Science and journalism

gladwell_shermer.jpg

Science and journalism are two fields that have always greatly interested me. I follow science news reasonably avidly, and I worked as a journalist for some 25 years. Recently, while I was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers, I came across a critique of the book by Michael Shermer, and blogged same.

Shermer criticizes Gladwell for lacking depth of proof for his conclusions, and, in support of which, cites two authors whose assertions counter Gladwell’s. As I was considering the two positions, it occurred to me that there is a similarity between the practice of science and journalism.

In both cases, an investigator goes to a source or sources, gathers information, and then presents that information in an organized way that leads the reader to conclusions that seem reasonable in light of the presented data.

The big difference, it would seem, is what each practitioner regards as acceptable quality in the proffered depth of supporting information. For the scientist, the best data comes from research that is ‘rigorous,’ which is to say conforms to current scientific methods and practices and is (usually) repeatable – the data can be replicated to a close approximation by someone else who also applies rigorous scientific methods. Such research is difficult and time consuming – it can take the better part of a lifetime to assemble a conclusive piece of research.

Gladwell, a New Yorker writer, does research that is light years more complete than what I was able to do when I worked for daily newspapers: I had after all, normally, only a few hours to a day to assemble my report, be it photographs (early in my career) or words (later on). Gladwell spends weeks or months gathering his data, and often references reputable scientific research, some of it quite difficult for the non-expert, which he seems to have read and comprehended quite well.

Gladwell makes judgments based on research much deeper than what most journalists routinely do, and certainly more complete than that which a casual observer (like many bloggers) or reader normally does. But still, he falls short, at least in Shermer’s published opinion (“unconstrained by research protocols”) of scientific rigor.

Which is OK by me. I think there is a need both for journalism and science, caveats of the former accepted. If it took a lifetime to arrive at every potentially useful conclusion, such information would be rare. Journalism, particularly when practiced in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell, has a very useful place in the information pantheon, in my opinion. (I should note that Shermer liked, indeed praises, Gladwell’s previous book Blink).

Photo of Gladwell, left, by Brooke Williams. BTW, both Shermer and Gladwell have made amusing TED presos: Gladwell on spaghetti sauce, and Shermer on the practice of debunking junk science et al…

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About Chris Gulker

Chris Gulker, a self-described Infuential Blogger, lived in Menlo Park, California with spouse Linda. He passed away in late October 2010.
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2 Responses to Science and journalism

  1. Mike Ridey says:

    I hate to do this but I can’t help myself! This is a double sub-reference to your link to “Outliers” and thence to “Rice Paddys and Math Tests.”
    In college I took a course called “The Cultural Geography of Monsoon Asia.” How could you not? Virtually all I remember from the class is that rice is called “paddi” in the Far East, so when we say “rice paddy” we are saying “rice rice”. The correct description would be “rice field” or “paddi field.” Sorry.
    Part of my vast wealth of useless information.

  2. cg says:

    No need for apologies… the mistake is cultural, after all, not just mine alone – in any case, it had to be said. We white people should all apologize… amusing when we discover just how clueless we all are, non?

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