSF), fully 70 percent say they are interested in science—significantly more than say they are interested in sports or politics. If the question is expanded to ask about interest in new technologies, about 90 percent express interest. Yet just 17 percent consider themselves well informed about developments in science and technology. In other words, newsreaders, viewers and listeners of news say they are interested, but they realize they aren’t being well informed. In short, the public wants to know more.
Interestingly, despite all the stories about how science-ignorant American students are in comparison with those in many other developed countries, the reverse is true for adults. According to a 1999 NSF study, U.S. adults score higher on tests of science knowledge than do adults in most other countries. Denmark scored at the top, followed a point or two behind by the Netherlands and the United States and, slightly lower, Great Britain. Seven other developed countries trailed, with Japan and Portugal at the bottom. Moreover, the percentage of Americans who can give the right answers to a set of science questions has been growing slowly for 20 years. So not only do most adults want to know more about what is happening in science, they’re better prepared to follow science news than are people in most other developed countries. And they’re better prepared than they were in the past.
Newsroom managers are right not to be driven by marketing polls that push them toward inconsequential fluff in news coverage, but here is a case in which the surveys suggest readers, viewers and listeners want more and better reporting about science and technology and about the events and phenomena that exert powerful and lasting influence on everyone’s lives. If these news consumers find that coverage of science is naive or ignorant, they’ll lose trust in those upon whom they ought to be able to depend to broaden and sharpen their knowledge.
Boyce Rensberger has been the director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1998. Beginning in 1966, he was a science journalist at the Detroit Free Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and senior editor of Science 80 magazine. He twice won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s top award for science writing.