A lesson from science for journalism

By Torben Halbe

Science is crucial in public debate and policy making. Yet too often journalists take scientific statements not as something to be debated, but as a hill to die on.

But that’s not how science works. Debate and disagreement is fundamental to the process. Openness to falsification is the idea, famously formulated by the philosopher Karl Popper, that a claim must be refutable in order to be scientific. To scientists – and hopefully journalists – there is no such thing as absolute certainty. The world is complex, there’s always noise and bias, and there’s no perfect measurement. 

And there’s no perfect theory, either. A theory might be able to explain current observations reasonably well, only to be called into question later by new, conflicting data, better methods of measurements, or a new model. Newton’s laws of motion were a tremendous achievement, yet you wouldn’t have been able to get a GPS system to work while relying on them. The time dilation effect between the clocks on the satellites and the clocks on Earth need to be accounted for, and that requires a well-known improvement over Newton’s laws: Einstein’s theory of relativity. Newton’s laws stood for over 200 years – and yet there was still something to improve. It’s a humble embrace of wrongness that drives scientific progress.

This has uses far beyond the lab. Seeing the world like this makes us aware of our own limitations. And it keeps us open to debates with a clear playing field.

But that’s now how it often goes in journalism. Take the recent lab leak theory, for example. COVID-19 had natural origins – that was the hill to die on. And any suggestions otherwise was conspiracy. Trust the Science, the reporters said, and the debate is nipped in the bud. 

Tragically, people today instead look for absolute truths – and seem quite ready to shoot the messenger of a competing hypothesis. CNN’s Paul LeBlanc recently rebuked the Energy Department’s new assessment that COVID-19 came from a lab as simply “adding to the confusion.” But it’s not the department’s assessment that makes the world confusing – the world is just confusing. And competing positions are required to make any sense of it. Which, in this case, can make a difference between preventing the next pandemic or not. Even if we can never be certain in the end.

CNN also tried to dismiss the idea by pointing out that the Department of Energy made its assessment with “low confidence.” But “low confidence” is an intelligence agency term for when there’s “not enough information available to draw a more robust conclusion.” This is exactly how hypotheses look at an early stage of research, and it is commendable that the Department of Energy put it out there for further testing. Journalists should embrace this way of investigating the world instead of complaining about it “raising more questions than answers.” 

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable. We want answers, and many want a simpler world. But if we give in to that, simple dogma wins. Embracing uncertainty is an integral part of good journalism. 

Citizens shouldn’t have to look at every study themselves. It’s fine to depend on scientists and journalists to communicate important competing ideas. But citizens should demand journalists become better scientists, and defend against those who would rather silence us all.

Torben Halbe is a contributor for Young Voices, non-fiction author, and liberty activist at the EGO Institute based in Berlin, Germany. He holds an MSc in Biology from ETH Zurich. Follow him on Twitter.