For better science trained journalists

February 1, 2022

By Joël Leblanc

Science journalist, president of the Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec

Le Devoir, January 31st, 2022

Science journalism is like music: you have to learn it if you want to play it. It would never occur to anyone to join a professional orchestra by improvising as a flutist or bass player.

Francine Pelletier published a column (“La pandémie revue et corrigée“) in Le Devoir on 26 January containing so many scientific inaccuracies that the newspaper’s editor-in-chief had to apologise to readers two days later and make corrections. I was flabbergasted. It was yet another example of a reality that I find distressing: not all journalists and columnists can read music, but end up in the orchestra anyway, sometimes by choice, sometimes by obligation.

The lack of understanding by some journalists of what makes science valid (its method and rigour) leads to inaccuracies in the texts, even going so far as to put forward the opposite of what science says.

It is with my science journalist hat on that I write these lines for the attention of general journalists, who are sometimes asked to cover science news. Colleagues, there is much I could learn from you (I don’t have your training), but, inspired by this recent story, let me point out some mistakes to avoid when reporting on science.

Balance of views

First, upstream of knowledge, science is a system, a method for producing knowledge that is not intuitive. You have to be initiated. Before a study is accepted in a scientific field, it must be checked and validated by other experts in the field (peers), who pronounce on the quality of the research and the results. They can be approved or rejected at this stage. Beware of studies that have not (yet) been reviewed.

If the study passes this stage, it may “face” other contradictory findings. Only after it has ‘survived’ these tests will a discovery become ‘scientific knowledge’. This is the ‘bread and butter’ of researchers around the world. They have been taught this. This, and other aspects of scientific research, lead to situations that can run counter to the journalistic principles you have been taught.

Let’s start with the balance of views: a minister says something, you give the microphone to the opposition too. But science does not evolve like politics. A scientific study says something about a subject; fine. If a second study contradicts it, what does a journalist do? As you can imagine, he can’t choose the one that supports his initial ideas, that would be intellectual dishonesty. Rigour dictates that the two contradictory results should be presented with the acknowledgement that science does not yet have a clear answer.

But let us suppose that time passes, that research accumulates and that five studies contradict the first one. Here comes the familiar balancing of “views”: there are no longer “two views”, but rather one position is more likely than the other. And when 35, or 60, or 95 studies contradict the first one, we talk about a scientific consensus, against the first study, of course.

To sum up? In science, you have to take all the results into account to arrive at a reliable conclusion. Yes, in my example, there is still a dissenting study, but that’s science – there are outliers, sometimes explainable, sometimes not, and scientists live with that very well. That a dissenting study exists and is named in a paper is not a problem. But to use it to support a point, while omitting to mention the existence of other contradictory and more numerous results, is downright lying.

Choosing the experts

Now the case of the experts. If we’re talking about immunology, we can’t bring in a psychiatrist… As Valérie Borde explains so well in a recent article in L’Actualité, or former philosophy professor Pierre Blackburn (TN, Pierre is a AHQ member) not all experts are equal. For example, we cannot consider the word of a physicist, even a Nobel Prize winner, as equivalent to that of an immunologist when it comes to pandemics. You have to put your trust in the right people, by validating their expertise according to the subject of the article.

Last point: the sources.

I’m not telling you anything new here: if you mention figures, tell us where they come from. How else can you check if they are true? All the facts put forward by a journalist should be verifiable, even more so the scientific facts that may have an influence on the evolution of a pandemic.

Some will say that the column is not subject to the same ethical standards as the journalistic article. My answer is simply: is that a reason to engage in disinformation? Is that a reason to share falsehoods? Aren’t there enough of them everywhere these days? And is the typical reader aware of this difference when reading a column?

Fellow journalists: dealing with science is not easy, I know that. Not all of you are trained for it, and it can lead to unintentional mistakes, which can pose a risk to society. But you do have the power to demand that your managers provide the training to do it properly (the Science Communicators Association offers training in this area, as do some universities), or to encourage them to hire journalists who specialise in science (there are some in economics, art, sport, etc.). For subjects as sensitive as the current pandemic, the health of society is at stake.

Translated by DeepL, revised by Michel Virard

Michel Virard