Policy Relevant Science in the Media

April 30th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week Nature published a letter titled “Dangers of crying wolf over risk of extinctions” by scholars at Oxford University. The letter warns, “simplifications of research findings may expose conservationists to accusations of crying wolf, and play directly into the hands of anti-environmentalists… many of the errors could be traced back to the press releases and agency newswires… [Then] Politicians and conservationists repeated these statements.”

For a range of participants in this process there are a number of reinforcing incentives for either emphasizing the dramatic or cherry picking convenient findings. For the university press office sensational and simple cause-effect press releases may increase the odds of news organizations covering the story. For reporters selective reporting may help to advance whatever personal agenda they may wish to advance. For scientists, accentuation of the extreme may provide access to or influence in political debates. For politicians, the “facts” suggest an authoritative basis for arguing their preferred outcomes. Of course, these reenforcing incentives exist across the political spectrum.

This is another form of the consequences of the “excess of objectivity” that I have written about on this blog.

Ann Henderson-Sellers has an excellent article about this process:

Henderson-Seller, A., 1998. Climate whispers: Media communication about climate change. Climatic Change 40:421-456.

What to do? Here is an article with a suggestion that the scientific community take some responsibility for going beyond presenting “just the facts” and assessing the significance of science:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2003: The Significance of Science, chapter in P. Dongi (ed.) The Governance of Science, Laterza, Rome, Italy, pp. 85-105. (Also available in Italian.)

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