Science Journalism and the Art of Expressing Uncertainty

— Symposium Magazine

Journalism is filled with examples of erroneous reporting turning into received opinion when reporters, editors, and the public take a story at face value after it came from a generally trusted source. Consider, for example, the claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or the various public and corporate scandals where authorities ranging from government officials to the chairman of General Electric are taken at their word.

As a scientist, I am concerned about the publication and promotion of speculative research, but I also believe that journalists can address this problem. Indeed, the traditional journalistic tool of interviewing knowledgeable outsiders can help if the focus is on the aspects of uncertainty associated with any scientific claim. Modern science is, by and large, a set of research directions rather than a collection of nuggets of established truths.

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