One-sided science reporting

By Bill Kaye-Blake 02/12/2012 6

The Dominion Post over the weekend had a set of articles — above the fold, lots of column-inches, full-colour photos — focusing on scientists. That, in itself, is great. The problem is that these scientists were stepping far outside their expertise and the journalists did nothing to rein them in, or at least present an alternative view.

I have previously discussed these problems, but going back over the posts I think I might have been too nuanced. Let me be plain:

  • New Zealand has a better environment than most tourists’ home countries. That’s why they want to come here. Are we 100% Pure? Of course not. Does it matter? Yes, no, maybe. Should we get our knickers in a twist that we haven’t lived up to the hype? Of course not — don’t be daft.
  • All the talk of creating an innovation ecosystem and fostering a high-tech economy is a patter. A patter is what the con man does to keep you distracted from his hand reaching into your pocket. One article (‘Smart means looking beyond clean green’, which I can’t find on the DP site) pointed to the Kapiti Coast and its efforts to get high-tech manufacturing going. Hey, I’ve looked at it. The KC is tiny — there are single university campuses and factories overseas with more people. There is no way to get the scale, scope, agglomeration, etc. necessary for a leading-edge sector. The New Zealand science system does really well: it publishes a lot, it has plenty of researchers, there are some areas in which we are the world’s best. But let’s not kid ourselves. Oh, and just in case you don’t believe me, check out the Growth and Innovation Framework (pdf) from 2002, which was going to solve all these problems by 2011.
  • People live here, and therefore work here, because of the quality of life. I was talking last week with a guy my age who is doing really well in the scientific world in Europe. His work and commute mean that he is away from home 14 hours a day. This is pretty standard in most big cities, where all that great innovation takes place. I’m not interested, and neither are most of the people here. If we wanted that life, we would be living it — elsewhere.
  • Don’t bring up alcohol research to prove how scientific you are, unless you are really willing to engage with it. I’ve just played around the edges and I can see how complicated it is. Yeah, okay, jacking up prices and clamping down on access will reduce harmful drinking amongst adolescents. But, at what cost? That is always the question — at what cost? If you don’t ask and answer that question, you are spouting propaganda.
  • Spare me the martyr talk. I’ve been hassled over my research, too. Heck, some of it is so controversial I can’t get it properly funded. It doesn’t make you more right.

The core problem is uncritical science reporting. These scientists have to deal with robust debate at work. More of that in the newspapers wouldn’t go amiss.

6 Responses to “One-sided science reporting”

  • Agree that the Dom Post was laden with science-related stories over the weekend which was great to see. Less in agreement over the key takeaways. You’ve got the PM’s chief science advisor pointing out the gap between what the evidence suggests and the political reality he faces, Shaun Hendy (who blogs here under A Measure of Science) calling for us to focus on innovation and hi-tech industries as other small western nations have, and A piece on Mike Joy and the evidence pointing to our worsening track record on water quality. What is one-sided in the reporting of all of that? I thought it was great to see so much science being covered in one issue of the Dom.

  • Peter, on the Gluckman question, I think the point is that while science can tell us about the health effects of various amounts of alcohol consumption and can give us some expectation about the responsiveness of drinkers to various interventions, we need to also weigh the costs of those policies on drinkers whose consumption is not harmful. That’s one of the things that bugs me about some of the medical policy advice around alcohol – it provides advice as though the costs that policy imposes on moderate drinkers counts for nothing.

  • Bill and I have traded viewpoints before:

    I think it’s possible to have different but defensible positions on whether a high-tech economy is the way to go for NZ. We have a movie industry, make most of the world’s quartz crystal oscillators and have a monopoly on electromagnets form ion implantation in the semiconductor industry. NZ can and does quite happily compete in niche high-tech markets such as these, because the degree of specialisation and scale needed to compete depends on market size.

    It’s when you aim for the big time that NZs scale is going to hit you most – for Fonterra, for instance, scale and agglomeration are crucial. I’m happy to leave that to Fonterra to get on with and think we should concentrate public efforts on generating the diverse knowledge inputs that let you win in niche high tech markets. Ultimately I think this approach will also help Fonterra crawl out of its commodity trap.

    I must admit the Kapiti Coast thing was a bit out of left field! I had spent a lot of time explaining agglomeration economies and specialisation, but for some reason the reporter wanted to talk about Kapiti. In the end I admitted they had a great marketing strategy and that the rest of us could learn from that. The fun of science communication!

  • Oh, and I can tell you now Bill, you are really going to hate my book, “Get of the Grass” … I’m looking forward to the blog post on that already 😉

  • @Peter: It was great to see clever people profiled for their cleverness, agreed. However, there were elements of the reporting that were either demonstrably wrong or grossly misleading. All I’m asking for is accuracy — in a word, science.
    @Shaun: Thanks for linking to the previous conversation — it’s one we should continue. I look forward to reading your book. I’m sure it will make me think and hone my arguments.

  • As someone who lives on the Kapiti Coast these days (and is involved in some of the economic development activities discussed above) I’d just say that I happily manage to be part of a couple of leading edge areas of economic activity – the local and international industry commercialising high temperature superconductors and high end golf equipment technology (check out the new Nike Covert Drivers).

    I keep running into others like me.

    Apart from anything else (and I see that NZIER seemed to have missed this) the coast has a significant group of high net wealth individuals with professional backgrounds, 5,000+ well qualified employees that spend 2 hours a day going somewhere else to work, good and improving transport and communications infrastructure, and relatively low cost commercial and residential accommodation.

    And I should add a council that is doing some of the right stuff by treating part of its economic development spend as a soft loan rather than a grant (if EDAs and research provider faced that discipline we’d sharpen our act as a country) and acting as first customer for high tech products.

    Not hard to develop some high/clean tech businesses off the back of all that if you have a bit of imagination.

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