science journalism isn't political journalism

Or it least it oughtn't be, argues Zack Beuchamp: 

What’s particularly galling about The Daily Beast‘s vaccine “debate” is that it treats science criticism like punditry. Political writing is plagued by a consensus of bores, commentators who all have opinions within the same narrow band of “acceptable” views...

Science journalism has, if anything, the opposite problem. The basic task of a science journalist is to explain complicated scientific findings to people who don’t have the time or the expertise to learn it from primary sources. Increasingly, science journalists are acting as science critics as well as science expositors, but that doesn’t undermine the need to fully understand and embrace scientific methodology (if anything, it intensifies it). Science journalism, sadly, often fails in both of these roles. This generally happens when writers lack the time or background knowledge necessary to properly digest and explain the research in question...

By setting up vaccination as an issue up for debate in the same way that political questions are, the Beast articles can leave a reader who isn’t aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus might simply throw up their hands (as happens in the climate debate) and say “who knows whose research is right?” But that’s not how it is. People who conclude that there’s a real case that the flu vaccine might do more harm than good are less likely to get flu vaccines, for them or their family. That makes people more likely to get sick and, possibly, die. There isn’t any real debate about this among epidemiologists. This should be settled.


Mr. D said...

The “he said, she said” model is intrinsic to journalism and it leads to false narratives. I’m a layman when it comes to science. From what I can tell, the vaccination “debate” is a correlation/causation issue, especially concerning autism spectrum cases, because they tend to manifest themselves in children around the same time that vaccines are typically administered. And there’s the lawyer issue, but that’s tangential to your point.

We happen to be friendly with two families who have profoundly autistic children. Neither of these families believes that vaccination had anything to do with their situation. It’s a very human thing to try to assign responsibility for horrible events that are ultimately beyond our control, but these families understand that doing so doesn’t change the situation.

Brian said...

Any neuroscientist that's being honest will tell you that we really don't understand what the hell autism is, much less have any idea about what "causes" it.

It is a profoundly human impulse to want to order the world in a way that we can understand, that we can make sense of. A causes B causes C. And that's no accident: there's very good evidence that being "pattern completors" enables us to sort through huge amounts of information, quickly decide what is and is not immediately relevant, and make useful generalizations about the world around us that make the whole process more efficient.

That sort of thing comes in real handy when you are a weak, hairless ape with no claws and lousy teeth trying to hunt down the odd mastedon while not getting eaten yourself. But--especially on matters not relating to our survival, i.e., almost everything modern man worries about--it also gives us a very strong propensity for superstition, prejudice, magical thinking, and tribalism.