Accuracy Trumps Balance in Science Journalism (Balance Special, 3/4)

This article is written by Kurian Joseph Kattukaren (India), and is also published on his blog.

Hardly any journalism student enters the profession without the mantra of not being patronizing – presenting the facts from all sides and allowing the reader make up his mind – drummed into their ears, and, as often the case is, the student takes this advice to heart. This canon of journalistic profession, of being balanced, is indispensable when it comes to politics and economics. These spheres of human thought and action allow a multiplicity of views and provide ample space for different opinions. When writing about these spheres, it is essential that a journalists gives equal weight to this diversity and allow the reader the opportunity to make up his mind. Unfortunately, over the last three decades, the application without judgment of this balanced reporting canon has resulted not only in the integrity of the scientific process being questioned when it comes to global warming and intelligent design, but also in a misunderstanding on the part of journalists regarding how the scientific process works. The consequence of these journalistic lapses have resulted in popular discourse diverging from accepted scientific discourse, and we are all the poorer
because of it.

Science as practiced at the highest level is a process which undergoes intense scrutiny called peer review and is performed by the scientific community itself. Thus, any theory, conjecture or experimental result proposed is evaluated within the scientific community for its validity before being accepted as scientific knowledge. When in the guise of balanced reporting, the “scientific fringe,” as Chris Mooneycalls the group who often goes against the scientific consensus, is offered a platform to air their views, the journalist is debasing this peer review process.

Chris Mooney in the conclusion to his article, “Blinded by Science,” addresses the trouble science journalists face when reporting on scientific consensus formed through peer review. What if the scientific consensus is wrong and the “scientific fringe” was right? It begs the question, are science journalists supposed to be the a microphone for airing the scientific consensus or if there is no place for skepticism in scientific reporting?
Skepticism has its place in scientific reporting, but in a peer-reviewed world it takes a backseat to accurate reporting of the consensus developed among the scientists. The journalist has less reason to be skeptical of peer-reviewed scientific results, as the process is conducted by knowledgeable, competent and qualified people, and it filters out scientific views and results that satisfying rigorous standards of scientific proof from those that do not.
Mooney gives two remarkable examples of the “scientific fringe,” Galileo in the 16th century and Einstein in the 19th century, respectively, who turned out to be right. These two examples are also instructive regarding the journalistic norm of balanced reporting.

In Galileo’s case, the scientific consensus was hardly one the scientific community arrived at after rigorous deliberation and proof. It was a view imposed on the scientific community by the Catholic church, and a good journalist reporting – if he was allowed to report freely – on the scientific consensus during Galileo’s time would have added a healthy dose of skepticism to his reports. The Galileo scenario is highly unlikely to occur nowadays. In most countries where science is practiced, scientists enjoy broad freedoms to formulate their own views and express their own opinions freely that there is hardly any reason for journalists to doubt the integrity of the scientific process. The journalism should also reflect this confidence in the workings of science.

Einstein’s case was different. The “Theory of Relativity” when introduced, most physicists found the theory conceptually very difficult to grasp, and the scientific consensus was pointedly against the theory. It is worth pondering, should science journalist have take the side of the scientific consensus when the debate around relativity was raging?

It is my opinion that a journalist, who had espoused the scientific consensus at that time was professionally doing the right thing, for he was unlikely to be in a better position than the physics community to better understand the theory and take sides. Moreover, unlike the scientific community in Galileo’s period, the physics community during Einstein’s time was hardly under pressure from external powers to take sides.

These two examples indicate the limitations of balance as a journalistic norm when it comes to science reporting. The scientific consensus, especially when it is formed voluntarily through a peer-reviewed process, is to be trusted. The consensus might be wrong – as in the case of Einstein – but  the more often that not it is right, and it’s the job of the journalist to communicate this consensus as accurately as possible. It is also the reason why accuracy as a journalistic norm trumps balance when it comes to science.