CPSP218G Fall Semester: Earth, Life & Time Colloquium
Reporting on Science:
Real Science and the News Media
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Scientists need to get information out about their discoveries, but the news media have their own
particular requirements (ratings; limited time and space for any given story; waying entertainment values; etc.).
This has lead in some cases to "science by press conference", such as the 1989 "cold fusion" story by Pons and Fleischmann (see
Voodoo Science) or the 2009 "Ida" primate fossil case.
Some common problems scientists encounter with the media:
- Sensationalism: it is difficult to get a story into the news without some superflatives, but not
every scientific discovery is about overturning the established paradigm!
- Media's trying to "present both sides of the story"
- But sometimes there are more than two sides!
- Or sometimes only one side is actually supported by the evidence. In a case studied by Oreskes (2004), 0 out of 928 papers on
modern climate change published between 1993 and 2003 in the scientific literature disagreed with the
hypothesis that humans were at least in part a major component of modern climate change
- But 53% of 636 newspaper and magazine rpoerts in the mainstream media at the same time reported that
humans were likely not a major factor
- Little institutional memory within the news media, and consequently little back-checking of old reports
- Old ideas continue to be perpetuated long after their refutation within scientific circles
Last modified: 21 August 2009