“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers” they used to say. Well now it seems that the phrase is (or should be) “Don’t believe everything you read on a blog“.
“Misreporting and misrepresentation are important because they can lead to a loss of trust at a time when public support for pro-environmental policies is most crucial.
Poor reporting of environmental science may also have a disproportionate effect on children who are increasingly turning the internet as their preferred source of information and who are least able to judge the validity of claims or the legitimacy of one blog over another.
So how should we be responding to the challenges and opportunities presented by the blogosphere?
One way to deal with misrepresentation in blogs is to increase the weight of informed opinions in the blogosphere. An influx of scientifically informed opinion and accurate information would also help combat and correct misrepresentations in the traditional news media and draw public attention to important new research findings.“
Recently there has been plenty of debate about the politicisation of environmental science. Scientists are increasingly using the media, including blogs, to promote and disseminate their work. This has left them open to criticism that they are cherrypicking their arguments and misrepresenting science. NGO’s and advocacy groups have been cherrypicking their arguments for decades — but scientists shouldn’t fall into this habit and they will only be devaluing their credibility if they do. However, this is not to say scientists should not be disseminating their work, quite contrary. They should, if nothing else to add to the debate. If a scientific finding is to be useful in the ‘real world’ it will be always be political – we have to accept that. The time has gone when scientists were able to say “I just do the science, not the politics”. Environmental science in the 21st century must accept this, and learn how to engage with the public at large to communicate its findings and the implications of those findings. (How this in turn influences how the science proceeds is another, interesting, question).
Of course there’s uncertainty in science, and there always will be. As Rodger Bradbury suggests, Science is 3-tuple:
- a body of knowledge,
- a method for generating that knowledge, and
- a collection of people using those methods to increase that knowledge.
The knowledge generated by science is, and should be, constantly re-evaluated and questioned. For me this is the best way to examine the world, by constantly questioning. But the people using the methods and tools of science will always have their own agenda — even if it is simply the advancement of their own scientific career. Scientists are human beings. But now we need to continue to work to improve another facet of our scientific toolbag – the accurate communication of scientific work to the public at large. Who is better qualified to deliver the message, the scientist or the journalist? Scientists should work hard to make sure it is them.
But what about the situation right now? Richard Ladle again:
Fortunately, there are several ways in which the credibility of a website or blog can be quickly assessed:
- Check the data – strong scientific arguments are based on information from recognised sources that is available for public scrutiny, while weak or spurious arguments are often backed up with data from secondary sources or often no data at all
- Take note of the language – arguments couched in hyperbolic language may be masking a lack of understanding or sound information
These are sound starting points for anyone reading anything on the internet. Personally, on this blog I try to make a distinction between ‘serious’ comments and more ‘tounge-in-cheek’ comments by capitalising words in titles of the former, but not the latter. A good scientist will never deliberately mislead — but at the same time it needs to be understood that they can never be 100% sure of their findings. Scientific knowledge is provisional and always open to scrutiny and change. That’s how it differs from faith.