We live in a moment when preventable infectious diseases like measles are spreading because parents distrust vaccines, and scientists at government agencies are being told not to use terms like “evidence-based.” The president dismisses the findings of a National Climate Assessment by more than 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies that warns of massive economic and environmental damage totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, crop failures, disrupted supply chains and multiple threats to human health, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

But when I argued in favor of the proposition (Resolved: “Science writers are responsible for building public trust in science”) during a debate at the National Association of Science Writers’ 2018 annual conference last fall, the majority of science writers and science journalists present voted that building public trust in science was not the responsibility of science writers.

What’s going on here? To some extent, the vote reflects long-standing fault lines within the NASW between its science journalist membership and other members who work as public information officers at scientific institutions or who are scientists who write for the public.

But something more is bothering them. Science isn’t always practiced ethically or with social justice in mind. How can they, the journalists especially, perform a watchdog role, demand accountability of the scientific community, expose bad actors, bad science and adverse impacts and build public trust in science? How do they reconcile these roles in the Trump era, when science about the most urgent questions of our day is presented to the public as fundamentally flawed?

Many science journalists feel it is not their job to champion science. They give the public the truth, they say, and let people decide for themselves. Another line of argument is that it’s the scientist’s responsibility. In any case, they say, the public trusts scientists more than journalists.

In actuality, scientists, journalists, other science writers and research institutions each have roles to play building public trust in science, but in different spheres. Tackling these issues, though, requires a wider focus and acknowledging some hard truths. Both scientists and science writers need to confront systemic and structural issues that threaten public trust in the scientific process even when science is used to advance the common good. 

A scientist’s critique

Raj Pandya, an atmospheric scientist and director of the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) has become a leading voice arguing that science needs to become “more moral.” He says that the scientists TEX recruits to work with local communities often find that these communities—many of them poor, of color and dealing with pollution and hazardous waste—“feel like science is being used against them,” with corporations, developers and local leaders using science as a means to downplay pollution’s adverse impact on neighborhoods, even though residents “smell the fumes, see the emissions, and watch the floods get worse.”

He believes science becomes immoral when it focuses myopically on discovery and fails to fully consider real-world impacts. Even science that unintentionally causes harm, he says, “represents a failure to fully consider and invite broad deliberation about the uses of new discoveries.” 

The scientific institution’s role

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication also tackled the science trust question at the NASW conference, and researchers at Cardiff University have traced credibility and accuracy problems to press releases from scientists’ own academic institutions.

If a problem is discovered or a study is retracted, said Jamieson, the scientist or scientific journal needs to explain to journalists and the public how the error was discovered, what the problem is, and what steps are being taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Scientists often make it hard for journalists to cover these three interrelated issues, she says. Scholarly journal publication protocols may cause scientists to write one article on the problem they’re investigating, and a second or third article on processes and solutions, resulting in coverage that emphasizes problems and shortchanges corrective action.

For their part, researchers at Cardiff University found that press releases from scientists’ own academic institutions about their work were a significant source of exaggerated claims and spin, even though most scientists can approve their wording.

Their study of press releases from 20 leading British universities on health-related science news found that when the press releases exaggerated, it was likely the news stories would too.

An analysis of 41 news articles on randomized controlled trials based on 70 press releases showed only four articles that contained exaggerated claims not included in the press release or journal abstract. Interestingly, they also found the hype and spin intended to tempt the media did not result in more news coverage.

Science media narratives

After discussing scientists, Jamieson turned to science writers, and particularly science journalists. The story lines that shape overarching science news narratives can impact how the public makes sense of issues ranging from climate change to vaccination, she said, outlining three story lines that tend to dominate science news coverage:

The hero’s quest. The scientist pursues knowledge, overcomes challenges and obstacles and makes path-breaking discoveries.

The dishonorable quest. The dishonest scientist deceives his/her colleagues and hoodwinks reviewers and scientific journals by making claims that cannot be verified, promoting flawed science or pseudoscience, or concealing hidden financial interests that may influence research results.

Science is broken/in crisis. Widespread systemic problems and dysfunction within science are the source of these problems and are allowed to persist.

The hero story line, as old as recorded history, tends to focus on and dramatize individual, path-breaking achievements. One problem, says Jamieson, is that “most things described as path-breaking didn’t break any paths.” Scientific discovery is often a large collaborative effort that experiences false starts, dead ends and incremental gains. Important failures may provide key insights that eventually lead to breakthroughs.

When it comes to the “dishonorable quest” storyline, Jamieson said journalists tended to underplay self-correcting mechanisms in scientific processes that detect and address such instances. Retractions she argued, are instances of self-correction. Both scientists and journalists should indicate what science is doing to prevent a recurrence.

The third story line is also the most problematic. The science-is-broken argument has been used widely by science skeptics and partisan political interests to discredit science that challenges political or ideological agendas.

It’s true that the scientific community has systemic and structural issues it needs to address. But Jamieson says the scientific process, which she calls “the most reliable form of knowledge generation humans have devised,” has “protective mechanisms.” If these mechanisms are to work properly, though, “scientists must uncover problems that threaten [science’s] integrity, identify and implement remedies, and ensure that remedies accomplish their desired ends.” Science journalists and other science writers can help with that.

Interestingly, Jamieson’s critique of science news coverage and her proposed remedies are remarkably similar to solutions journalism, which favors systemic responses to problems rather than hero stories, puts problem-solving at the narrative’s center, and looks for evidence of impact.

It’s likely the new Congress will investigate scientific integrity issues at federal agencies, where mainstream science has been questioned and many scientists have been sidelined, purged or silenced. But for such investigations to be effective it will be critical for the general public to have a clear understanding of what scientific integrity means. What is science for, and what does that mean for them? What does science look like when done right, and what happens when it goes awry?

These questions have become even more urgent with White House plans to establish an “adversarial” scientific review panel to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, a move that seems likely to create even more confusion in the public’s mind about science.

Scientists and science writers are both watchdogs of the integrity of the scientific process. Their thoughtful work and the criticism that may ensue is, paradoxically, a trust-building exercise. Scrutiny can result in corrective action. An individual scientist may violate norms, but legitimate processes by which scientific inquiry occurs can be strengthened, safeguards added and impacts assessed more thoroughly.

To make this happen, scientists, research institutions, science writers and journalists need to more clearly define their professional standards and civic roles to enable the public to more easily identify responsible practitioners and recognize value added. It’s a huge ask to expect the public to figure out without guidance what constitutes trustworthy science.

Jamieson says science can only be characterized as being truly broken when integrity-threatening problems are ignored. The same can also be said of science writing and science journalism.