Science in the news: why does it really matter

Most of what is written in a newspaper on a daily basis makes no difference to the life of the common man the people on the streets. Indeed some have even argued that news is actually bad for you

That, though, doesn’t stop people from engaging with news. And, despite the struggles of the news industry, more people read news today than they did when the internet did not exist. This should not be surprising, because the price to read even quality writing has plummeted.

But the lack of a good business model, not surprisingly, has caused a lot of pain to journalists. A new debate has broken out among some veteran science journalists about the work that science journalists ought be doing but don’t. The main criticism is that science in the news is nothing but “pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks”.

This, Dan Vergano of USA today, finds to be a problem. He feels that science journalists should instead focus on aspects of the news that should matter to people, such as “whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation or whether Peak Oil is a real concern”. Dan thinks in these dark times science journalists have formed a ghetto and that is hurting readers, who deserve better.

I’m sympathetic to some of the points raised. But, even though I’m new to the business of news, I can see some clear problems in Dan’s arguments. (Many of those have been pointed out in these comments).

For example, Dan should be addressing editors, rather than reporters. After all editors are the gatekeepers of news. But because he doesn’t make that clear, a lot of reporters have felt compelled to answer Dan. And rightly so.

There is also a problem with treating the news audience as Dan does. The nebulous idea of a reader who likes politics, sports, science, health and everything else on the news menu is just wrong. When the only way to find out who read your work was through expensive surveys conducted once every year, it made sense to assume such a reader to be your audience. Today, though, that is not true. (Perhaps not accepting that fact is the bane of a good business model to fund journalism).

Third, and this is the reason I was compelled to write this post, is that few journalists outside Dan’s “ghetto” understand the importance of science in the news. That though doesn’t stop readers from devouring science news. The fact is that science news, at least that written well, evokes a sense of wonder among readers. And few in the business of news really understand the value of that.

Oh wow, a duck’s penis is like a corkscrew!

Our sense of wonder, as Jesse Prinz aruges in a beautiful essay, may not have evolved out of any purpose but has been the source of the impetus behind humanity’s greatest achievements. Readers of science news may not always be able to put it such eloquent words as Prinz has done, but deep inside they connect with that feeling.

Three things usually appeal to our sense of wonder: art, science and religion. Religion is newsworthy, but not for its aspects that cause wonder. And perhaps art journalists (if they even exist today) have more to complain than science journalists when it comes to being featured in the news.

This leaves science news (and thus science journalists) to take on the responsibility of satisfying our readers’ wonder-tastebuds. And, you know what, science journalists are doing a splendid job at that.

This is one reason that The Economist’s readers time and again vote for the science and technology pages as their favourite in the weekly newspaper. Apart from that, I don’t have numbers to back me here but I’m willing to bet that, in those expensive annual surveys (some of which still happen) if the right questions are asked, readers will say that they love reading about science because it is wonderful.

As the world has got richer, and that it has despite the recession, and technologies like the internet has left a little more time at hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that more of us are feeding our innate curiosities. I have a feeling that despite the many problems that the world faces today, we might be living in a golden age. A different kind of enlightenment, if you will, where, not just the rich few understand and investigate the workings of the world, but the masses do so too.

Science and the news that it creates, even in its current shape, I contend is fuelling that age.

Developing world science journalists lose out

The organising committee of the upcoming global gathering of science journalists has made sudden changes to the programme last month, cutting several sessions that focused on developing country issues and leaving journalists disappointed. In recent years the World Conference of Science Journalists has attracted up to half its attendees from the developing world. That seems unlikely now.

Developing-world sessions purged from WCSJ2013 programme,  SciDev.Net, 2 April 2013.


How to stop fooling yourself

When I first wrote about self-deception, a little more than a year ago, I found the experience traumatising.

It can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

Now Eli Dourado has an essay in The Umlaut that discusses a paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that grapples with the issue of self-deception.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

So how can we cope with self-deception?

Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

What sells in the name of journalism today is written to appease one side or the other. Opinions are important, but what is more important is facts that help you arrive at it and the process you use to form them. A good journalist should be a meta-rational person. He should also be able to find other meta-rational people, so that the world is made aware of facts and arguments that help take things a step forward.

The problem, of course, is that meta-rational people care less about success but more about seeking the truth/understanding the world. Their voices are present but harder to find. They get far less attention than they deserve.

You can stop reading now, if you like. For, because we are on the subject of good journalism and meta-rational people, I’d like to discuss an example of exactly the opposite. Aleks Eror writes in VICE that the Chinese are engineering genius babies. This is a great story, if it were true. Sadly, he bases this claim on the word of Geoffrey Miller, an American academic, who wrote a heavily biased article about it in January. What’s worse is that it Miller’s argument had been criticised and debunked (sort-of) immediately after. But Eror chose to ignore that and rehash the fear-mongering story.

The central point of the argument is that the Chinese have an institute where they are doing genome sequencing of the world’s smartest people to find the genes that makes us smart. This is not a new story. Eugenics in some shape or form has existed for a long time. The problem with Eror’s piece is that he doesn’t run by an expert the claims made by Miller.

A good science journalist should always do that because the complex nature of the subjects we usually deal with. Experts may not be the perfect meta-rational candidate that we’d like, but they are close enough. They bring an external perspective, and I’ve found that invaluable in my own work.