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The sci-journalist as naif

A conference at the University of the West of England in July is going to hear from Felicity Mellor - a frequent subject of BH posts - about science journalism. Here's her abstract:

Conventionally, academics studying science journalism, as well as practising science journalists, claim that science reporting follows the same news values as other forms of news. Whilst this is true in many respects, it fails to account for how science journalism differs from many other beats in its failure to adopt a critical stance. This paper explores the extent to which an additional set of 'non-news values' also operates, and suggests that it is here that the science beat differs from other beats. Taking the news coverage of invisibility research in the field of transformative optics as an example, I show that sources of funding, uncertainties, and limitations are routinely excluded from science news, suggesting that an implicit set of normative values structures what is omitted from news reports. These non-news values draw on a naïve, idealist philosophy of science which construes questions of interests and fallibility as a non-concern for news discourse about science.

It looks as if one person has worked it out, at least.

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Reader Comments (35)

Fuzzy language is an indication of a fuzzy brain to put it mildly

May 2, 2015 at 8:11 AM | Unregistered Commenteroebele bruinsma

But has this government-funded scientist applied her thinking far enough to to see that govenment-funded climate science has a built-in and unreported bias towards alarmism?

If No : why not?

If Yes: with her future funding in mind, dare she say so?

May 2, 2015 at 8:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterTuppence

I've been a life long fan of science, but lately I've become hugely sceptical of how it's done, let alone reported. Time and time again I ask the screen 'what was the sample size?' and 'how did you exclude other variables?' I can understand that journalists are not necessarily scientific themselves but surely there are a series of questions that they could routinely ask to determine if the results are significant?

Worse are the journal papers that contain no science at all and are opinion pieces but are reported as if there was some credibility to them. Second or third hand, it is impossible to tell what was or wasn't in the original document. Science journalists greedily suck up the drama in the paper, with no caution filter and even add their own spin to an already exaggerated press release.

At least gossip journalists add ‘allegedly’ or ‘it’s rumoured’ when they suspect that what they’re reporting is lies but science journalists happily trample over the truth, secure in their belief that no-one will ever call them to task for shoddy reporting. Who’s going to sue them if they inaccurately predict the end of the world?

It’s heartening that Felicity Mellor is broaching this. Perhaps she can persuade them to start acting more like respectable journalists and less like the writers of sci fi rags with headlines like ‘aliens ate my dog’ and ‘zombies are REAL’.

May 2, 2015 at 8:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

I think I have decoded the gobbledegook to reach the same conclusion as the Bish, but I think oebele bruinsma has hit the nail on the head. Is there a special course for this sort of drivel?

May 2, 2015 at 9:12 AM | Registered CommenterMique

I can't see that science journalism is that different from other forms. Political journalism, for instance, rarely examines what is being reported from a dispassionate perspective. ALL newspapers have a political angle, and they adapt their stories to it - not reporting things that do not fit the narrative, and not investigating things that DO fit.

This is routine - it is just that we generally have newspapers of several different political persuasions, so taken overall there is a chance of some balance.

The problem for Science is that it has been corrupted by money and power. It is no longer a search for the truth - it is a search for reliable grants, and in that search it has sold its soul to activists.....

May 2, 2015 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Googledegook? Fuzzy?

I show that sources of funding, uncertainties, and limitations are routinely excluded from science news

Seems pretty clear to me. And on the money too, pun intended.

May 2, 2015 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterTuppence

I think more transparency is required in invisiblity research, otherwise no one will see where it is going.

Climate science journalism, just relies on finding anything that may reach the correct conclusion. A healthy respect for science, is no substitute for a scary message.

May 2, 2015 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Political reporting was just as cretin up to the late 50s

May 2, 2015 at 11:29 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Political reporting was just as cretin up to the late 50s

May 2, 2015 at 11:31 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

She uses all those big words--or boiler-plate governmentalese, for those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon--because she cannot broach the REAL, central fact, even in her own mind, and can only list the symptoms of its cancerous presence (so yes, her thinking is still fuzzy on this): The "science" is fundamentally false (there is no uncertainty about that at all, as I have shown), and all (ALL) the scientists are unworthy of the name--they are at best ever-hopeful amateurs, unwilling to discipline their imaginations, and report the hard truth that they JUST DON"T KNOW what they are talking about (so, of course, neither do the "journalists", also unworthy of the name).

May 2, 2015 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

Will her next series of lectures go into more detail about how to enhance science's communication difficulties?

The more time that science journalists waste on this rubbish, the less time they have to waste on rubbish science.

May 2, 2015 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

It's a start. Perhaps her presentation could be moved to session 3b, which appears to be weather/climate related. In that session there is also one Felicity Liggins from the Met Office whose presentation is titled

"Is it useful? Seven key principles for climate service development"

Posing provocative questions like that, Ms Liggins should watch out for her career.

May 2, 2015 at 12:43 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Of course it was only due to poor journalim that belly button fluff deoderant, did not become a major issue.

If more people had not spent more time and money worrying about possible threats to civilization, posed by a silent, invisible threat, the dire consequences, would have been unthinkably, unmeasurable.

Unless other people's money is spent on exotic food in far off remote holiday destinations, accessible only by air, expert scientists and journalists, will not have the opportunity to concoct radical care stories, so that they can reconvene, with fresh ideas for new cocktails.

To achieve such a sense of self importance, it is necessary to trudge around boring conferences in the University of West England, that most people can't be bothered to find on a map.

May 2, 2015 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

In North America we have a very small vocabulary. I will use a small set of this small vocabulary.
This is garbage.

May 2, 2015 at 4:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner

Check this out about the current drought and water rationing in California.

The Environmental lobby are obviously blaming Climate Change and over consumption with excessive agriculture .
But present and former Californian state governments have blocked the construction of urgent dams reservoirs and fresh water pipelines for various environmental reasons.

The other culprit is California beef and nut used in additives and bio fuel subsidy.

Stefan Molyneux gives New Zealand as an example where all farming subsidy was removed in1984 and left to the discipline of the market place.Seems in New Zealand they have a prosperous agricultural sector ,food prices are low with no water supply problems and no health or obesity issues.

Something for someone to ask former governor Schwarzenegger when he arrives in Paris.

May 2, 2015 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Also up at the conference is the Sci-journalist as Expert...something:

"Narrating science in public: the approach of an interdisciplinary project to create new reflective spaces"
Natasha Constant, Antonia Liguori, Liz Roberts, Margarida Sardo
University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

"The Drought Risk and You (DRY) Project interweaves narrative and drought science to explore the impacts of drought in the UK. The project will collect people’s experiences of participating in citizen science activities and drought-science-narrative workshops through narrative approaches: videos telling the story of a day at a workshop, water and citizen science diaries, participant observation, digital storytelling, visual narratives and post-card evaluation."

May 2, 2015 at 5:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterbetapug
May 2, 2015 at 6:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

betapug, are any of the authors old enough to remember the UK drought in 1976?

Obviously 1976 was before the age of Global Warming, so there may be no records of 'once in a lifetime weather events' that happened before video cameras, let alone YouTube.

May 2, 2015 at 6:43 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Mique 9.12 am

The special course they do is the highly regarded Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (special subject -climate change)

May 2, 2015 at 7:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

Messenger, next years creative writing course at UEA, is on big fluffy clouds, and other stuff to doodle about on a cold wet bank holiday weekend in Norfolk. Latest computer models state with 97% confidence, that the weather will be a scorcher.

Take a raincoat, just in case they have not fixed the computer glitch by then.

May 2, 2015 at 8:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

The whole "communicating the science" bandwagon has been gathering speed and passengers lately. Yet another boondoggle for numpty academics and hangers on, usually at public expense.

I just wish these people would do something productive, for a change.

May 2, 2015 at 8:53 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

johanna, climate scientists are so busy writing papers in time for Paris, that try to explain some of the inconsistencies in their previous peer reviewed explanations, that were consistently on message with the political dogma, that some have found it more lucrative to be dogmatic about what they previously explained, than waste time with the science, which is so consistently not providing the financial rewards they were after all along.

In summary, when climate science sucks, communicating about it, pays better.

Climate scientists would offer more longwinded explanations, but only if you pay cash first. There is unexpected uncertainty in the future of earnings in climate science. Computer models are not predicting an improvement, which may finally prove to be the first correct prediction, from a climate science computer model.

May 2, 2015 at 9:44 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Given these so-called science journalists mainly describe/transcribe the various colours and fine fabric of the emperor's clothes maybe they should populate the fashion magazines and pages. They'll be taken far more seriously there.

May 2, 2015 at 10:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohnbuk

May 2, 2015 at 12:43 PM | michael hart

... Felicity Liggins from the Met Office whose presentation is titled:

"Is it useful? Seven key principles for climate service development"

(1) Money, (2) money, (3) money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world
(4) Money, (5) money, (6) money
Always sunny
In the rich man's world
Aha aha
All the things I could do
If I had a little (7) money
It's a rich man's world
It's a rich man's world

ABBA 1976

May 2, 2015 at 10:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterBilly Liar


A poll for Shoddy Science Reporter of the Year?

Presented to the Editor.

Might cause a little thought in unexpected places.

May 2, 2015 at 10:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterGraeme No.3

It's been said before, but is worth repeating.

Once upon a time, science reporters had some sort of qualification in science. That didn't mean they understood everything, but at least they understood the rudiments of the scientific method.

Starting in the late 1970s, science reporters became "science and environment" reporters. It was all downhill from there.

May 2, 2015 at 11:12 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Embroidery, prolix meanders whereas a nicety and precision of words can enhance not diminish the message.

In North America we have a very small vocabulary. I will use a small set of this small vocabulary.
This is garbage.

Mr. Steiner, I am fond of the American idiom, a way with English using an economy of words and pithily expressed. Maybe, harking back to the days of the earliest settlers and passed on down through God fearing generations. Indeed, the simplicity of American English most probably was influenced by the plain texts of the early incomers religious scriptures and more especially embedded in those areas of the North East - Maine, New Hampshire, MA, RI, CT and down to the Carolinas and surrounds.

These people knew it well; keep it simple, carefully choose and precisely station your words and thus make the message endlessly more powerful. President Abe Lincoln, surely understood this - as did the 'Founding Fathers'.

The authoress of the above cited piece, surely needs to apprehend the concept...words used in economy reverberate in people's minds longer and therefore are of greater penetrative impact.

And BS baffles brains.

May 3, 2015 at 12:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

"History is bunk" - Henry Ford.

May 3, 2015 at 12:58 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

"The Drought Risk and You (DRY) Project"

A clever, evocative name and acronym are MUCH more important than the content of an organization's message.

"I show that sources of funding, uncertainties, and limitations are routinely excluded from science news"

Sounds good -- will the exploration target only certain 'sources of funding, uncertainties, and limitations' perhaps?

""Narrating science in public: the approach of an interdisciplinary project to create new reflective spaces"

Does it make me a misogynist if I note and mention the apparent sex (oh wait, is the word supposed to be 'gender' these days? I get so confused with the terminology sometimes) of all the authors of this nebulously titled presentation?

May 3, 2015 at 3:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterPiperPaul

The most often held qualification of journalist at UK national news paper board sheets is , PPE or Philosophy, Politics and Economics thanks to the presses addiction to the Oxbirdge product or English which on the surface makes sense but may come has surprise given the writing seen. Actual journalist who did a journalism degree are fewer in number .

So the lack of scientific knowledge and a willingness to just believe anything pushed out by people in lab coats , becasue they no idea if it right or wrong . Is not a surprise. But it goes further , all papers are in affect a reflection of the editorial line , so if that if 'pro-green' then you make sure if you want to be your job its a boat you do not rock .

Then there is 'lazy' of course it much easer to just reproduce a story your feed by PR people than it is to find them out your self while you know questioning this story may mean you longer get them so have to find your own , and in the end you know the old saying 'today's news is tomorrows cheap paper' is true.

Then there is the 'relationship ' between some green groups, like WWF or Greenpeace , and certain board sheets , often 'very close ' and not just physically , with people jumping form one to the other on regular basis , and after all someone has to carry all their marketing .

So expecting good coverage of science in the press , especially difficult or contentious science, is bit like expecting a fish to win the 100 meters at Rio in 2016.

May 3, 2015 at 8:26 AM | Unregistered Commenterknr

"I show that sources of funding, uncertainties, and limitations are routinely excluded from science news,"

I know it's only an abstract, but this seems to be obviously false. At the height of the GM debate, discussion of sources of funding (and by implication tainted motives) dominated the news. Equally, scientific offerings (as distinct from opinion pieces) from GWPF, if reported, are invariably coupled with discussion of sources of funding. She's simply wrong.

May 3, 2015 at 8:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kennedy

True. Private funding gets mentioned, but government funding is always skilfully ignored.

May 3, 2015 at 10:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterMuon

As a danged furriner, I am mystified by the "E" in the PPE that all these numpties are supposed to have studied. They don't even seem to understand the supply and demand curve, which I learned about in high school.

What is this "E"? Ecstasy? Enervation? Epilepsy?

One thing is for sure, it ain't E for Erudition, let alone Economics.

May 3, 2015 at 12:33 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

I find it barely credible that the BBC Science correspondent RH advises Andrew Neil in a debate when he has no science qualifications. He is educated with a first class in English, but that is not going to aid him in the intricacies of the solutions to differential equations and the boundary conditions that pertain. A case of the blind leading the blind. Less than one percent of MP's have science degrees. They are not capable of understanding this topic.

May 3, 2015 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered Commentersrga

@srga People thru experience do quite often have expertise in a field even though they lack academic qualifications in it.
It is that excuse that is used to exclude skeptics from discourse, when actually it would benefit from their expertise.
RH certainly does have expertise in the Green movement, as he is part of it.

May 4, 2015 at 2:31 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

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