In The Field

Journalism: Electrons ain’t the only things with spin

It’s been a morning of science and politics. Today’s opening session focused on the biasing of scientific information. Chris Mooney, Seed Magazine’s Washington correspondent and the author of The Republican War on Science (and the forthcoming Hurricane Wars) spoke about the need for scientists to better “frame” scientific issues so they’re easily digestible and something the public can engage in. Mooney argues that this is an effective counter attack – Aussie rules, as he says – on the US Republican stance on issues like stem cell research and climate change.

“Frame,” however, is another word for spin doctoring – a term that doesn’t really sit well with me.

But Mooney argues people are “cognitive misers” – that’s to say that we’re willing to base our decisions, including policy decisions, on the cues and opinions we take from other people – people we designate as trusted experts — rather than muddling our way through the finer points of a complex issue. And, as Mooney rightly points out, this becomes a problem when the so-called experts are charismatic and have politically-driven agendas. So, while I balk at the idea of spinning science, I tend to agree with Mooney that scientists (and science journalists) have a duty to protect the public from politically biased science. “Science,” as Mooney says, “is too important to stay out of politics.”

(As an aside, almost as if to illustrate this point, a few minutes walk from the conference site, the Australian Parliament is debating a bill to allow the use of therapeutic cloning – a bill that in all likelihood will pass, according to Victoria’s Minister for Innovation, John Brumbey, who introduced today’s session.)

Still, I’m not quite sure how I feel about the idea of scientists communicating through talking points, soundbites and buzzwords and leading so-called information campaigns. Framing, in my opinion, runs the risk of becoming a form of propaganda if its goal is to provide pre-fab opinions for people.

But, I do agree with Mooney: humans are cognitive misers – I definitely qualify as one much of the time. But I think this means that now, more than ever, the onus falls on science journalists to devote themselves to helping the public understanding complexity. If there’s a place for seducing the public’s senses, it’s in luring them into engaging in complex issues by creating appealing and entertaining ways of presenting science.

Daemon Fairless


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