Strength in numbers: how journalists and scientists can fight back together

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The president has tweeted frequently about the press, calling them “fake news,” “a joke,” and “the enemy of the American People.” This barrage of attacks on the mainstream media is unprecedented in modern times, and journalists may wonder how best to defend their integrity.

Journalists — don’t despair. Scientists are all too familiar with the firestorm unleashed by politicians attempting to not only please their constituents, but also to negate data that contradict their agendas. As a scientist who studies human evolution, I know that it’s easy to become disillusioned when real data are attacked, and alternative facts are given credibility.

American scientists have dealt with politicized resistance to science and scientific literacy for decades. At the state level, there has been a resurgence of anti-science bills that specifically target evolution by natural selection and human-driven climate change in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas. Nationally, Congress has led a disturbing political assassination of federal research funds, especially in the biological and social sciences.

One may wonder how science and scientific thinking became such a political enemy. Science maintains a strict protocol, the Scientific Method, that allows questions to be posited, data to be collected, and interpretations to be as bias-free as possible. Sound familiar, journalists? This is a fundamentally different approach than that of politics, which accompanies bias as easily as macaroni does with cheese.

Importantly, politicians often lack scientific competency and fail to understand both the value of conducting global research and the connection between science and the human experience. For example, in 2014, Republican congressman Lamar Smith said, “The NSF spent $340,000 for a study of human-set forest fires 2,000 years ago in New Zealand. Americans who have lost their homes and businesses to wildfires could ask how this helps them.” He considered this a “frivolous use of taxpayer money.”

A quick read of this study’s abstract on the National Science Foundation’s webpage quickly eliminates any doubt of its relevancy to the wellbeing of Americans. The goal was to better understand temporal and spatial changes in natural wildfire frequencies due to human impact, climate change, and drought. Congressman Smith failed to see the connection between this study and the drought-induced wildfires that affect large portions of the United States annually.

Most importantly, the scientific process can take years or even decades before conclusions can be put forth. And when those conclusions don’t support political, religious, or personal ideologies, politicians get hostile.

Journalists are similar to scientists in many ways. They travel far and wide to ask crucial questions about the world around us, collect the strongest data possible by interviewing and consulting many sources, and while columnists are specifically sought for their opinion and analysis, reporters are to keep personal viewpoints out of it. They also appreciate that, while news can happen at the speed of light, careful journalism can take years, and fact-checking is essential. As a result of these similarities, it’s not surprising that the current political climate, which is built on the shaky foundation of alternative facts, has now made an enemy of the press.

While we can fight our battles separately, there is strength in numbers. It’s important now more than ever that journalists and scientists work together to combat the assault on real facts and data. After all, we share the common goal of informing the public, even if we go about it in different ways. Let’s inundate social media and the news with credible, clear, and comprehensive knowledge by writing together and standing together. Let’s begin to network and connect with each other at the March for Science on April 22.

To be sure, there will be journalists who suggest that scientists are difficult to work with and only talk in jargon. There will be scientists who claim that the media misrepresents or confuses the nuance of their research. No one said this would be easy. There are always concerns about miscommunication and misrepresentation. To that end, scientists must learn to translate our research into more accessible language to convey the impact of our work to current events. Journalists must partner with scientists to help convey the nuances of scientific work, and offer scientists the opportunity for greater involvement in storytelling and in ensuring accuracy of data and its nuances prior to publication.

Limiting the freedom of the press and access to information is what retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and former Navy SEAL William McRaven recently called the “greatest threat to democracy.” Now is the time for action. We cannot allow any differences to stand in our way of protecting a fundamental feature of our country.

Journalists — scientists are here, we understand, and we’re ready to fight with you.

Kristin L. Krueger is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Loyola University Chicago and is a Public Voices fellow.