Helping science journalism violate Sturgeon’s Law

journal by J Dueck

Should science journalists take sides?
[Via Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Tonight I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled “Should science journalists takes sides?” The event was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and panellists included myself, Mark Henderson from the Times, Ceri Thomas from BBC’s Today programme and Steve Rayner, the Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. This is a slightly extended version of what I said during my five minutes of the debate.

The title of this debate opens itself up to multiple interpretations: whose ‘side’ are we talking about? It is clear to me that science journalists should not take the side of any particular scientist, of a specific idea, or even of science itself. But it is imperative that we take the side of truth. That may seem obvious but many of the strictures of traditional journalism are incompatible with even that simple goal.

The problem comes from a desire to be objective or neutral. This is what Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, famously calls the View from Nowhere. You’re detached from the proceedings that you report on. You don’t take sides. You watch from afar. The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.


A paraphrase of Sturgeon’s Law is : “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, 90% of everything is crap.”

This is a really nice post with a great perspective on science journalism. It might serve as a starting point for altering the numbers in Sturgeon’s Law, perhaps making the 10% that is not crap a slightly higher amount.

HIs six problems are:

  • False objectivity
  • Laziness
  • Poor understanding of the audience
  • Naiveté
  • Ethical breaches
  • Objective truth

I think he hits it out of the park, particularly when focussed on science journalism, although much could be applied to the rest of MSM. There is an objective truth, there are real solutions and a firm grasp of the natural world that comes from science. That is why our approach to science has been so successful since the Enlightenment.

Few journalists seem to get that or seem to put in the time to do their jobs well. But that is only another statement of Sturgeon’s Law. So of course 90% of science journalism is crap. That is what we expect. But what we can now do is to find that 10% and give them more notice and support – separate them from the chaff.

Because the web lets us find that 10% so much faster. Using these 6 problems as a start, it becomes much easier to put journalists into the 90% bucket or the 10% bucket. The more we read and comment on the 10% that are not crud, perhaps we can provide bottom-up support for their efforts.

We might be able to use the tools on the Web to increase the percentage of these good writers from 10% to maybe 12%. We might never be able to get rid of lazy, naive, poorly written science journalism, but we can go a long way to filtering them out so we can find the good ones and find ways to support their work.

Effective science writing is a very powerful tool for creating communities that can adapt to the world around us. The world changes very rapidly and if we can not run a good enough Red Queen’s Race to keep up, we will fail. Good science writing moves people out of possible Cargo Cult Worlds by providing incredible narratives.

Communication will be a big part of creating adaptive communities. Identifying those who are really good at that will be very useful.

[Listening to: Land Of Confusion from the album “Invisible Touch” by Genesis]

6 thoughts on “Helping science journalism violate Sturgeon’s Law

  1. Maybe you are all way to young to remember, but years and years ago, someone did a study that supposedly showed that the average person read the headline, the first paragraph and the last paragraph of any article. Now that the first paragraph no longer tells who, what, where, when and why, the average person has no idea what is going on in either science OR journalism.

  2. Really nice piece this.

    MJ – what use would such a study be in a climate where everyone wrote in a style that positively encourages people to read just the headline, first paragraph and last paragraph? As writing styles diversity, so too will reading styles. The Slate long-form journalism experiment is testament to that.

    1. Perhaps science journalism is no longer as successful in a lot of media directed towards masses. But it can be successful in more limited forms, such as cable or the Web. Focussing on a niche, like Discover or Slate, may make it easier to find those readers who will respond to a long-form style. The atomization of media by the Web permits topics, like science, to reach audiences that were simply not attainable even 10 years ago.

      So, in addition to the audience finding the science journalists who break Sturgeon’s Law, perhaps we also need to help the journalists find the audience that will also violate Sturgeon’s Law – ‘90% of the readers do not understand science reporting but then 90% of the readers don’t really understand any complex subject’ ;-0

  3. The headline, nowadays, seems to be the title of a story. The first paragraph has no facts, so why should I read the rest of the “narrative” if it is something I am not interested in? Occasionally I read a column in the paper by a journalism professor and if that is how reporters are being taught nowadays, they are in deep trouble. No wonder papers are going down the tubes. But, then, I am an old lady so am not really entitled to speak on this issue!

    1. You seem to be speaking quite well.

      I think one reason papers are having trouble is because they can not adapt their business models to deal with the ability of people to find better reporting. Before, it was the editor who really decided what we could read. Now we can go onto the Web and find a much greater range of great writing than before. Why pay for a subscription to the local paper?

      The key now is to find business models that support these great reporters in publishing niches that provide enough renumeration for living. I think we are making some good steps that might coalesce into workable solutions. But I think it will be a more direct relationship between the reporters and the readers than we now have with newspapers.

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