A counter-productive association: science journalism in the developing world

According to my blue-and-orange, dutifully annotated business card, I’m a “freelance science journalist.” And judging by the the number of business cards I’ve “lost” over this past year alone, I’ve made this claim about 200 times.

My understanding was that nobody really bothered much about what is written on business cards (I myself look blankly at business cards given to me, and often see amorphous colours that I scarcely try to decipher when I go home).

I was wrong.

Some people actually read whatever scribbling is there on business cards — often to my own detriment. With their keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds, they look at my blue-and-orange artifact and questions start to bubble up. “So you’re actually a science journalist? Hmm … And you live in Doha? Good, good.” A minute later: “So what do you actually write about?” I start about my oft-repeated (and thus well-rehearsed) story about Doha being a “very exciting” place now with all the collaboration projects with American academia. The following line of questions is often more direct, especially if the questioner is a colleague: “Thought there was not much going on in the Arab world in terms of science and stuff. But do you think these [latest] projects are for real?” Or, “So do you work on something else? I mean, do you work solely as a freelance science writer?”

Instinctive human curiosity aside, one widespread, intuitive (though inaccurate) idea underlies most of these questions. That notion is that science journalism is only interested in reporting about the products of science (research, inventions, patents, etc.). Therefore, the Arab world, which is evidently lagging behind in science and research, is no place for science journalists (much less a place for freelance writers to make a living, or as an American colleague put it, to “make a non-living”).

Science and science journalism have evolved, but the images of the products of science have lingered: laboratories and binoculars; choke-full blackboards with chalked-up mathematical formulas end-to-end, colorful 3D renderings of galaxies and orbit systems. The problem is that these images reinforce the “paradigm” from which they are derived — and this paradigm is becoming in fact counter-productive.

If science journalism is restricted to covering products of science, that would pretty much exclude most of Asia and Latin America and almost all of Africa. These would be regions where, according to the limiting definition, science journalism could hardly, or could not, exist.

My understanding of science journalism, for better or worse, is that it is a much broader umbrella (particularly in countries where science products are nearly as rare as the freelancer’s paychecks). First, it may be true that, like politics, all journalism is local. But the definition of local, in the era of globalization, is different. Local is increasingly defined not by geography, but by interest. So a typhoon in Florida or Texas is of interest to the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. The reason: global warming, which is believed to contribute to severe weather phenomena, is very much on the minds of Alexandrians who have heard gloomy reports about what climate change might do to their coasts.

Second, science journalism is not only about “what is,” but also about “what could be” and “what should be.” This is where science policy comes into play. After all, even in countries lagging in science, there are always attempts to turn things around. The kind of stories that result here are not “hard-core” science, but they might still be highly informative and useful to readers.

Third, science journalism can inspire universal hope. The example that comes readily to mind is the two bright young men who turned a basic — but brilliant — idea from the realm of academic publishing into one of the greatest inventions of our time: Google. Tell their story to an Egyptian or a Haitian engineering student, and you are guaranteed to get a very positive response.

So what I’m trying to say is that, with a little bit more serious thinking, science journalism in the developing world (where science is not at its best) can actually thrive. To achieve this, most of the burden would fall on the shoulders of science journalists, especially in not allowing the lack of “products of science” derail their careers.

As for me, my hope is (besides following what I preach) that my blue-and-orange artifacts will less and less land in the hands of people with those keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds.

The engineering journalist

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Substitute ‘technology’ for ‘financial product’, ‘nature’ for ‘economy’, and we have formulated the cause of the present day global financial crisis: “For a successful financial product, reality must take precedence over public relations, for economy cannot be fooled.”

This quote ends the report of physicist Richard Feynman to the Space Shuttle Challenger inquiry. TheChallenger exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, killing seven people. Engineers had warned before the launch that the so called O-rings were unreliable at low ambient temperatures. And on January 28 the launching site had low temperatures. Despite the warnings, managers didn’t want to postpone the launch any longer. They tried to fool nature, the O-rings broke and what follows is tragic history.

Building a Space Shuttle is an art of engineering. And engineering differs from science. Scientists want to understand the world. They simplify a problem until they can solve it. Engineers devise solutions to real problems, thus changing the world. Often they fix a problem without knowing why it works. Trial and error. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what you have to do when the world is too complicated. Engineers deal with a real-life problem with all its dirty traps. Planes not only have to fly when the sky is clear and sunny, but also when there is storm and thunder. The science of a flying plane is long known. But engineering a plane improves every year. It’s the engineer who has to incorporate all the safety aspects in the design of the plane, not the scientist.

The global financial crisis would not have happened if all those innovative financial products were designed by engineers instead of by scientists-trying-to-impress-their-managers-with-fancy-mathematical-money-models. The Americans call them ‘quants’, the quantitative analysts. The ‘quants’ were too much scientist, too little engineers. They had too little feeling for the risks involved.

Of course, not only the scientists-trying-to-impress-their-managers-with-fancy-mathematical-money-models are to blame. Consumers were greedy to buy products they couldn’t buy, and bankers were greedy for selling products and getting high bonuses. But those innovative financial products were clearly very poorly engineered.

We, science journalists – as the name suggests – concentrate mostly on science. But we too should pay much more attention to the engineering side in our science reporting. It would prevent misunderstanding on the side of the public. A few attention seeking pseudo-scientists claimed earlier this year that the world’s biggest science experiment – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva – might produce tiny black holes that would eat the world in a fraction of a second. They have received more attention then all the LHC-engineering work from the last twenty years all together.

Why did we give a bunch of silly pseudo-scientists so much attention? Because predicting a disaster sells, even if it’s utter nonsense? Why not explain the difficulty of building this highly complicated accelerator? Think about it: Twenty years of engineering work before the science can start. Can you really expect it to work perfectly from the start?

On September 10 a few hundred science journalists were invited to Geneva to glorify the LHC before it had even proved to work as a collider and detector. Protons raced around once in the 27 kilometre loop. There were no collisions, and the energy was much lower than the collider is designed for. Do we glorify something that looks like a plane, but can’t yet fly? No wonder the public was confused to hear that a week after the big launch that the machine showed some serious problem.

There is much more engineering we, as science journalists, tend to overlook: climate models are engineering models. Here too: there is nothing wrong with that, as researchers have no other option. Let’s just explain it honestly to the public. Climate models are full of empirical rules, and buttons that can be turned left or right, to fix scientific details that we don’t yet understand. But you don’t have to understand everything to produce sound results. That’s what we can learn from engineers.

There is much more engineering in science than we think. And we should better report about it.

Welcome

Welcome to the Science Journalism Blog. We hope that it will facilitate the debate about the issues that makes science journalism a trade in its own right. Does balance really work in articles on science? How do we deal with the peer review system? Why is there so little investigative science reporting being done? Should science journalism inform or inspire the public, and how? Can medical writers be generalists? Are science writers science journalists?

We hope that both the big and the little questions that are on the minds of journalists in both developed and developing countries will contribute to the ongoing professionalization of this wonderful occupation. We invite journalists, students of science journalism, scientists and science news consumers from around the globe to join in the debate.

Share your thoughts: leave a comment on one of the posts, or suggest a blog post yourself!
Frank Nuijens

Reporting in the balance

During the AAAS session earlier this year on reporting on climate change, an interesting point popped up that is often forgotten about in science reporting: balance. The practise of balance is a very important one in any field of journalism. If you report on position A, you must also report on position B in an equal manner as to allow the reader to make up his or her own mind. This golden rule prevents propaganda and showing a single side to a story.

The whole debate on climate change has shown that balanced reporting is a practise that might not work so well for science journalism in particular. A question from the audience, from a scientist, made this clear. Why do reporters still feel the need to give coverage to skeptics of climate change. After all, when a journalist represents the opinion of a sceptic next to the opinion of for instance an IPCC scientist, the reader might be under the impression that both opinions are an equal representation of the scientific community, which is of course not true since skeptics are massively outnumbered by the scientists who believe we are in serious global trouble.

This begs the question if balance is applicable in science journalism? And are the public really done a disservice by the media when they are presented with skeptics of climate change? Very interesting questions which the panel unfortunately didn’t address. Instead Andrew Revkin gave the scientist a non-answer, completely missing the point. Lets hope this fundamental golden rule will be tested and tried at the next World Conference for Science Journalists.

Can science blogs save science journalism?

This discussion makes for a very interesting read. For most scientists and journalists alike, the process of communication about science to a wider audience is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. What particularly surprises me in this discussion is that Cole, a profesor of journalism, thinks the audience should become more science literate and that will bridge the gap between science and society.

However, it’s highly debatable whether factual information plays a big role in how people form their opinion on topics. Survey studies show that knowledge plays only a small part in explaining the variations in opinions, and we know from political communication studies that people only collect the information that they think is necessary to form their opinion. An interesting read, for instance, is arecent article by Matthew Nisbet and Robert Goidel.

There’s a whole world of science behind the process of science journalism. Let me know what you think about the necessity of science literacy and the role that science journalists play.