2000 : WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?

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climatologist, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
The Way Stories About Complex Scientific Controversies Are Often Unintentionally Mis-reported by the Mainstream Media.

And since policy making to deal with such controversies calls for value judgments, and that in turn requires a scientifically literate public to telegraph their value preferences to leaders, miscommunication of the nature of scientific controversy has serious implications for democracy in a world of exploding complexity.

In political reporting, it is both common and appropriate to "get the other side": if the Democrat gives a speech, the Republican gets comparable time/inches/prominence. This doctrine of "balance" — which is still taught proudly in journalism schools in the U.S. — is supposed to underlie the journalistic independence of the Fourth Estate. [And let's not forget that conflict packaged in sound bite-sized chunks garners higher ratings than more circumspect reporting.]

But while journalists rightly defend the need for balance in truly bipolar stories, how many scientific controversies are really two-sided? More likely, there will be several competing paradigms and a half a dozen marginal ideas kicking around scientific controversies. And when the issues have high-stakes political winners and losers — like the global warming topic I work in — it is to be expected that various special interests will compete for their spin. We've all seen media filled with the views of environmental catastrophists, technological cornucopians, ideological opponents of collective controls on entrepreneurial activities, or denial from industrial producers of products that pollute — to name the usual prime players. And each often has their hired or favored PhDs handy with ready explanations and slick sound bites — e.g., why carbon dioxide buildup in the air will be either catastrophic or good for you.

Unfortunately, here is where a serious — and largely unreported by the very people who bring us this daily show — disjuncture occurs. For example, in the name of "balance", a 200-scientist, two-years-in-the-making refereed scientific assessment gets comparable space or airtime to a handful of "contrarian" scientists saying it "ain't so". When I challenge this equal time reporting to my media colleagues, they accuse me of being against "balance". This parade of dueling scientists isn't remotely "balance" I respond, but rather, utter distortion — unless the journalist also reports the relative credibility of each quoted position. I call the latter doctrine "perspective" — as opposed to the "balance" that journalists label.

In science all opinions are decidedly not equal, and we spend the bulk of our effort winnowing the less from the more probable lines of inquiry. Moreover, when we are assessors, we are obligated to report whether our estimates of the likelihood of some set of hypothesized outcomes are based on objective rather than subjective odds. I don't have space to get into the "frequentist" versus "Bayesian" debate over what is ever "objective", but awareness of the issue is also part of what scientific literacy entails — even for scientists.

Nevertheless, I do agree it would be irresponsible not to cover minority opinions in media accounts of complex controversies. My concern comes when contradictory scientific opinions are offered without any attempt to report the relative credibility of these views. Then, the public — and political leaders too for the most part — are left to do that difficult assessment job themselves. More often than not the "dueling scientists" get equal time in the story, confusion sets in and outlier opinions win equal status at the bar of public opinion with more widely accepted views. Of course, as Kuhn has taught us, once in a while someone comes along to overthrow the mainstream doctrine — but we celebrate these paradigm busters primarily because they are rare, not commonplace. One well-known editor argued with me that to report scientific credibility "calls for a judgement on the part of the journalist, and that most reporters lack specialized qualifications to do that". "Without making judgments how can they choose what to report and who to quote", I responded? "Why don't you get someone from the Flat Earth Society to 'balance' every space shot you cover — isn't that a 'judgment' about their lack of credibility"? Of course, they could hire such specialists, but only a few major media outlets do — and those reporters are decidedly not at the top of the respect hierarchy in corporate media.

Science must always examine and test dissent, even if it takes a long time to reduce some uncertainties. But science policy needs to know where the mainstream is at the moment. My mantra to those seeking scientific literacy in order to address the implications of the debate is to remember to ask all competing claimants of scientific "truth" three questions: 1), "What can happen?", 2), "What are the odds?", and 3) "How do you know?" And if you intend to ask the third question, plan to have a pen and paper along and be willing to check references, for question 3) isn't a sound bite-length inquiry.

In summary, most stories turn the doctrine of balance on its head by applying it too literally to complex, multi-faceted scientific debates. Then, the unreported story becomes that there actually are different probabilities that belong to each of the various positions covered, yet these conflicting positions appear in the story to be equally likely.

Science must always examine and test dissent, even if it takes a long time to reduce some uncertainties. But science policy needs to know where the mainstream is at the moment. My mantra to those seeking scientific literacy in order to address the implications of the debate is to remember to ask all competing claimants of scientific "truth" three questions: 1), "What can happen?", 2), "What are the odds?", and 3) "How do you know?" And if you intend to ask the third question, plan to have a pen and paper along and be willing to check references, for question 3) isn't a sound bite-length inquiry.