Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Special pleading?

Here it is argued that scientists should be allowed to check stories about their work before they are published.  Some people from Cardiff University claim that science stories are qualitatively different from other types of story and should be treated accordingly.  As exasperated as I get at science reporting, I don’t buy it.  They lavishly overstate the value, purpose and process of peer review and befuddlingly misrepresent what science journalists are actually trying to do.

To properly represent a body of scientific work, the same journalistic skills are needed whether the work is peer reviewed or not, so their argument that peer review gives scientific work special license that nobody else gets is obviously nonsense. 

I agree wholeheartedly that much science reporting is woeful and probably harmful. But I don’t see – and nor do the authors successfully argue – how allowing scientists to check publications about that work will help.  How would it work?  Would we get to veto negative stories?  Would we spend weeks working with journalists to make an article acceptable, only to find the window has been missed in any case?

It would be preferable to have principled science reporters following a well-established code, which could be easily policed.  Are there primary sources?  If so, they should be provided.  Are the results peer reviewed or not?  They should say so.  Is a controversy being manufactured where none actually exists?  This is where journalistic balance comes in.  I’m no fan of he-said-she-said journalism, but when an extraordinary claim is being made, we really do need more conservative types to explain whether or not it’s something the community really disagrees with (eg intelligent design, vaccines, global warming).

In other words, this is about journalistic integrity and competence (as journalists rather than scientific experts) and the fact that peer reviewed journals have provisional academic integrity has nothing to do with it.

H/T Tracy King @tkingdoll

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