Have you ever watched the news or heard a story on the radio where a newscaster discussed an issue related to science and said something like “I believe” or “I think” or just stating opinions as truth? For example, “I believe global warming is a hoax” or “The weather has actually been hotter this summer than normal”. Has this frustrated you as much as it frustrates me? It seems that some in the media have no problem blurring the line between opinion and evidence based reporting, and don’t seem to understand that especially when it comes to items that are measurable, there is little place for opinion.
For example, take the statement: “I think the weather has actually been hotter this summer than normal.” You hear folks say this all the time, but it’s actually pretty easy to collect data, compare to previous summers and then do that over a number of years to determine the validity of such a statement. Do newscasters do this before speaking publicly or authoritatively on the news? I doubt it – yet their words are repeated and quoted by others, lending them false credibility. Scientists on the other hand, are very cautions when making statements because they tend to base what the say about such matters on items that can be supported with evidence. In fact, they will often hedge their statements with “probably” and “likely” since it is always hard to be 100% sure, but this hedging is often missed by the general public who take such statements to much more uncertainty than actually exists. Global climate change is the classic example of this and is exploited by opponents of action to their advantage. Since these opponents often use tactics such as repetition and marketing instead of evidence, it’s difficult to counteract.
So how you battle this sort of reporting? I believe the first step is improved communication between the science community and the general public, so that people understand how science works, what the process of discovery is, and how it is communicated within the science community. This understanding will hopefully lead to the public doing a better job of holding the rest of the media to account, and maybe to cut down on the amount of opining and increase the amount of actual reporting.