Mailbag: What science writing can we trust?

Re: "Confessions of a former genetic know-nothing":

Dear Prof. Hawks

I have just read this article and it literally woke me up. A great deal is published concerning topical issues, but how is the public at large to decide what is to be trusted? By that I do mean based on scientific data. We can filter out the opinions peddled by so-called celebrities who have been recruited onto a bandwagon. But when an article appears in a newspaper or other media, and the author appears to have the confidence of the editors as a spokesperson for a cause such that against GM crops, via his or her books, appearances and consultancies, it is natural for us to accept that a degree truth is being spoken. Lynam has pulled the rug from under our feet with his admissions.

But it with the editors working within the media to check their credentials. Is it my duty to cross-check the author's qualifications, before I repeat what I have read or heard to others? Where are the rebuttals from those who were actively working on GM crops? I don't know if they failed to materialise, or got relegated to a coumn inch because they were not sensational enough. In the case of the anti-GM crops movement my suspicions were aroused by their rent-a-mob tactics and scary-catchy phrases like Frankencrops. In the case of the latter once heard, not forgotten, and the link is made everytime the subject is discussed.

Let us not forget that many issues become issues, not because of any true scientific validity, but because a tidy wad of cash can be made by writing a book. Those with an authorative style get believed, and are soon on the lecture circuit, or even advising governments.

I do believe in climate change, though I am not convinced as to how fast it is happening. Neither am I convinced it is caused by man and industry alone. The whole issue is probably too complex, with natural cycles interacting, random events such as volcanic eruptions, and solar cycles all interacting to make any one factor (man) the villain. This does not mean I am against emissions control. I am just using this as an example of how those with an agenda can use those with the gift of the gab to promulgate a movement.

Science as a whole does not get ignored by the media. We have had the likely discovery of the Higgs boson, the anomoly of faster than light neutrinos, and Earth-like planets discovered in the Goldilocks zone reported to the extend that they are the subject of jokes and cartoons. But when the news is a non-event, such as GM foods are good, the scientific community fails to get its message across. Perhaps the reason lies withn deeper scientific theory. "I was unable to disprove the X theory, therefore it is still valid. Success!"

Thanks so much for this!

Yes, I agree, and I was motivated to write something precisely because of that issue. Editors do NOT check the credentials of writers, not at all carefully. Most editors in the press are science-averse, they never took courses in science beyond the minimum, and they are not interested in science. People who write articles for them at cut-rate prices per word are desirable to them -- they do not exercise ordinary caution to question the motives of such people.

How is a member of the ordinary public to judge? I'm afraid it is very difficult. Some science writers develop a reputation for professionalism, for basing their articles on solid science, and for consulting with skeptics and subject experts. But until you know which writers those are, you read at your own risk. Sadly, even science publications have blind spots, allowing advocates for particular political issues to write with little or no critical or editorial input.