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June 2011

International science writers call for 'kick ass' journalism

Julia and I have just run a session at the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha: “Warriors Against Claptrap”. Here’s a quick rundown of a lively and thought-provoking session.

Journalists from around the world looked at mythbusting as a way of tackling bad science and improving the standard of investigative science reporting. Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent celebrated a shift in scientific journalism from simply reporting the scientific research they are presented with to “kick ass” journalism. This was greeted with calls for more of it by the audience.

WCSJ 2011Pallab encouraged fellow journalists to write what they wanted to write, what they thought needed to be said, and what their peers would find a good and thought-provoking piece, even if it meant challenging their editors – something he thought journalists need to be more willing to do.

But how important is the role of journalists in challenging pseudoscience? One journalist from Kenya pointed out that challenging pseudoscience when that involves going against the government and established members of the local community is a very hard task. If local scientists aren’t willing to speak up (something he felt from his experiences), it  is particularly hard for journalists to do so. In other countries (Norway and Mexico were two) scientists have apparently become more reluctant to speak out on tricky and polarised subjects.

WCSJ 2011Giving a scientist’s point of view, Dr Alaa Ibrahim showcased the work he’s been doing with his students to produce mythbusting videos. At Sense About Science we love this approach to sharing scientific reasoning with the public. Alaa argued that informing citizens and encouraging critical thinking would play a significant role in emerging democracies. That’s something for us to think about a bit more.

Ylann Schemm from Elsevier talked about her experiences as a press officer, when a research study about sleep and reptiles made the headlines as a piece about the extinction of dinosaurs – this raised the issue of just how much hype is the friend to popularising science and at what point it becomes its enemy.

Julia passed the ‘kick-ass’ test talking about her experiences as the Voice of Young Science coordinator (such as getting the WHO to issue clear guidance about the use of homeopathy for serious diseases) – she got a burst of spontaneous applause.

Yes, journalists have a powerful role to play in challenging pseudoscience, and the audience left invigorated about raising the bar for good science in public debate. But this doesn’t just rest with the journalists. As we always say, asking the questions that often go unasked is something we can all aspire to (and, professional pedants that we are, we should remember to congratulate those journalists who do it best).