Should we report on science as if it were politics?
Bear with me here — I’m not saying they are the same.
There is something odd about the way *we* (media, newspapers, websites) report on science. First of all, for something as central and significant to society as science, it’s strange that it’s being viewed as ‘entertainment.’ In a typical news outlet, there is politics, foreign and domestic news, sports, and then, right at the bottom after the editorials, science is used as a happy ending counter all the sadness and complexity.
The main problem, however, is not that it doesn’t get as much attention as foreign news. It’s that it’s positioned as a sort of lighthouse of truth at the end of a lot of human errors and egos.
“I just read 2000 words on the situation in Myanmar and I have no idea what to think of it, but here’s why this molecule is the new cure for cancer in 200 words!”
This is just not true of course. New treatments for cancer are rare, and never a panacea. And they certainly warrant more than 200 words worth of nuance. Why are we writing about it this way then?
I think it has to do with our education. In schools, in our most formative years, we’ve been bombarded with factual information.
“War X started in this year, with this country invading that one, and after so many battles and casualties it was over.”
“A frog can be distinguished from a beetle because it has an internal skeleton instead of an external one, and it has lungs instead of trachea, etc etc.”
Schools don’t have a shortage of ‘How’ questions. But not much attention is paid to the ‘why’ question. Why did country 1 invade country 2? Why do frogs have lungs and beetles don’t? This is where it becomes interesting, because it provides reasons, and it also shows that there are questions we can’t answer. Or that have an uncomfortable answer, which is why evolution is having such a hard time in schools where the pupil’s parents feel threatened by new ideas.
Science = truth?
Science, historically, has been the institute that delivers facts. They can ask the why questions, and then we can learn the how that they find. Thus facts, at least until recently, were free of politics, free of religion, free of personal preference. Or rather, we ignored that facts go hand in hand with motivations and reasons, which are a lot less clear. So it was safe to talk about dates and characteristics, and ok to ignore the reasons and doubts behind them.
Today, however, facts are not undisputed anymore, because we realize that they have a larger context. We realize that the universal truth can never be truly defined or measured, and are continuously confronted with exceptions. The ‘why’ question becomes harder and harder to avoid.
This makes us uncomfortable, because we haven’t learned to deal with progress and change — we were taught that things were a certain way, and only the lucky few with a higher education get an opportunity to correct for this. So it’s only a matter of time before this factual reporting of science will end.
But what comes next?
Let’s look at politics for a possibility. Politicians have their convictions, their opinions based on a certain background. This background may be more or less factually sound, but I’m not here to judge any of them — I’m here to talk about how they are reported on. The main advantage in political journalism is that all these camps are covered, whatever their reasoning. Not just the outcome.
“John says we should do X when it comes to immigration, but Peter disagrees. He thinks Y is better. Which is interesting, because now Sylvia has to choose between agreeing with John on immigration and with Peter on health care.”
You get the idea; the discourse is very public, out in the open. No newspaper is reporting that John has the definite answer when it comes to immigration — at least not if they’re trying to be objective.
Why not try this with science too? Why not reserve 2000 words to talk about the advances in cancer treatment? An article along the politics model would be able to discuss this new finding, but have another group comment on it, and show alternatives and the larger context. It would be able to cover situations where this treatment could work very well, and situations where it doesn’t. It shows that science isn’t absolutist, and that every study has its limitations.
The way I see it, science works like well-backed politics. Politicians can suck their ideas out of thin air, and it’s sad to see those ideas get as much attention as they do. But I do appreciate to read in the papers how the politician gets the idea — especially if it’s then put into context, which allows me to assess whether this politician is talking garbage or has a point.
Scientists can’t get away with bullshit like that — at least not for long. They have to support their ideas with experiments, and think hard about why they do what they do. Their positions are backed by measurements and research, not by preferences and feelings. So obviously this is where science and politics differ. But think about the benefits of reporting on science as a whole, as if it were politics!
It will show two major things:
It will show that science does not come up with definite facts. This should make us more accepting of progress and incremental change towards progress. It will prevent us from believing or hoping that this cure will be it, while also preventing us from becoming cynical and disenfranchised by yet another study that turned out as less than what it promised to be in the newspaper (or the press release it was based on).
It will show the thought process that goes into it, and that even though science does never ever knows something for sure, it’s well-nigh the closest we can get to it. It should make people more critical about anything they hear, while also giving them examples of how to test information and the arguments/proof that backs it up. It’s empowering, making society as a whole more resilient towards politicians (and scientists, televangelists, anyone really) with ideas that are just too simple. Like, say, that a high wall will solve everything — because the problem is now that an idea like that doesn’t sound too good to be true. It just sounds true. A better understanding of how we arrive at information or conclusion will make sure popular ideas stand the test of time.
Finally, because this type of reporting shows the thought process, it may even evoke interesting ideas in people who have no relation to it. The number of times I’ve seen scientists getting inspired by movies, artists or children is astronomical. The more people from outside of the box can comment or provide input, the more original and diverse ideas you get. This can only make science and society better.