In his new book The War on Science (Milkweed Editions), science writer and ScienceDebate.org chair Shawn Otto describes the ongoing assault on scientific knowledge that is occurring across public life, from our churches to our courts and classrooms, and from the halls of Congress to the pages of our largest newspapers. Otto points to many culprits, but as he explained in comments about the book, it heavily focuses on the role our “broken media” has played in allowing the “war on science” to undermine our collective understanding of the world around us.
Otto identifies many common journalistic failings that he says “aid the slide into unreason,” provide unwarranted support for extreme views, and play into the hands of industry groups and other vested interests to such an extent that they represent a “danger to democracy” itself. Chief among these is what Otto refers to as reporters’ “laissez-faire, hands off view” that “there is no such thing as objectivity,” which has led to false balance in news reports by giving inaccurate claims equal weight to scientific facts.
A primary reason for false balance, according to Otto, is that journalists approach questions in a fundamentally different way from scientists. “Journalists look for conflict to find an angle,” he writes, “so there are always two sides to every story.” A scientist, by contrast, would say that “one of these claims can be shown to be objectively false and it’s poor reporting to paint this as a controversy.” As a result, the journalistic approach “tends to skew public policy in counterfactual directions.”
A good example is climate science denial. Although 97 percent of climate scientists say that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are causing global warming, claims disputing man-made climate change appear far too often in major print and television media. Noting the prevalence of climate science denial in opinion pieces about the historic Paris climate agreement, Otto argues that this kind of misrepresentation “deprives the public of the reliable information necessary for self-governance.”
Otto adds that journalists’ “confusion about the nature of objectivity” has not only enabled the industrial war on science, but also “directly caused” much of it by spurring the development of the public relations industry. Otto argues that reporters’ failure to establish the truth and willingness to cite anti-science views on matters of fact has provided an opening for public relations campaigns to emerge and influence coverage. And indeed, he writes that many journalists ultimately move into the public relations industry themselves, “seeking to manipulate the thinking of their former colleagues in the media.”
At the same time, reporters frequently underestimate the public’s interest in hearing about scientific topics, Otto says. He recounts asking media figures to cover the 2008 presidential candidates’ refusal to debate science policy issues, despite widespread calls for such discussion from major players in the scientific community. But the news directors and editors he spoke to “said they thought it was a niche topic, and the public wasn’t interested.” Otto and others commissioned polling data showing otherwise, but Otto believes that this incorrect media assumption about public disinterest in science persists to this day.
The War on Science also points to another newsroom bias that has worked against science reporting. According to Otto, “There is a long-standing tradition in newsrooms for editors and news directors to forbid political reporters from covering science issues and to rarely place science stories in the political pages.” This might not seem like such a big problem, except that commercial news media have faced tightening budgets and increasing competition from free online news, forcing staff cutbacks. And as Otto points out, “Among the first things to go were the most expensive: investigative and science reporters.”
The end result of all these factors is insufficient coverage of scientific topics like climate change. In remarks discussing the book, Otto noted that moderators completely ignored climate change in the first two presidential debates following the Paris agreement, and observed, “There’s something wrong when you have Leonardo DiCaprio using his Oscar speech to talk about climate change but journalists and presidential candidates are largely ignoring science.”
Of course, there are also some more intentionally nefarious causes of media misinformation on climate change, such as Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon’s infamous 2010 directive that the network’s journalists cast doubt on climate science, which Otto says “set the tone of junk-science skepticism for all Fox News reportage” that followed. And the problem’s not just cable news: Otto writes that the rise of conservative talk radio programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show and right-wing websites have also helped “[o]ne-sided rhetorical arguments backed by outrage and sheer wattage” drown out facts and reason, particularly when it comes to climate science.
So what can be done about it? To start, Otto suggests reporters begin covering the war on science itself. As InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times demonstrated with important investigations into ExxonMobil’s climate change deception, journalists “have a wealth of stories at their fingertips when they start exploring how science is being intentionally misrepresented by vested interests.”
Otto also implores media to devise a “journalistic method” comparable to the scientific method, which could seek to “strip away biases and leave verifiable knowledge.” This could include obtaining a “meta-consensus from fellow reporters,” essentially a journalistic peer review process to ensure that news reports are accurately conveying the known facts.
Otto further argues that reporters can avoid false balance and improve reporting if they “go deeper” into science topics. Here, he cites the impressive work of Minnesota Public Radio News’ Climate Cast, which manages to avoid false balance about the existence of climate change by producing detailed reports on climate impacts and steps being taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Finally, Otto proposes the creation of a National Center for Science and Self-Governance with initiatives focused on journalism, education, elections, religion, law, and more. Otto describes a series of actions the center could take to improve science coverage, including certifying the accuracy of stories, training journalists to cover scientific topics, and honoring journalists who consistently get the science right.