Philip Kitcher on science journalism

by Greg Mayer

In tomorrow’s issue of Science, the distinguished philosopher of science Philip Kitcher reviews several books on climate change (pre-publication version here).  He has written a great deal about creationism (most notably in the classic Abusing Science and the more recent Living with Darwin), and so it is natural that he would come to be interested in the issues surrounding scientific knowledge, public debate, and decision-making in democracies. He has written most extensively about these issues in Science, Truth, and Democracy, and he examines them in his review as they relate to several recent books on climate change.

WEIT readers will want to read the whole of Philip’s essay-review for what he has to say about the climate change debate, and his clarification of the different questions involved: is there anthropogenic warming (yes), what are the consequences (diverse and often bad, but of varying certainty as to their eventuality), and what is to be done (the most difficult; bottom line on doubters of change and consequences: “Tell it to the Maldives!”). Of most immediate interest to WEIT though is what he has to say about media coverage, seen in this case from the perspective of a scientific discipline rather different from evolutionary biology (although the opponents of science seem to be in part the same people). He decries the “he said, she said” format beloved of most American news media.

[the] web of connections among aging scientists, conservative politicians, and executives of companies (particularly those involved in fossil fuels) with a short-term economic interest in denying the impact of the emission of carbon into the atmosphere….could not have produced the broad public skepticism about climate change without help from the media. As Oreskes and Conway point out, “balanced coverage” has become the norm in the dissemination of scientific information. Pitting adversaries against one another for a few minutes has proven an appealing strategy for television news programs to pursue in attracting and retaining viewers. Nor is the idea of “fair and balanced” coverage, in which the viewer (or reader) is allowed to decide, confined to Fox News. Competing “experts” have become common on almost all American radio and television programs, the Internet is awash in adversarial exchanges among those who claim to know, and newspapers, too, “sell” science by framing it as a sport (preferably as much of a contact sport as possible). Oreskes and Conway identify the ways in which the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal have nourished the public sense that anthropogenic climate change is a matter of dispute, how they have given disproportionately large space to articles and opinion pieces from the “merchants of doubt,” and how they have sometimes censored the attempts of serious climate scientists to set the record straight. Even the New York Times, the American newspaper that takes science reporting most seriously, typically “markets” scientific research by imposing a narrative based on competition among dissenting scientists.

This tendency to “he said, she said” journalism has been noted before here at WEIT, and we have happily noted exceptions.


  1. Posted June 3, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    My wife and I attended one of Philip Kitcher’s talks a few years ago at the University of Toronto.

    It was very good, (we talked about it for hours after) except that I found he kept distancing himself from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion while essentially agreeing and often reaching the same conclusions that Dawkins had.

    Well-spoken and fascinating person: I’d recommend seeing him in person.

  2. Mel N
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    For a more apt analogy see “Point/Counterpoint” from SNL featuring Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain.

  3. Kevin
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    A few points.

    First: As a former journalist, I can tell you that my editors did not consider my stories complete unless I had considered whether there would be an adversarial position, and had demonstrated to their satisfaction that I had sought it out.

    The reason we did this was to avoid the perception of bias. Journalism was supposed to be a straight-down-the-middle baring of the facts. (This “outs” me as being old-school and dates my journalism career to before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, “advocacy journalism”, O’Becknity et al, etc.)

    Second: Journalists, even well-trained science journalists with degrees in the sciences, are very very rarely experts in the fields they write about. So, they must rely on others for context AND consensus. And if there is a highly vocal group arguing against a proposition, that’s a weight that has to be considered and reported on (if only so that it can be outed as errant).

    But still, even when there is consensus, journalists still have to consider the minority opinion. Because to do otherwise would be (or would have been) considered biased journalism.

    That’s why, even though the issue had been settled scientifically for a decade or more, I was still required to get a Tobacco Institute quote on their (then) objections to the smoking science. Even though consensus had been reached in the scientific community, the strength of that consensus did not outweigh our journalistic obsession with balance.

    BTW: Here’s a tip on how you can tell that the writer doesn’t believe a word of the “other” side’s story – it’s in the second- or third-to-last paragraph. That’s a clear sign the writer is hoping that the statement will get cut for space reasons.

    Third: Sex sells. A story with no controversy is BORING. It only makes it to page B3. An all-out cat-fight is A1 material. I was in a daily competition with all of my other fellow scribes for that front page. Promotions, pay raises, bragging rights, you name it, depended on how often you had “the goods”.

    Fourth: This is in no way limited to science journalism. Look at any story about a major issue of the day; you’ll have one source saying one thing, and a secondary voice saying almost precisely the opposite.

    For example, in today’s newspaper I find a story about the death of al Quaeda’s #3 man, with one source calling it a blow to their operations, and another claiming it’s merely a temporary blip that ultimately will radicalize more young men.

    So, who to believe? And would it be a more-interesting story with only the one side? Or more accurate?

    Lastly: Eventually, we get it right. Lag times may vary, depending on a lot of factors. We pretty quickly figured out cold fusion was a bust, even though it would have been WAY better to have drawn out that controversy. It’s taken much longer to glom onto the anti-vaxer/autism schtick, but you’re starting to see the perspective of the stories change.

    The so-called “climategate” stories were, to my eye, pretty thin gruel at the onset. But I don’t think any reliable journalistic outlet (note the adjective, please) these days thinks that’s anything other than a faux controversy drummed up by “big carbon”.

    • Gary Radice
      Posted June 3, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      Your comment has the ring of truth. I’ve never been a journalist but I can easily imagine this dynamic in a newsroom. It seems an inevitable clash of scientific and journalistic cultures. I can imagine similar tensions in reporting legal disputes between the adversarial legal and “fair and balanced” journalistic ideal.

      • Kevin
        Posted June 4, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        But, of course, the adversarial process drives science as well.

        Just look at the controversy over Darwinius masillae (Ida). Nice fossil, right? But is it a “missing link” (a term I hate but which is useful here as a shorthand)? Is it a human ancestor? Is it a direct-line ancestor?

        Even absent the creationist kooks (who dominate the internet – one reason why the web is a piss-poor medium for “truth” finding), there’s a great lack of scientific consensus over this find. And that’s both 1) to be expected, and 2) GREAT copy.

        It’s like that all over the science landscape. That’s why science journalism is fun.

        I’m talking myself into getting back into it, aren’t I?

  4. Posted June 3, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have to read up on the links you’ve provided. It’s certainly of interest – I’ve been making the point that the strength of the anti-science movement isn’t new and is fuelled by unethical pop-media.
    It’s a sad fact that most of the populous are far likelier to trust and read a journalist that they like than the bulk of that written by the scientific community (not entirely their fault however – more pop-science journals such as new scientist are not everyday reading for most etc). This leads to an obvious lapse which PHD comics comically covered in “Science News Cycles” :
    Take Monckton for example. He went from relative obscurity, to more or less scientific absurdity, to debating with respected scientists, to being labelled a climate expert (through such an insane association)… You couldn’t write such a ridiculous story without a matching fable context and yet he’s celebrated in conservative and anti-scientific corners. Publicly he and others like him (locally Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin) say that this climate change science is orchestrated as part of a socialistic world government plot and the media put it across as a real concern and many absorb it as fact. I find myself constantly shocked by how backwards some can be and how willing a large group are to following this nonsense.
    In other cases, you have the ego stroking media that talk about how cynical the modern human is and how clever they are at pulling apart thoughts that are provided to them. However, when we are sceptical of medical science sand environmental sciences but quick to believe a conspiracy of government plots I have to question such statements.
    On the spin side, there has also been a lot of greenwashing.. sigh..

    • Kevin
      Posted June 4, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      That comic was terrific and right on the money.

      The whole “news” field today is one giant game of “telephone”. It’s sooooooooo much easier for a news outlet or a blog to crib off someone else’s original reporting than to go to the source and start afresh.

      I plied my journalistic trade in a large city with three local TV news channels. Anything I wrote for that day’s paper, I expected to see presented on the TV news that night “as if” they had discovered it all on their own. I can’t tell you how many times the TV folks got it WRONG merely by rewriting what I thought was clear, accurate prose.

      I would estimate that only 1 out of every 25 stories I wrote that got picked up by TV resulted in one of their reporters going out and doing an interview with a hard-to-schedule source (like a busy biomedical researcher). Cuz I often would need a couple of days to complete a decent story, and they only had that afternoon to do with it what they were going to. It was either pick it up for that day’s cycle, or not at all ever. Hence, a heavy reliance on rewrite and stupid background visuals in front of a talking head.

      So my rule is to never trust any report that is more than one generation removed from the original source. No matter how well-meaning they MIGHT be, there’s a high likelihood they will have made some sort of mistranslation that impacts the ultimate meaning – if only to remove important caveats.

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