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If Journalists Wrote Like Scientists

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

Writing about scientific issues has improved dramatically in print and electronic media over the past decade. Part of this may be due to sustained efforts by scientists to insist upon accuracy and to complain when journalists get the science wrong. In addition, more and more people with scientific backgrounds are choosing to become journalists.

It’s striking that this trend towards greater critical thinking in science reporting has not spread into other subjects of coverage. I’m reminded of this particularly in the coverage of politics. This morning I heard a journalist interview a Clinton campaign member who argued that Clinton is the best choice because polls say she can beat McCain more decisively. An Obama supporter countered that he is in the best position to beat McCain because he has more support among Democrats. What would a trained natural or social scientist say in response to these claims? Like so many areas that journalists cover with a straight face, these arguments have so little weight to them that they are meaningless. There’s no basis for having any sense of probability that either assertion is true.

Some people may chafe at my complaint, claiming that you can’t apply experimental methods or probability theory to test the viability of a candidate who isn’t even facing off with their opponent from the other party. That’s right. So why not challenge the supporters’ claims as mere puffery or, better yet, ignore them and move on to more substantial matters?

Reporters put up daily with pseudoscientific interpretations of poll data, which are about as reliable as weather predictions — pay attention to the forecast for the next three days, but bring your umbrella just in case. If journalists took a hard look at what they are reporting, it would be a very short news day. Which would leave more time to play good music instead. I’m all for that.
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