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“Cheerleading with an agenda: how the press covers science”

Yarden Katz writes:

I thought you might be interested in this new (critical) perspective on science journalism: Cheerleading with an agenda: how the press covers science. It’s a topic far less urgent than the election (but related to the broader press failures that have been very visible in politics).

My reply: This is an excellent article. I’d say the problems are related to journalism being eclipsed by public relations (or here, or here, or . . .), except that it’s my impression that science journalism has been cheerleading forever. It’s not like there was any past golden age of critical science journalism. Indeed, I think the golden age of science journalism is now. So I don’t know how this quite fits into your story.

Katz responded:

I agree with you entirely, I think science journalism was born as a cheerleading enterprise (largely with same attitude as PR.) I don’t think there has really been a golden age yet, though in late ’80-90s people realized that science has to be covered rigorously for society’s sake, and started science journalism programs. Then there was probably some regression, and now there’s a wave of people being very critical about reproducibility and fraud in some science areas, but I don’t think it qualifies as golden age yet. Undark magazine presents itself as trying to cover science critically, though it’s marginal and hasn’t yet lived up to its promise (it’s very new; maybe it will).

Ed Yong may not be perfect but I think he and Felix Salmon and Nate Silver and other quantitative journalists have a lot to offer.

16 Comments

  1. Terry says:

    Where do you all put Scientific American?

    Recently, they have been a frothy pop-sci magazine. But, how good were they in their prime?

    • Ethan Bolker says:

      Personal (unscientific) opinion.

      I read Scientific American in the fifties and sixties and learned a lot. I think articles appeared on college science course reading lists then. Martin Gardner’s column had a fair bit of influence making me a mathematician. I stopped subscribing years ago. Now I pick it up in the dentist’s office only because People and Golf Digest are the alternatives.

    • I’m not sure what the “prime” is, but about 10 years ago I paged through every issue of Scientific American from 1961-2007 to note articles about biophysics or soft materials, as potential resources for a course I was designing. (It was a fun activity. Apparently, I had much more time as a new faculty member than I do now…) It was striking how long the old articles are, and how demanding they are of the reader in terms of expecting a certain level of interest in topics that aren’t particularly flashy (e.g. “The transport of substances in nerve cells”, J. H. Schwartz, April 1980, p. 152-171) and of expecting a reasonably solid grasp of basic science. It seems like articles now, in all sorts of venues, need the hook that the topic will cure cancer, reveal the mysteries of the dinosaurs, or invigorate the economy; one doesn’t get this sense from the old articles. I only occasionally look at present-day Scientific American articles, but comparing to these and other contemporary articles, I don’t think that the old articles are better written than the new ones; there’s a lot of needlessly long and dull prose in the old essays.

      Recently, for a review article I wrote, I came across a great 1915 essay from Scientific American — that was fun, and if I had time, I’d look more at that era.

      • Andrew says:

        Raghu:

        One thing is that back then there weren’t so many academic journals. Now, for example, if I want to reach a broad audience to spread the word about my research, I might try to write an article for Science or Nature. But 50 years ago, it would make more sense for me to write for Scientific American.

        • That’s an interesting thought. While it’s true that back then there weren’t so many academic journals, there also weren’t so many scientists! It would be interesting to see a plot of each of these together, and to see which has grown more.

          Do you think a contemporary article in Science or Nature reaches a broad (non-academic) audience, other than when it’s picked up by science journalists? I’m skeptical. Also, 50 years ago, I think there were more “conversational” articles by scientists in Science or Nature than there are now, so that wouldn’t have been a bad target for the sorts of things you’d write.

    • Alex C. says:

      I don’t read the magazine, but one of their bloggers (John Horgan) is excellent.

    • zbicyclist says:

      I’ve been reading Scientific American for decades, and I agree that it’s clearly gone downhill.

      I also gift a subscription to my daughter, who has a masters in science ed, and teaches middle school science and language arts (small school). Is there some other publication that you’d recommend for us to keep up on general science issues? Perhaps in some parallel universe (a topic SciAm spends way, way too much time on in recent years)?

      • Skeletor says:

        I would recommend checking out American Scientist (not to be confused with Scientific American). They write for general audiences, but to me it seems like the magazine is geared towards scientists outside their fields. They include a variety of topics, many that you’ll never see in the other popular science magazines.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I agree that Scientific american seems to have gone steadily downhill, and keep thinking I:ll cancel my subscription. But then an interesting article comes along, like the one on the placenta in the latest issue. (Of course, I have to consider the possibility that the article is misinforming me, but I guess I’m too lazy — or busy — to check it out independently.)

  2. Kyle MacDonald says:

    Interesting article. I’ve seen so few examples of genuinely critical science writing that I have fairly little idea what it would look like, beyond the obvious straw men of “y’all need to leave them microscopes behind and get some Jesus” and “wake up, sheeple, the REAL mystery isn’t how quantum computers work but why the lizard folk want to use them to oppress us”. Presumably the idea is that one could criticize particular aspects, large or small, of the way that scientific research is carried out in academia or industry, without condemning curiosity or empirical discovery. One example that might come close is from Michael Harris: “Do mathematicians have responsibilities?” (PDF on his website here: http://www.math.columbia.edu/~harris/otherarticles_files/Responsibilities.pdf); I chose this example because he is known primarily for his book Mathematics Without Apologies, a title that speaks for itself. I’m not sure I agree with Harris about what mathematicians’ biggest responsibilities actually are, but in a field infamous for proudly scorning any suggestion that publicly funded research should stand a good chance of providing some kind of value to the public, it’s a start.

  3. sharon begley says:

    Not to be obnoxiously self-referential, but quite a few of us long ago left behind (or never engaged in ) cheerleading with an agenda. We scrutinize the design, analysis, assumptions, and unknown unknowns in the studies we cover, as in https://www.statnews.com/2017/06/21/breastfeeding-heart-disease-stroke/ and https://www.statnews.com/2017/05/30/schizophrenia-city-living/ and https://www.statnews.com/2017/01/05/angelina-jolie-brca-testing/ and https://www.statnews.com/2016/12/05/c-sections-baby-microbiome/, to name only a few of my own (see apology above), grappling with published, peer-reviewed papers. We also do the opposite of cheerleading, questioning enthusiasm for developments that are not all they seem (https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2015/08/29/cancer-treatment-precision-medicine-less-precise-than-promised/tqnqPMC7E8nNoDSPWOeUlK/story.html). Of course we sometimes do stories that say, gee, this is pretty cool science, and even gee, this might actually help patients one day, but I’m not sure why that counts as an ‘agenda.’

    • Andrew says:

      Sharon,

      I agree. There’s a lot of great science journalism out there that goes far beyond cheerleading. The default mode seems to be cheerleading (with some small admixture of gotcha) but there’s good stuff out there too, including yours.

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      Sharon:

      In bringing attention to problematic problems that we believe are widespread its easy to forgot about the good work that is being done or even appear to be suggesting its non-existent.

      On the other hand, getting good information on the percent of good, passable and problematic work is challenging.

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