Science or storytelling?


Author: Daniel Himebaugh

Anyone interested in the interplay of science, media, and public policy should check out Todd Myers' recent Environmental Watch.  Myers critiques a Seattle Times story which concluded that climate change is adversely affecting Costa Rican coffee yields, and driving up the price of lattes.  (Nothing captures the attention of Seattle residents like rising prices at the coffee shop).  Myers does not dispute the possibility that changes in global temperature might be contributing to coffee crop declines.  Rather, he takes issue with the suggestion that experts have made a scientific determination that climate change is causing Costa Rica's coffee troubles, while the story cites only anecdotal evidence gathered from local farmers and agricultural researchers.

Here's an excerpt:

[W]e are susceptible to presuming we understand the cause of natural events even when our ignorance is profound.  Science journalism can be especially susceptible to this common pitfall by substituting a simple compelling story for the complex interplay of data-based science.  Reporting the uncertainties of scientific information may not result in gripping journalism, but it is critical to enabling the public and policymakers to rely on the stories they read about climate change or the other environmental challenges we face.

If we exaggerate the risks of climate change, we may enact policies that do more harm than good.  If we mistake agricultural problems for climate problems, we'll fail to address the real problem, wasting resources even as we continue to experience problems.

Science journalism can be compelling, but it must also remain true to the scientific process and scientific uncertainties.  If journalists sacrifice accuracy for drama, we'll lose the power of the scientific process that makes it such a powerful force for progress.