Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The death of science journalism (and science blogs)?



In an article released last year called On Detecting Gravitational Waves, Landmark Science and the Media, physicist Matthew Bailes discussed the incredible confirmation of gravitational waves by LIGO and how this story may, despite being a landmark confirmation of general relativity, seem underwhelming to the layperson. This apathy, Professor Bailes argues, is caused by the impotence of contemporary science journalism. Rather than hiring qualified science journalists, many newspapers now uncritically copy and paste press releases from science journals (even the for profit ones who hype their findings). This propaganda is then cycled through blogs and the press. I think that this point is so important that I decided to quote the relevant section of the article (The Death of Science Journalism) in its entirety.
Long ago, newspapers could afford to have science journalists on their staff but nowadays many just cut and paste press releases. The downside of this is that there is next to no scrutiny of science stories, and press officers in universities and research labs end up effectively writing their own propaganda. 
For the trusting public, this makes it appear as though every few days some amazing scientific discovery has just been made. This might give us all our 15 minutes of fame, but means the public get science breakthrough fatigue. 
Eventually, this leads to science agnostism, then cynicism. When landmark discoveries like this appear, they’re lost in the fluff. This destruction of journalism is not only happening in science, but all throughout the media. Everyone is now suspicious of the motives behind any story, and with good reason. This has a number of unfortunate consequences. When scientists tell us that the world is getting hotter they’re ignored. People can choose to believe in whatever they want, whether it is a 7,000-year old Earth, the world’s immunity to rising CO₂ levels, and even Donald Trump.
Let’s hope that the gravitational wave astronomers and engineer’s triumph is appropriately recognised. Many of them have dedicated their entire careers towards this discovery and for once we stand at the dawn of a new era in astronomy, that of gravitational wave astrophysics that has amazing potential for scientific discovery. 
For now I’m fortunate enough to have been invited to the press conference at Parliament house to celebrate with the sizeable Australian gravitational wave contingent that have worked towards this discovery and work out how astronomers can help them look through this new window to Einstein’s Universe.
The professor's point is erudite and extends far beyond newspapers. Many science and futurism blogs across the internet (who will go unnamed) do exactly what he is describing. These individuals simply regurgitate over-hyped press releases that are not first vetted by capable STEM journalists like Carl Zimmer (who is a personal favorite of mine). This causes the layperson to think that our best paradigms throughout the sciences are always about to undergo a revolution. Engineers and medical professionals, from this viewpoint, are always on the verge of creating miracle machines and curing all diseases. Reporting in this manner is dangerous because it creates cynicism towards epistemic progress. "If everything is about to be overturned due to this incredible discovery," the public thinks, "then what is the point in trying to learn something about the sciences and engineering?"

One of the reasons why I think Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980) and Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (1986) are still, even after 30-40 years, the best works of popular science ever created is that they didn't degrade themselves by pandering to outrageous headlines and discussing how everything we know is about to be overturned. They instead dropped jaws by brilliantly elucidating, defending, and clarifying our most successful theories. This, along with more and better science journalism, is the way to go.