Will human nature drag down science journalism?

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at New York Magazine, where he runs The Science of Us, a website about the science of human behavior. He wrote a series of articles about the Michael LaCour scandal as it unfolded.

A former science writer, Sharon Dunwoody is Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has taught science journalism and science communication in the school for more than 30 years.

Alex Berezow is the founding editor of RealClearScience. A member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, his work also regularly appears in the Economist. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

Former GJR managing editor Ben Lyons recently asked each about their outlook on social science reporting today. What follows are his questions and their responses.


Q: I’m interested in where you see the state of social science reporting in general. What about its future?

JS: The future is bright, I hope! The good news is that people do seem to have an appetite for distillations of this sort of research, which can only be a good thing for society. The bad news is that a lot of that journalism isn’t fantastic, and that university press shops often distribute misleading press releases that overstate studies’ findings. All we can do is hope is that social-science journalism continue to replenish itself with talented young people who are fascinated by human nature and willing to report on it with nuance — and not fall for splashy findings that don’t hold up.

SD: A growing number of communicators/journalists see the social sciences as fertile ground for reporting, so I believe this arena will continue to expand over time.  Some reasons for that:

  • Managing the major issues of the day calls for a deep understanding of human nature and behavior. For example, doing something about a warming globe is a human problem, not a technological one.  So increasing numbers of people, policy makers among them, express a need for information about behavior.  That makes social science research newsworthy.  As a result, some social scientists — such as Dan Kahan and Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale or Daniel Kahneman at Princeton — are approaching “visible scientist” status.
  • Editors and others who make news decisions have, for decades, privileged stories about social science research. Studies that examine coverage of science in the media typically find that the most popular “genre” is social science.  Systematic study of human beings is compelling to, well, other human beings.
  • There are always a few highly visible social science journalists and other types of communicators who keep this kind of research on the public agenda. Among the current crop are Radio Lab and NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. Even columns like the NYT’s “The Upshot” delve regularly into social science topics.

AB: Science journalism, in general, isn’t sufficiently skeptical. (And by “skeptical,” I don’t mean a connotation as in “climate skeptic,” but as in proper scientific skepticism.) We need to see more questions being asked like, “Are the appropriate methods being used to address the questions the researchers are seeking to answer?” “Do the conclusions go beyond what the data says?” “What does the rest of the literature say on this topic?” I think if journalists took the time to investigate these questions, we would see far less hype and far less inaccurate science reporting.

Social science (particularly psychology) gets a lot of coverage by journalists because it’s click-baity and easy to write about. Toss in the problems I mentioned above, and you’ve got a recipe for substandard reportage. I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of room for improvement in social science reporting.

The future for science journalism appears bright because many practicing scientists and researchers (or at least people who were trained in science) choose to write. They can apply their expertise and analyze new research in ways that many journalists simply cannot. One of the things on which RealClearScience prides itself is a staff that is entirely trained in the hard sciences.


Q: Do you think the Michael LaCour scandal reflected anything about the public climate surrounding social science research today? Or alternately, what might the LaCour scandal say about the relationships among social science, the media and the public?

JS: It’s all really, really complicated. There are countless problems in social science right now in terms of statistical trickery on the part of researchers, the proliferation of not-amazing journals, and so on. These are conversations that need to occur within the social science.

One interesting aspect is the ease with which notable findings quickly filter down to the media, and therefore to everyone else. So many major publications covered the LaCour findings. On paper, this is a good thing — more people should know about the social sciences. But it also compounds the damage when something like this occurs.

SD: I think the LaCour scandal blew right over the heads of most Americans.  The incident certainly fits within the larger arena of scientific fraud — a topic that does get an increasing amount of public attention — but I suspect that it will have little influence on public perceptions of social science research.  Those perceptions are not all that positive, by the way.

AB: There’s always a temptation to make a name for oneself, be it in the hard sciences or soft sciences. I think this is particularly true for fields that receive a lot of press coverage — usually fields that are trendy, politically sensitive, or competitive. Stem cell research, for instance, is all three, and it has had a lot of high-profile problems with fraud. Psychology also has quite a bit of fraud. I think the LaCour scandal simply reminds us of the fallibility of mankind. Researchers are people too, and they face the same temptations as everybody else.


Q: Outing scientific fraud obviously strengthens science. But outright fraud is, to our knowledge, extremely rare. Do you feel any tension in the media amplifying public skepticism of all scientific findings in doing so?

JS: Nope. I edit a website about social science — clearly I think there’s value in the enterprise overall, and that the world would be a better place if people took a more “scientific approach” — basically just shorthand for evidence-based approaches — to various problems. I think the LaCour scandal is a fascinating one and a pretty amazing story so far, and that there’s value in uncovering the details. The only people who are going to come away from this thinking that the proper response is to distrust science qua science were already predisposed to that position anyway.

SD: There is always a risk in highlighting the aberrant.  I do worry that audiences will use anecdotal information to make inferences about scientists in general. I think someone needs to write about this in “The Upshot”!

AB: Yes, there is some tension. On the one hand, we need to report instances of fraud, but on the other hand, there is the possibility that over-reporting will cause the public to think that fraud is rampant in science — which then undermines hot-button discussions on vaccines, GMOs, nuclear power, climate change, evolution, etc. Those issues are hard enough to talk about without also having to address overblown concerns over fraud.

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