Anti-science themes are varied across the world, from anti-evolution and creationism to climate change deniers to HIV deniers. How can science journalists best tackle these issues? Is it important to be balanced, giving voice – for example – to vaccination opponents when covering a story about vaccination?
There’s little doubt that anti-science themes are increasing around the world. The strongest such topic worldwide may be evolution – which is a very touchy issue, especially in conservative societies. While educators and scientists have for years been trying to counter creationism and explain the amount of scientific data backing up evolution, anti-evolution sentiments remain strong – and will likely stay around for a long time. It may have actually seeped into other fields of science, sowing doubt in science elsewhere.
But what role do science journalists play? Do they, inevitably, feed these anti-science themes by their coverage? In a session exploring anti-science movements around the world during the World Conference of Science Journalists 2013 (WCSJ2013), Cristine Russell, a science writer and the past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing stressed that science writers must inform people about science realities. “We are not educators, we inform. The problem is that science reporters are not dominating the scene anymore.”
This is particularly true in the US, for example, where many meteorologists and weather forecasters are climate change skeptics. People are more willing to listen to them than to the consensus of scientists who are saying climate change is a reality.
Valeria Román, a science journalist at Clarín newspaper in Argentina said she used to cover both sides of the climate change story but stopped because “only one of them is scientific.”
“”Most of the journalists usually include both sides in covering such issues, but they gave a false balance,” she adds. By giving weight to the arguments of denialists – who don’t base their argument on science – it can have a negative impact on readers.
Colleen Dawson, an author and the vice-chair of the South African Science Journalists’ Association (SASJA), thinks there are times when science journalists have to move from their role as informers to become educators – such as providing information to the public that they may not have learned at school such as HIV/AIDS.
Most of these anti-science themes are often driven by cultural or religious motives, which is why I think that science journalists should address them with sensitivity. They are deeply entrenched over decades and centuries in the societies, so an abrupt “you are wrong, here’s what is right” approach may often backfire.
Ultimately, however, science writers need to keep in mind that their source material is science. Russell suggests that they need to change some of their terminology. For example, in an interview, instead of asking “Do you believe in climate change?” that can be rephrased into “Do you think that climate change is going to happen?” The removal of the word ‘believe’ stresses that science is about evidence, not beliefs.
“We have to do our job, which is writing about science issues,” she said.