Is Good Scientific Journalism Possible?

I have spent the better half of the past six months trying to understand one thing: how can you effectively present primary scientific literature to the general public? Is this even possible?

There are many facets of scientific journalism, but I am only concerned with one here. First, I am not concerned with the coverage governmental scientific policy, biographical coverage of individual scientists, or other “newsy” work.  I am strictly concerned with the communication and education of the general public of primary scientific information (i.e. what scientists know and publish in their respective academic forums).

In September, I attended an interesting seminar, titled, “The Informed Science Journalist: How Much Science Do You Need to Know?” led by UBC journalism Professor Stephen Ward. During the discussion, one theme in particular caught my attention: you don’t have to have any background in science to write about science. Anyone with a keen interest for a field and sharp mind can write about anything, from philosophy to advanced string theory to climate modeling.

Is this true? Although, arguably a required place to start, is a keen interest sufficient?

During the past few months, I have spent entire days locked up in my office, writing my first manuscript to be submitted to a peer reviewed scientific journal. While doing so, I have come to realize the following: details can change everything. There are a number of assumptions I have been forced to make while analyzing my data, many of which are critical for both my methodology and the development of few of my arguments. Why? Often, the information I require simply isn’t available (the studies haven’t been done, or the studies that exist are based on assumptions of their own). Now, please don’t jump on this as being “unscientific” – assumptions are inevitable, and that is after all why biologists make use of model organisms, and why physicists make use of theory without experimentation – to think, to prod, and to make progress.

Now, can someone unfamiliar with a particular field, nay, a sub-discipline of that field, recognize these assumptions for what they are? I can trace the lineage and development of a number of critical assumptions through my sub-discipline’s literature that have proven to be incorrect. Ultimately, the focus of the entire field was reshaped, and its direction changed forever as a result of a few “estimations” and assumptions.

Similarly, last year I was involved in organizing a student directed seminar concerned with covering the seminal work of my field over the past 30 years. Three of us canvassed resident professors, professional researchers, and professors and grad students across the world (literally) asking them for their top 20 articles.

I was blown away: many of these papers had become nearly obsolete (nearly obsolete, simply because their work was in of itself worthy of admiration for its brilliance). Why? You guessed it – a few key assumptions proven to be incorrect.

How do you explain to someone the relative magnitude of these assumptions? I’ve often caught myself saying, “Well, 10% error is nothing to be worried about. Its the real world, things aren’t that simple.” Surely 10% isn’t much, but what about 50%? 10 fold? I’ve come across all of these, and justified every one to my colleagues, all whom agreed with me.

Why? There exists a certain type of intuition associated with information – when you become very familiar with a topic, some things feel more or less “right”. I have a ‘feeling’ what is more or less likely to hold up to scrutiny, just as I can usually tell if someone is trying to pull my lab coat over my eyes.

As a reporter, how do you effectively cover an article laden with valid assumptions, some likely to be correct, many likely to be incorrect? Let us use climate models as an example. In order to avoid long computing times, the use of super computers, or simply (and usually) because the information does not exist, modelers are forced to typically make 100′s of assumptions when devising their code. Now, I’m not saying these models are not at all useful. Smart modelers have determined ways of lining up their assumptions with observations of the real world (often, modelers must predict what we already know to verify their assumptions – i.e. does it work?).

Here, the same problem exists – how do you, the science journalist, determine which of these assumptions could bring the entire model crashing down? Furthermore, if such an linchpin exists, is it an important one? How important? Is it likely to be incorrect? How likely? Unfortunately, these questions have no definitive answers, except with respect to each other, and with respect to the particular researcher.

Thus, it appears only the ‘scientist’ can effectively explain the scope of their work to the general public, assuming they have that ability. The socially inept individuals aside, could the front-line scientists replace science journalists, since they are the most familiar with their own assumptions (and thus the likelihood they are wrong)?

I think the answer is fairly obvious – no. Scientists are humans, and humans have emotions (not all scientists put Spock up on his fairly deserved pedestal). Therefore, this is the same as asking a politician to tell his electorate how his motivation for running for office isn’t a personal one. Following that argument, competing scientists could not cover their colleagues work either, for friendships or grudges might get in the way.

Who’s left? Everyone on the fringe – those in other fields with a solid understanding in your own, without any of the personal relationships (previous supervisors/bosses/friends/foes/etc) to bias their opinion (there is always bias, but the point is to minimize it).

Does such a network exist? I do not think so. However, it is the only viable solution to a problem that will only get worse as time goes on, andthe leading and developing scientific theories further creep into our everyday lives – a international group of scientists dedicated to the self promotion of their trade via the coverage of their distant colleagues work. The only question is, would anyone scientists step up to such a cause?

Ultimately, I think the majority of the public doesn’t truly understand what ‘scientific theory’ means – either they are overly suspicious of anything scientific, or overly accepting of the ‘word of the white lab coats’. In either case, scientific journalists only add to this confusion when sensationalizing recently published work, only to be discredited (the scientists, not the journalists) when something new comes along.

I’m not a professional journalist, but I am a scientist. So, whether any of this was insightful – let me know. If any of it is ludicrous, throw a comment my way. If you have suggested readings, I will give you a giant hug.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com

15 Responses to “Is Good Scientific Journalism Possible?”

  1. Jurgita

    I find this article very useful to read and I am very happy that I found it (by accident) on the internet. I am a junior scientist and working in the scientific organisation. I have a big interest in communicating our research to the different audience (youth, general public) and I guess it is really important that people (in this case scientists, researchers) talk about importance of their work themselves. I spend a lot of time reading about methods in communicating important scientific issues to the communities and our institute tries to find the best key methods how to reach different audience. We do not look for (neither recruiting) any journalist who could write an article about science, we find suitable person in our team who is responsible for it.
    Thank you again for this article.

  2. Nancy Shaw

    This is indeed an interesting question. Is good scientific journalism possible, when even amoung scientists there is often no consensus.

    I have (admittedly old) Bachelor of Science (Forestry) and I worked 20 years in seismic exploration in the oil patch. In those twenty years I worked daily with master’s and phd’s in geophysics. Even when there was dire economic need (price of oil at that time was only $20 a barrell and competition was do or die) to communicate clearly – it was like pulling teeth to get anyone to do so. Words so mired in obscure terminology that even peers didn’t quite clearly understand – was common. It seemed to me that it was a defence mechanism. More complicated anything sounded, it must be important.

    A scientific journalist needs to be clever and discerning. A good background in scientific process is important. And a realization that everyone (even the most loftiest Phd) is hampered by some lack of information and entrenched viewpoints. Its a very humbling goal to try to explain the complexities of science to people whose expertise is something else.

    Jurgita’s comment is true – the best advocate for any work is the person themself. But often that falls short and they are unable to simplify in any real way.

  3. Robert Okemwa Onsare

    Being a scientific journalist is as challenging as any other profession. It take experince to become proficient.

  4. Robert Okemwa Onsare

    Events a round the globe are demanding urgent attention – here in Kenya we’re sailing via turburrent waters – prolonged drought, food insecurity, energy crisis as the water level as gone below our wildest dreams, preseving water towers is becoming a nightmere, especially the Mau forest (so long as political interest are not buffered from Mau! darkness seem to linger at the end of the turnnel), climate change and a long shot of vision 2030.

    As a feature writer with The people Daily my background in BSC Electronics Technology is becoming handy as I go out to source stories responding to the way forward: Is Nuclear Energy an Option for Kenya? is my recent undertaking – in collaplation with experts from the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, University of Nairobi.

    It’s is a challenge for all of us with a back groud in science to clearly write on this topics, on the premise of through research. Science is an agent of change, let’s use it; aided with the able tool of simplifying the content for the masses to chew and swallow. Whether we call this scientific journalism – the issue is let’s write, and write – employing the media as a means.

  5. Robert Okemwa Onsare

    IS NUCLEAR ENERGY AN OPTION FOR KENYA?

    By ROBERT ONSARE

    The Kenyan Government is pressing forward with a stubborn hope of harnessing nuclear energy to meet its energy deficit of 3,000 megawatts to complement the current production of 1,100 megawatts.

    The nuclear energy incentive will cost Ksh 80 billion (U$ 1 billion), says David Maina, the director of the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (INST), University of Nairobi .

    If Kenya will afford to start the construction of nuclear power plant by 2010, it will be second to South Africa which has a fully operational nuclear plant. Nigeria and Egypt are too nursing the dream of joining the league of countries that are peaceful users of nuclear technology.

    A senior government engineer, Rolex Kirui, says that they have so far identified the sites for the plant: Kenyan coast and Western Kenya, bordering Lake Victoria . Thus an environmental study is going to start once the Radiation Protection Board and the National Environment Management Authority will approve.

    The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) Director General Dr. Mohammed El Baradei said that for Kenya to realize its industrialization vision, faster, there is need to add nuclear energy in its current energy mix – when he met with President Mwai Kibaki this year.

    Kenya is ranked 22nd in Africa in electricity generation. According to a survey by the Institute of Developmental Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi , by June 2001, Kenya had 537,079 electricity consumers consisting of 465,365 KPLC consumers and 71,718 Rural Electrification Fund consumers.

    This means that about 10 percent of the population has taken up supply of electricity and an estimated 15 per cent access electricity. Yes, the survey projects that Kenyan energy demand will keep on rising at 6.4 per cent per annum. This position must be overcome for heavy and ambitious industrial take off.

    But other experts in the field of nuclear science are calling Kenyan government to reexamine its position. Albeit Baradei his promise that IAEA will provide experts and personnel to train Kenyans on harnessing nuclear energy.

    The president of Mauritius Academy of Science and Technology, Prof. Soodursun Jugessur, says that its pity that Kenya is going in this direction, when the world knows that taking care of the radioactive waste product is a challenge that will register destructive effect to the environment.

    Jugessur proposes that it will be far much considerable if the US $ 1 billion will be invested on renewable energy sources like solar, biomass, geothermal and wind. ?This will lead to job creation.?

    ?Nuclear energy harnessing requires specialized training that goes beyond master?s degree in nuclear science programme that is offered by the INST,? says Michael Mangala, a don and a specialist in nuclear techniques in the institute.

    Mangala says the production of nuclear energy will afford the development of advanced technology infrastructure and usher close partnership with the IAEA and other countries like France that is tapping 80 percent of its energy from nuclear energy in training Kenyan experts in advanced nuclear technology.

    How is nuclear energy generated? For electricity generation, water turns the turbines; but in nuclear energy generation, steam, which comes from radioactive process, rotates the turbines – Uranium is the initial raw material used, Mangala explains.

    ?Studies have proved that nuclear energy is cheaper notwithstanding requiring huge investment costs ? in terms of facilities and human resource,? says Mangala, ?its environmental friendly – without gas emissions.?

    Mangala says that nuclear energy waste management is a serious issue that is holding many countries from exploiting nuclear energy. The wastes, if not well managed can affect the normal functioning of body tissues, which in extreme condition can lead to death.

    “If radioactive materials are stolen they can easily be used by terrorist to achieve their horrific ends,” he says.

    James Wafula a lecture in the INST, a specialist in renewable energy says that as the government is marching forward to exploit nuclear energy; renewable energy options should be explored and exploited with the same enthusiasm.

    Wafula says that notwithstanding that Israel is having an operational nuclear power plant it ranks among the top ten countries in the world in solar energy harnessing using solar thermal system. China , the emerging industrial power house, is the leading in harnessing solar energy, option.

    One million households in Israel make use of solar thermal systems in a nation of seven million people. Israel becomes the first nation to develop a cogeneration machine which harness sunlight to produce thermal energy together with electrical energy at the same time.

    This saves Israel from dependency on fossil fuel to run its industrial and economic machine. Thus the country has made it mandatory for every building to be inbuilt with solar thermal heater.

    According to the IDS researchers, by 2004, 4MW photovoltaic power was installed, yes, by 2007 more than US $ 6million worthy solar systems were in place: A negligible per cent comparing to Israel .

    The renewable expert says Kenya secures 60 per cent of its energy from hydro power which is unreliable from prevailing environmental degradation. Geothermal energy complements with a 10 per cent – the government is projecting to increase it to 15 per cent.

    The don says that a forestation is an urgent concern as biomass supplies 70 per cent of the Kenyan general population energy needs.

    Wafula is of the idea that wind energy is a resource that needs to be exploited. A pilot project that was started in Marisabit generated 250 kilowatts, while two turbines at Ngong generated a sum of 450 kilowatts.

    When the Lake Turkana Wind Power Consortium (LTWP) will be done by, June 2011, 300megawatts will be added to the current energy mix.

    Exploiting renewable energy sources will give majority of Kenyan youth?s job satisfaction; too, he says. They will be involved in the building and installation of household Wind Turbine, an innovation of Hugh Pigott. The Institute of Nuclear Science is set to train potential professionals on the same.

    As Kenyans are struggling to resolve the energy crisis facing it, affordable energy means should be pursued, as the government looks forward to exploit nuclear energy option to bridge the huge energy deficit. Rural areas need to be empowered to exploit renewable energy sources to save the loss of 20-30 per cent of electricity in costs from the technicality of settlement and distance from the generating plants.

  6. Robert Okemwa Onsare

    GREEN CHEMISTRY TIMELY EXPERTS SAY

    By ROBERT ONSARE

    “Green Chemistry is an approach of protecting the environment by reducing industrial at the manufacturing level, and a mean of generating  energy from plants, biofuel,” says Prof. Jacob Midiwo, a lecture at Chiromo Campus,University of Nairobi.

    Midiwo says that if Green Chemistry is embraced it will salvage the country from over dependency on fossil fuel and hydro power that is over stretched from a matrix of factors: climate change, environmental degradation, escalating population, and Kenya’s ambitious vision – to be industrialized by 2030. Green Chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, will leap frog land use – as fuel producing plants can be grown in agricultural marginalized parts of the country.
     
    The choices of crop are diverse – from corn to rapeseed and jatropha. Liquid biofuels include biodiesel derived from plant oils and bioethanol made from sugarcane, maize and other starchy crops.

    It is because of this realization, that propelled, Pan African Chemistry Network researchers and scientists from across the world to hold a workshop on August 25, at Chiromo Campus, University of Nairobi, to deliberate on – how African countries, Kenya, can start harnessing Green Chemistry’s vast applications.

    “Governments in developed and developing countries are putting in place bioenergy targets, with the main drivers being the energy security, climate change and development concerns,” says Njeri  Wamukonya, an energy expert with the UN Environmental  Programme.

    “The question is not so much on whether Africa is ready for a biofuel revolution, but rather can Africa afford to miss the biofuels opportunity,” says Cornelis Van de Waal, an industrial expert from South Africa.

    For long pollution has been dealt with – by struggling to restore its negative effect. But, Green Chemistry seeks to reduce and prevent pollution at its source; thus, sustainable chemistry is out to usher in technologies that will see problems avoided before they happen.
       
    “Green Chemistry is an approach of meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet its needs,” says Prof. Yonas Chebulde of Addis Ababa University, a chemical engineer cum chemistry researcher.

    Prof. Tom Welton of Imperial College,UK, says that Green Chemistry is urgently needed to be harnessed in Sub – Saharan Africa in adding value to its products. It will enable Kenya to decaffeinate coffee before exporting – thus caffeine can be sold in making coca cola soda and the rest of the portion sold as a beverage.

    Through Green Chemistry the African traditional herbs can processed to final products, to substitute and complement drugs importation.

  7. Robert Okemwa Onsare

    GREEN CHEMISTRY TIMELY EXPERTS SAY

    By ROBERT ONSARE

    ?Green Chemistry is an approach of protecting the environment by reducing waste at the manufacturing level, and a mean of generating  energy from plants, biofuel,? says Prof. Jacob Midiwo, a lecture at Chiromo Campus,University of Nairobi.

    Midiwo says that if Green Chemistry is embraced it will salvage the country from over dependency on fossil fuel and hydro power that is over stretched from a matrix of factors: climate change, environmental degradation, escalating population, and Kenya’s ambitious vision ? to be industrialized by 2030. Green Chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, will leap frog land use ? as fuel producing plants can be grown in agricultural marginalized parts of the country.
     
    The choices of crop are diverse – from corn to rapeseed and jatropha. Liquid biofuels include biodiesel derived from plant oils and bioethanol made from sugarcane, maize and other starchy crops.

    It is because of this realization, that propelled, Pan African Chemistry Network researchers and scientists from across the world to hold a workshop on August 25, at Chiromo Campus, University of Nairobi, to deliberate on ? how African countries, Kenya, can start harnessing Green Chemistry’s vast applications.

    “Governments in developed and developing countries are putting in place bioenergy targets, with the main drivers being the energy security, climate change and development concerns,” says Njeri  Wamukonya, an energy expert with the UN Environmental  Programme.

    “The question is not so much on whether Africa is ready for a biofuel revolution, but rather can Africa afford to miss the biofuels opportunity,” says Cornelis Van de Waal, an industrial expert from South Africa.

    For long pollution has been dealt with – by struggling to restore its negative effect. But, Green Chemistry seeks to reduce and prevent pollution at its source; thus, sustainable chemistry is out to usher in technologies that will see problems avoided before they happen.
       
    ?Green Chemistry is an approach of meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet its needs,? says Prof. Yonas Chebulde of Addis Ababa University, a chemical engineer cum chemistry researcher.

    Prof. Tom Welton of Imperial College,UK, says that Green Chemistry is urgently needed to be harnessed in Sub ? Saharan Africa in adding value to its products. It will enable Kenya to decaffeinate coffee before exporting ? thus caffeine can be sold in making coca cola soda and the rest of the portion sold as a beverage.

    Through Green Chemistry the African traditional herbs can processed to final products, to substitute and complement drugs importation.

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