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Drama, journalism and science

Recently the Jonah Lehrer scandal was raised again when he was paid $20,000 to speak on his journalistic dishonesty by the Knight Foundation. I cynically noted on Twitter that being honest and as accurate as I could be netted me exactly nothing in the way of honoraria (I think I got a bottle of scotch once, for which I was very grateful). The best discussion of the Lehrer affair is this one by Christopher Chabris, professor of psychology at Union College, in which he notes

When the allegations of plagiarism and fabrication came out, the story became one of “greatest science writer of his generation makes unthinkable mistakes,” and the analysis was mostly psychoanalysis of Lehrer’s motives or of the media culture. Entirely lost was the fact that Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs.

The Sun Life on Mars

Entirely lost in such criticisms, though, is that this is not only a failure of the entire field of science reporting, whether on blogs or in published outlets (or both), but of the very field and profession of journalism itself. What you read in the successful mass media is not factual, nor complete, but a story, a narrative. And narratives have to have conflict. They need to have drama, or they will not be published, and if they are, they will not be read.

This is why the “view from nowhere” so criticised by Jay Rosen developed. If you simply report the facts, people’s attention will wander and you will not sell advertising. So if there is no drama, create some. Find an “opposing” view to report, even if it means giving equal weight to the ignorant, the foolish or the simply insane, and if you can’t find a credible enough counteridiot, interview another journalist. Every time a journalist interviews a journalist, you are being offered theatre, not reportage.

There are a few, a precious few, science journalists who rise above this dramatic license, but even they are constrained by the medium. And let us understand the nature of the medium. Mass media are not, contrary to myth, designed to pass on information. They are designed to modify attitudes. This is because they must sell advertising, or, if they are publicly funded, they must compete for audience share with the media that are not so funded, and you don’t get audience share by deliver facts. You get it by engaging the audience. Humans are narrative driven, so facts take at best second place to a story.

Daily Express: Aspirin

The media have at most about a dozen narrative frames. In the field of science, these include The Breakthrough, The Imminent Danger, The Founder, and The Fraudster. Each of these is dramatic, and engaging, and lead to fear or the release of fear (which has usually been constructed in the first instance by previous frames). But anyone who actually works in the field of science, or more generally in an academic or professional field, knows that most of what is reported, even if it is accurate, is the ephemera or epiphenomena of science. The work that scientists actually do is much less dramatic, but by the same token it is far more important than the drama. To understand it takes effort, and to understand the importance of it takes analysis and care, and avoids the view from nowhere. And it is almost never reported. It is not dramatic enough.

Onion Science is hard

For this reason, when you actually study a field, there is little to no narrative. Of course the sciences themselves are not free of narrativity; every textbook tells a story (usually wrong or misleading) that purports to tell students how we got to the point the textbook relates. Historians then spend a lot of time trying to uncover the actual sequence and developments. Popular histories, though, are just another form of journalism, even if they are written by a Bill Bryson or a Dava Sobel, and they often mislead as to facts. This is unsurprising; they are there to tell you stories.

The field of science communication attempts to remedy these lacks by emphasising the need for accuracy and objectivity, but if the very domain in which science communication takes place is corrupt, and I regard it and all journalism as corrupt from its inception, this is papering over the cracks. Science communication is not the solution to the problem of the public misunderstanding of science. Education is. Scientists are not, and should not be, journalists, nor even historians (unless they turn to history of science as a profession, in which case they can often, with some training, be very good at it). They should do science, and the task of communicating their results to the lay public should be handed to those who can really get an understanding out of those willing to make the effort: teachers. Training scientists to be science communicators, as some insist we should do, merely makes them less active scientists, and they will remain unable to communicate science unless they, too, fall into the drama trap and modify attitudes. Facts are not dramatic. All the actual drama is in how people respond to facts, and that is no longer science, nor even science policy, but simple politics.

This has a number of implications. The most obvious is that we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public. The reason why textbooks and monographs are dry is that they do attempt to cover facts, and the different (actual) ideas and approaches, in order to initiate a critical analysis in the reader. You don’t do this with a breathless Dan Brown style of writing. So if we want a better informed populace, and it is vital that we have one, there is only one way to do it: teach the science to students in a non-partisan fashion, and stop making up drama, which is to say, conflict, where there is none. Evolution is not controversial in science, nor global warming, tobacco causing cancer, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers causing massive ecological damage. These are facts in any sense of the word, philosophical debates about factitude notwithstanding. All else is obfuscation for political drama.

Governments should therefore take all educational decisions out of the hands of politicians and pundits. That there should be a public debate is not at issue: this can go on and should do in the public sphere. But unless and until the scientific community is convinced that the objections raised in public are correct, scientifically rather than politically, no amount of noise in the media should have the slightest effect on what is taught.

Mark Twain, to whom all good bons mot not otherwise ascribed to Churchill or Wilde are ascribed, once said (it is claimed):

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.
– “License of the Press,” speech, 31 March 1873

I have said before that I think the greatest disaster for modern society was the invention of public relations and marketing. I include the invention of that particular PR called journalism. As Twain also rightly noted:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.


  1. And we can, of course, add to Twain’s dislike of newsprint an almost certain one for TV.

    • Alas, he left no bon mot. However, I can imagine him saying “For every Breaking Bad there are fifty American Idols.”

      • There is, of course, the quote ascribed to Groucho Marx: “I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a good book.”

  2. It’s worth remembering that Twain was a newspaper man.

    I think your analysis of how journalism usually fails to explain science is excellent, but it’s a little grim. As you point out, humans are narrative driven animals. A good story is always more memorable than any stack of facts. The challenge, for those of us who see the potential for journalism to seek truth and report it, is to find ways of crafting stories that, if necessarily incomplete, are at least fair to the facts. Our stories will never be replacements for the real thing. They are not science, nor are they education. But they can illuminate, inform, and lead people to take an interest in things that matter.

    For Lehrer, there’s no excuse. He just wasn’t a very good journalist to begin with, you’re right. And he’s a fabulist, so he’s completely shunned from the profession now.

    • None of which is denied in my piece above. Stories are not education in themselves, but there is a systematic problem in the media, which I can attest to having worked in the field of PR and media for thirty years.

      And while Lehrer might be shunned (to the tune of $20,000!), what about all the other bad writers. Where’s the filter and checking? Some science magazines I shall not name publish stories about how Darwin was wrong or in fact the world is not warming, and so on, and never retract. What is stopping these journalists? Nothing. The media is set up to reward drama, not information.

      It would be silly to suggest that some information gets through the media; I often use it to check dates, for example. But I have seen everything in an article be wrong despite the attempts of the scientists and myself to ensure that it was correct, and nothing was ever corrected. The industry is the wrong way to inform the population of science.

  3. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    “Mass media are not, contrary to myth, designed to pass on information. “
    Quite. They are aimed at making money for their owners, or spending taxpayers money in a politically acceptable way. I think this has always been true but at one time mass media sold aggregated news and advertisments from far away, then analysed aggregated news, then informed opinion, then polarised opinion. and now – mostly entertainment and entertaining advertisements.

    I gave up my subscription to New Scientist because they were heading down this track.

  4. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    And as a postscript “management” is similarly mutating into a self centred activity.

  5. I think there are genuine narratives of research: stories of success, failure, fraud, madness etc. Telling them is sometimes done by good science journalists, sometimes by scientists themselves, and sometimes by historians of science.

    The bad science journalist cannot see or understand these genuinely scientific dramas and makes up surrogate dramas that you described.

    For an example of a genuinely scientific yet entertaining story, look at the PhD Comic “The Higgs Boson explained” having been published long before the media hype about the experiment last year. No need for external (political or otherwise manipulative drama). Likewise with the double helix story etc. etc.

    If a journalist isn’t able to make a good story from a life of research spent in vain in order to discover or prove something, that tells on the writing skills of the journalist. Stories of failure can be entertaining as well as has been proven by Dennis Chitty’s “Do Lemmings commit suicide?” (he was a researcher though).

  6. This is an excellent piece, John. I was wondering if you could do a “doing it right” piece that shows positive examples of science dissemination. Brian Dunning recently wrote a piece, but it has climate deniers.

  7. Eadgythe Eadgythe

    “…we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public” In that vein, there is a research literature on the rhetoric of science/science communication. A classic article in the discipline that seems germane to this piece is Jeanne Fahnestock’s “Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts,” (Written Communication July 1986 3: 275-296), which traces the changes in scientific observations as they move from original research reports aimed at an audience of scientific peers to popular accounts aimed at the general public. I recommend it highly.

    • Thank you for that link. I now have it and as you say it is excellent. I particularly like the use of Aristotelian categories of rhetoric…

  8. Jeb Jeb

    “But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations”

    I would go for very poorly educated or extremely badly taught rather than stupid. It something of a soothing narrative.

    I like the over- optimism of the 17th century Dublin shoe- maker who thought that with the explosion of printed material and printed sermons that the world would finally be free from the authoritative voice of the Bishop.

    What we got instead was an education system that produced a vast number of authoritative experts keen to emphasis above all how difficult the quest is and how small the numbers involved are.

    The education system has always produced an over surplus of bodies, competition for jobs has always been intense, excuses must be found to justify position.

    It is indeed difficult, we learn slowly by trail and error but I do not think that knowledge is that exclusive and confined to such a tiny group. It just somewhat over- vocal and not particularly keen on an education system in which it actually has to shut up and instead teach people to think, experiment, make errors and actually learn something from the experience.

    • Jeb Jeb

      P.S Don’t widely disagree with what you said. Was thinking of a recent ‘science lesson’ my 12 year old son got. The class was asked to go home and find out if they had a famous relative. He was rather thrilled to learn he is related to a famous poet. He returned from class the next day utterly dejected when asked he said he had not ‘won’ as someones Grampa was called Higgis Boson or something.

      He learned a lot about local social differences and the hierarchy of the school playground ( a place were both parents and children met to play a range of games) and little else I suspect.

  9. Speaking of Twain, one interesting thing about the journalism of his time is that he was a journalist when journalistic hoaxes were the norm. (Twain’s story of the jumping frog of Calaveras County began as a hoax; my screen name comes from a character in one of Poe’s hoaxes.) Literate readers of the time understood that any given story might well be a hoax. I suspect that that may have had some impact on how 19th c. readers approached the news.

    The myth of journalistic objectivity only became sustainable during the period of the Postwar Consensus beginning in the late 1940s. That consensus, however, no longer exists — it began to fall apart in the 1980s, and has been doomed since at least 1989.

    Journalistic objectivity, like the nuclear family, is an invented tradition whose time has come and gone, but not without a lot reactionary hangers-on making things difficult for the rest of us.

    I sometimes think that mainstream journalism should revive the idea of the literary hoax. How would people read the New York Times or the Times (of London) if they knew that at least one story was a knowing hoax?

  10. kt kt

    Haven’t you done any science? “For this reason, when you actually study a field, there is little to no narrative.” WTF????

    All my mathematics is about telling a story — the story of how Young diagrams index torus-fixed points in the Grassmannian, the story of the convergence of this or that sum, the perfect way that representation theory, algebraic geometry, combinatorics, and (!!) statistical mechanics fit together. The unexpected glimpses of structure where you thought there was none. The story of the structure. There is a narrative and a shape to the math alone.

    Moreover, there are the stories of the people: people who thought they were too dumb to figure things out but did, people who accidentally found things they never dreamed about, arrogant people, curious people…

    • I am reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

      Calvin: “I’m not going to do my maths homework. Look at these unsolved problems. Here’s a number in mortal combat with another. One of them is going to get subtracted. But why? What will be left of him? If I answered these, it would kill the suspense. It would resolve the conflict and turn intriguing possibilities into boring old facts.”

      Hobbes: “I never really thought about the literary possibilities of maths.”

      Calvin: “I prefer to savour the mystery.”

      Is that what you had in mind?

  11. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    Dear John

    Me being one of the stupid majority, I think you miss the point of what being stupid is about.

    Lets’ suppose we meet in the local pub and get on to subject of stupid. I say it’s about genes – you are clearly not stupid therefore you have a ‘clever gene’ and I have a ‘stupid gene’. – You disagree with this and say, ‘Its down to nurture not nature.’ – I say, ‘You’re stupid, and if you don’t agree with me I’ll hit you.’ – You say, ‘That is far from a sophisticated attitude.’ – I belt you one.

    Now because I’m only little, do you belt me one back?

    At present clever and stupid is simply demarcated by the letters behind ones name. The haves and the have nots. – I of course have not.

    You, being involved in the teaching of the stupid, ply your trade so the have nots will be educated to have. – Suppose you are supremely successful in this – so everybody has letters behind their name – then how do you differentiate between the clever and stupid?

    • The point is not about stupidity, despite Twain’s comment. It’s about understanding. If you have been taught the basics of science, you are less likely to make stupid comments, but you are not guaranteed not to. The issue is whether we get a critical mass of people who understand science in our society. That need not be that high. Just yesterday the UK Minister for something denigrated geologists:

      If you only have a pool of policy makers who don’t see the value in something like geology, for Gods’ sakes, then you have a society that can make serious stupid mistakes.

  12. Excellent post. As some writers have demonstrated (Gleick, Rhodes, Dyson), it is indeed possible to both tell a story and be accurate. But this is quite difficult; most writers either don’t have the talent or the patience and hard work required to achieve this balance and they end up prizing story over facts.

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