Philosophical Challenges Facing Science Journalists

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Submission Summary
A central concern of good reporting is to try to convey a sense of the range of opinions on an issue. This is part of the way in which a free press is understood to fulfill its essential role in functioning democracies. By presenting the electorate with an explanatory survey of plausible positions on matters of social concern, the press (in principle) provides voters with the information they need to make informed decisions regarding which of the competing positions seems, upon tutored reflection, to be worthy of their support. The problem is that this principle is not a great fit for reporting on science. One of the reasons is that disagreement among scientists has very different effects on lay consumers of scientific journalism than it does on members of the scientific community. The latter have a cultivated sensibility which allows them to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant disagreement. But outside the community, diversity of opinion is routinely perceived as a signal of ignorance. And who can blame them, given how much we have emphasized the central role that consensus plays in making scientific knowledge reliable? On the other hand, it is not clear what informational demands on democratic participation are satisfied by reporting on settled scientific ground. Now, granted, this is not a test that every inch of newsprint needs to pass. The box scores from last night’s game have no bearing on my ability to make decisions about what side of a social issue to support. But scientific knowledge and the communities that generate it permeate many facets of modern life. Moreover, the production of scientific knowledge is largely financed by public funding. We, through our elected representatives and the administrative functionaries they appoint, are significantly impacting decisions about which lines of inquiry receive funding and which will not be pursued. There is no superconducting supercollider in Texas. That is a consequence of public outrage over the cost. We are in demonstrable need, then, of accessible information that will enable us to perform our civic duties with respect to science. The challenge facing science journalists is that no one knows what sort of information that is. Lastly, we look at the unique pressures to which journalists are subject qua producers of news stories that necessarily have a distorting effect on the public conception of the scientific process. In particular, the narrative form that stories inevitably take when they are not reporting on standing controversies gives the mistaken impression that science involves a tidy linear march from fascinating observation to widely accepted explanation. This becomes a problem when, as with COVID-19, the scientific process is on full display and observed to be in a perpetual state of flux and confusion. Science is in a perpetual state of flux and confusion. That’s part of what makes it interesting to practitioners. But it is not clear how to convey that in the form of a journalistic report. Indeed, it is not even clear to what extent journalists are aware of this.
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Case Western Reserve University
Bucknell University

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