We live in age of great challenges where truth and facts are under siege. This is inflicting real damage on many segments of our society. We must take heed and take action. We must find ways to unite in service of truth.
One of us is a scientist and two of us are journalists. We are separated by age, ethnicity, geography and much more. But when we met recently we were struck by how much we had in common. Scientists and journalists share a passion for questioning assumptions and biases. We are trained to uncover hidden narratives in the pursuit of deeper understandings. And we share an enthusiasm for revealing new knowledge that can be shared with the world.
These values cannot be taken for granted, especially in our current political environment. It is no secret that both scientists and journalists are facing a concerted wave of allegations around “bias” and “fake news.” This type of regressive criticism is not new. Throughout history, those who have sought to suppress the truth have endeavored to muffle the voices of scientists and journalists. Without these voices societies decay. Therefore, when confronted with the current assaults, we cannot allow ourselves to recoil into our protective harbors and wait for the storm to pass. We cannot wait for others to step into the void. We have to shrug off whatever reluctances we may have and find ways to share the stories of science with a world in desperate need of hearing them.
We recognize that there are differences between the ways journalists and scientists perform their professions, and those differences could serve as barriers for cooperation. Scientists often are wary of the way their work might be presented by journalists. They have seen nuanced research oversimplified or hyped for more dramatic (and sometimes misleading) headlines. At the same time, journalists can be frustrated by scientists who respond to straightforward questions with jargon and are unable or unwilling to explain the essence of their discoveries without caveats and qualifiers.
We believe, however, this mistrust is superficial and can be overcome for the benefit of all of society. Scientists and journalists share core aspirations. Both disciplines are about observing the world, questioning the unknown and collecting facts. Both scientists and journalists know their work is built on the work of others and they must find a way to share their discoveries. Scientists may tell their stories in papers they publish to share with their colleagues in the field. Journalists may tell their stories in print, radio or film, often trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. But the mission is the same. Knowledge can only have an impact if others hear about it.
We believe that we can—and must—move past these challenges to form new alliances between scientists and journalists. To achieve this type of partnership, we need to talk to each other more and not just past each other. We need to listen to each other a whole lot more. For too long, science has been treated as a niche topic by much of the media. Meanwhile, within academia, engagement with the public has traditionally been undervalued as a worthy use of time and energy.
How can we extend the impact of knowledge? What can journalists teach scientists about ways to reach and engage new audiences? What can scientists teach journalists about the awe, wonder and curiosity that drives research? And how can the two worlds come together in a spirit of experimentation to reinvigorate science storytelling and share the power of scientific thinking towards addressing the problems of our society? Ultimately we believe we must create a culture of facts and reason to guide our public policy and educate our children.
Those of us who are scientists should seek forums for communication, education and training. We should look to share our personal stories—not only our data and results but also the awe and wonder of the journey of discovery. Those of us who are journalists should seek out more science stories, editors should encourage them, and we should welcome more people with science backgrounds to our ranks.
We need to approach science with the same seriousness we give to other topics. All of us as citizens can support this endeavor by subscribing to science publications, reading and sharing stories about science in the popular press and on social media (clicks matter) and demanding that journalists cover science with accuracy and imagination.
We are strong believers that we can start with small steps. How often do scientists and journalists just sit down to talk? How often does the public have the chance to engage with science at a level of basic curiosity? The conversation we had (video shared here) is modest in its scope, but it inspired both of us to seek out more such opportunities. And we believe that others from our chosen careers can have similar experiences.
An alliance between journalists and scientists should be about celebrating the creativity of the human mind. It should be about fostering critical thinking and valuing vetted knowledge. And it should be about using great storytelling to inspire a search for our common humanity. This is a movement that could help heal the divisions in this country and in the larger world. And it must be a global effort. There is no monopoly on wisdom, and we know many have already done hard work in this arena. Let us all pledge to do our part.