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Mar 16, 2010

Research physicist despairs: on climate change, and beyond, the media fails science

The most important science story in the media right now is climate change, says quantum physicist Ben Buchler -- yet the black and white eyes of the media seem totally incapable of reporting this issue with the nuance that is required.

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11 thoughts on “Research physicist despairs: on climate change, and beyond, the media fails science

  1. Cally Martin

    Clearest article I’ve read on climate change for some time and goes well with Waleed Aly’s comments from qanda last night…

  2. Tom

    Ben, Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ is not only a cracking read but covers in some depth the principal question you raised. He also covers ‘cherry picking’ of data and the regression to mean when ‘a’ party wants to either promote or promote as interesting ..er..um…crap.
    This said, and while 7,9 and 10 do this for a living, it’s very very disappointing that the ABC have resorted to this tabloid tosh. Fav of late was a radio headline saying something like ‘women are 9 times more likely to crash their cars in the 4 months past having born a child’. It seems ‘a study’ (sample size 9 women) were asked if they had ‘nearly’ (but not actually) crashed their cars as a result of fatigue in the 4 months after giving birth as a result of fatigue. They all had, a 100% affirmative result, when will the Minister act on this threat to the lives of young mums, what of the poor babies in the back? Is it a national outrage or absolute bollocks?

  3. bogurk

    Excellent article on the relationship between science and the media. There are a couple of PhD comics that do a very good job of summarising this relationship: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174 and http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1175.

    The point about the simple, easy-to-sell message getting the most oxygen is especially important. I often wonder whether science education in schools needs to increase the focus on scientific and critical thinking before getting into the specifics of a particular topic. What’s the point of understanding Mendelian genetics or Lenz’s law if you don’t first understand that evidence is not the plural of anecdote?

  4. Murray Hillan

    Ben. A really, really good article, but some observations, if I may. Communicating science is one of the most important things scientists can do, yet it very inconsistently done. The Science Show and Chris Smith’s The Naked Scientist are two outstanding examples of how good, highly technical science can be made interesting to a mass audience.

    Yes, people get fixed on stars going boom, (and extra solar planets) and dinosaurs and robots, but that’s because a lot of astronomers (Sagan, Hawking et al) and palentologists and engineers have put blood sweat and tears and years into helping educate the public – quantum physicists need to do that too, not just expect people to “know”.

    The teleportation example show this perfectly – it presuposes a working knowlegde both of the quantum-state and the Heisenberg Principle within the general public. Not very likely. If they hadn’t been able to get the Star Trek link in the story would not have got a run at all!! whose the winner then??.

    That’s where scientists come in. If you don’t like what the journo’s a saying say it better yourself.

    Expand points 1) and 2) by giving people a reason to care about point 3) quamtum physics.

    Incidentally, I think the most gutless thing Australia science has done in recent memory was letting Monckton’s visit go by relatively unchallenged. Saying (as many climate scientists did) that debating him would give him oxygen was an utter own goal. He got oxygen anyway -thank you ABC!.

    The community was let down by not seeing him taken on head to head by someone with profile and cred. Yes it’s hard and complex and it all gets taken out of context, but to my mind its part of the job. Don’t blame the media for taking the easy road.

    For all his faults, Richard Dawkins shows what a commited, articulate scientist with passion can achieve.

  5. Tom McLoughlin

    As a good zoology student, but flunked out honours course withraw after a few months, I’ve got some theories about this:

    1. remember those (f)arts degrees said to dispense from a white roll at uni library toilets? Those are the course of humanities that media folks graduate in. Either they didn’t have the smarts to do science, or perhaps more fairly never had an interest or affinity. They are the media gatekeepers so science loses. Personally I favour the too stupid to get science explanation but that’s probably just bias. These media revel in hyper relativities of the human condition and they see life in a situation drama soap kind of way that drives me to tears at the overall irrelevance and arrogance of humanity to place itself so centrally in everything.

    2. Some scientists are a bit weird. I noticed some of them at uni thinking how come they are such poor communicators – with obvious exceptions above. My theory was they equally lacked balance in their lives perhaps driven that way too by the crushing competition for tiny budgets, becoming neurotic and self absorbed simply for survival. Meanwhile money for Olympic gold medals sloshes around the place signifying just about nothing except western financial incumbency. Pathetic social and governmental priorities really.

    ………..

    PS – I would believe anything medical researcher Dr Maryanne Demasi on Catalyst says, but that’s not for any scientific basis (!).

  6. Roger Clifton

    Creative conflict within science should also be a media opportunity.

    We could hear more of the sparky exchanges between the oh-so-conservative IPCC and the scientists who are working in atmo/hydro fields, seeing much greater disasters of probabilities which don’t reach that level of certainty that the IPCC has been required to maintain.

    Word pictures of possible disasters would delight any TV producer. The fact that the various decays to the climate are being measured as exceeding trends predicted by the IPCC would give the anchorman starting points for any discussion.

  7. Jim Ivins

    Well said Ben – even better than Rundle’s contribution from the UK.

    My personal favorite is the ubiquitous “Australian doctors have made a breakthrough in the treatment of blah….” Cut to headshot of a physician speculating about the practical application of the new discovery which clearly lies at least half a decade in the future. Meanwhile, a dozen Chinese graduate students plough on with the actual research work just out of shot.

  8. davidk

    Great article. I would have thought that there are enough of us interested in how the universe works to give journos and media an incentive to produce incitive pieces instead of all the crap on Lara Bingle et al.

  9. John Bennetts

    Tom McL: You fell straight into the trap of irrelevance, once the farts degree was mentioned. Herein lies another truism: do not offend a large chunk of your audience at the outset – you may need them on your side later.

    That said, the third or fourth point you made in para 2), regarding Olympic irrelevance, is hidden but worthy.

    Hint: Write down in dot-point form the things you might say. Cross out all irrelevant and offensive points. Publish only the remaining 10%, re Olympics and science communication.

  10. edwin coleman

    this is spot on ben, except for your last point:
    “I, along with many other people who work in the natural sciences, can only watch from the sidelines and despair.”
    Not so – your piece itself shows otherwise – keep it up!

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