One of the recurring media narratives about the nature of science today is that it is “broken” or “in crisis.” In the mainstream press, some stories about the failure to reproduce study results or the rising retraction rate or incidents of scientific fraud have been accompanied by assertions about a “systemic crisis” in areas of science — or in science itself.
But a new analysis of how the media cover science news argues that generalizations about a crisis in science aren’t justified by the available evidence. The essay proposes that those who communicate science, including journalists, scholars, and scientists themselves, should more accurately convey its investigatory nature, the self-correction process, and corrective measures without legitimizing a faulty narrative.
The article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and written by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, examines three media storylines used to describe the nature of scientific discovery. Jamieson writes that one of those narratives — that science is “in crisis” or “broken” — is especially concerning and may have been inadvertently encouraged by scientists’ efforts to find and correct problems in scientific practice.
“This is troubling in part because defective narratives can enhance the capacity of partisans to discredit areas of science – including genetic engineering, vaccination, and climate change – containing findings that are ideologically uncongenial to them,” Jamieson writes. “In contrast, accurate narratives can increase public understanding not only of the nature of the discovery process, but also of the inevitability of false starts and occasional fraud.”
The issue is important, Jamieson says, because the news media affect the extent to which we think about a subject and how we think about it, and misleading accounts about science can affect the public’s trust in science. The “science is broken” story has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Vox and Slate.
Three popular narratives about science
Jamieson considers three structures in science narratives – the quest discovery, the counterfeit discovery, and the systemic problem. The quest, a classic literary genre used from Gilgamesh to The Lord of the Rings, is employed in science narratives to showcase not just new discoveries but particularly those useful to humankind. Of the 60 studies that received the most media coverage from May 2016 to April 2017, according to the tracking firm Altmetric, nearly half were related to human health and well-being.
The “counterfeit discovery,” by contrast, is the tale of a deceptive scientist and a “dishonorable quest,” the story of someone who has “gulled custodians of knowledge” such as journal editors and peer reviewers. In this case, the discovery is investigated and challenged, as in the case of Anil Potti of Duke University, whose fraudulent work on treating lung cancer was uncovered by two MD Anderson biostatisticians. Coverage of the fraud in 60 Minutes and The New York Times showed how the discovery of deception and corrective measures were part of the scientific self-corrective culture.
Scientists and a flawed survey fuel a ‘crisis’
Jamieson argues that the third narrative – science is broken – is an overgeneralization, even in fields such as oncology and psychology where there are large studies documenting failures to replicate findings. While scholars and scientists are the ones who have found problems in scientific research, a “problem-focused news narrative” sometimes buries their corrective intent under headlines and storylines that emphasize the flaws. “In such accounts, scientists are portrayed as publicizing problems, not proffering solutions,” she says.
At times, scientists themselves have fueled the impression of a crisis. Over a five-year period, a third of the stories in Nexis and Factiva featuring science-in-crisis headlines were written by scientists. In 2017, NPR science reporter Richard Harris published the systemic-problem-titled book Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions. In a Wall Street Journal essay drawn from it, Harris wrote that “scientists point to what they call the ‘reproducibility crisis’ – that is, studies whose results can’t be duplicated and are untrustworthy if not invalid.” Harris said in an interview that he’s “not convinced it’s a crisis,” but “scientists are increasingly aware of these serious problems,” which is good because “recognizing a problem is the first step toward solving it.”
A problematic 2016 “survey” published in the journal Nature, and cited by Harris, reinforced the “crisis” narrative, Jamieson says. The respondents were described as “researchers,” “scientists” and “readers,” but were not a random sample of verified scientists but rather respondents to a questionnaire emailed to Nature readers and people who answered an ad “on affiliated websites and social media outlets.” The wording of the questionnaire “primed the very crisis it reportedly uncovered” by inviting respondents to confirm the existence of the crisis, Jamieson says.
Ways to improve the science narrative
Jamieson identifies ways that science narratives can be improved, among them:
- Include information that reflects the practices and protections of science, such as the trial-and-error process, and the ways that science detects and protects itself from deception;
- Reserve “dire characterizations of the state of science” for cases in which “integrity-threatening problems are being ignored”;
- Treat self-correction as a central part of the scientific process, not an afterthought – before regarding a rise in retractions as a “crisis in science,” consider the argument that they are a “signal that science is working”;
- Focus on problems without shortchanging solutions: “To perform their accountability function well, reporters should not only alert the public to problems in consequential science but also scrutinize how and how well they are being addressed.”
The article concludes: “By responsibly publicizing both breaches of integrity and attempts to forestall them, news can perform its accountability function without undermining public trust in the most reliable form of knowledge generation humans have devised.”
The Latest on: Science in crisis
- Statistician: Machine Learning Is Causing A “Crisis in Science” on February 18, 2019 at 3:19 pm
Rice University statistician Genevera Allen issued a grave warning at a prominent scientific conference this week: that scientists are leaning on machine learning algorithms to find patterns in ... […]
- Five Things High Schoolers Need To Know More Than Computer Science on February 18, 2019 at 10:54 am
Computer literacy Coding and computer science can be incredibly useful skills ... that learning how to cook in high school could be a vital to fighting the obesity crisis. But the life skills that are ... […]
- Machine learning is contributing to a “reproducibility crisis” within science on February 18, 2019 at 8:29 am
Scientific discoveries made using machine learning techniques cannot be automatically trusted, a statistician from Rice University has warned. A growing trend: Machine learning systems are increasingl... […]
- A call for a theoretical framework to address replication crisis facing the psychological sciences on February 18, 2019 at 5:05 am
A pair of researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Harvard University ... a possible solution to the replication crisis facing the psychological sciences. […]
- Why an Outlaw Was Stabbed to Death and Then Buried Face-Down in Medieval Sicily on February 18, 2019 at 1:09 am
What's more, this was a time of "crisis and social reorganization" that occurred right ... Inspirations for 'Game of Thrones' Characters Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, writing about biolog... […]
- Essential Science: Transforming plastic waste into fuel on February 17, 2019 at 10:25 pm
This represents one application to address the plastic crisis. Scientists based at Purdue University ... This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sand... […]
- How to Bring Prestige to Open Access — and Make Science More Reliable on February 17, 2019 at 5:50 pm
Too many studies in the social and medical sciences can be neither reproduced nor replicated, which has done serious harm to science-research integrity. Efforts made by individuals, work groups, and s... […]
- Hiding self-harm wounds in PE and panic attacks in science class - the kids' mental health crisis and a unique solution on February 17, 2019 at 11:09 am
Teachers and other kids noticed the little marks on Nathan Randles’ body and asked him what was going on. But he’d brush it off, or make an excuse. By that point he had been self harming for years. […]
- Taking action in crisis: Physician-artist spreads word through ETSU residency that ‘Art saves lives,’ with focus on opioid epidemic on February 15, 2019 at 1:08 pm
Rhetoric and Science, acting as a resident professional, teaching and bringing his craft to campus and the community. Integration is indeed the key word. With a focus on the opioid crisis in Appalachi... […]
- Trump expected to declare national emergency in speech on border ‘crisis’ on February 15, 2019 at 6:45 am
Trump will take the action “to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border,” White House ... AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the enviro... […]
via Google News and Bing News