As a science journalist, a lot of your time is spent reporting on new studies, natural phenomena and how research may affect our lives. But there is another key piece to science, and that is the people who produce it. When we ignore these people – or omit key facts that cast researchers or their work in a negative light – we miss important stories.
In October, I wrote a long piece about a plant scientist and prominent GMO advocate named Kevin Folta. Folta works at the University of Florida and researches plant genetics and small fruit crops, such as strawberries. At the time, he was also active in science communication, particularly with respect to GMOs.
My piece covered, among other things, some questionable choices Folta had made as part of this scientific outreach. These included undisclosed ties to the biotech giant Monsanto, which were uncovered by a controversial FoI act request instigated by the anti-GMO group US Right to Know.
Relevant, too, is the fact that Folta published a pseudonymous podcast, a platform he used to interview his peers – even going as far as covertly interviewing himself – about science, including GMOs.
The reaction to the piece was swift and intense. I expected it; I’ve covered genetic engineering for a few years now and I’m familiar with the fights, which get nasty. But I found one trend particularly worrying.
A vocal but small group of pro-biotech researchers and science writers told me that I was ruining their cause and silencing scientists by discouraging scientificoutreach. Others called me anti-science.
A few weeks after the story published, when Folta announced that he was taking a break from his outreach – specifically his blog, his podcast and his Twitter account, endeavors separate from his scientific research – I got angry messages demanding a response about my role in his departure.
To me, this showed a twisted view of science journalism. Should political journalists stick to positive profiles of politicians? Should business writers only consider the positives from a company’s actions? Should those who write about literature ignore the intent of the pieces they cover?
Of course not. And the same goes for science.
This debate is nothing new. In a 2009 essay in Nature, Boyce Rensberger, the former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program at the MIT, traced the history of the field “from cheerleaders to watchdogs”.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Rensberger wrote, science journalists sought to “persuade the public to accept science as the salvation of society”. Great emphasis was put “on the wonders of science and respect for scientists, rather than on any analysis of the work being done or any anticipation of its effects on society”.
There are dangers to this approach. Take for example, as Rensberger did, William Laurence, a New York Times science reporter who was also on the US government’s payroll to write about the Manhattan Project. Laurence wrote positive accounts of the atomic bomb as a reporter as well as press releases for the government, and he called Japan’s reports of radiation sickness “propaganda”. For these efforts, he won a Pulitzer in 1946.
Suchconversations aboutscience journalismand its proper role persist to this day. Part of the problem is a continued misunderstanding of what science journalism is, and how it differs from other forms of science communication.
At its best science communication, like any nonfiction writing, tries to portray truth. Science communicators do this by explaining how a natural phenomenon works, or highlighting how scientists learned something new. But how that truth is portrayed – and what is included or left out – depends on the writer’s intentions.
It’s a broad genre, says Dan Fagin, a science journalist and director of New York University’s Science, health & environmental reporting program: “It’s really any kind of communicating of science, and that can have all sorts of agendas. It can encourage people to become scientists, or encourage scientists to talk about science, or encourage a particular policy, or advance the interests of whichever group is paying for the communication.”
Science journalism is different. “Science journalism’s ultimate loyalty, when practiced properly, is to the closest possible depiction of reality, period,” Fagin says. “And no other agendas should interfere with that.”
Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether because of gender or race or any other identity.
All these factors matter because they influence who has access to the production of science, and who has influence over its production. It matters, too, in cases like Folta’s – where readers deserve the full context of his scientific communication, including how he approached it and who supported it.
“As journalists we fail to do justice to what science is by somehow artificially presenting it as an inhuman, dispassionate inquiry. It’s human. People make human decisions,” says Deborah Blum, a science journalist and current director of Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. “And anyone who works in the process of science who is honest about that will say that. If we’re any good at what we do, we present science in a full human context.”
This doesn’t mean science journalists are always gunning for scientists, or that every interview is a gotcha or fodder for an exposé. Most science journalists I’ve talked to were drawn to this work because they love science; some even used to be scientists and decided to leave the bench for the reporter’s notebook. But we should maintain our skepticism (a hard task, to balance skepticism with general delight) and shouldn’t gloss over misdeeds or questionable behavior.
More worryingly, sweeping aside poor research or dubious activities can also erode the public’s trust in science.
“If your goal as a writer is to get people to question their assumptions and grapple with the world as it really exists, and not as they want it to exist, then doing things like hiding your affiliations or writing a piece in support of someone without acknowledging that you have a previous public or personal relationship is going to make it harder for people to understand the world as it is,” says Seth Mnookin, associate director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT.
All this isn’t to say that science communication – and specifically science advocacy or activism, with all its agendas – is inherently bad. But the intentions of the writer should be clear.
“My opinion remains that reality matters no matter how complicated it may be,” says Andrew Revkin, a writer whose blog, Dot Earth, shifted from news to the opinion section at the New York Times in 2010 and who teaches environmental communications at Pace University. “To me, it’s all about transparency. If you have an agenda, state your agenda,” he adds. “And if you’re claiming to be objective, then demonstrate the objectivity.”
Our media ecosystem blurs these distinctions even more, with bylines of both journalists and advocates appearing at the same media outlets. “There are a lot more voices, and it is a lot more confusing to all of us who the advocates are and who the independent journalists,” says Kelly McBride, vice-president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute.
Regardless of this blurring, the fact remains that the production of scientific knowledge thrives on criticism and debate – look no further than the peer review process and the dreaded, though perhaps mythical, third reviewer who is notoriously harsh or the heated conversations in the Q&A sessions at scientific conferences for proof.
Science journalists are not science advocates. And scientists aren’t science. When we confuse one for the other, it’s not just an innocent matter of semantics – it’s a great disservice both to readers and to science.
I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way. Let me explain.
For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can't be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.
A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.
That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn't really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn't know wasn't merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.
I'd like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don't think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It's a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don't know what we're doing. We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.
Second, we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. I'm not talking about `relative stupidity', in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don't. I'm also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don't match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity'. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don't know'. The point of the exam isn't to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it's the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student's weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student's knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.
Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2008