I've been pondering my profession again lately, for several reasons: shifts in the Scientific American Blog Network; the launch of a science communication program at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, which is closely allied with a new program in science, technology and society (STS); and finally a chat with editors at IEEE Spectrum, where I began my career more than 30 years ago.
What is the point of science journalism? What should I teach young, would-be science writers (and by science I also mean technology and medicine) to help them become astute assessors of scientific claims? If I were a young science writer, what would I want my teacher to tell me? Here are some thoughts:
*Most scientific claims are bogus. Researchers competing for grants, fame, glory and tenure often—indeed usually--make exaggerated or false claims, which scientific journals and other media vying for readers eagerly disseminate. The more popular a field is, the more likely its peer-reviewed propositions are to be erroneous. These are the startling conclusions of analyses carried out over the past decade by Stanford statistician John Ioannidis. “False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years," Ioannidis wrote in Scientific American in 2011. "The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine.” When weighing the assertions of scientists, remember argumentative theory, which holds that our minds are designed not so much to discern truth as to win arguments—that is, to prevail over rivals.
*The postmodernists are (sort of) right. Some STS scholars are postmodernists, who agree with Thomas Kuhn that science cannot achieve absolute truth. Postmodernists are wrong about that, but they're right that science often reflects the prejudices and interests—economic, political, ideological--of powerful groups. American science in particular is shaped by the capitalism and militarism of its culture. Science journalists should try to consider the broader social context of research, as STS scholars do (and STS scholars should try to reach a broader audience, as journalists do).
*Marx was (sort of) right. Communism turned out to be a bad idea, but Marx's critiques of capitalism remain sound. He warned that capitalism produces relentless innovation in products and means of production, which invariably benefits haves over have-nots. Many modern economists have confirmed that technology is a major driver of surging inequality in the U.S. "There are a lot of forces affecting inequality," notes MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age, which explores the social impact of innovation in technology. "There's globalization, there are institutional changes, cultural changes, but I think most economists would agree that the biggest chunk of it is due to technology." This perspective should inform journalists' assessment of the latest groovy new gadget.
*Capitalism subverts U.S. health care. The U.S. spends far more on health care per capita than any other nation in the world--more than 50 percent more than Norway, the second biggest spender--and yet its health care stinks. The longevity of Americans ranks just below that of Costa Ricans, who spend about one seventh as much per capita on health care. Two branches of medicine that highlight the flaws of modern American medicine are oncology and psychiatry. Even the cancer establishment acknowledges that people are being overtested and overtreated. Over the past several decades, moreover, prescriptions for psychiatric drugs have surged, and so have severe mental disabilities, a correlation that could be at least partially causative. Health care, in other words, serves the interests of providers more than those of consumers. Marx wouldn't have been surprised.
*Eisenhower was right. In his famous 1961 farewell speech, departing President Dwight Eisenhower warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex… The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present--and is gravely to be regarded." More than half of the U.S. budget for research and development is allocated to military agencies, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Pentagon is the largest contributor to the new federal BRAIN (for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative announced by President Obama last year. The American Psychological Association has been implicated in the CIA torture scandal. Meanwhile, prominent scholars implicitly excuse U.S. militarism by promoting the notion—which is contradicted by abundant evidence--that war stems from innate male urges.
*What would Noam Chomsky think? Science yields immense benefits, from knowledge about the nature of reality to smart phones that let us tap that knowledge instantly. And science has opponents, from global-warming deniers to anti-evolution creationists. But science is an enormously potent force in our culture, which has legions of people promoting it. Given the problems I've mentioned above, science doesn't need more public-relations flaks. It needs tough, informed critics, who seek to distinguish bogus from legitimate claims, who ask, Whom does this idea or innovation really benefit? When contemplating some cool new innovation, like optogenetics, I like to temper my enthusiasm by imagining the reaction of Noam Chomsky, the legendary linguist and ferocious critic of U.S. imperialism, capitalism and militarism. I don't always agree with Chomsky; I'm more optimistic than he is that powerful institutions can achieve genuine progress. But I admire the intelligence and courage with which he challenges authority and received wisdom. Whatever it is that animates Chomsky, science journalists—and STS scholars, and all of us Americans--could use more of it.
*Original headline was: "Advice to Young Science Writers: Ask, What Would Chomsky Think?" New title is much, much, much better.
Postscript: Noam Chomsky lays out his bracing worldview quite clearly in a recent conversation with physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss asks Chomsky about a 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in which Chomsky called upon intellectuals to do a better job challenging their governments' “lies.” Chomsky’s critique of intellectuals–and particularly their failure more vigorously to question U.S. militarism--remains all too apt. The Chomsky-Krauss conversation is well worth watching in its entirely. I’ve given Krauss a hard time for overselling the power of physics to explain reality, but he was a terrific interviewer here.
Photo of Chomsky by Duncan Rawlinson, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chomsky.jpg