Tuesday, August 22, 2017

By Sean Hays (CNS ASU), reporting the first day Keynote Address, Gina Kolata

Keynote speaker Gina Kolata, an award-winning science writer for The New York Times, attempted to answer the question, what is the rightful place of science, from the perspective of its role in journalism, and her role as a journalist. She offered what can only be described as the traditionalist’s representation of science, as the producer and purveyor of objective and useful truths to society. Science, in Mrs. Kolata’s understanding, is an enterprise apart from society, precisely because of its dedication to the scientific method of inquiry, and its rules of evidence. She added some nuance to this by claiming that, in addition to providing the objective truths necessary for autonomy and collective action, science was a purveyor of beauty and creativity on par with art, an example of this was the elegant proof of Fermat’s final theorem. In essence, her position was that science was both a unique epistemology—in the way that it structures how we can, or, more controversially, should understand the world—as well as an ontology of special importance, in how it both orders existence and provides a guide for how to alter that order. She claimed that the rightful place of science, as she articulated it, was being perverted by several aspects of science journalism, and journalism in general.

Science’s role as epistemology is being distorted as journalism ignores the rules of scientific evidence, and does not demand adequate empirical evidence when citing scientific studies, such as the relatively unproven x-ray guided steroid injections for tendon inflammation. It perpetuates urban legends, like the much-feared “Pharm Party” pursued by Jack Schafer at Slate magazine, when it credulously reports on such phenomena without demanding evidence or testimonials. Science is ignored because its “truth” is inconvenient, like the extensive evidence that obesity mitigation efforts in schools had no measurable effects on American children in two large N, controlled studies. Journalists or other scientists never cited the scientific papers offering this evidence, because it was not the message the public wished to hear about how “the obesity epidemic” could be, or should be managed. The credulous citing of correlations as being evidence of causal relationships, as in stories where it was reported that reductions in drug use, alcohol use, and increases in public aid had produced a decrease in murders during the 90’s, is yet another example of the journalistic distortion of science. There was no evidence of a causal relationship, and, in fact, some evidence of a causal relationship between community policing efforts and the decrease in violent crime. Finally, some financial arrangements incentivize the distortion of scientific results, i.e. to perpetuate public programs or to sell commercial products. Mrs. Kolata concluded by arguing that the ideal place for science is one where it is politically and social influential, without being diluted by journalistic, market, and political manipulation.

Jane Maienschein, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, rebutted Mrs. Kolata’s claims by asking why science journalists do not try to help resolve this situation by offering greater historical context when they report on scientific and technological developments. Mrs. Kolata had cited the reporting on the cloning of Dolly the sheep as one example of science’s ability to provide powerful, beautiful narratives to shape how the public perceives the world in which it lives, and Dr. Maienschein responded that it was a perfect example of decontextualized reporting. The story that was sold was of a lone genius in the Scottish highlands “discovering” cloning, when Dolly was actually the outcome of a long history of cloning research and development. She claimed that such context would have changed the public’s reception of Dolly, and cloning. On the other hand, Doug Campos-Outcalt, Associate Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona, suggested that part of the problem was how we produce science journalists, and journalists in general. He was; essentially, offering Cronkite’s advice on how to become a good journalist, do not get a degree in journalism. In the Q & A session, some challenge was offered to Mrs. Kolata’s celebration of the Bush model of linear, objective, and socially powerful science, but, in at least one case, it was suggested that even this was not quite enough in terms of isolating science from distortion by the public it supposedly serves.

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