Science Communication

So I’m not sure how this happened, but apparently I’m all over the Internet this week as the token science journalist trying to defend my entire profession. Good luck with that, me.

  • Eli started it, and I tried to discuss things with him there. I figured I would get an indulgence since he was kind enough to single me out in the post as being, I think his words were “not a fucking idiot”. What was I thinking trying to engage in a thoughtful conversation? It’s Eli! I forgot. Stupid on my part. But there were some other participants in the comment thread who were pretty interesting, so it wasn’t a waste.
  • Stoat jumped in with a “me to too” to Eli. He also gave me a shoutout as being, I think he said, “not a fucking idiot“, one of the few “telling the truth”, but he has to say that, we’ve been co-authors. (I stand corrected)
  • Keith Kloor picked up the conversation, mostly to poke Eli (Eli and Keith don’t like one another – it’s kind of a soap opera), and the conversation thread was fun, though no one should have to read 100 comments. So forewarned. If you want to skip, though, the thread was my introduction to Andy, who was the smartest guy in the whole conversation. He excerpted his comment on his own blog.
  • Then Tom Yulsman joined in (disclosure: Tom and I once dined together on haunch of some forest creature – see link to photo at bottom of Tom’s post for a picture of the meal). I said mean things about Eli in the comment thread that I’m sure I’ll regret, but as I said, it’s a soap opera.
  • Michael Tobis and “willard” collaborated on an adaptation of Waiting for Godot that seems to have something to do with the discussion, though I’m not sure what. But the comment thread extended the conversation, for which I thank Michael.
  • Now I see Bart also has done a nice job of skipping through all the ill-tempered things we said and assembled a nice summary of the discussion that actually makes it look somehow reasonably coherent, putting Bart on par with Andy for actually having something useful to contribute to the whole affair.

There’s already six threads going with enough comments for a lifetime, so I’d prefer you don’t say the sames thing here that you’ve already said everywhere else. Unless it involves praise for my wisdom. Then please do come in and set a spell.

update: Clearly one way in which journalists suck is that we really badly need editors 🙂


  1. TB – Thanks, appreciate your thoughts, I responded over there.

    WC – My apologies for misquoting you, I stand correct. 🙂

  2. I did a thought experiment wherein I tried to imagine what would change if all the climate stories were perfect but their general focus, placement and frequency remained unchanged. My answer? Absolutely nothing. So while there are indeed plenty of flawed climate articles around, fixing them won’t fix the problem.

    Changing the focus, placement and frequency would, IMHO, noting e.g. that there have been probably half a dozen climate stories in the last few months that should have been front-page above-the-fold in every major newspaper (list on request) but hardly got a mention in most. It’s as if the East African plains apes don’t “do” relatively long-term existential threats, so it’s no surprise that those who write about their antics don’t either. (I do find that this anthropological POV calms me somewhat, although probably it shouldn’t.)

    Re the present kerfuffle, the foregoing raises the question of the degree of responsibility that journalists have for the choices of their employers, and what if anything they can do about those choices. I haven’t seen this discussed at all.

    Also, before scientists get too much on their high horses about this, they need to explain exactly how they propose to go about fixing the problem presented by Christy and those like him, as continued publication and funding such folks amounts toi an endorsement of their work, or indeed the broader problem of scientific reticence as raised by Hansen. I have yet to hear anything concrete along those lines.

    A related thought is that it might be useful for scientists to go beyond the recently-constituted rapid response teams and start telling journalists what the important stories are rather than have them all engage in a guessing game each time a press release come out.

    Further to that, I think it would be good to ensure that there are frequent (perhaps annual) review papers in the critical rapidly-developing areas of the science that would serve as hooks for coverage, to say nothing of providing clarity for the public and policy makers. The USGCRP reviews were somewhat intended to serve that function but don’t seem to have worked too well, I think in part because they covered too much territory.

  3. So there is this really old joke about a guy who buys a donkey at the fair. He comes back in about ten minutes to the fella he bought it from and moans that the donkey stopped in the middle of the road and won’t move. Moreover, when he purchased it, the seller had told him that this was a real obedient donkey.

    So the donkey merchant says wait a mo, picks up a baseball bat and walks out to find the beast, who, as advertised is sitting there with no intention to move. The donkey monger walks a couple of times around the donkey, observes his haunches and stands right in front of the animal, lifts the baseball bat and whacks it between the eyes, remarking calmly:

    First you gotta get his attention.

    Lots of people have been saying for a long time that there are serious problems with science journalism and getting back that there is no problem with science journalism, but there are lots of problems with how scientists communicate and how the public reads.


    Now, not to complain, but Eli did not call you anything. What he said, and we have this straight from the Bunny is

    …..journalists are lousy communicators. It’s their fucking (emphasis added) job and they are screwing it up to a fare-thee-well.

    Eli also said that there are exceptions and you are one of them.

    Still, give them credit, some do try to do the job, John Fleck has turned to in depth blogging on water issues, Tom Yulsman has an interesting post on how CO2 concentrations are measured. Andy Revkin is trying to figure it out. Not everything they do, or Eli does, is perfect, but at least they try, which is more than the bunnies can say about most.

    So, what are you fucking moaning about?

  4. Out of curiosity, things and Eli, do you really think that fixing the content of the stories without changing the other factors I mentioned above would make a big difference? I’m really curious, as what seems patently obvious to me doesn’t seem obvious to the two of you.

  5. I’m moaning about this:

    You offered a general complaint about science journalism’s failings (“journalists are lousy communicators”), and then specific examples meant to illustrate. And then a generalization again, based on those specific examples (“a moral failing worn proudly by an entire profession”).

    When I drilled down to your examples I found, by clicking on *your own links* a bunch of journalists *not* proudly wearing this alleged failing, but instead doing exactly the opposite – not churning the press release, but rather debunking the bunk. In other words, journalists doing exactly what you were complaining we were not.

    To work this into your clever donkey story, the evidence of the case studies *that you yourself offered* suggests the donkey was already walking in the general direction you seemed to want it go and you whacked it in the head anyway.

    That’s what I’m “fucking moaning about”.

  6. Steve, no, but you have to start somewhere, and being aware that there is a problem is a great place to start. What gets Eli’s dander up is the refusal of John and Tom Y and Andy R to admit there is a problem. Our generous host has gone into a defensive crouch, and, shock horror, even told untruths (OK, he exaggerated, but after moaning that Eli exaggerated. . .)

  7. oh dear. Let’s try to bring a touch of perspective.

    Humans are, in general, innumerate and unwilling to accept uncertainty. As journalists (despite some evidence to the contrary) are human, many of their stories demonstrate these flaws.

    Most humans find numbers boring. In order to get their readers to pay attention, journalists need a hook. Unfortunately, one of the most common hooks is the use of the single contrarian (be it the one guy misbehaving at a peaceful demonstration or the one guy who disbelieves the scientific consensus.) As an example, the views of which Senator on global warming are most often quoted? I’ll bet it’s Inhofe.

    The real problem is not scientists who don’t know how to talk, or journalists who don’t know how to write, it’s that people suck. We love disasters, so long as they happen to someone else and don’t affect the price of gasoline.

    As the popularity of S. Palin demonstrates, we live in a time of growing Know-Nothingness. There’s very little any one person or community can do except keep telling the truth as best they can and wait for the tide to turn. But for science journalists and scientists to point fingers at each other and insist that the other is to blame is really to miss the point; at the end of the day it is the responsibility of each citizen to be well-informed. If people want to be ignorant, there’s very little anyone can do.

  8. Eli – Re my “refusal to admit there’s a problem.”

    If I may remind you of the first sentence of my comment on your blog post: “Yes, there is a significant amount of bad science journalism out there, and bad journalism in general.”

    That was the part where I tried to engage in a substantive discussion with you about the issue you were raising, focusing on the examples you chose.

    Silly me.

  9. So, we agree that Eli did not call you some sort of idiot and you did admit that there is a lot of bad journalism out there. The question, and it is MT’s question, is what to do about it, because 30-60% of the US believes absolutely insane things that are being fed to them by the journalists cause if we don;t solve that problem we are sunk.

  10. Eli –

    Thanks. I think we’re making progress here.

    Could you elaborate on the evidence for your assertion that “30-60% of the US believes absolutely insane things that are being fed to them by the journalists”?


  11. Stoat jumped in with a “me too” to Eli.

    There, fixed that for you.

    Unless of course you meant:

    Stoat jumped in with a “me to”[sic] to Eli.

  12. John,

    I don’t envy you the task of defending an entire profession. Maybe limit yourself to a few days of it and get back to more normal work. I can sympathize, though, since I work on weather and climate. And a prime reaction in real life, not to mention the blogosphere, is for people to tell me that ‘you meteorologists are always wrong’, or ‘you climate people are all dishonest’. (Fortunately a more common reaction in 3d is to start asking questions aimed at understanding what is known, how, and how well — which I’m more than happy to answer.)

    One thing particularly unfair about the charge on meteorologists is that usually, the person complaining is complaining about a non-meteorologist. Many, perhaps most, media weather forecasters (labelled meteorologists by their outlet) are, in fact, not meteorologists. They’re weather readers. Two examples, earlier in their careers, were Pat Sajack and David Letterman.

    I’ve gathered from some comments by journalists that you might share this problem of profession label — people laying things at your doorstep that are actually due to non-journalists. Those folks haven’t given any examples, though. Is this a fair description? When and where would such non-journalist content be showing up in a paper. Editorial pages, obviously, but anywhere else?

    Speaking of editorial pages, George Will, notwithstanding your plea elsewhere (Eli’s?), does have to remain on the table if we’re considering how journalism is doing. Purpose here being to lead to a few things that I think have muddied many waters, and made it difficult for different people to reach agreement, particularly from across the journalism vs. science divide. Let’s see if you (speaking as a journalist) agree, or at least what modifications you have.

    Part 1 is that Will is read by far more people than most journalists. He writes for a large circulation outlet, and is then syndicated to hundreds(?) more outlets, many of them also large or fairly large. The Boykoff studies have focused on a certain parity of source — looking to high profile outlets. But if a journalist (as I’ve seen now several times) in a blogospheric discussion of how journalists are doing points to ‘here are the first 10 climate stories in google, what’s wrong with them?’, he’s going to be preferentially hitting smaller outlets — they’re so much more numerous. While, measured in terms of number of articles, it could well be that most or almost all articles are excellent (a question journalists would probably be inclined to examine, and with merit), it could be equally true that what most _readers_ see is the one George Will article (a point someone concerned about public knowledge would look towards). Both views entirely true in their own context, but looking at something different.

    Part 2: Even within just the editorial page of the Washington Post, the part one problem continues. Go back to the February 2009 Will editorial that you mentioned elsewhere. (My own contribution on the topic being The Will editorial ran on a Sunday, by far the highest circulation day, and was then syndicated, reaching far more people even than that. The Post eventually ran responses — 5 weeks later — from Chris Mooney and a WMO person. On a Saturday. In terms of number of articles, 2/3 were reality-based. In terms of what readers saw, 90-98% saw only the original, erroneous one.

    Part 3: I confess I don’t remember from my reading of Boykoff, but from blog articles and comments, it seems that journalists tend to exclude op-ed pages from consideration of how journalism is doing on its science coverage. Given my problems with ‘meteorologist’, I can understand wanting to do so. But I took a look at the Wall Street Journal’s mentioning of climate change. About 90% of it was on their editorial pages. Even if the 10% elsewhere were absolutely sterling, I do think the 90% can’t be ignored. That 90% does include people like Fred Singer, so definitely the 90% is not all journalists (but don’t we consider editors to be journalists? Sort of how we’d consider both principals and teachers to be educators even though only one is in the classroom).

    To move on … in one of your comments elsewhere, you mentioned some of the realities of writing and fact-checking in journalism. If you’re writing 250 articles a year (iirc you said 250-300?), usually with a deadline of hours to days, you’ve got to work differently than if you’re writing 1-5 papers a year with weeks-months-years to finish them. Similarly, if the fact checking / review by others is a matter of hours to days, that’s a different matter than having weeks. And your reviewers are probably looking at far more articles than a scientist’s reviewers are, again against that deadline. (But yours are usually a lot shorter than ours.)

    Now, that much I already knew, between one thing and another. What I’ll encourage you to do is write (or provide links if you already have) up some on how it is the reviewing/fact checking plays out, how, exactly, do those limits make themselves felt in what a reasonable reader can expect from a journalist. Per my link above, I was appalled by the description the Post gave and demonstrated in that Feb ’09 Will example. Had they merely said that an opinion writer can write whatever he darn well pleases, I wouldn’t have been nearly as negative.

  13. I wanted to add a further point to what I wrote above, which is that there’s at least one big-picture aspect of the science that’s received almost no coverage, i.e. the observed large-scale circulation changes of the ocean and atmosphere. I realize that this is because it never quite became breaking news, although aspects of it certainly should have been treated as such, e.g. the increased flow of the Agulhas current into the Atlantic, but the clear message from these changes is that EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED. How do we get this covered?

    Bob, what do you think scientists should do in a similar vein?

  14. Bob,

    Apples & Oranges, comparing the opinion page to the news pages.

    I suppose I can understand some people in these bloggy discussions not differentiating between a long-form profile in the NYT magazine and a spot news story.

    But really, shouldn’t we take it as a given that most people can recognize the difference between the op-ed page and the main news section? This is not to say that columnists’ feet shouldn’t be held to the fire, as they routinely are. But apart from that, I’d be interested in hearing what you and others think should be done to make the op-ed page more responsive to your concerns.

  15. So I came here to get something for an offer I made to John, and there’s this thread. It is the same sort of thread that occurs every three days or so, and somehow one made it on to poor John’s blog.

    I echo what Francis said above. The conference has a lot of earnest scientist-talk about ‘when we broke down silos, good stuff sorta happened’. When people ask “well, how DID you break down silos?!” there is a lot of mumbling and shuffling of feet.

    Like Vonnegut told us: our big brains aren’t really that useful.



  16. Some of these are US centric:

    1. Obama is a moslem born in Kenya
    2. The Health Care Act was going to set up death camps
    3. Vaccines cause autism
    5. All sorts of nonsense about HIV/AIDS
    6. Rachel Carson killed millions by banning DDT spraying.
    7. Flying saucers landed at X
    8. Astrology

  17. Yes, we have some apples and oranges issues. That’s what I was suggesting in the first place. You are only looking at the oranges section of the fruit stand, and you see, and I agree, that the oranges are generally quite good. But I (and others, I suggest) am looking at the rest of the stand and see that the apples are mediocre and the pears are rotten. Further, that oranges turn out to be only a small part of the fruit stand’s offerings. Great as those oranges are, I won’t be happy about that fruit stand as a whole.

    So, are editorial page editors not journalists? Are columnists not journalists? Are columnists writing on editorial pages not journalists? If the question at hand is ‘what are journalists doing?’, I can’t see justification for ignoring what shows up on editorial pages.

    If, as is the case at the Wall Street Journal, the overwhelming majority (ca. 90%) of their coverage is on the editorial page, then I think it’s not only unjustified, but … (various stronger words here).

    In saying columnists’ feet are routinely held to the fire, examples would be a plus. Is the publishing of 2 replies to the editor, 5 weeks later, on a Saturday, in response to Will’s syndicated Sunday lies what you consider holding feet to fire?

    As to what I’d like on editorial page columnist journalists, it’d be spectacular if they were held to the standard that the Post claimed that they held Will to — ‘multilevel fact checking’. Whether Will thinks anything should be done in response to climate change is his opinion and he should (be able to) go ahead and write whatever he likes. Whether the climate, according to WMO, is warming or cooling is _not_ a matter of opinion. If he is going to write up his opinion partly out of factual statements, as he did, then those statements should be true. But that’s just my opinion.

  18. Eli –

    You’ve got some great examples of things the public believed or believes that are wrong. You haven’t offered evidence that the media *caused* the lack of understanding, or that the media is capable of fixing it. You can’t assume causation. You have to demonstrate it.

    Having watched colleagues trying to correct the record on death panels, and having readers informed otherwise by Fox News and Sarah Palin’s twitter feed and chain mails (chain mails were the worst – Aunt Sue sent it so it must be true, and that newspaper guy is just lying because this email says it’s right there on page 425 of the bill – this is quite literally how it played out). If you go back to news coverage of the issue during summer of 2009, you’ll find widespread efforts by the mainstream media to debunk the nonsense. I think it’s a great case of the limitations of our ability to get truth into people’s brains.

    But I’ll definitely give you astrology. I concede that it’s idiotic for newspapers to run astrology columns. I’m embarrassed by it. Jon Miller’s latest data shows that 59 percent of the US public understand that “astrology is not scientific”.

  19. Robert –

    I don’t know where to go with the conversation regarding op-ed pages. It’s not a part of the journalism world I live in, work with, or am responsible for.

  20. Well, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it, John? You’re an orange specialist working at a fruit stand someone else owns, and the someone else even buys the oranges.

    Keith, the “long-form” dodge is just that. You might as well say “because.”

    John, what the responsible press did not do was to *immediately* pin the l-word on politicians who promoted the phrase. Hmm, why was there a need for PolitiFact to fill?

    Re the death panels specifically, a quick google of the term at the NYT finds a pretty thorough debunking in mid-2009, but as recently as the last few months we find an article in the print section with this lede:

    When a proposal to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a political storm over “death panels,” Democrats dropped it from legislation to overhaul the health care system. But the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation, starting Jan. 1.

    So we see how politicization of a falsehood allows its continued discussion on the news pages, thus neatly evading Moynihan’s dictum. Both articles were on A1, FWIW.

  21. Steve –

    Amusingly, as I type this, my wife, Lissa, is sitting nearby ranting about something idiotic on the ABQJournal op-ed page. 🙂

    Look, y’all, one of the key things about succeeding in written communication is figuring out where your target audience is and then coming up with a strategy to reach them. Somehow I’ve become the focus of this discussion because I seem to be the only journalist willing to engage in the conversation. At this point y’all look very much like the drunk looking for his car under the street lights, and I very much regret volunteering my time to this endeavor.

    Steve, go find the guy who owns the orange stand or is responsible for the orange sales and chat him up, OK? If you don’t like the NYTimes story that resurrected the death panels, go complain to them.

    Arguing with me seems pointless, and is consuming time that I need to spend doing the sort of journalism that y’all seem to think ought to be done.

  22. Krugman discusses the entirely fake pending insolvency of the Social Security Trust Fund, an arguably worse, or at least more widespread in terms of coverage, case of this sort of media failure. In this instance I think an argument can be made that the op-ed pages set the tone, although as with so many of these things the genesis of it was probably the right-wing think-tank network (which note can produce a seemingly limitless string of porkies, that being, you know, their job, and still get a general pass on credibility with the press).

  23. John,

    In terms of where to ‘go’ … you could agree that there’s a fair amount of crap showing up on editorial pages, including by journalists. You could agree that it’s not entirely unfair to assess a profession by, at least in part, including what a particularly influential subset of it does. Conversely, you could show some evidence that nobody _does_ pay attention to factual statements from editorial page columns. (Given the frequency with which editorials are cited on Usenet (back in the day) and the blogosphere, I would not suggest going there.)

    In terms of your back and forth with Eli, Eli shows, I think, some errors. The truth is, regardless of what the media reported about evolution, a low bound of about 25% of the US would still disbelieve in it. In fact it’s about half. Pretty variable figure depending on how the question is phrased. See for more.

    The same reality is also why it is that scientist communication skills are largely irrelevant to matters of what the nation at large believes on science. I’m still all for scientist doing more and better public communication, but that’s just because I like it myself.

    You illustrate in your comment #21 to Eli why it is that I (at least) am concerned about bad journalism, even if committed on op-ed pages rather than on a science page. The hardest thing to do is to unteach an error. It doesn’t matter where the error came from. Once propagated, it embeds, and is far harder to replace with truth than if people were merely ignorant about the topic.

    That is a different vein of concern for me, or, rather, a difference of opinion, regarding the era of ‘he-said, she-said’ between journalists and scientists. That era taught a lot of erroneous things to a lot of people. Not least being to have taught that nobody really knew anything about climate.

    So, when Borenstein comments that journalism quit doing he-said, she-said a decade ago, he rather misses a large, to my mind, point. The fact that he’s demonstrably wrong about the 10 years being the least of concerns. The thing being, that the era in which it _was_ being done inflicted damage. Getting to the point of (now, perhaps) only writing balanced articles, in respect to the science (as was shown in the sea level survey) is great. But does not undo the negative that was inflicted.

    Realistically, journalism as such cannot do anything about this. No article is going to be published (I expect) that spends half its time saying that what your paper showed as being the case for a decade was actually always known to be untrue, reteaching that topic, and then launch in to the part that actually is new.

    But, as scientists are still getting questions and comments that come from he-said, she-said errors, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a far less dead issue for them than the now-reformed journalists. That’s a different matter of apples vs. oranges.

    Op-eds not being your end of journalism brings us to a different area where you and I share an issue. Since it’s actually far more likely that you’d become an editorial columnist than for me to become a weather forecaster, or involved with the ‘hockey stick’ constructions, it’s less of an unfair issue for you than me. It’s nevertheless one that it hasn’t been uncommon for journalists to be saying that scientists are naive or stupid for ignoring, not defending, not properly preparing, etc..

    Namely, regardless of the fact that a topic is quite unrelated to a scientist’s work, it has become, in some corners, nevertheless a requirement that scientists be prepared to speak on that topic if it becomes popular enough. It is also expected (more widely and strongly) that regardless of how unrelated a scientist’s field is to some topic of alleged scientific misconduct, the scientists are supposed to condemn the accused. Failure to do so is ‘stonewalling’, and has been reported as such by journalists. (Not to mention the conniption fits from non-journalist corners.)

  24. Yeah, John, it’s perhaps ironic but certainly not surprising that journalists like you and Tom who are not part of the problem are the only ones really willing to engage on this stuff.

    It’s inevitable that these discussion tend to lerad to frustration, there being essentially nothing that good science journalists can do to improve climate coverage other than keep doing the best job they can. I think you tend to get picked on a little because of an understandable tendency to want to defend other journalists who aren’t doing such a good job due to long-standing personal relationships, a recognition of the limitations imposed by the fruit stand proprietors and a certain sympathy about the difficulties of making every story first-class.

    Let me try a couple more questions, though, hopefully in a less frustrating vein:

    Just talking about your newspaper, what would it take to persuade the publisher/editors to devote more space to climate issues? What can should scientists and activists (taken separately and jointly) do? Short answers are fine.

    As I said above, this is by no means just a problem for journalists: I think scientists need to do everything they can to fix the problem, including dealing with the likes of John Christy (with something other than “keep funding him until he retires and dies, eventually”) and figuring out some clear means of directing journalists to the important stories. The rapid response teams are a good start, but not nearly sufficient.

    Putting another point I made above into question form, what difference would it make at your paper if, e.g., the NAS or AGU were to send out alerts pointing up key breaking climate stories?

Comments are closed.