Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: The Problem With Science Journalism

update: Eli had a nice post on this topic last week.

In the newspaper this week, I took a whack at what I think is one of the fundamental public misunderstandings about the nature of science. I like to call it “the textbook problem”, but one might also characterize it as “the science journalism problem.”

Lay exposure to science comes in two fundamental ways. The first is academic learning, in which non-scientists are exposed to textbook explanation of things scientists have already figured out, knowledge with sufficient stability to make it into textbooks. Much of science journalism involves a similar domain – stories about papers scientists have published as a result of figuring something out.

This creates, I believe, a public impression of science – that it is about Stuff That’s Been Figured Out. But in fact much of the activity of scientists, even in the practice of what Kuhn called “normal science”, involves poking around in Stuff That Hasn’t Been Figured Out.

Mostly, this is not a problem. As a journalist, a story abouts seismologist Rick Aster figuring out that it’s icebergs making those weird noises his instruments were picking up is interesting. A story that Rick Aster’s instruments are picking up some weird noise, and he has no idea what it is, less so. That’s not to say that stories about the process of science are journalistically uninteresting, and I do try to write them. But mostly, the craft of science journalism enters the game after some amount of the figuring out has been completed.

Now let’s enter an area where the public has some interest, but which the scientists haven’t figured out yet, or haven’t figured out completely. I’ll skip the obvious elephant in the corner of the room and talk instead about the summer rainfall forecast here in the southwest. We’ve come to expect that El Niño and La Niña provide some useful seasonal forecast skill in winter. But with the North American Monsoon, seasonal forecasting has eluded some really interesting efforts:

“From a strictly scientific perspective, the story in my mind is how little definitive progress the community has made in improving prediction skill over the past decade,” Gutzler wrote in an e-mail last week. “I’m not sure there’s a newspaper story there but that seems to me the way the science is playing out here.”

But actually, if you want to understand how science works, this turns out to be a great case study.

Movies and textbooks treat science as a fixed body of knowledge — the things researchers have already figured out. But most real science is more like what Gutzler and his colleagues are doing here — poking and prodding in the dark, learning that things are more complicated than they first appeared.

Gutzler thinks scientists understand the monsoon better today. But part of what they understand is that the things that influence its behavior are more complex than scientists realized, making the forecast problem harder than they thought.

“At this point,” he said in an interview, “I’m less confident than I was a decade ago.”

For a science journalist, that should make the monsoon a great story, a chance to show how science really works. But I admit I’ve stopped calling Gutzler every year to ask for his forecast.

The problem is that when this public misunderstanding of the nature of science enters the political and public policy sphere, all hell breaks loose. “What do you mean they can’t tell me how much sea level will rise? Those guys must not know what they’re talking about!”


  1. John,
    Very nicely stated. Thanks.
    As a research scientist, what has attracted me for decades has been Stuff That Hasn’t Been Figured Out. Currently in our Not Figured Out A Couple of Years Ago But Fairly Clear Now list is more efficient engines, the molecular workings of human memory, the set of genes in the Human Genome, and the role of emotions. On our (and other’s) Not Figured Out list now is the genetic logic of the amygdala, synesthesia, autism spectrum diseases, supersymmetry, and quantum gravity.

    For me personally, moving the Not Figured Out items to the Figured Out list is the thrill of the hunt. Things that I have figured out ten years ago are just starting to make it into graduate textbooks now.

    I spend most of my science time working on things in the Not Figured Out category. I try to explain my hunt clearly. I rely on good science writers to explain the hunt for and the capture of Not Figured Outs and the benefits of this hunt better than I can.

  2. My hunting analogy is more apt than I realized.

    In trying to understand the Not Figured Outs, I use a lot of gathered information to tell me how to approach the problem. Then I hunt where the solution is most likely to be found. I use the techniques that are most likely to find the solution.

    As a hunter, I am picking the terrain where the quarry must reside. I am using extensive knowledge of where to look, when to look, how to look, how long to look, and what weapons to bring with me. I am doing this do maximize the chances of success in the hunt.

    If someone asks, I can tell that person exactly why I picked the strategy that I did. So can scientists who are fighting epidemics, curing Alzheimers, plugging oil spills, or hunting for the Higgs boson. Many of these scientists, however, are not so good at explaining their choices of hunting equipment in terms that most people can understand. They do not have effective practice in communicating. So instead of saying, ‘I took the shot because the bird had taken flight.’ they start with ‘The tensile strength and Young’s modulus of a successful multiprojectile armament were determined to be … with a production margin of error of +/- 0.56%.’ For many reasons, a lot of the people working on the Not Figured Outs are not particularly good story tellers.

    The allure of the Not Figured Outs is three fold. First it is the excitement of solving a hard puzzle/capturing an elusive quarry. Second, it is the thrill of capturing this quarry ahead of the other hunters who have spent decades not capturing it. Third is the satisfaction of being able to tell the other hunters that they were idiots in their approach. All three are standard human responses of adventurers.

  3. Great minds think alike (beat you by a day). However, as Eli wrote (you don’t think I do the work?) journalists can make a living by emphasizing the journey and not the dry result

    Looking back at many of the attacks on science from our dear friends, they are wails that climate, and tobacco, and ozone scientists are not doing textbook science, and, of course, since most people only have learned textbook science, this can look like a pretty convincing argument. It is also why demands for regulatory science can be deadly to real science and why “auditing” is a distraction and a fraud.

    On the other side, scientists, point to the triumphant march through their published papers, although over the course of time methods change, some conclusions are modified and the glorious adventure, the stories of how we reached our understanding, are swept under the rug. There are a thousand interesting stories out there in the Naked Laboratory, and they need to be told. Explaining the stops and starts would put a human dimension on science that is far more interesting and convincing to the public than what we have now. It is where blogs and open review can and will play important roles.

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