Monday, March 21, 2011

The Truth About Science and the Press

The memorial to Albert Einstein near the National Mall in Washington is an off-beat tourist attraction. Where else can you have your picture taken sitting in the lap of a 12-foot high bronze statue of the physicist?

The statue by sculptor Robert Berks stands on the grounds of the main building of the National Academy of Sciences, where my wife Christine works in the media relations office. A particular Einstein quote engraved in the memorial, as well as in the front of the Academy's newer building on 5th Street NW, often catches my eye:

"The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true."

As a journalist, "truth" is not a word I'm comfortable with. It's a bit unattainable to me. My editorial aims are impartiality and fairness and thoroughness. Yet that Einstein line about "truth" was on my mind again last week, as Christine and I prepared for a presentation that we did together for a regular forum on science, reason and religion hosted by the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Oakton, Va.

Our topic was "explaining science in the media." Here was the key slide:

Christine and I organized the first part of our presentation in the form of a marriage counseling session between the worlds of science and journalism. Our main points: Scientists and journalists share a common interest in uncovering facts that we hope explain larger truths -- lowercase "T," not necessarily the truth Einstein spoke of. And the scientific method and the journalistic method both are based on an incremental accumulation of facts and data.

But the methods of science and journalism are also often at odds, especially when it comes to conveying nuance and explaining the significance of anecdote and narrative. One old newsroom adage: "Two's a pattern. Three's a trend." Not exactly the makings of a peer-reviewed article in an academic journal -- but those journal articles sometimes aren't what they're cracked up to be either.

Christine and I also talked about the ways the scientific and journalism worlds depend on each other -- as demonstrated by the parade of experts consulted to help explain this past week's news from Fukushima, Japan. Likewise those experts often depend on media attention to help call attention to and, frankly, fund their work (the "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" rule referenced in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff).

Scientific truth is often a moving target. And sometimes, science misses the mark -- and takes the media along for the ride. My friend and creative partner Eric MacDicken and I tried to make that point in an "Office Opossums" cartoon we posted last year.

My own faith in the infallibility of science is no greater than my faith in the infallibility of journalism. That said, my faith and skepticism in both institutions are mostly in balance -- and I am a long way from cynical.

But based on the questions Christine and I heard after our talk today, I suspect many scientifically oriented people are more skeptical of the work of my journalism colleagues than they are of the research we might cover. I saw that in some of the immediate responses to an item posted this evening on NPR's health blog, "Shots."

Our correspondent -- one of the most knowledgable and experienced in the business -- consulted at length with a health physicist at Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute for help assessing the relative risk of drinking milk or eating food contaminated by radiation emitted by the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Their conclusion, based on the data released so far:

"To reach the radiation dose limit for a power plant worker, you'd need to drink 2,922 eight-ounce glasses of milk. To raise your lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent, you'd have to drain more than 58,000 glasses of milk."

The article quickly set off an active discussion among online commenters. Some appreciated the in-depth explanation ("The math doesn't lie"). Others strongly took issue with it ("If you believe the opposite of what they tell you on the news, you are, in all likelihood, closer to the truth").

Einstein also seemed to have held a pretty dim view of my chosen profession -- at least based on what he said in a 1921 interview about his first impressions of the United States:

"The public house is a place which gives people the opportunity to exchange views and ideas on public affairs. As far as I can see, such an opportunity is lacking in this country, the result being that the Press, which is mostly controlled by vested interests, has an excessive influence on public opinion."

Einstein's remark better describes the U.S. media of 90 years ago than it does any of the news organizations I happen to have worked in. But unfortunately, for many viewers, listeners and readers, the grand physicist's observation still has a ring of truth.

(Photo of the Einstein memorial above used with permission of photographer Christine Brennan Schmidt.)

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