What is good science reporting? Not just raw science and not politicized science. Equations or alarmism won’t substitute for critical thinking when presenting science to citizens.
Science journalism now falls way “below the bar”, hiding bad science and promoting alarmist politicized scientists. But some journalists are not bowing to this group think.
With recent medical frauds, social science bias, climate hyping, and nature fakery … critics are saying: Enough! … of this abuse of science for political, moral and personal ideologies. And it seems the rebellion is spreading 🙂
The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal – UK Dail Mail (8 Dec 2011) Above all, the BBC has been guilty of abusing the trust of its audience, and of all those compelled to pay for it. On one of the most important and far-reaching issues of our time, its coverage has been so tendentious that it has given its viewers a picture not just misleading but at times even fraudulent,” Christopher Booker said.
The BBC: less trustworthy, more dangerous than a cannibal polar bear – UK Telegraph (8 Dec 2011) – … when a man of Attenborough’s stature, popularity and apparent reasonableness trots out a line on television many of his audience will be inclined to believe him, regardless of whether what he’s saying is gospel truth or nonsense on stilts. And in the case of last night’s Frozen Planet it was mostly the latter.
Across the Atlantic, and up in the Arctic, the science versus journalism debate is (dare I say it?) heating up 😉
Science Communication – Judith Curry blog (9 Dec 2011) … the circular model views the receiver as an equal partner in the communication and focuses on the process of engagement (which includes dialogue and feedback) …There is a segment of the unconvinced public that consists of technically educated people who want to think for themselves. They are not prepared to cede judgment on this issue to the consensus authority.
Science: A New Mission to Explain – Huffington Post (11 Dec 2011) … editors should wise up that science journalism has lost its edge and demand reform. It has also become uncritical and therefore not journalism. Too many who profess to practice journalism are the product of fashionable science communication courses that have sprung up in the past fifteen years. It’s my view that this has resulted in many journalists being supporters of, and not reporters of, science. There is a big difference.
When politicians distort science– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (15 Dec 2011) What is needed from scientists is leadership that is willing to clearly explain that science does not offer political cover for politicians who seek to avoid making difficult decisions by hiding behind science. Instead, there is a need to push such discussions in the direction of the underlying values that are at stake and away from science as a proxy battlefield for those disputes over values. Decisions about climate change and over-the-counter contraceptives (and the like) are ultimately political decisions. They involve considerations of science, but science neither dictates the outcomes of these decisions nor favors one side’s values over the other.
Science journalists have been spreading false alarms for years now. Here is only a partial history:
20 environmentalist alarms
1 Population growth and famine, 1798
Based on Benjamin Franklin’s observation that animals and plants reproduce until they exhaust resources then starve and die, Malthus extrapolated that humans would share this fate as a result of geometric population growth and linear resources growth. He later realised that foresight and innovation prevent this fate in humans.
2 Timber famine economic threat, 1865
Forecasts that we will run out of wood for construction and paper occur from time to time around the world. Despite the alarms, the world’s forested area has increased since WWII, as has wood production. Planting and efficiency have increased in response to demand and competition.
3 Soil erosion agricultural production threat, 1934
Despite periodic alarms from lobbyists and politicians over soil being washed and blown away, there has been a net gain in soil on most US cropland, and erosion rates have been slowing. In Australia, too, soils have improved with fertilization and new plant species, and erosion has declined as land management practices have improved.
4 Fluoride in drinking water health effects, 1945
Fluoride is poisonous in quantity, but occurs naturally in drinking water in low concentrations. One part-per-million reduces dental decay. Some scientists have warned of potential ill effects and some communities reject fluoridation of water supplies. Claims of ill effects at 1ppm are not supported.
5 DDT and cancer, 1962
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson forecast that birds would die out and people would be afflicted by cancer due to increasing exposure to the insecticide DDT. There was no plausible biological mechanism identified and research failed to support the claims. DDT was nevertheless banned. Millions have died unnecessarily from malaria.
6 Population growth and famine (Ehrlich), 1968
Early Malthus reheated by butterfly biologist Paul Ehrlich, who also forecast global cooling and, later, global warming disasters. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote, ‘The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death’.
7 Global cooling, 1970
Temperatures had been declining since the end of WWII, and some scientists forecast an imminent ice age. Alarming forecasts have alternated between ice ages and the opposite several times since at least the Nineteenth Century. Media coverage of this most recent cooling alarm stopped after temperatures warmed again.
8 Population growth and famine (Meadows), 1972
Computer modelling sponsored by the Club of Rome predicted burgeoning population, exhausted resources, and famine. With minor and realistic changes in assumptions, however, the model would produce sanguine forecasts. The Club recanted the original forecasts in 1976.
9 Industrial production, acid rain and forests, 1974
Sulphur dioxide from burning coal can increase the acidity of rain. Scientists ascribed fish deaths and predicted harm to forests and people. The US National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program found little environmental damage and no harm to people. Acidity of rain varies naturally. The costly Clean Air Act is still in effect.
10 Electrical wiring and cancer, etc, 1979
A small epidemiological study reported an association between hypothesised exposure to electromagnetic fields and childhood leukaemia. In the US, regulations intended to reduce exposure cost $1 billion annually. Thousands of studies have failed to establish a link between actual exposure and any health effect.
11 CFCs, the ozone hole, and skin cancer etc, 1985
Speculation that the Earth’s ozone layer was being depleted by chlorine from chlorofluorocarbons and forecasts that skin cancer rates would increase led to an international ban. Knowledge about the relationships was and is poor. Chlorine from the sea is 400 times CFC peak production. Replacement refrigerants are dangerous.
12 Listeria in cheese, 1985
Listeria monocytogenes occurs in soft cheeses, but most strains do not cause listeriosis. Listeriosis can be fatal for high-risk people such as young children. Detection is now easy resulting in listeria being more often identified in food and therefore more deaths being attributed to it than in the past, thus precipitating alarms.
13 Radon in homes and lung cancer, 1985
The gas historically caused lung cancer in miners working in dusty uranium-rich mines. A small survey found elevated levels in some houses, and the US EPA estimated 8 million homes were affected and forecast up to 30,000 lung cancer deaths per annum. Proper studies have shown any effect is small, or nonexistent.
14 Salmonella in eggs, 1988
Careless investigations of food poisoning in Britain attributed some to eggs. A government minister asserted that ‘most’ egg production was infected with salmonella. Demand plummeted. Costly flock testing was imposed. There were calls to kill the entire laying flock-and one million birds were. Salmonella has likely never been present inside eggs.
15 Environmental toxins and breat cancer,1990
Long Island breast cancer survivor and lobbyist Barbara Balaban and some scientists speculated, against our understanding of biological mechanisms, that toxins in the environment, such as DDE and PCBs, were causing breast cancer. Congress ordered studies that cost $30 million. They found no link.
16 Mad cow disease (BSE), 1996
Speculation that a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease might be contracted from eating beef from cattle with BSE, and forecasts that the disease would kill 10 million people by 2010, led to the slaughter of 8 million cattle in Britain at a cost to the taxpayer of £3.5 billion. Suspected vCJD deaths never exceeded 28 per year and any link to BSE remains unconfirmed.
17 Dioxin in Belgian poultry,1999
Dioxins occur naturally, as well as incidentally and deliberately from industry. Some are toxic. When breeder chickens became ill, the cause was traced to dioxin contaminated feed. Seven million chickens and 60,000 pigs were destroyed. But people were exposed to more dioxin by substituting fish for chicken in their diets.
18 Mercury in fish’s effect on nervous system development, 2004
Extrapolating from insupportably low ‘safe’ levels, a US EPA employee predicted 630,000 babies born with potential brain damage each year. Women were warned to avoid fish. Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and most Japanese have higher than EPA ‘safe’ levels from eating a health-promoting high-fish diet.
19 Mercury in childhood inoculations and autism, 2005
Robert F Kennedy, Jr claimed on CBS News that ‘The science connecting brain damage with thimerosal is absolutely overwhelming’. Thimerosal is a vaccine preservative that contains mercury that the industry claims is safe. When it was eliminated, autism cases continued to climb. Researchers found no link.
20 Mobile phone towers and cancer, 2008
Periodically, community activists raise alarms that the towers will cause cancer and miscellaneous other health problems. The towers transmit and receive weak radiofrequency signals. The signals are centimetres-long wavelength non-ionizing radiation that, like heat and visible light, cannot damage DNA. Scientific studies have found no health effects
Now that skepticism is rising these same journalists blame the public for being deluded, confused, morally deficient, lacking intelligence and/or being politically biased, for daring to be critical about their “science reporting”. Hmm …
Stay skeptical and enjoy our warm Holocene Interglacial … while it lasts 😉