Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Harry Jackson on the Dangers of Getting Science from the Popular Media

In an interesting article about anthropocentric global warming (AGW), science in the popular media, and the implications of Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize, Harry Jackson stumbled upon the interesting truth about one of the favorite AGW denialist lines: the supposed scientific consensus concerning future global cooling leading us into another ice age.

"In my discussions with scientists, I have once again discovered a difference between the words of the scientific community and the alarmist rhetoric of writers and activists. In fact, scientific journals of the 1970s were saying that there would likely be warming because of greenhouse effects, sooner than the return of an ice age. Unfortunately, the complexity of the real scientific story was not easily reduced to a thirty second sound bite or a catchy headline."

Indeed. The ice age theory was nowhere near as scientifically supported as AGW is now, being represented in only a few popular magazine articles instead of thousands of papers in the scientific literature. But portraying it as if it was fuels the fire both for the mass media now, and the AGW deniers. This is something to be cautious of with all media, and all scientific topics.

Most media outlets like TV news and radio programs are very limited (self-limited, but limited nonetheless) with their time, and are therefore unable to discuss scientific matters in sufficient detail. It is inevitable that if one bases one's views of scientific matters on such content, they will be seriously flawed. The mass media is forced to broadbrush the topics, leaving off necessary qualifiers to any statement they make, and ovesimplifying for a nontechnical audience, even when they are otherwise perfectly accurate and objective. Oh, they could do the job right if they were motivated to, but as Jackson explains, they aren't.

"Telling the full story with all of its scientific nuances, would have not produced headlines. For this reason the science was compromised, conclusions were framed in a sensationalistic manner, and the public was entertained – not informed."

Exactly. No one ever sold newspapers with the headline "Everything is Fine". Sensationalism sells, good science bores (the masses anyway). Also, no one ever sold newspapers with debates where one side was declared the absolute winner. Controversy too sells, so it plays to the media's advantage to play up whatever controversies exist.

The lesson remains, if you want to know what people are talking about, read popular magazines and watch local news. If you want to know what scientists really believe, what positions are debated, how much, and by whom, read the scientific literature.

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