Sunday, February 15, 2009

Do we need Science Journalists?

Science bloggers and their sometimes troublesome relation to science journalists is a topic that I have come across many times since I started writing this blog. And in many instances I have heard statements of the sort that blogging will render journalism obsolete. Bora's recent post The Shock Value of Science Blogs is a nice example. He writes
“The job of translating Scientese into English (or whatever is the local language) has traditionally been done by professional science journalists. Unfortunately, most science journalists (hats off to the rare and excellent exceptions) are absolutely awful about it. They have learned the journalistic tools, but have no background in science. They think they are educated, but they only really know how to use the language to appear they are educated. Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science "journalists" because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators. And those who are, more and more are starting to use blogs as a platform for such communication.

[I]n science journalism, there exist out there people with real expertise - the scientists themselves - who now have the tools and means to bypass you and make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more.”

He than bashes around a bit on George Johnson and John Horgan, and ends with saying
“Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.”
Well, there is two things I have to say about that.

For one, as far as I am concerned most scientists are not particularly good writers (I include myself in that) and since I appreciate a piece of good writing I sincerely hope professional journalism will prevail. Having acquired the necessary skills and appropriate education certainly helps to this matters. I don't know what Bora's standards are, but I find the vast majority of science blogs not particularly well written (YOU obviously belong to the minority of brilliant writers).

Second, reporting by scientists about their own research is always bound to be biased, and an important task of journalists is to provide an objective outside view. This might not always work out to the scientists' favour. John Horgan eg is certainly known for his cynical view on some branches of science, and it is of little surprise some scientists are put off by this. But such criticism fulfils an important function in disconnecting topics from people who are their direct originators, much like editorials in newspapers are not generally written by politicians.

I am not saying that science journalism presently is fulfilling this task very well (see eg earlier post Fact or Fiction?, and When Capitalism Fails for why this is the case), but it has its place and I think we need it. Science blogs can certainly contribute to communicating science, by providing the details that journalists don't cover - details about the research or also the life as researcher. But leaving science journalism completely over to bloggers is not a good idea.


  1. Anonymous Snowboarder8:07 PM, February 15, 2009

    Bee - As noted, many science writers are lacking in real science abilities or perhaps are credible only in one area. And as you say, most scientists are not very good authors or popularizers. Perhaps then a solution would be ghost writing? Let the experts do the first draft and let the professional journalist do the 2nd/final draft.

    On another subject, hasn't this thaw/freeze/thaw/refreeze been terrible? The snow is like a boulder :(

  2. I don't understand why this ends up being such a contentious issue. Personally I think Bora has a good point in the main of his arguments of late. Sure journalism is NOT dead, yes you are also right that most scientists/science bloggers are not skilled enough writers of popular material for widespread general consumption. Yet... few places can afford to have Carl Zimmer in their organization in large part because he is specialized. It would take many Carl Zimmers each specialized in reporting on a different field/area of science to cover everything well, and that is prohibitively expensive even for the fields of science that come to the fore every few days let alone those that only come up monthly.

    Sports journalism and even business journalism have similar problems, yet they manage to get around the issue by having a stable of local, regional and national experts that they call on from time to time as needed to help out with analysis and commentary on their particular field. Why not do the same in science.

    Bora has suggested that science bloggers, most of them scientists by day, bloggers in after hours, are better able to cover their particular broad area of specialization. Few of them will ever be as eloquent as Carl Zimmer, but there are some who come damn close. These few who are gifted communicators as well as scientifically trained could form part of that pool of science writers.

    Another question though is what about a program for science writers? A masters in a science field coupled with journalism or vice versa? If we need good science writers, why don't we try and cultivate them in the schools as well. (Maybe I'm just ignorant of the program that does this)

    Regardless I see science blogging as a part of the solution. I dont think it's a journalism OR "science bloggers" question. It's not an either or type of thing. There is a gradient of options and where the needle falls on that gradient will depend on the subject, the scope and the scale.

  3. Ah yes. George Johnson went off on bit of a rant in a bloggingheads interview in January. The Bora piece is a small sampling of the blowback. Look for Science Saturday on I think that was where I first became aware of this blog.

    I kind of like George Johnson. Hell I even like Horgan. They have their function and I think they do it well. It's not just about writing, it's also about Journalism. Few scientists are good at either, fewer still are good at both. Our host seems to be one of the notable exceptions.

  4. Last Friday, BBC News posted an article which spoke of self-perpetuating climate change, "which climatologists call negative feedback effects". The case in point was methane release from melting permafrost.

    No; that's a positive feedback effect. After several people wrote in, they removed the offending paragraph but left the rest of the article intact.

    I have no problem with the writing skills of most science bloggers. But I've never seen any of them confuse positive and negative feedback effects. That's a pretty big error.

  5. Hi Bee,

    A nice piece concerning a subject very close to my heart; which is resultant of being the self admitted science novice that I am. For years I have depended on science journalists to keep me informed about what was happening in the discipline in general, yet discovered from the outset that is by in large all they can do; that is keep you informed. That is realizing the function and utility of any newspaper or magazine is to lend one an overview about primary the who, when and where and give little insight into the how and why. If one wants to know anything further they must go to other sources, such as books, journals, blogs and pieces written by those directly involved. Let’s face it, in the end for most to have any great level of understanding in anything you truly have to be directly involved, like yourself for instance are with theoretical physics. As Confucius said long ago:

    “I hear, I know, I see, I remember. I do, I understand”

    So for most like myself the best we can expect most times is that we will know what’s happening and remember. With some effort we may also be fortunate by way of the contributions of people like you, Bora and others to understand a little as well.



  6. Hi Snowboarder,

    Here, most of the snow has melted off, except for some greyish looking ice heaps that are still distributed in some places and don't look much like snow at all.

    Though I don't mind in principle, I don't think ghost writing would work. If I spend the time to write something, at the very least I want to have credits for it. But it certainly helps if journalists work very closely together with the scientists. In my experience the outcome has been better the more exchange there was with the journalist. That includes getting to read the full text before it gets published, which unfortunately few journalists seem to do for reasons I don't understand. Best,


  7. Hi Eric,

    I would be very in favor of a program for science writers, this goes into the direction of what I referred to earlier as 'specialization in task'. If the amount of people who frequently write on a popular level increases to a critical mass I would think it is very likely this will be offered at some point. Best,


  8. There are very good, as well as very bad science journalists. Sylvia Nasar (Manifold Destiny) Gina Kolata,
    Jennifer Ouelette (Sean's wife) are good. Horgan writes OK, but he is often just wrong and toxic.
    There are also scientists who are good writers--Ian Stewart, Freeman Dyson, Steve Weinberg etc.

  9. By a funny coincidence, German newspapers this weekend had stories about how the yellow press might become obsolete once stars and famous people start to use twitter ;-)... "Twittern: Promi 2.0", Stars machen Klatschpresse 2.0

    More seriously, I doubt that blogs could replace "classical" journalism, online or print. I am not sure if blogs do provide the easily accessible, wide range of topics on the regular daily/weekly basis that comes with journalism. Sure, for specific topics, blogs can provide better and more detailed background, but If a was supposed to get news from blogs,what about the "information overload"? And, actually, how many people peruse science blogs on a regular basis, as compared to newspapers or new sites?

    Cheers, Stefan

  10. I think we do need science journalists but we need them to meet a higher standard than than currently do.

    First, they need to understand the principle of real journalism--not blogging--ie, the concept of confirming what you write, before you write it.

    Second, there is no place in science journalism for the current practice of so-called "balanced coverage," where every story has two sides, even if one side has no scientific credibility.

    Finally, I think they need some actual training in science so that they can distinguish real science from pseudoscience.

  11. Dear Bee,
    I think the question is misphrased. I think the questions should be - How much of a market is there for journalistic stories about science? How much of that market can non-scientists capture?

    "Do we need Science Journalists" sounds too much like something someone from Central Planning would ask. People with an interest in writing about science will write, and some of the successful ones may be science journalists, in which case we "need" them. If they all flop, then we "don't need" them.


  12. "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it."

    That being said, some science writers/journalists try harder than others to understand the science and/or the scientist.

    Personally, if I find something of interest, I want the scientist's own words on it. But I find many interesting things by paying attention to what science writers are writing about.

  13. Dear Arun,

    Yes, good point. I didn't mean it to sound this way. Maybe it should have been 'Will there remain a place for science journalists' or so. Interestingly, if one can judge from this comment section, the answer pretty clearly seems to be yes. Best,


  14. "Do we need Science Journalists?"

    Bee, you shouldn't ask such questions in the middle of an economic crisis. People lose their jobs everyday and you just make them more nervous. We need as many job positions as possible to boost world's economy:-)


  15. As someone who started reading popularized science accounts in the 1950s, then a LOT of them in 1960s, then a lesser amount of the past 40 years, I'm skeptical that
    science journalism has declined. Or that it needs to be fixed.

    A bunch of reasons.

    First, the science that was being explained in the 1950s and into the 60s was readily understandable even to a bright teenager (me). I did a 100-page report in 7th grade on how atom bombs work, with a section on hydrogen bombs, and, looking back on this 1964 report, there was nothing wrong with my science. (Some details about initiators and such were missing, having been left out of the various popularizations then available.) A lot of other examples. The world of atomic physics, even of relativity, was basically "graspable."

    Second, science journalism back then did not extend to things like the cutting edge areas of math. Eric Temple Bell's "Men of Mathematics" and George Gamow's "One, Two, Three...Infinity" were pretty typical of what passed for popularizations. (Could add things like the varous Time-Life books, a bit of Asimov on elements, etc.) The cutting edge stuff on Paul Cohen's proof of the independence of the axiom of choice for set theory would NOT have been in any popular accounts of the 60s, nor would even Grothendieck's or Deligne's work of those decades have been covered. We expected popularizations to deal with what was clearly visible in our world: how radar worked, how planetary probes might be done, how atom bombs work, what the strange world of relativity was (sort of) about, and how quantum mechanics basically worked.

    Third, if these ideas were basically understandable to a 13-year-old boy like myself (and to countless other kids who did science projects at the same level), no big surprise that Walter Sullivan of the New York Times or Isaac Asimov, and dozens of others, could write good science articles for the various Sunday Supplements and popular magazines.

    Fourth, things got a lot harder to describe in any plausible language by the 1960s, with "8-fold ways" requiring some knowlege of group theory, with math that was moving way beyond the puzzle-oriented math that Martin Gardner used to explain so well. (And, as a tip of the hat to Gardner, it was his treatment of the RSA algorithm and public key cryptography in his column of Scientific America, circa 1976-77, that got myself and many others interested in this...this was pretty tough sledding back then, to understand Euler's totient function. And this was not, as we all know, cutting-edge math: this centuries-old math.)

    Fifth, by the time we reach the last couple of decades, not even the string theorists can plausibly describe what string theory is about. Or so it seems to many of us. Bizarrenesses about D-branes and heterotic strings and holographic universes are just the beginning. I read Brian Green's book on string theory and came away having only vague ideas about his hand-waving (especially on the t.v. show version!) about little coiled-up strings vibrating like mad. OK, maybe this is reality. But this is by no means testable (or hasn't been), and isn't showing up in things like radio or radar or lasers or space probles or even in weapons.

    Ironically, the huge breakthroughs in telescope sizes and technologies are making observable cosmology a much more "explainable" thing. And the Hubble (and other) images of interesting phenomena are a real shot in the arm for popular science. Plus, even my non-science friends can "sort of understand" what black holes hole, how space and time may be effected, and so on. So they love the images, they flock to Hawking's lectures, and they love it.

    But expecting ANY science journalist to be able to "explain" Maldacena's work, or the latest math that Witten is working on, is just not plausible.

    Look, I'm all for semi-popular accounts. An area that I am currently very interested in, category theory and toposes, is well-covered in a book by one of the inventors of modern topos theory, Bill Lawvere, with his co-author Stephen Schanuel. This takes a full book, though. "Conceptual Mathematics." The kind of book I would've loved to have had in high school. However, there's not really any simple distillation that would make sense for a classic William Sullivan article in the NY Times. There just isn't.

    Which is why we get "personality-oriented" pieces about that weird Russian mathematician who apparently solved the Poincare Conjecture, and how he turned down a Fields Medal, and on and on about the politics of one faction in China versus a faction at Columbia U. versus some other faction. Actually _explaining_ what he did is vastly more complicated than what George Gamow did when he explained how space may look like a rubber sheet. (Gamow was a scientist himself, but his work was pretty typical of the best of the science writing back then. Good journalists were capable of doing the same kinds of descriptions, and many did.)

    Even things like curved space did not need to have a popular reader absorbing tensors and Riemannian geometry: rubber sheets and drawings of heavy lead balls pushing down a sheet to bend space worked pretty well. And they were staples of the popular press accounts of black holes from 1970 onward. Meanwhile, string theory is presented with funky little pictures of violins and vibrating rings. Not convincing in the same way, not even to professional physicists (as various counterreactions to string theory make clear). And about all the man in the street may know about what the LHC is doing is that it's looking for something called "the God Particle." (And this hype came from a professional, not a science journalist!)

    And this is why articles about the work Lisa Randall collaborated in make a few obligatory references to weird stuff about multi-branes colliding with each other....before they turn to how cute she is (phrased more politically correctly, of course, this being the modern era!) and that's what passes for explanation. Even her book ("Warped Passages") is unconvincing. So, where I felt in 1964 I really "understood" how both the Little Boy and Fat Man atom bombs worked, and could explain the operation with drawings and such, even after a lot of physics and math since then I cannot say the same about understanding--or believing--various hypotheses about D-branes or pixels holographically projected from the Planck-scale patches that cover the hyper-surface that bounds our cosmos. (Say what?)

    Nor can I explain to anyone I know how the extremely inferential scattering experiments being done at the Tevatron and to be done at the LHC will even remotely affect our basic understanding of the universe. I'm not opposed to LHC funding, just am realistic that seeing the Higgs will not really change anything very much.

    Things were dramatically different back in the 50s and 60. Discoveries in physics were being translated into actual experiments, and then often into actual products or gadgets, in relatively short times. And issues about nuclear power were of great interest.

    Also, we were in different energy regimes in particle physics. Each new jump in accelerator energy usually led to fairly confirmations (the antiproton with the Bevatron, stuff with the AGS in the mid-sixties, the J-psi stuff of the 70s, etc. And a few surprises, which led to new physics, but proportionately fewer. Now the expectation is for _maybe_ a measurement of certain particle masses, but probably no new regimes of physics. And this at a cost that is stupendous. Not clear that the next generations of accelerators will get popular support for funding. And this is not because there are not enough good science journalists out there!

    Even arguing to a newspaper publisher, for example, that there ought to be a big series on modern physics is a tough sell. Hard to to make a case for popular interest about supersymmetry particles or holographic universe models. And not just "hard to say," but "harder to say," in the sense that the math expected is way beyond what used to work well.

    Appealing to these particles as "God particles" or to the holographic universe model of Susskind and others as some kind of "face of God" is just plain misleading. And the public reaction--even the reaction of would-be physics majors--may be telling.

    --TIm May

  16. I'm highly skeptical of this notion of objectivity that you propose is an advantage of science journalism. I haven't really seen any such thing from science journalists, or really from journalists in general.

    The preponderance of what I've seen in science journalism in particular is extremely shoddy articles that represent theories as facts and facts as theories. That report the outcomes of limited studies as having broad applicability. That report results as conclusions.

    It's no wonder the public thinks scientists are weird when they see science through the extremely distorted lens of science journalism.

    If you want objectivity, the way to do it is with debate. If you want good writing, hire an editor - they work quite cheaply. I won't say that there's no place at all for science journalism, but I think that the trend of more scientists blogging is a really, really positive one, and I hope it at least forces science journalists to do a better job.

  17. The good science journalists can also provide interdisciplinary synthesis, while the scientists provide more directly just what they're working on in a narrower way. The journalists might be good at predicting consequences, social or economic uses and implications, etc.

  18. I think part of the work and credit toward scientists is indeed the opportunity too, "to write their synopsis of where they have arrive at," as a knowledge basis and a point in their career. What is relevant in science today?

    Such examples have entertained myself, as I have gone out to purchase these books. As if, one knows a good sound when they hear it, may encourage a buyer for the work produced. Some such blogs bring these creators to express their points of view. Can we not call this, good science demonstration. Maybe bloggingtvheads?:) Expanding the format in the medium of information?

    I would say so.

    Shall we have such troubles with the technology, that we cannot see where it has brought us much closer to the relevance in these careers in science?

    So should I compare such journalist abilities in such a way that one my see this in relation to features a scientist now writes for magazines or spokespersons who write the latest news articles for CERN.

    Still, journalistic careers exist, and some scientists are not well versed, like some journalist, not well versed in science.

    So we are left too, the workers who contribute to our everyday knowledge. The bloggers with science backgrounds, who leave their mark?:) Who of these are so good that they leave us with a question in our mind about what science we are prepared to move forward with it, and investigate ourselves.

    Tim May:Appealing to these particles as "God particles" or to the holographic universe model of Susskind and others as some kind of "face of God" is just plain misleading. And the public reaction--even the reaction of would-be physics majors--may be telling.

    There is no doubt that what is "popular in culture" can be seeded by a hype and has a history. A "scientist perhaps" who understood high energy particles is a bit to enthusiastically touched by cosmic connections? What values would we assign these energy determinations in our "own builder modes?"

    One may have gone to far by suggesting that this hype has graduated to the esteem gentlewo/man by presenting "current knowledge" which "may lie hidden from you," as such, cannot have such consequences in nature?:) How shall you write about that?

    Well, we are at, and about CERN now. Does not mean experiments with regard to science investigation has stopped. We all know better?


  19. “Do we need Science Journalists?”

    Why not to be consistent - or simply honest - and ask instead whether “we” (humanity) need science in the whole, that kind of establishment of such kind of science, devoid of any realism, progress in real problem solution and genuine understanding of real structure/dynamics of phenomena/objects it pretends to “study”? Even apart from any detail discussion, the evident fact of all those growing, the more and more antagonistic “quarrels between departments” of scientists, journalists, bloggers, different scientific approaches and concepts (e.g. recent strings vs quantum gravity kickboxing show), this powerful tendency alone implies that “something is seriously wrong with our science”. Would anybody seriously, or even non-seriously, pose such a question about science journalists in the previous epoch of flourishing and “promising” science?

    Giotis said: “Bee, you shouldn't ask such questions in the middle of an economic crisis. People lose their jobs everyday and you just make them more nervous. We need as many job positions as possible to boost world's economy:-)”

    Serious or not quite, but such attitude implies a very, VERY limited understanding of the real “crisis” this world is in. One may be afraid of a problem as of a “terrible tragedy” only until one learns that it's just a small symptom of an infinitely greater perturbation. Recall the idea of The Day the Earth Stood Still: it would imply there is such a level of forthcoming inevitable change and related “crisis” that it's better to just “stop” for a while all “big” activity and better think what we should do in all our jobs and research, where and why we should go now. Certainly not in the same direction and with the same approaches as before...

    And don't charge science journalists with all your sins and impasses: among others they have been a relatively honest and useful brigade, though inevitably reproducing inherent defects of positivistic science establishment...

  20. Low Math, Meekly Ineracting1:01 PM, February 18, 2009

    I am quite sympathetic to the idea of a vibrant and robust science journalism field populated in some large proportion by skillful non-scientists, and desirous of its services. My favorites in the profession amply demonstrate the potential of such a field. I must sadly conclude, however, that in general it doesn't exist, and that the few excellent examples we have are by far the exception, and not the rule. The increasingly unreadable drivel soaking the pages of any given issue of Discover or New Scientist leave me thinking that good science copy simply doesn't sell anymore, if it ever did, and if it weren't for creaky institutions like SciAm (which largely employ scientists to write its features) the public would be largely bereft of any worthwhile source of science education in traditional media. It's the blogs that are taking up the slack and providing the needed resources; and even though some are quite biased towards a particular point of view, especially when it comes to advanced theoretical subjects, or off-topic politics, a broad sampling is the best way to stay informed, IMO.

    You may not want to be so essential, Bee and Sefan, but you are. I guess I better start donating, and apologies so far for having put it off!

  21. I'm for choice. Science bloggers can challenge bullshit in media and science writers can challenge bullshit in science.

  22. Tim May has it right. But if you read Lee Smolin and the like, you see that hand-waving arguments in string theory is all the substance there is. Whether this is true or not, there is still the problem that vast areas of science that's not stringy is not being reported, despite the level of interest or importance. See e.g. Chad Orzel's blog for examples.

    In my view, the concentration on 'big science' such as LHC, owes more to the corporate interests of the construction and engineering industries than to the importance of the science. That journalists follow this agenda is the problem with journalism.

    Trond wrote;
    "I'm for choice. Science bloggers can challenge bullshit in media and science writers can challenge bullshit in science."

    I think a big part of the problem is that journalists don't have the knowledge to challenge percieved bullshit in science. When they try to do so, it's on the level of "teach the controversy". Report the controversy is just as bad. Especially when there is no such outside the minds of a few, whether for political or other reasons.

    If the money going to professional journalists is what's paying for this bullshit. Good riddance to them.


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