This post is one of several intended to provide some starting points for the session John Timmer and I are moderating at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science.” The general topic has to do with when scientific findings call out for advocacy, and when advocacy is appropriate in the reporting of science. Feel free to join the conversation even if you’re not part of Science Online. This is an unconference that works to see as many viewpoints expressed on its topics as possible.
The basic point behind reporting is to add to the readers’ body of knowledge as accurately as possible. Impartiality or lack of bias is considered a key aspect of this accurate conveyance, but we know that impartiality is a tricky subject. Not only do all humans come with a stack of biases, but there aren’t any simple mechanisms for overcoming bias.
Attempts to simplify the elimination of bias in reporting have led to “both sides” or “he said, she said” reporting, which is mostly good for informing the reader or viewer that there is a dispute. It doesn’t add much to a body of knowledge beyond that, in part, because it fails to fit information into its context, instead leaving the work up to a consumer who may or may not be qualified to do it.
Context is an important part science reporting in particular, simply by the nature of the scientific method. The results of research are meaningless without some knowledge of the research design. Research applicable to humans is often done in artificial environments in order to protect human participants–or eliminate them entirely in riskier research–and we need to know the track records of those research environments if we want to predict the applicability of those studies. A single study may not be duplicated, or its results may be contradicted or complicated by the results of other studies.
Outside of the scientific endeavor itself, context is still important if we want to understand how scientific knowledge is applicable to our world. We don’t have problems with reporting that says a study may help us better understand how to fight a particular disease, although we often rail about inaccuracies (“Cure for Cancer Soon?!?”) in this type of reporting.
What we see almost none of in the corporate press, and still very little of in reporting done on blogs, is the effort to explicitly put research in its political context. If research can change how we understand a disease, it can certainly change how we generally understand a contested issue. A study may have implications for how research money is spent. It may have implications for legal policy or legislation currently under consideration. At some point, highly accurate reporting where there is a factual disagreement that can be settled by science may begin to look indistinguishable from advocacy.
Those who report science are not experts in the same sense as the scientists mentioned in my first post for this session. Does that make their rights and responsibilities with regard to science and advocacy different from those of scientists? Are there important differences between their requirements for impartiality and those of scientists–or for the appearance of impartiality? Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed by people reporting on science, out of either ethical or practical considerations? And are there differences on this topic among the types of reporting being done?