Science is Not a Balancing Act

Author:  Tran Cathy
Institution:  Biopsychology/Professional Writing
Date:  July 2005

There is a clash of cultures between scientists and journalists,a conflict that does not bode well for the public's understanding of science. The fundamental principles of journalism rest on accuracy and balance. To appear unbiased, journalists who report controversial scientific issues often portray opposing views as being equally valid (Nelkin 1995; Dunwoody 1999). However, this type of "balance" distorts the way the scientific process works because science is empirical. Within the scientific community, systematic evidence shows that there are often sides that carry more weight than others. Therefore, artificially balancing scientific theories misleads the readers, often enabling maverick science to gain an amount of recognition disproportionate to the evidence.

Objectivity, accomplished through the verification of information and balance in presentation, is a hallmark of journalism (Westersthal 1983). Ninety-one percent of the journalists in the United States, for example, report that the maintenance of an objective standpoint is "very important" to them (Donsbach & Klett 1993). Such a practice enables journalists to appear impartial, which gives them credibility, increased public appeal, and therefore a wider audience. Given the apparent benefits associated with objectivity, it is ironic that a journalist's quest for credibility may sometimes concomitantly lead to a compromise of accuracy.

The act of "balancing" conflicting claims of truth is not an appropriate strategy for presenting science. Unlike some other subjects, such as politics, science is empirical,meaning its findings are measurable in nature. By definition, science is "a rigorous, systematic use of observations and logic to attempt to support or falsify possible explanations of natural phenomena" (Aliff 2004). Contradicting scientific results stem from the nature of science because numerous replications often lead to different results by chance, ambiguity, or alternative explanations, but this does not mean all views are equally valid. Most people would agree that Babe Ruth is a baseball legend, yet not all of his games were flawless. Taken individually, his performance in any one game could either support or refute such a claim. Similarly, in science it is crucial to take into account the overall evidence for a theory before a reaching a conclusion.

Scientific media articles often fail to distinguish well-supported perspectives from those that rest on evidentially shaky ground. The media as a community pressures journalists to practice "balanced" reporting in order to appear unbiased. The American media, for example, used to give equal credibility to the Tobacco Institute's view that smoking improves health and the American Cancer Society's view that smoking causes cancer, despite the lack of non-industry reports that supported the Tobacco Institute's claim (Rosen 1993). As a result, it was not until the deaths of millions of misinformed smokers that such inaccuracies in reporting were acknowledged.

Even in the nation's most prominent newspapers, the issue of "balancing" can create inaccurate reporting. In a letter to his editors written in 2003, John Carroll of the Los Angeles Times expressed concerns that an "unbalanced" scientific article may perpetuate the criticisms that the newspaper holds a liberal bias (Los Angeles Observed 2003). The letter was directed towards Scott Gold, a reporter who wrote an article on the controversial theory of a possible link between abortion and breast cancer. Gold's article discounted the link, and for good reasons. At a meeting of the National Cancer Institute in 2003, the theory was dismissed by over a hundred scientists, with only one dissenter (Kaiser Foundation 2003). However, a "balanced" report is expected to give both sides equal credibility, and for this reason Gold's article was singled out for criticism.

Many science topics,such as stem cell research, abortion, and evolution,have become loaded with political perspectives and implications, whether or not journalists intend to present them as such. Therefore, if a journalist asserts that one scientific view garners more support than another (an objective fact), the readers may deduce that the article is supporting a particular political view (a subjective implication). In order to avoid turning off readers by exhibiting an apparent "political bias," journalists and editors are pressured to give a more "balanced" report of science.

The reality is that balanced reporting is biased,it is biased towards the views of maverick scientists and those who know how to manipulate the media by using such techniques to their advantage. The routine of balancing science news can be used to push government agendas, such as in the case of global warming. The scientific community holds a strong consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are fueling the greenhouse effect, yet the media has exaggerated the scientific debate about climate change by portraying opposing views as being equal (Starr 2002). Balanced reporting has led the majority of Americans to believe that "until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs" (Sterman 2002). In 1998, The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo that outlined strategies to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences" (Mooney 2004). The nature of balanced scientific reporting feeds into this goal – is that what we want?

Society is increasingly affected by science, and public understanding of science is critical for the advancement of scientific developments and enactment of scientific policies. For the majority of citizens, scientific news comes from the media (Nelkin 1995). Accordingly, journalists hold a very influential role, and it is crucial that scientific findings are accurately reported. In scientific reporting, it is imperative to recognize that "balance" is not synonymous with accuracy. Accuracy means investigating claims and reporting the consensus from the scientific community. It means reporting experimental assumptions and procedures that underlie scientific findings. It means giving equal and unbiased consideration to both sides of an argument, but not necessarily concluding that both sides are of equal validity. Accurate reporting leaves readers with enough information to weigh the evidence for competing claims and to recognize the direction in which science is going, allowing them to truly realize the importance of science.


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