Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Book Review: “Making Sense of Science” by Cornelia Dean
By Cornelia Dean
Belknap Press (March 13, 2017)
It’s not easy, being a science journalist. On one hand, science journalists rely on good relations with scientists. On the other hand, their next article may be critical of those scientists’ work. On the one hand they want to get the details right. On the other hand they have tight deadlines and an editor who scraps that one paragraph which took a full day to write. That’s four hands already, and I wasn’t even counting the hands they need to write.
Like most scientists, I used to think if I see a bogus headline it’s the writers’ fault. But the more science writers I got to know, the better my opinion of them has become. Unlike scientists, journalists strongly adhere to professional guidelines. They want to get things right and they want the reader to know the truth. If they get something wrong, the misinformation almost always came from scientists themselves.
The amount of misinformation about research in my own discipline is so high that no one who doesn’t work in the field has a chance to figure out what’s going on. Naturally this makes me wonder how much I can trust the news I read about other research areas. Cornelia Dean’s book “Making Sense of Science” tells the reader what to look out for.
Cornelia Dean has been a science writer for the New York Times for 30 years and she knows her job. The book begins with a general introduction, explaining what science is, how it works, and why it matters. She then moves on to conflicts of interest, checking sources, difficulties in assessing uncertainty and risk, scientific evidence in court, pitfalls of statistical analysis and analytical modeling, overconfident scientists, and misconduct.
The book is full with examples, proceeds swiftly, and reads well. The chapters end with bullet-point lists of items to recall which is helpful if you, like I, tend to sometimes switch books half through and then forgot what you read already.
“Making Sense of Science” also offers quick summaries of topics that are frequently front-page news: climate change, genetically modified crops, organic food, and cancer risk. While I have found those summaries well-done they seem somewhat randomly selected. I guess they are mostly there because the author is familiar with those topics.
The biggest shortcoming of the book is its lacking criticism of the scientific disciplines and of journalism itself. While the author acknowledges that she and her colleagues often operate under time pressure and shit happens, she doesn’t assess how much of a problem it is or which outlets are more likely to suffer from it. She also doesn’t mention that even scientists who do not take money from the industry have agendas to push, and that both the scientists as well as the writers profit from big headlines.
In summary, I have found the book to be very useful especially for what the discussion of risk-assessment is concerned, but it presents a suspiciously clean and sanitized picture of journalism.