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Web Letter

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum point to the <i>Boston Globe</i> as a news organization that sharply reduced its commitment to coverage of science and medicine this year. We have done nothing of the sort.

The writers claim that the <i>Globe</i> "reduced staff significantly on its science desk" after it eliminated a separate Health/Science section early this year and placed coverage in other sections. There was no significant staff reduction. One part-time position dedicated to both science and medicine was eliminated. Our Health/Science desk still has five reporters: three covering various aspects of medicine and health, one covering environment, and one covering science. Our Business section also has a biotechnology reporter. By any measure, this shows substantial commitment to serving a community that is, as the article properly noted, "a center of science that leads the biotech industry."

Your writers assert that our decision on staffing and section placement "wasn't about the relevance of science to readership; it was about underlying economics." Not true. While economics has a bearing on our newsroom resources, of course, we have always taken this area of coverage very seriously. That is why space and staff dedicated to science, medicine, and health coverage remain roughly the same after elimination of a separate Health/Science section. That is also why we thoroughly researched our readers' reactions to possible changes. There have been precious few reader complaints.

A final disappointment with the piece in <i>The Nation</i>: Neither Mr. Mooney nor Ms. Kirshenbaum spoke to anyone at the Globe to check facts. We're only a phone call away.

Martin Baron

Boston, MA

Aug 21 2009 - 10:15am

Web Letter

I used to subscribe to Scientific American and Science, attended meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and was a member of a popular science book club. I studied physics in university. Plus there were some really big names back then, like Carl Sagan, at the forefront of popularizing science. Science was a big part of the culture. Of course that was all twenty, thirty years ago or so. What I witnessed, starting probably in the early to mid-'80s, was a politicization of science writing. Part of it may have been the influence of postmodernism; I just got tired of the lack of objectivity and critical thinking that I came to expect from science writing. Who wants to read about AIDS and global warming? Scary. Uninspiring. Boring. Contentious, with ham-fisted rhetoric being bashed out by all sides. And driven by people whose priorities align more with financial interests or certain ideological biases than the pursuit of knowledge. So the science itself ends up shoddy, from a methodological perspective, serving other ends than truth.

People want to be inspired by science and by scientists--by the exploration of nature. They are thrilled by discovery and surprise. So when science writing becomes an organized mouthpiece for activists of various stripes, it subverts the aspects of the writing that most matter to readers: learning something new about nature and the universe. Something that will enliven their own spirit of curiosity, something that will stir up that childhood sense of wonder in the grandeur of our world, something that underscores the power of reason to gain an ever-deepening understanding of it.

Aspiring science writers: write something that makes me want to buy a telescope. That's the kind of writing that will flourish, whether the medium is the science section of the big city paper (doubtful), cable TV or the web.

Rick Minto

Sterling Heights, MI

Aug 19 2009 - 9:50pm

Web Letter

Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two?

First, I'll have to say that your analysis--which is, of course, more extensive than the paragraph quoted here--rings painfully true. The one conclusion I would jump to, though, by dint of seeming rather glaringly obvious, is that journalists simply have no idea how one forms an independent opinion. In that, one should add, they are in plentiful, if not exactly good, company.

The basic process is actually quite simple. One makes observations about the world that one interprets, necessarily, in terms of what one assumes about the world. Then, one checks those interpretations against a different set of observable facts. The key in this second step, however, is not to look for facts that would make sense in light of your interpretation but to look for such facts that would not make sense in light of your interpretation.

In the HIV example, it would not make sense for anti-viral drugs to work in AIDS patients, or for specific immunity against HIV to be due to mutated T-cell genes blocking virus particles from docking to the cells, or for the transmission to be inhibited by using condoms if AIDS was actually caused by some Juju up some mountain or other or even by looking in the general direction of a gay bar. That makes any of the made-up stories appreciably inferior to the scientifically corroborated story. It would blow any ideas of so-called "balance" right out of the water. And anyone who actually explained the reasoning behind the science would not only further the cause of the public understanding of science, he would probably also improve his ratings. Because he would treat his audience like adults. In today's media landscape, that kind of thing would stand out like a freshly groomed rottweiler in a pack of wet poodles.

Peter Beattie

Brisbane, Australia

Jul 30 2009 - 7:07pm

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