Welcome to the wonderful world of science journalism, Spidey! Hope you survive the experience!
Because honestly? Most people don’t. The idea that a newspaper would have a devoted Science Editor and a huge staff of employees working solely under him is the most fantastical thing you’ll see in a comic book this week.
I should know. Before becoming the self-appointed Science Editor of AiPT! (now I can say Spider-Man followed in my footsteps!), I was a journalism student. I took a great class from former New York Times staffer Tom Zeller Jr. specifically on science journalism, as that’s what I really wanted to get into. Being a scientist and a skeptic, I get pretty heated about the problematic ways that journalists tend to depict the results of particular studies, and the process of science in general, so I hoped my perspective could help change that.
Then I learned about the job market. It’s hard enough to find a newspaper with a sizeable staff at all, let alone one devoted to science. The rapid decline of print media has eliminated a large percentage of full-time positions, and most reporters are forced to scramble for increasingly competitive freelance work. Science “departments” don’t really exist anymore, as fewer personnel are forced to cover more beats, resulting in stories written by people without much expertise in the subject area.
So I made the tactical decision to keep my less-than-glamorous 9-5 and concentrate on outreach through pop culture, on my own terms. But you — YOU, Peter — have the opportunity to do what’s right for the citizens of the Marvel Universe, and bring them the sensible and nuanced science reporting that they deserve. Please allow me to offer some advice, from one editor to another, on how to do that.
- Avoid false balance. This is probably the most important thing for today’s science journalists to take away. A journalistic rule of thumb is that you can’t be perceived as being biased, so you have to present “both” sides (why not “all” sides?) of an issue.
Trouble there is that sometimes the “other” side has been summarily refuted or is just batshit crazy. There’s no need to entertain global warming deniers (they’re not “skeptics,” as the AP decided in a one step forward, one step back decision) when no one reputable who studies the science actually doubts it. It’s irresponsible to give anti-vaxxers equal time when the paper that started the whole nonsense was retracted ages ago. No one’s knuckling under to the resurgence of flat Earth weirdos, so take a stand against the equally ridiculous!
- Know how to spot a bad study. Not everything is groundbreaking, and just because a paper made it through peer review, that doesn’t mean it’s golden. I could ramble on about specifics, but it’s probably better if you just keep this list handy.
- Dig deeper for your interpretations. Remember resveratrol? The chemical in red wine everyone jumped on, because it was supposed to “reverse the aging process,” whatever that means? Yes, it had some metabolic effects on mice that seemed to help offset the damage done by a high calorie diet. Besides the fact that mice are not people, and human tests might show it actually has no effect on us, you’d have to drink upwards of 1,500 bottles of wine a day to get a comparable dose. No miracle cure here, and it shouldn’t have been reported so breathlessly.
- Realize that no one study changes everything. Science is a process. Did you hit on the perfect formulation of web fluid right at the jump? No! You figure this out, you figure that out, and eventually, through a preponderance of different lines of evidence, after years and years, then you come to a (tentative) conclusion. And all such conclusions are open to revision, if a great deal of disconfirming evidence comes along.
So don’t go yelling, “Coffee saves your heart!” or “Coffee makes your kidneys explode!” every time one little paper is published in a podunk journal. That’s not how science works, and if you give the public that impression, they just think we can’t make up our minds and that nothing we say carries more weight than anything else. That’s dangerous.
- But I get it, you want to report things that are relevant to your readers’ lives. Go ahead and keep making that human connection, but don’t just limit it to health questions and the shiny new gadget. Why does space exploration impact us, and the products we use? How will farmers benefit from a new genetic engineering technique? Hell, tell the story of the triumphant scientist who defeated Nature’s heinous attempts to keep the truth hidden! There’s drama there!
- Quell fears when you can. It’s up to you, Peter, because this is probably the most difficult one to implement in the real world. New things are scary, and fear sells, but if you’re going to do this right, you should be willing and ready to SQUASH that fear when evidence shows it to be unfounded. So few write the follow-ups that show power lines don’t cause cancer, or that food preservatives won’t pickle your insides. Trust that your audience can handle the nuanced truth, and carefully explain the meaning of the relevant statistics when necessary. A 50% increase in the risk of heart disease isn’t that big if only one in a million people were affected to begin with.
So go in good faith and good numbers, Dr. Parker, because everyone out here is pulling for you. If you can follow these guidelines, you’ll be helping to make the world a better place, both in and out of the tights! And recognize that, yes, you now must meet your most powerful adversary yet — on a weekly basis.