Saturday, May 28, 2005

Pons and Fleischmann Journalism

The scientific method is not directly applicable to journalism, but there are some lessons that journalists could learn from scientists. One of these lessons regards the use of anonymous sources and secretive methods of obtaining information.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the case of two scientists who behaved more like journalists than scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. As I posted a few weeks ago, Pons and Fleischmann created a stir in 1989 when they claimed to have successfully produced nuclear fusion at low temperatures (and more importantly they claimed they were getting out more energy than they were putting in). When making their announcement, they insisted on keeping secret all but the most rudimentary details of their experiment, making it difficult for other scientists to review their work. Pons and Fleischmann justified their obfuscation by claiming that they were protecting the intellectual property of a potentially lucrative discovery.

Compare this to the Newsweek Koran flushing story by Michael Isikoff. He put forth the story but did not disclose his sources or explain how he came to accept that the story was true. Reporters generally justify such actions on the grounds that it is necessary for competitive reasons, or that sources would never come forward without confidentiality guarantees. He expected his readers to trust the story based on his (and Newsweek’s) reputation. But even a perfect reputation does not guarantee that mistakes will not be made.

As we now know, both the Pons and Fleischmann cold fusion experiment and the Isikoff Koran story were seriously flawed. The difference is that Pons and Fleischmann were sharply and nearly unanimously criticized by their colleagues to the point where they will never recover their scientific reputations even in the unlikely event that it turns out they were correct all along about cold fusion. “Fake but accurate” has no place in science. If you can’t show how you got to the correct answer, your lucky guess is of little use to a scientist.

It should be noted that Pons and Fleischmann were never accused of deliberately misleading anyone. In all likelihood, they, like Isikoff, were so excited by their potential discovery that they didn’t examine their work with proper skepticism. The best way to weed out these mistakes is to make the evidence and methods available for independent examination.

Recently more information has come to light in the Newsweek story. It seems that the accusations of Koran flushing came only from prisoners – certainly an indispensable piece of information for evaluating the credibility of the accusation. A few weeks back, I posted a link to a commencement address by the physicist Richard Feynman that explained a scientist’s responsibility to the truth:

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”

I believe that not only could journalists follow this advice, but they and the public they serve would greatly benefit if they did.


Blogger R-Five said...

The key difference between scientific research and MSM journanlism regards feedback. Scientists truly welcome it, for:

1. If they're corrected, even proven wrong, that actually gets them that much closer to the goal. A promising drug is tried, but a significant side effect shows up in wider trials. The formulation can adjusted, possibly even scrapped, moving on to the next one.

2. If they're corroborated, their credibility and research grants increase to do still more.

Either way, they win, and they know it. Most journalists, however, have cut themselves off from feedback. A positive response is expected and ignored. A negative response is clearly from an inferior and is ignored. Only the most obvious cases - Dan Rather, Jayson Blair, Mitch Albom - result in any pain, and always less than they deserve.

9:37 PM  

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