Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Journalism + Science = BFFs in the Post-truth Era?

"Over-worked," "under-paid" and "liberal" are adjectives that typify the average journalist according to a headline from The Atlantic a couple years ago. Some might say that these words could be used to describe the average research scientist at an academic institution as well.

But beyond these labels, I've come to realize that the similarities between both professions run very deep.

In the purest sense, both the scientist and the journalist are slaves to the facts and details. They are both committed to seeking the inconspicuous truth, and communicating their findings to the masses. Carl Sagan's axiom "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is equally applicable to either as a guiding principle of ethics. Investigating, questioning, ignoring bias, learning and writing are hallmarks of both professions that were just as essential to Woodward and Bernstein for Watergate as they were to Watson and Crick for describing the structure of DNA.

Scientific research institutions and print journalism outlets have also shared a common financial struggle in recent decades. The former due to stagnant federal support, and the latter due to the emergence of a competitive and expansive digital market.

Now it seems that the two institutions will share another common struggle that is on the rise: maintaining relevance in culture that increasingly values ideals more than facts.

In the same way that verifiable scientific claims have been frustrated by baseless pseudo-science nonsense that finds life on the internet, real fact-based investigative journalism has been forced to compete with the advent of "fake news" and low-quality "click-bait" sites that have gained prominence online during this past election cycle. In response, both Google and Facebook have begun taking measures this week to prevent "fake news" sites from using their advertising platforms.

But sadly, what is the age of information for some people is also the age of misinformation for others. The Oxford Dictionary just chose "post-truth" as its Word of the Year for 2016. It is a good word for when extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence and people are more easily persuaded instead by insults, complicit deceit and the logic of memes.

Being keenly aware of this concern, the veteran journalist Dan Rather wrote a very appropriate piece in Scientific American this week in which he argued that it will become increasingly important for scientists and journalists to be allied in their efforts. In his words:

"What we need is sustained and improved partnerships between the press and the scientific community. We need more cross-pollination and engagement. We need experimentation on form, tone, content, and distribution. We cannot allow science content to be relegated to echo chambers or elite distribution outlets. We need to try to find a way to take the message to where the people are, through digital promotion, distribution and social media engagement."

Mr. Rather went on to express his support as a journalist for the cause of science, and described ways in which he intends to be proactively involved with the scientific community. 

Obviously, this resonates with me and aligns with my intentions on this blog. I hope to be similarly involved with the journalism community during my scientific career, and this week I reached a goal that will help me do that. I was accepted as a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), something I've been working toward all year.

I believe that decisions are best made in the context of reality, and I hope that scientists and journalists can successfully work together to persuade the public to agree on that too. Because if we can't agree on basic facts, then what hope do we have to ever find agreement in our opinions?

If you want to support good journalism, one easy thing you can do is sign up for a digital (or even paper) subscription to a reputable newspaper or news magazine that holds itself accountable for what it reports. And if you want to support good science, you can sign up to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In any case, please support good communication by not posting links to media that make extraordinary claims without first doing a bit of due diligence on your part -- regardless of your bias. 

It's in the long-term best interest of everyone.