Science and journalism

Posted June 19th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

Given that the blogosphere has formed largely in response to the inadequacy of the media, it was only a matter of time before scientists started grumbling about science journalism. Chris Mooney seems a bit miffed, particularly at a comment on Tara’s blog that suggests journalists are entirely unecessary – and that scientists just need good editors. This could easily be read and dismissed as a fight about who gets the byline  but there is of course much more to it. I have put off weighing in on these and related framing issues because there is way too much I want to say and, since I am not a journalist by training, it still takes too long to write briefly – but here goes some of it…

Science journalists aren’t all useless but it does seem awkward and pretentious to have journalists – even when they have scientific background – calling the shots about who is “reasonable” and where the “middle ground” is in technical scientific debates. The entire scientific enterprise is set up to examine reasonableness of scientific claims via peer review of individual papers and more broadly, via assessments that evaluate science relevant to policy decisions. I speak from experience, not as a journalist but as someone who once upon a time served as staff for committees at the National Academy of Sciences, and even identified participants for some of those committees, at a time when I had only a BA in environmental studies. It was a humbling experience in that I was well aware of this paradox so I spent a lot of time doing homework and on the phone to scientists in search of overlapping recommendations and finding out what perspective different experts might contribute to a particular study. Then I disappeared to graduate school – and, being hopelessly interdisciplinary,  thought more about what happens when scientists from one particular discipline decide what is relevant. That is another can of worms but it is also where the need for broader participation comes in, and why scientists should be challenged from outside their profession. So the public should be more engaged in the assessment process and can and should raise questions about relevance of the science to a particular problem and context, inconsistencies with other sources of knowledge, as well as contribute contextual knowledge and to problem framing. This is where journalists can play an important role.

But science at its best is also about constructing new frames of reference when old ones are inadequate. (One major fallacy is to treat “science” as a monolithic entity. At its worst, science is guilty of the same kind of sin – of assuming it can provide a universally applicable silver bullet.)  Much of the tension with journalism comes not from misquoting scientists but from from trying to fit even accurate quotes, and new ways of thinking, into old and inadequate frames. What if, instead, journalists saw their role as finding ways to connect new to existing frames, or to compare and contrast them. Journalists aren’t all alike either and some of them do at least strive to do that. (in other words, this is not a comment on Chris, who has learned a few things along the way).  Challenging existing world views is hard work and is not highly valued but is badly needed and will take all of the skills we can collectively muster. More to come on different frames within science….


Science Skeptics?

Posted April 18th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

I have not yet had time to wade through all of the heated discussion sparked by Chris Mooney’s and Matthew Nisbet’s articles on Framing Science (article links are in the side-bar, for a round-up of discussion links see Coturnix), much less weigh in on it. I probably will. Not like I haven’t written about the subject before. For now, I just want to call attention to perhaps a new way to frame the so-called climate skeptics. It may have been inadvertent or subconscious but, in this PBS Frontline interview with the infamous Frank Luntz, the interviewer refers to skeptics – not of climate, but of science. That sounds about right! If one rejects a consensus shared by all major scientific bodies, one is rejecting not the science of climate change, but the process of science as a way of knowing anything.  In other words, the “science”  frame is used deceptively, as a fig leaf for value conflicts.

[unfortunately, the video was removed from YouTube but the Frontline show, Hot Politics, airs next Sunday the 24th at 9 pm]

I found this via a link on the DeSmogBlog in a post by Kevin Grandia, who only calls attention to Luntz’ admission of having changed his beliefs since writing the infamous memo. In that memo, Luntz essentially advocated a deceptive use of the uncertainty frame.   As for that, here is a relevant excerpt from my earlier post about framing:

What concerns me even more is the use of familiar frames and nice-sounding concepts, like sound science, data quality, CO2 is life or intelligent design to manipulate and deceive. (For more commentary on the CO2 is life ads put out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, see posts by the usual suspects: RealClimate, Tim Lambert, Chris Mooney.)

This can make it difficult or impossible to talk about some important ideas that fit almost too well into a grossly distorted and misleading narrative. For example, any talk about uncertainties in climate science inevitably gets distorted by the likes of Benny Peiser who doesn’t pretends not to know the difference between uncertainty of the magnitude and significance of climate change, and uncertainty regarding policies to address climate change, and whose debunked study nevertheless continues to be cited by denialists of human-induced global warming. And then we wind up with confused scientists blaming social theory altogether, rather than the misuse of it by those who seek to discredit the science that provides justification for environmental and other policies that protect public safety and health, and that have broad public support. Odd that they don’t blame Einstein for the atomic bomb, or Darwin for policies of Social Darwinism. Nor was Machiavelli a Machiavellian. More constructive than attacking social theory would be to provide some transparency to its misuse for purposes of social manipulation. So I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Erving Goffman’s book on Frame Analysis (1974) where he refers to the work of Gregory Bateson, who began to talk about framing in a paper first presented in 1954:

The very useful paper by Gregory Bateson, “A Theory of Play and Phantasy,” in which he directly raised the question of unseriousness and seriousness, allowing us to see what a startling thing experience is, such that a bit of serious activity can be used as a model for putting together unserious versions of the same activity, and that, on occasion, we may not know whether it is play or the real thing that is occurring. (Bateson introduced… also the argument that individuals can intentionally produce framing confusion in those with whom they are dealing…

How to embrace a monster

Posted April 11th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy



In case you were wondering, you can now watch a lecture together with a ppt presentation on Post-Normal Science: Working Deliberatively within Imperfections, given by Jeroen P. van der Sluijs  as part of a series on Science, Policy and Complex Phenomena, held at Wageningen University on March 21st. The ppt can also be downloaded here. In addition to being a member of the PNT Advisory Board, Jeroen is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Science Technology and Society (STS) at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation at Utrecht University, where he coordinates a research cluster on Environmental Risk Management.

Also available is a lecture given the following week by Arthur Petersen, on Climate Change as a Post-Normal Science. Arthur Petersen is the Director of the Methodology and Modelling Programme at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.


Not Normal Times

Posted March 21st, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

I have a question for Kevin Vranes, who maintains that Gore is “representing scientists in a more prominent way than any scientist”: How could anyone represent “scientists”? Has he ever heard the phrase “herding cats”? (It was my informal job description when I worked at the NAS.) When you need a herded group of cats to then agree on a report, there is a lot that is going to be left out, which can be much more interesting than what stays in. Writing those reports is an art.

There is a good reason for this. Scientists have an incentive to be conservative and skeptical. Professional reputations are at stake and are at greater risk from accepting a false correlation than from rejecting a true one – as was explained in greater detail by Jerry Ravetz in this earlier post, but he credits Kristen Shrader-Frechette for first bringing this to public attention. In basic scientific research, chances are, nobody will ever hear about what was missed. Not so in the use of science to inform policy.

Assuming the objective of policy is to avoid harm, the greater risk is that of rejecting a true correlation. In a policy context, use of the more stringent standard used in laboratory research makes it more likely that danger will be overlooked. Those who have to actually respond to a crisis will therefore have a greater incentive to consider a worst case scenario as the basis for decision-making, at least in theory. In practice, sometimes it takes the actual occurrence
of a worst case event to start planning for one. For example, according to Pat Mulroy from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who was among the speakers at the symposium I recently attended regarding the Colorado River Compact, water planning for SNV had been based on models that demonstrated a zero probability of a drought of the magnitude of the current drought in the western US. Now they plan based on worst case scenarios, and will never believe probabilities again. The drought also provided an opportunity to put in place permanent water conservation measures for which western water law notoriously creates a disincentive. (The water used to maintain a virtual reality in Vegas is considered an investment).

The notion that Gore exaggerates is consistent with the stories told about him by The New York Times in their continuing War on Gore, and by Sen. Inhofe who defines anyone who believes the debate is settled that humans are causing global warming, as an alarmist. But Gore did not say the sighting of one manatee far up the Atlantic coast is a sign of warming, any more than I proclaimed 73 degree weather in January in Muddy Spring (in the DC area), and the flowers in my yard to be a clear indicator of it. (I’m not the only one who noticed.) Nor is every statement that comes from the mouth of a scientist a scientific one. We read about such abnormalities now on an almost daily basis. When Gore referred to out of place manatees, more fires in the west that have accompanied the warmer temperatures and drier soils, and to other unusual things, he was making general observations, and was probably just voicing a common perception that these are not normal times, rather than making a scientific statement. Actually, these are Post-Normal Times, and if we had to have a full study for every statement, policy would be irrelevant – we would probably all be dead first. This was among the points made most forcefully by the Native Alaskan speakers at the Climate Crisis Action Day rally yesterday – if you want to find out what is going on, just ask their hunters! Even scientists come to them to find out what is going on. So, while valuing good science, lets give some credit to the local and experiential knowledge that we all have, which can also serve to validate science.

My thoughts on the hearings overall – I was glad to hear greater emphasis on bold response options. I hope it doesn’t take a worst case scenario to make them feasible to implement. I was disappointed not to hear more emphasis given to improving public transportation infrastructure, which he did not address until the very end, when asked about it by our new Maryland Senator, Ben Cardin. Thank you Ben. And thank you Al. I don’t see anyone else up to the challenge of making it all happen…

If you are still with me, go to and sign the petition… image0005