06 September 2007

The ethics of journalism and science

Found this article in The Guardian thanks to a post on Maxine Clarke's blog. In it Professor Jonathan Wolff (University College London) asks an interesting question: Has the same ethical code of traditional journalism been mistakenly applied to science?

To better frame this, he describes a situation involving a philosopher of science, Naomi Oreskes, who has come to wonder the same thing. Oreskes had issued a report reviewing the scientific writings on global warming. Pretty standard practice. From Wolff's description, I'm led to believe that she left out a contrasting opinion ... saying the sceptics were largely members of independent thinktanks, sponsored, and less than objective.

After publishing this report in Science, Oreskes' work "was immediately shot down by bloggers, journalists and think-tankers, who mixed insults about her honesty with more plausible-sounding complaints about her methodology," Wolff writes. Seemingly because she chose not to include the view of the "skeptics".

It is with this that Wolff makes his point about the influence of the media on scientific discussion and review. He writes:

"Journalistic ethics require balance. In reporting political arguments, each claim must be countered so that a lively debate can take place and readers come to their own views (well, that's the theory). Oreskes suggests that journalists have mistakenly applied the same ethical code to scientific reporting. Whenever a story on climate change is produced, a maverick nay-sayer is rolled out for the sake of balance. But this misleads the public into thinking that a few lone voices have equal weight to the scientific orthodoxy.

The same thing happened when a scientific consensus was forming around the theory that HIV causes Aids. A small number of scientists questioned the hypothesis and received a disproportionate share of attention. The false appearance of wide scientific disagreement gave policy-makers in some countries an excuse to delay the introduction of prevention and treatment programmes, with tragic results.

How well equipped are we non-scientists to understand scientific discussions? We all study science for a few years, but learn - or at least remember - very little about methodology. Science is presented as a body of known truths. As adults, though, we need to know not the atomic number of chlorine, but how to assess evidence for or against a theory."

So where's the happy medium?

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