Somewhere Between Science Writing and Science Fiction the Truth Lies

A 12-30-15 article in The Guardian (“The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most” Brooke Borel, 30 Dec 2015) criticizes science journalism for forgetting that “reality matters most.” The article claims that scientific communication can be (and is) driven by a variety of agendas but that science writing should be free from any outside interest other than “reality.”

Broadly speaking, I agree with the purpose of the article, which is that journalists have a responsibility to investigate and disclose any conflicts of interest. However, the rhetoric in which they are engaged is disturbing, in particular this distinction between scientific communication, which the article claims “can have all sorts of agendas,” and science journalism, whose “ultimate loyalty, when practiced properly, is to the closest possible depiction of reality, period.”

The quotes are from Dan Fagin, a science journalist with New York University. And I must say, I have no idea what century either Fagin or Brooke Borel (the article’s author) are living in, to be bandying about so blithely concepts such as agendas and reality with regards to communication.

Rhetorical Triangle

The three elements in conveying meaning, described as The Rhetorical Triangle.

Basic communications theory teaches us that the portrayal of truth is mediated by three factors – the author, the receiver, and the message. For example, the concept of “cancer” as a research study means something different today than it did 50 years ago. Scientific studies have taken a different turn, and news reports about them will read differently today than they did then. The message about the phenomenon is tied to its time, its culture, and its subject matter.

The receiver of the message likewise influences the communication. An oncologist will read an article about treatment breakthroughs differently than a patient or a survivor. A skilled author can hone an article toward an audience but has little control over who actually ends up reading the piece.

Even the portion of the message that is determined by the author is not entirely under his or her control. The message will be limited by the author’s knowledge, skill, and time, not to mention what Fagin describes as the “agenda.”

Let me be perfectly frank – the environmental scientists with whom I work do have an agenda. It’s called a mission statement. For the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it reads a little something like this:

USFWS

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The mission of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is to work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, plants, fish, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

In upholding this mission, scientists with the USFWS are required to use the best scientific and commercial data available. Like other scientists, they try to mitigate their own role in the communications process through a neutral, unbiased presentation of the data, the parameters of which change as our understanding of language changes.

For example, throughout the mid-twentieth century, third person and passive voice were thought to create distance between the researcher and the subject. So it was common for scientists to say things like “the researchers weighed both samples and recorded the results,” or “the samples were weighed and results were recorded.”

In the latter part of the century, linguists and scientists alike felt that the removal of the scientist from the research was artificial rather than neutral and unbiased, so it became more acceptable and common to say, “we weighed the samples and recorded the results.”

All of which leads us to science journalists who think they can depict “reality” without an “agenda.” Any depiction of reality will be mediated (some might say frustrated) by the author-receiver-message construct. As communications professionals, journalists learn these basics in introductory courses and are more intimately familiar with the problems they pose than most scientists.

Likewise, a journalist’s agenda is set by the publication venue for which they work, and is almost always tied to the number of stories they can sell, determined monetarily or by number of clicks on the internet. That is hardly favorable when compared to a mission statement grounded in collaboration and conservation.

I think what we are witnessing is an evolution from the traditional scientific stance as neutral and unbiased to a new stance that I would describe as transparent. Readers are hungry for scientific writing that tells a story, both about a discovery and about the person behind it. We want to know not only how the discovery was made, but why.

The work that a scientist does must be reproducible, but why should it be dispassionate? Obviously it should be truthful, but the truth is rarely boring. And the scientific phenomena that are written about in journals do not occur independently of the scientists themselves but because of a scientist who was curious enough to test them.

I believe that science journalists have an important part to play in this rhetorical stance. Scientists are trained to communicate to other scientists through the venue of academic discourse. Journalists are trained to communicate with laypeople. A natural, symbiotic relationship entwines the two.

So perhaps among Borel and Fagin and me lies the truth, a reality driven by an agenda upon which we can all agree: both science communication and science journalism try to convey as accurately as possible to their intended audiences the why and how of a phenomenon through the experience of the scientist(s) that tested it.

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