No more “science cheerleaders”

The Guardian has a weird portion of their valedictory to their closing down of their science blogging network:

But nevertheless, the end of the science blog network comes at a time when, perhaps more than ever, there is a need for strong, critical, evidence-based science journalism. We find ourselves in a moment in history that is dominated by fake news, cherry-picked data, and a culture in which the stories we tell ourselves – the ones that tap into our own limited experiences and beliefs – trump facts and evidence. In the age of the internet search engine, everyone believes that they have become the expert – all it takes is a quick google, and your first ten hits constitute an apparently unequivocal evidence base. Somehow, we have lost the ability to take a step back, to try and be objective about the information that is presented in front of us, especially if we are faced with something that we already hold a strong opinion about.

This is why good science writing is so important. We don’t need science cheerleaders, telling us how everything is awesome, or showing us cutesy pictures of a cluster of stars with some inane motivational slogan pasted over them. We need journalists who are willing to get their hands stuck into the data, to uncover the real stories that new research tells us, and explain the motives of the scientists that are doing that research. There is good research out there, and there is poor research. There are good scientists, and there are bad ones, and we need honest and expert science writers to do the ground work in separating the signal from the noise. The science blog network here might be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean that there is no longer a need for excellent science communication….

The author has some experience with how science blogs work, obviously. So I’m genuinely a little confused at these characterizations. A lot of people who have blogged about science do so from a critical perspective. There are some things that science journalists can do that scientists are not good at. Look at the investigation of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Calls were made, emails were read. This is what journalists do.

But the reason that the controversy blew up in the first place was that scientists on Twitter and blogs were talking about the issue. Is a blog like Neuroskeptic a “science cheerleader”?

To some extent, I think science journalism itself is more liable to be a “science cheerleader.” There are great journalists who have a particular beat and can write with deep knowledge on a topic. But these are exceptions. A lot of science journalism is simply rewriting press releases!

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11 thoughts on “No more “science cheerleaders”

  1. We find ourselves in a moment in history that is dominated by fake news, cherry-picked data, and a culture in which the stories we tell ourselves – the ones that tap into our own limited experiences and beliefs – trump facts and evidence.

    Almost hypocritical coming from an organization like the Grauniad. They’ve always been the type to denigrate or minimize whatever didn’t fit the narrative.

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  2. Cheerleaders build up the morale of the sports team and advertise the merits of said team among the fans. Also, cheerleading IS a difficult skillset. I wasn’t even sure it should be an insult. At least, not in the case where the team is winning – I am thinking of the robotic space probes and the identification of extrasolar planets, mostly, here.

    There’s not much that a Journalist can add to findings that don’t get argued about in the policy arena, but are argued in academia. All such can do is say that this is the interesting stuff they’re talking about over there. If anyone should call science-explainers of this sort “cheerleaders” then meh, maybe cheerleaders are what they need.

    I can think of several OTHER fields of study that require more journalism and less “cheerleading”. Those are the fields which are claiming space in policy. Global Warming for a start.

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  3. I don’t think the distinction is between cheerleading and critique, but between cheerleading and inside baseball. We need fewer gosh-wow presentations of the product, and more insight into the process. Fewer articles on how shiny this new car is, and more articles on how to change the oil.

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  4. I agree that the Guardian, and liberalism in general, now regards itself as the epitome of rational science by default, as a self-certificate. To be fair, conservatism used to do that until the 1970s, painting themselves as the clever rationalists and liberals as the woo-woo hippies.

    I think what caused the switch was the Moral Majority and similar organizations in conservatism, causing the liberals to pick up the banner, but in both cases the banner was always an unearned badge of group identification. “We are the smart ones because that’s us”.

    They don’t work for it, they just ask a neighbor if they’re smart, and the neighbor confirms “Yes. Yes, we are smart.”

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  5. Weakest excuse I’ve seen in a long time. By “science journalism” they mean psychometry, biology and, specifically, genetics. These disciplines are hurting a lot of people’s feelings these days.

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  6. To be fair, conservatism used to do that until the 1970s, painting themselves as the clever rationalists and liberals as the woo-woo hippies.

    I suppose this depends on what are meant by conservatism and liberals, but this characterization is inaccurate. What we think of today as modern conservatism did not rise until Barry Goldwater’s candidacy (which failed but galvanized the conservatives and set the stage for Reagan). Liberals have been in command of the major institutions, including academia, for a very long time. It’s just that now their ideological heirs have captured the institutions totally and are eating them.

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  7. In the 1960s, the “liberals” (many of them future neocons) used to say that conservatives were “paranoid” and other pseudo-psychological diagnosis; for what I know, the rationalists versus hippies “wars” of the late 1960s were largely an internal conflict within the Left-wing (basically, the professors of Berkeley against the students of Berkeley).

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  8. Pseudo-psychological diagnosis is pretty woo-woo. I reckon the crew-cut, pocket-protector-wearing rocket scientists of the 1960s would have called that “soft science”.

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  9. Razib, I think the Guardian is clearly talking of accounts like “I Fucking Love Science” (25 million Facebook followers) who do exactly the kind of thing they describe. When I read the piece that is what I understood it to mean, not ScienceBlog types.

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  10. I believe the reason this is happening not because of elitism or censure but because of a crisis of credibility in science.

    Those who follow Andrew Gelman’s blog and Retraction Watch are aware that scientific establishment has compromised itself through faltering commitment to Open science, faulty methodologies and perverted incentive structure which results in promulgating falsehood and resisting attempts to reform it.

    See for example this test, in which you try to guess which of the high profile findings published in top journals were successfully replicated. Generally people taking the test were pretty good at separating (presumably) true findings from bunk, raising the question of why can’t journal editors do the same.

    On the other hand we have widespread scientific triumphalism of low informed liberals uncritically consuming popularizations of (often iffy) science, taking it to affirm all aspects of their worldview (you will also see this in dark crevices of alt-right Internet), see “I fucking love science” and Bill Nye’s show.

    The Guardian editorship has presumably seen where this is going and are hitting the brake before the nascent wave of rational skepticism breaks.

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