Further to Censorship in science journalism,
Today, people have an unshakable faith in science. Newspaper articles often start with, “Scientists say…,” without ever actually naming the “scientists” as if the word is coming down from on high through the scientific priesthood. When involved in a debate, people often resort to, “The science says…,” or “What does the science say?” to support their argument. Science, it seems, is the Ultimate Authority. People believe that science can give us truth. We are told that we cannot trust ourselves, we must bow to the higher wisdom of science:  “We need to know that instinct is no substitute for the neutral evaluation of a hypothesis.” Otherwise intelligent people say this as if such things as absolute truth and “neutral evaluation” actually exist. More.
Good point re media tendency to uncritically accept “approved” science.
Some thoughts though: There is indeed “absolute truth” but humans rarely have access to it.
“Neutral evaluation” isn’t possible because everyone operates from a position, otherwise known as a bias. If you are a journalist, your bias is just where you happen to be standing. If one is writing a science story for Parents’ Magazine, one writes differently than one would write for This Week in Biology. Or for Japan Times or Today’s Baptist.
In addition to bias, there is also prejudice: The assignment of greater truth or excellence to what one prefers than the facts warrant. One can try to control for prejudice in journalism, but not bias. Put another way, the fact that a given scientist happens to be Japanese will necessarily be much more important to Japan Times than to a U.S.-based parents’ mag. That’s an inevitable bias. Prejudice would mean that that fact controls one’s understanding of the story, disregarding other factors.
The third element, the elevation of “science” to some sort of religion, is widespread among science journalists. It often prevents hard questions from being asked. Recently, we’ve been giving side glances to the growing uproar around “climate science” (sometimes one wonders if there is such a thing).
The one thing I can say for sure is, many science writers do approach climate change as if it were a religion. As if it were their duty to dismiss skepticism. I’ve witnessed that, and it felt embarrassing to the profession.
When such people say “the science is settled,” they mean somewhat the same thing as I mean by “I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The difference is, they don’t recognize the trait in themselves. Many think they are doing science journalism when they would be better described as educating the public about what they believe, akin to the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
That’s why it is so important to keep saying, “There is no such thing as settled science.”
– O’Leary for News
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