This column is an updated version of one published on ScientificAmerican.com in 2014. It feels even more timely today.—John Horgan
I'm about to resume teaching my science-writing seminar at Stevens Institute of Technology, and I'm reflecting on my profession. What is the point of science journalism? The point, I'd say, is to assess, not merely report, claims involving science, including technology and medicine. And what should young, would-be science writers know to become smart judges of scientific claims? Some thoughts:
*Science generates lots of bullshit. Researchers competing for grants, glory and tenure often make poorly supported claims, which scientific journals and other media vying for readers eagerly disseminate; high-profile, potentially lucrative fields are especially likely to produce claims that cannot be replicated. These are the disturbing conclusions of analyses carried out for decades by Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, author of the blockbuster 2005 paper "Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong." Ironically, Ioannidis has been accused of carrying out shoddy research on the Covid-19 epidemic, but his critiques of the scientific literature have been broadly corroborated. Recent studies also suggest that science, in spite of increasing investments, is generating diminishing returns.
*Postmodernists are right, sort of. Many philosophers are postmodernists, who agree with Thomas Kuhn that science cannot achieve truth, or "truth," as they put it. Postmodernists are wrong about the unattainability of truth; science, in spite of its unreliability, has discovered many truths about nature, from the germ theory of infectious disease to the big bang theory of cosmic expansion. But postmodernists are right that science often reflects the prejudices and interests—economic, political, ideological--of powerful groups, as exemplified by science's sexist, racist history. Science journalists should consider the social context of scientific claims. They should ask, as good political and business journalists do, Whose interests are served by this claim? Sometimes that comes down to following the money.
*Marx was right, sort of. Communism turned out to be a bad idea, but Marx's critiques of capitalism remain sound. He warned that capitalism produces relentless innovation, which invariably benefits haves over have-nots. In our era, digital technologies have become a major driver of economic inequality, according to a 2022 report in The New York Times. Economists argue that "computerized machines and software, with a hand from policymakers, have contributed significantly to the yawning gaps in incomes" in the U.S. One economist found that "half or more of the increasing gap in wages among American workers over the last 40 years is attributable to the automation of tasks formerly done by human workers." This perspective should temper journalists' enthusiasm for alleged advances in artificial intelligence and other fields.
*Capitalism subverts health care. U.S. health care stinks, especially considering how much we spend on it. The website Our World in Data notes that the U.S. spends "far more" on health care per capita than any other country, and yet life expectancy in the U.S. is "shorter than in other countries that spend far less." The U.S. spends more than five times what Chile spends per capita on health care, and yet Chileans live longer. Cancer and mental-health care highlight the flaws of American medicine. The costs of cancer research, tests and treatment keep rising, and yet mortality rates have barely budged; declines in mortality since the 1990s stem primarily from declines in smoking. Similarly, over the past several decades, prescriptions for psychiatric drugs have surged, and yet so have severe mental disabilities, a correlation that could be at least partially causative. Profit-driven health care, in other words, benefits providers more than patients. Marx wouldn't have been surprised.
*Militarism subverts science. In his 1961 farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the "unwarranted influence" of "the military-industrial complex" on science: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present--and is gravely to be regarded." Talk about prescience! Roughly half of the U.S. budget for research and development, which now totals $160 billion, is allocated to military agencies, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Pentagon invests heavily in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and neuroscience, among other fields. Scientists I admire take military money, and they insist it does not distort their research. Yeah, right. Scientists I admire also promote the bogus notion that war stems from deep-rooted male urges. This claim implicitly, and conveniently, excuses U.S. militarism; if war is innate, it must be inevitable, and we need a huge military to win wars when they break out.
*What would Noam Chomsky think? Science yields immense benefits, from knowledge about nature to smart phones that let us tap that knowledge instantly. And science has opponents, from global-warming deniers to anti-evolution creationists. But science is an enormously potent force in our culture, with legions of promoters. Given the problems I've mentioned above, science doesn't need more public-relations flaks. It needs tough, informed critics, who seek to distinguish bogus from legitimate claims, who ask, Who benefits from this idea or innovation?
When contemplating an advance, like optogenetics, I like to temper my enthusiasm by imagining the reaction of Noam Chomsky, the legendary linguist and ferocious critic of U.S. imperialism, capitalism and militarism. I admire the immense intelligence and courage with which Chomsky, now 94, challenges the status quo. See my 2018 Q&A with him, in which he calls Trump and his Republican allies "criminally Insane."
Chomsky, a scientist himself, is hardly a kneejerk critic of science. When I asked what could be done to make science more trustworthy, he replied: "Sometimes failure of replication has to do with complexity of what is being studied and with inadequate tools and ideas. The intense pressure to publish and sometimes ugly competitiveness are other factors. As compared with other domains, the scientific culture is quite admirable, I think, though hardly without flaws that can and should be corrected."
My final advice for my students is this: doubt all authorities, including your professor.