Communicating Science

Matthew Nisbet nails the New York Times’ hanging curve ball in his analysis of the problems of the collision between science and journalism, quoting Andrew Revkin’s fabulous line about “the tyranny of the news peg.” The context is a piece by the always provocative Gary Taubes about the problems of epidemiological research.

I’ve given a talk several times of late to scientists (I’ll be giving it up in Los Alamos in October – more on that later) where I try to highlight the difference between the public understanding of science – a fixed body of textbook knowledge – versus the murky way it happens out at the edge where scientists are actually learning new things. I view this misunderstanding as fundamental to a lot that goes on in the collision between science and politics. The latest frewfraw over the GISS temperature record is a classic example – a minor refinement that scientists view as part of the normal course of events. To those with the textbook model in mind, it suggests that science must have gotten it wrong. “But I thought last week they told me coffee was good for me!”

Revkin’s “tyranny of the news peg” suggests that journalists take the latest new bit of knowledge in a study published today in Science and treat it as a new fixed milepost ready for inclusion in the next edition of the textbooks, rather than a vague signpost pointing in an uncertain direction. Contingency is lost. To quote Nisbet:

One reason health studies might appear so confusing is because of what fellow NY Times reporter Andrew Revkin describes as the “tyranny of the news peg.”

As Revkin details in his excellent chapter at the Field Guide for Science Writers, one problem in the communication of uncertain science is that university research officers and journalists overwhelmingly define what’s news in science as the release of a new scientific study. Everyone benefits from this negotiation of newsworthiness, as universities compete for prestige and future funding dollars while journalists file dramatic narratives on deadline and with easier effort than required in a more thematic backgrounder.


  1. I’d consider coming down to see that if I could swing it with work deadlines and such. Please post the who.what.when etc John.



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