The Problem With Mainstream Science Journalism

Anyone familiar with journalistic rules of thumb and practices will no doubt be familiar with the “be impartial and objective as possible by representing both sides of the story equally”. In most instances, this gives the reader a more complete background and avoids journalistic bias as much as possible. There is, however, a time when the “represent both sides equally” actually leads to bias, a bias I term “giving fiction the same creedence as facts”. Sadly, journalists writing science articles for mainstream media fall prey to this form of bias even though their intentions are good. Most journalists are unaware of the methods of science and how theories are woven together from corroborating evidence.

The media has an important responsibility in getting the science right. This is tough given that scientific literacy among journalists varies wildly. Great scientific journalism requires the ability to determine well conducted research from bad; logical conclusions from fallacious ones; and the X-ray vision to weed out ideology and skullduggery. Science will always be inconvenient for some people who hold opposing views or opinions so giving their ideas the same weight as the evidence is somewhat intellectually dishonest.

Typical examples of such journalism aren’t hard to find. Often the skeptical angle is portrayed as one opinion among others and little or no emphasis is applied to show the validity of one view over another. A UFO true believer will look at some fairly innocuous/ambiguous photo or video and declare that we are being visited by civilisations outside our Solar System. Astrologers will make claims over research that supposedly confirms their ideology to be true. The logical fallacies applied by such advocates is numerous. Without knowledge of these flaws in human reasoning it can be easy to actually view someone’s opinions as somehow valid.

What Journalists Should Watch Out For in Reporting Truth Claims

The phrase “truth claims” can be used as a substitute for “science” because skepticism, and the appropriate portrayal of the evidence should be used in all stories where some is making a claim. Here are a couple of things to look out for in writing and reading claims to the validity or falsity of something:

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence – This goes without saying. If someone claims that there herb or magnetised water has some kind of magical quality or cures cancer – be skeptical.

Ockham’s Razor – The most simple explanation – the explanation that introduces the least new assumptions – is often the best.

Correlation Does Not Necessarily Imply Causation – Are the claimants stating or implying that there is a causal relationship between variables that correlate together? Essentially, black hair correlates with world rice production but it would be fallacious to say either causes the other.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc – A subset of the correlation does not imply causation, post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) takes the form B followed A so therefore A caused B.

Slipery Slope Arguments – The notion that accepting a position means you have to accept the extreme of that position also. Arguments against abortion often employ slippery slopes by stating that accepting abortion means society will slip into a downward spiral of degradation and decay.

Fallacies can be the result of intellectual laziness and often lack of education. Science is a methodology designed to systematically weed out such cognitive phenomena in order to establish true causation and effects from the many variables and noise.

These are the common logical fallacies to watch out for (there are tonnes more, see this site). Once you tune into “the skeptical frequency” you will notice these fallacies employed everywhere. Then you’ll ask, “why didn’t they teach me this stuff in school?”

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