At its finest, science journalism is about reporting the latest, greatest discoveries from the best minds in the world and making those findings accessible to everyday people. It is also about debate, as scientists often disagree, sometimes bitterly, over how to interpret cutting-edge research. And occasionally, science journalism is about discussing issues of science policy, and how we can use science to inform society's collective decision-making.
One website that we believe accomplishes these goals and excels at communicating complicated science to the layperson is LiveScience. The site is staffed with talented writers who produce informative, absorbing material. That's why we often link to them on RealClearScience.
However, a recent series of articles published on the site caught us off guard. To be blunt, there was a very noticeable political slant. (See screenshot.)
There are three articles worth discussing: (1) Undecided voters and climate change; (2) Fox News' climate coverage; and (3) Airplane windows.
The first article, about undecided voters' beliefs about global warming, is probably a legitimate story. According to the piece, "Undecided voters are more likely than Romney voters to see climate change as an important issue." That's not particularly surprising, given that conservatives often deny anthropogenic global warming or dismiss the need to do anything about it.
So, the first story passes scrutiny. But, stories #2 and #3 do not.
The second article, about Fox News getting climate coverage 93% wrong, would be an important story if the study had been conducted by a legitimate scientific organization. But, it was not. The "report" was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Don't let their name fool you. They often hold positions that are in stark opposition to the scientific community. (Most notoriously, they are anti-GMO, but they also engage in anti-nuclear scaremongering.) They are widely perceived as being little more than an environmental lobbying group. Thus, a partisan group's "fact-checking" should not be taken too seriously, and it certainly does not warrant an article on such a respected science website.
The third article, about Mitt Romney's alleged confusion about why airplane windows don't roll down, is based on false pretenses. Their opening sentence read: "In his latest gaffe, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lamented the fact that airplane windows don't roll down." That is an utter distortion. As reported by the famous myth-busting website Snopes, Romney was clearly joking (in his awkward way). To their credit, LiveScience issued an update that Romney "may have been joking," but this is insufficient. The article should be retracted.
All three articles, particularly the last one, appear to have been written in order to score some political points or to cater to a left-leaning demographic of readers. But, that's not good. Increasingly, conservatives are distrusting science. Could it be that science journalism, which clearly favors one side of the political spectrum over the other, is partially to blame for this trend?
Criticism of misguided scientific beliefs is perfectly legitimate. But writing partisan stories, especially when they are inaccurate or biased, discredits science journalism and worse, the scientific enterprise itself.