25 January 2010

A bad defense of two-sided science journalism

CBC journalist Stephen Strauss writes about a common complain from scientists: that when covering a science related story, journalists feel compelled to present “two sides” to an argument, even if one is crap, from a scientific point of view. Strauss writes:

I have a somewhat different take on the "other side" controversy. Part of the reason the media went looking for an opposite view on climate change was because two-sidedness was easy to convey.

On one side are most of the world's atmospheric scientists, who say that human-initiated emissions of greenhouse gases have started to seriously change the world's climate. On the other is a much smaller number of scientists who are saying that there is no evidence yet that humans are responsible for any of the slight warming we seem to have seen, and that future effects might not be so dire.

Participants in the debate can bring forward different amounts and examples of evidence, but there are definitely two sides to the issue.

Instead of defending this thread, though, Strauss then goes into a discussion of “wicked problems,” using cattle as an example. His example boils down to, “We know cattle produce greenhouse gasses, and there’s a lot of disagreement over how to manage that.”

And thus, Strauss misses the point entirely.

He confuses the small scale where the science is in progress with the large scale where the science is much more... emphatic, shall we say. (For I know I’ll get dog-piled, rightfully, if I say anything like “settled” or “certain.” Science doesn’t deal in certainties, and we must always admit when we could be wrong. Bring your evidence.)

The whole cattle story is something where I think it’s fair to say, the science is not settled. There are real difficulties in knowing what to do. I don’t think you’ll find scientists who are going to call such reporting “two sides” on a small scale issue a problem.

What irritates scientists so profoundly is the insistence on “two sides” on the big picture issues. In the case of climate change, the big picture are that climate is warming due to burning fossil fuels. Strauss does not appear to contend this point.

But it’s on reporting of this big picture where scientists get mad – where the expertise of people actually doing real science (collecting and analyzing data) is always sharing space with flat-out denialists: people from “think tanks” who either deny climate change is happening, or deny that fossil fuel burning is causing it, or deny that it’s a problem. Strauss need look no further than the comments to his article, where commenters have tossed around accusations of fraud and conspiracy by scientists.

By way of analogy, scientists contending that the earth is round get annoyed when the media brings in a flat-earther to show there are “two sides” to the story. Strauss would seem to justify the flat-earther presence by pointing out the difficulty in measuring exactly how much wider the Earth is around the equator than the poles.

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