Or, Why Do Scientists So Often Sound Like Crackpots in So-called Science News Stories?

Many have expressed some doubt about evolution, global warming and some other theories generally held high regard by an astonishingly high proportion of the specialty scientists who are actually researching those particular questions. Skepticism is always good and majority vote is not necessarily the best way to determine the veracity of anything.

Specifically, some have invoked sort of a “sniff and lump” test and questioned the current state of those theories on the grounds they don’t sound quite right. Fair enough. Some seem almost counterintuitive.

However, has any doubter stopped to think that perhaps the problem is not the cumulative corroborative data assembled on each of those topics which is quite significant, but how the journalists they happen to be reading “report” them?

Remember, reporters, even those who write primarily for popular science type publications or news programs, for some reason feel it is important to make everything they write attention grabbing, dramatic or at least sound interesting to the lay public. That leads often to a focus on the most speculative aspects of a theory which can’t help but diminish the credibility of the entirety.

Reporters also favor controversies to spice things up and feel compelled to have “balance,” i.e. someone saying the exact opposite, no matter how provably dysfunctional the naysayer happens to be. This is akin to requiring someone be located who will claim the sun might rise in the west every time a scientist discusses the illusion of it “rising” in the east each morning. Often times, there not even a weighting given to the competing credentials on each side. Any “scientist” will do so long as he or she manages to says something different or provocative and not necessarily in a good sense.

Worse, reporters often try to encapsulate the entire subject reducing all its complexities to headline length or a sound bite which usually means it must be wrong in at least major part. How many science stories you have read exceeded three pages or three minutes unless there were lots of photos to go with it?

Worse yet, reporters tend to leave out almost all the qualifiers, if’s, and’s and but’s out of the resulting articles. Consequently, if any portion of a theory, no matter how minuscule, is shown to be inaccurate later, the initial thesis and everything and everyone related to it is rendered suspect or even ridiculed by the public who recall the early reports despite the fact that that is precisely how the scientific method is supposed to work.

If there is ever a fact found not to fit, a true scientist, unlike a reporter, modifies the theory rather than the facts and continues gathering facts. The classic example is the “missing link.” How can man have descended from ape-like creatures if there are no intermediate fossils showing a progression? Good point, but we seem to keep finding the intermediate fossils that when assembled and compared side by side appear to show just such an incremental progression even to uneducated eyes. Devoted creation theorists tend to focus that there are still some gaps left, albeit ever narrowing ones. Genuine anthropological palaeontologists in contrast would abandon the entire theory of evolution if genuinely inconsistent facts are discovered, but that does not seem to be happening.

As a result, perhaps doubters should reconsider their source material on the theories they have been reading about as opposed to the theories themselves.

Granted, the lack of understanding by non-specialists is at least in large part attributable to scientists who cannot seem to communicate clearly, but shouldn’t stricter standards of accuracy be imposed on journalists? If journalists want to be viewed as true professionals, perhaps they should reform their trade to act more like a true profession, one with enforceable standards of investigation and communication. That probably will not happen. Nevertheless, at least cut the working scientists some slack.

Besides, I suspect the intuition some seem to trust so much works best on those things our ancestral DNA and survival experience have taught us about interacting with people and our immediate environment, rather than the big picture things. After all, the earth looks flat until you get high enough.

No comments: