How the Corporate Media Idealizes Science

What would we do without the media to tell us how great science is?

Let's science!
Let’s science!

The corporate-friendly freethinkers at Forbes Magazine don’t want us ever to have to answer that question, and they have columnists on staff to assure us that any of our doubts or concerns about the science industry are absolutely unnecessary. It seems that the sources the general public depends on for science communication are more interested in presenting a whitewashed, simplistic approach to science than engaging in legitimate science journalism.

Hipster Science Media

For instance, in an article called “Science Is Not A Democracy, And Can Never Be One”, bearded astrophysicist Ethan Siegel warns us that democratizing science is a futile effort because “many of us have opinions that are based on fear or ideology, rather than on what the science says.” He tells us the story of a debate in astrophysics where the problem was “incomplete information,” and relates how a “discovery” settled the debate. After showing us lots of pretty space pictures, Siegel concludes:

But it isn’t arguments or votes or opinion that herald the acceptance of a scientific explanation: it’s the evidence. Follow it wherever it leads.

The problem is that evidence doesn’t lead anywhere. Data points don’t miraculously arrange and interpret themselves. It’s not a matter of just discovering information, scientific inquiry is an inferential enterprise in which the data themselves aren’t nearly as important as the meaning we ascribe to them. There’s a lot of cultural and professional baggage that researchers impose on the facts, and theory always precedes evidence. The idea of democratizing science isn’t so we can vote on what we want to be true, it’s so communities can conduct research that’s meaningful to them, instead of just accepting what the science industry (beholden to its corporate and military benefactors) tells us is meaningful.

Data and Dissent

In an article entitled “What Does ‘Scientific Consensus’ Mean?”, Siegel rightly excoriates people who dissent from the consensus on climate change and vaccination, but does so on the wrong basis. Once again, he talks about the scientific maverick being mistaken simply because he doesn’t have enough information:

I grew up with the mentality that “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” And like many of you, this mentality came out of my own experiences: relying on the work of others usually meant being disappointed in the finished product. So going through this process of actually becoming a scientist was a bit of a shock for me, where many of the ideas I would think of would be immediately dismissed by someone more senior than I was.

But I soon came to realize that there were good reasons for these dismissals: they had a more complete set of knowledge than I did that they were drawing from. Moreover, once my set of knowledge expanded, I could see why these were bad ideas.

It’s just that simple, according to Siegel: you have bad ideas, then your knowledge expands, and then you can acknowledge the good ideas. Once again there’s this idealized definition of scientific progress: all we need to do is generate enough data, and then we arrive at the truth.

What Siegel ignores is that there are cultural and political reasons we think the way we do. We have to stop thinking that we become more right as time goes on and we access more information. The idea of science progressing by the slow, steady accumulation of information was rendered obsolete when Kuhn rewrote the narrative fifty years ago. As science has become an institution in our society that the powerful use to legitimize their authority, we’ve adopted a lot of ways of conceptualizing nature, and inquiry, and reality that aren’t just “following the evidence” but defining what we consider evidence, and what knowledge is for, in the first place.

Evidence-Based Sloganeering

Throughout these homilies, Siegel tosses off gooey affirmations that should be embarrassing to anyone with a shred of skepticism:

What’s vital to realize about this is not that the consensus is immune to challenge; quite to the contrary, it’s important for these challenges to occur. It’s necessary for the progression of science that we dare our most cherished assumptions and conclusions to live up to the inquisitions posed to it by new data, methods, observations and tests.

To make it as a scientist, you have to be passionate about relentlessly pursuing the truth the Universe tells us about itself, no matter where it leads you.

Believe me: as a scientist, there’s nothing we like more than learning something surprising and new.

Science media should be for communicating the truth about what scientific inquiry involves, not just for vapid science cheerleading. It needs to treat us like adults who have doubts and concerns about technology and progress, not like children who never want to hear anything bad said about science.

What do you think? Shouldn’t the media be realistic about the aims of inquiry? Will science ever progress faster than our ability to idealize it?

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