As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I was, like most science writers, appalled to learn that the plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 by the Knight Foundation this week to lecture about his plagiarism and fabrications. What a dreadful message for a foundation dedicated to promoting journalism to send to, well, journalists.
Others have written eloquently about this, and often with more personal reasons than me to be upset. But I was especially struck by a post by Kathleen Raven, in which she listed her own journalistic mistakes. Her point was to show how every one should be a learning experience, “seared into memory” — not something to be brushed aside as colour to support a career in professional redemption.
I made plenty of mistakes in my career as a science journalist at The Times, many more than I’d have liked to. There is one, though, that particularly sticks in my mind, for the incredibly constructive way in which a scientist who was justifiably irritated by it complained. Tony Weidberg, a particle physicist, approached me so constructively that I think it provides a great example of how to engage with the media to achieve better coverage of science.
I’m reproducing the passage of The Geek Manifesto in which I describe the story, and what I learned from it, here. Unfortunately, I can’t find the offending article on the web — it doesn’t seem to have been archived, though if anyone can find it I’ll gladly link to it.
Adversarial approaches to bad science reporting are important weapons in the geek arsenal. But they shouldn’t always be the first ones we deploy. Start by attacking a journalist in abrasive fashion and he is as likely to become defensive and deaf to criticism as he is to take it on board and change his approach. Plenty of science reporters are broadly sympathetic to the aims of [Ben] Goldacre and his allies, but nonetheless brush off their views because they consider them relentlessly negative. Complain constructively, couching criticism as helpful advice, and a surprising number of hacks will listen.
Media professionals are as prone as anybody else to ‘cognitive dissonance’. This term from psychology describes the difficulty of holding two pieces of mutually incompatible information in your mind at the same time, and it is easily activated by our own errors. Most journalists like to think they are covering their beat responsibly, thoroughly and accurately. If they are then confronted with a serious error, that information can be difficult to take on board – especially if it’s implied that they have made the error because they are slipshod, conniving, venal or stupid. And dissonance is often more easily resolved by rejecting inconvenient facts than by acknowledging them.
To achieve a culture change in media attitudes to science, we must work with the grain of cognitive dissonance, rather than against it. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.’
I can vouch for the value of Lincoln’s aphorism. Soon after I began covering science for The Times in 2001, I picked up on a story in New Scientist about the forthcoming shutdown of the Large Electron-Positron Collider at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva. The piece suggested that the Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God particle’ that is supposed to give matter its mass, and for which the accelerator was searching – was unlikely actually to exist. My story strongly implied that the search for it had been a waste of money. ‘The results of these recent experiments have convinced many of the 5,000 scientists working in the field that the whole investigation has been a wild goose chase.’