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Thursday, 25 June 2009

EDITORIAL: Science is a method, not a beat

I won't bore you with another article supporting Simon Singh's right to say he thinks something is bogus if he wants to. But I would like to comment on an issue that I think underlies Simon's predicament, and that gets to the heart of why I think science journalism is different than most other branches of journalism.

It comes down to this. I don't believe you can properly write about science by just reporting what scientists say and do and write and spend. You have to understand what science is, and what its rules are, and be able to figure out whether any particular discovery or development was arrived at according to those rules. If it wasn't, it is your job either to make that clear, or to withhold publicity from the unworthy research in favour of something better.

In a sense, this means that all science journalists are, or should be, advocates. Not for the scientists or fields they are writing about, certainly not for the scientific establishment, but for the scientific method. For asking the right questions and doing the right experiments. For being cautious when caution is indicated.

By the same token, we should also be critics, constantly asking whether the assumptions underlying a piece of work make sense and the conclusions arrived at logically using sound data. That makes us more not just reporters, but analysts.

It is precisely this knowledge of, and commitment to, the scientific method that makes science journalists special. In the 1990s, I did a masters in journalism and one of my biggest arguments with the philosophy of the course was that we were taught that 'a good reporter can write about anything.' I didn't buy it. A good, smart journalist without a hard deadline, maybe. Maybe. Otherwise you need someone who can start at least halfway up the mountain of the new scientific finding to be understood, not at the bottom. That takes a specialist.

This is why the recent trend to lay off science journalists (reported in the last issue) is such a big deal. It's not about jobs for the boys and girls. It's about science losing advocates at a time when it is already under pressure from pseudoscience (particularly in the UK), religion (particularly in the US) and superstition.

With hindsight, I think that Simon could have been more careful in his use of language in his piece in The Guardian for which he is now being sued. But I think that, at heart, he was simply doing what we all, I hope, try to do every day. He was standing up for science, and objecting to those who wanted scientific credibility without undergoing scientific scrutiny. Error of judgment or not, he should be applauded taking this stand.

Sunny Bains
Editor, TSR