Some Good News, and a Hard Truth, About Science

Lost in the swirl of alternative truths is the fact that science is a verb, not a noun.

Marchers for Science in Washington on Earth Day, 2017. A study in the journal Science found that a false story was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than accurate news.
CreditCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

By Alan Burdick, New York TimesNov. 19, 2018

Shortly before turning 30, Prince Charles complained to the press about its seeming obsession with bad news. “Why don’t they, for a change, tell us how many jumbo jets landed safely at Heathrow Airport,” he groused.

So, as a birthday gift, the Times of London printed a front page containing only good news. The death rate from suicide was declining, the paper reported, and in the previous week 8,000 marriages were performed, 12,200 babies were born, 92 percent of the first-class mail was delivered on time, and no banks collapsed.

This news reached readers of The New York Times on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 1978. The item appeared on page C8, in a small story toward the back of the first issue of the paper’s new Science Times section, where the science stories gave way to social news and movie times for “Grease” and “Animal House.”

Would the contents of that first Science Times have cheered the Prince? Some headlines, such as “Sociologists Plumb the Secrets of Compatibility” and “Turning the Other Cheek, A Psychological View,” promised an optimistic take on human nature. Others, not so much. A story by Malcolm Browne — “Doomsday Debate: How Near is the End?” — described a “heated controversy” among scientists and scholars, the consensus being that “total human extinction is not necessarily as distant a possibility as many of us would choose to think.”

Nonetheless, the section was an inspiration to science journalism as a whole. By 1989, more than 90 newspapers in the United States had weekly science sections, supported in part by ads from the growing home-computer industry. Science journalism became a subject of research in its own right. In 2006 the journal Science Communication published a research paper with the title “A Longitudinal Study of The New York Times Science Times Section,” which noted that the section had “established itself as an important, reliable, and influential guide to the world of science, medicine, and technology.”

By 2013 the number of weekly science sections had fallen to just 19, as newsprint-ads evaporated, the newspaper industry shrank, and the conversations shifted online. And there, it seems, the world of science is being discussed more vigorously than ever, on dozens of science news websites — Aeon, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, Live Science, Nautilus, Quanta, Stat, Undark, Vox — and a social-media landscape humming with the voices of engaging scientists and deeply informed writers.

The first Science Times cover, published on November 14, 1978.Credit

Yet, increasingly, we are besieged by alternative truths. Climate change is a myth — a notion espoused by President Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary. The mass shootings in Parkland and Las Vegas were elaborately staged hoaxes, much like the moon landing, according to countless YouTube videos. The recent wildfires in California were started with lasers, by people scheming to reduce the population.

These and other nuggets of misinformation are shared and amplified by cynics, the credulous and bots, thriving on the air of false equivalence. And, online, they live forever. Andrew Wakefield’s research purporting to link vaccines to autism was discredited two decades ago, but it continues to circulate and infect, frightening parents into not vaccinating their children, and fueling the resurgence of measles. Over the weekend, several hundred people gathered in Denver for a two-day conference to celebrate and share their very sincere belief that Earth is flat.

The problem rests as much with the vector as with the virus. In March, a study in the journal Science found that a false story would propagate far more readily than a real story; it was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than accurate news, and it reached a cohort of 1,500 viewers several times faster. YouTube persistently tempts us to view videos even more extreme than whatever we’re watching at the moment. “The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy,” Guillaume Chaslot, one of the algorithm’s engineers, told the Guardian in March.

The host under attack is inherently vulnerable. The scientific process is a human one, its facts messy, contingent, hard-fought and built through iteration. It doesn’t help that scientists occasionally promote fraudulent research, or that thousands of predatory journals exist online to publish research papers so meritless that even a computer algorithm could have written them.

What alternative truths exploit, and disguise, is the fact that science is a verb, not a noun. It is not the truth, but it is the best compass we have invented to guide us there. Indeed, it could be argued — right here, for instance — that science is the most optimistic endeavor that we have created for ourselves. Not all of its news will warm the heart: the mounting evidence of our warming planet, the vexing mutations of the influenza virus, the unavoidable signs that a black hole lies at the center of the galaxy, waiting to swallow us all.

But even these are triumphs. Every step in science is the mark of a species that is willing to challenge itself and press forward, seeking out wonder, identifying problems and solving them, looking inward by looking outward. That’s the task of science journalism, to tell that story, as well as keeping the enterprise accountable. Seriously, on the whole, science news is the best news you’re likely to read on any given day.

The challenge ahead for science is to avoid extinction. Can we learn from it how to disseminate news that is factual, maybe even good, more rapidly than falsehoods can spread? It’s a matter of outsmarting the information ecosystem, the one we cultivated to satisfy the craven, all too human penchant for bad news. The ultimate foes, as ever, are our worst instincts.

Forty years from now, humankind is unlikely to have solved the mysteries of compatibility. But hopefully we’ll have made some progress in the psychology of turning the other cheek. And with perseverance, perhaps some luck, we may be pleased to find ourselves thriving in a world that has not ended, accompanied by scientists who are as happy as ever to debate whether it might, and how, and when. May Science Times deliver this news to Prince Charles on his 110th birthday.