Blog: The Educated Reporter

Separating Fact From Fiction in Science Controversies

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contributes posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is freelance education writer Timothy Pratt. You can find out more about STEM education on EWA’s topic pages. 

Just a few weeks after a reported 3 million people tuned in to watch Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” debate Ken Ham, Creation Museum founder, about the origins of the universe,  Gale Sinatra, education and psychology professor at the Rossier School of Education, University of California, offered that high-profile example to the several dozen journalists she was addressing at EWA’s seminar on STEM education.

Sinatra’s point: Communicating about science is challenging. Why? Because science is complex, full of ideas that can be misunderstood and serve as lightning rods for controversy. To make matters worse, people approach discussions of science with different motivations and, often, strong emotions.

Disciplines such as climate science, evolution and genetically modified organisms produce findings that are complicated. If journalists, or teachers, have little or no background in science, they may have difficulty making this complexity understandable to the average person, Sinatra said. But the challenge is to do just that, without dumbing down the science. One tool that helps, Sinatra tells the group: metaphors.

As for misconceptions, science has a surplus. For example, as seen in a photo of a sign from one of Sinatra’s slides: “If man evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” (We won’t answer that one.) Or, given the winter many in the United States have experienced this year: “If global warming exists, why is it so cold this week?” (That misconception rests on not understanding the difference between weather — the snow storm you just lived through — and climate.)

In the face of such misconceptions, Sinatra says, journalists and teachers have to point out certain facts that have been verified through the scientific method, over multiple research studies. For example, “Some people think vaccines produce autism. But multiple research studies have demonstrated no connection between the two.”

While much of the human experience that science touches may be controversial, certain basic tenets are not, Sinatra says. They are nearly universally agreed on. She shows a slide that says nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific research articles support the notion that humans have an impact on climate, while only 24 do not.

Still, people with varying motivations and emotional investments are convinced of what they want to believe. In another slide, she highlights the results of a survey: Only 1 in 4 people believe global warming exists, or that people are causing it.

At the same time, by approaching such subjects with the idea that both sides deserve equal play, in order to ensure “balanced journalism,” you only wind up making both sides feel as if their original positions have been supported.

There is, for example, a Flat Earth Society. Do you write a story that says, “Most people think the earth is round. Others think the earth is flat.”?

What are the consequences of not clarifying complexities or refuting misconceptions, and of presenting both sides as equal? What Sinatra called “scientific illiteracy.” Scientific illiteracy, in a democracy, can lead to support for bad policy, she said. 

As for that debate between Nye and Ham, Sinatra believes there was no winner. A journalist at the seminar wondered if the Science Guy made a mistake by showing up. Her answer: definitely.





Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.