Neil deGrasse Tyson: How the 24/7 news cycle compromises science
The race to be first in science journalism is hurting science.
Neil deGrasse Tyson was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in the public schools clear through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science. Tyson went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia. He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium. His professional research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. Tyson obtains his data from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as from telescopes in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and in the Andes Mountains of Chile.Tyson is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid "13123 Tyson".
Tyson's new book is Letters From an Astrophysicist (2019).
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I remember some years ago, 20 years ago, anytime I was interviewed by a journalist, a print journalist, the print journalism is taking what I said and turning it into an article. So it has to pass through the journalist, get processed and then it becomes some written content on a page. One hundred percent of those experiences the journalist got something fundamentally wrong with the subject matter. And just an interesting point about the power of journalists. I had people read the article and say Neil, you must know better than that. That's not how this works. They assumed the journalist was correct about reporting what I said. Not that I was correct and that the journalist was wrong. Okay, this is an interesting power that journalists have over whether you think what they're writing is true or not.
I even had a case – I have one brother and a sister. I had a case where they misreported that I had two brothers. And I had a friend of mine who had been a friend for five or ten years say Neil, I just read – I didn't know you had two brothers. And I said I don't. Well it says it right here. This is the power of journalism. A mistake becomes truth. That was decades ago. In recent years what I think has happened is there are more journalists who are science fluent, that are writing about science than was the case 20 years ago. So now I don't have to worry about the journalist missing something fundamental about what I'm trying to describe. And reporting has been much more accurate in recent years I'm happy to report. However, there's something that has not been fixed in journalism yet. It's their urge to get the story first, the science story, the breaking news about a discovery. The urge to get it first means they're reporting on something that's not yet verified by other scientific experiments. If it's not yet verified it's not there yet. And you're more likely to write about a story that is most extraordinary. And the more extraordinary is the single scientific result, the less likely it is that it's going to be true.
So you need some restraint there or some way to buffer the account. I don't want you to not talk about it but say this is not yet verified, it's not yet this, it's not yet that. And it's been criticized by these other people anyway so be more open about how wrong the thing is you're reporting on could be. Because otherwise you're doing a disservice to the public. And that disservice is you'll say people out there say scientists don't know anything. Well what gives you that idea? Well one week cholesterol is good for you and the next week it's bad for you. They don't know what they're doing. That's on the frontier. On the frontier, science is flip-flopping all the time. Yes, if you're going to report from the frontier it looks like scientists are clueless about everything. You take a few steps behind the line where experiments have verified and reverified results that's the stuff for the textbooks. That's the stuff that is objectively true. That's the stuff you should be paying attention to. That's the stuff you should be thinking about laws and legislation related to that.
You speak to journalists and say we need a fair and balanced article. So if you say this we will go to someone else with the opposite view and that way it's fair and balanced. Um, where do you draw the line? You realize Earth goes around the Sun, right? Oh yes, of course. If someone says the Sun goes around the Earth are you going to give them equal time? Well, of course not because that's just ridiculous. Fine. Now, how about how much column space you're giving to climate change. Well, there are scientists who say it's real and there's scientists who say it's not so we're giving them equal time and equal space. Are they equal in the literature? No. Are they equal in impact? No. Are they equal in any way? No. Except in your journalistic philosophy you want to give more column space to something that is shown to be false by the consensus of observation and experiment that's out there.
And you think you're honoring your journalistic credo but you're not. Not on that level. It's like saying the Sun goes around the Earth as far as I'm concerned. That's patently absurd to you. So you've got to know where you draw that line because with matters of science it's not simply what's the other opposite opinion I can get on it. Look to see how much scientific agreement has descended upon that statement. And if there's not much agreement then fine, talk about the whole frontier. There's plenty of that. Just go to any scientific conference. You want to get multiple views on something that's where you'd get it. But the moment something enters the canon of objective knowledge and objective truths that's the kind of emergent truth we have with climate change. Humans warming the planet. That's the kind of agreement we have in scientific research.
Oh, you think it's some other way. That's odd. If you went to your doctor and you have some ailment the doctor says you take this pill, which three percent of all research says will cure you. Or you can take this pill which 97 percent of all research says will cure you. Which one are you going to walk away from the doctor's office with? The 97 percent pill of course. Yet, you walk out of there and say oh, I believe the three percent who say we're not warming the planet. This is irresponsible. Plus it means you don't know how science works. It's not your fault. It's the educational system and that's what I'm working on.
- Journalists writing about science have become more science fluent over the past 20 years, but the need to be first and the practice of giving equal exposure to opposing views regardless of scientific evidence (e.g. climate change) has been detrimental to the public's understanding of the facts.
- Reporting on science from the "frontier" doesn't provide the full picture because it doesn't give scientists time to verify and re-verify the results of experiments.
- Journalists have more power than scientists when it comes to disseminating information, so it's their inherent responsibility to get the facts right.
- The Evolving Role of Journalists in the New Science-Media Ecosystem ›
- 3 Tips for Avoiding Fake News in Science - Big Think ›
- Steven Pinker on Writing About Science - Big Think ›
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