Ed Yong is not a skeptical reporter

Andrew Gelman continues to investigate science quality:
How to improve science reporting? Dan Vergano sez: It’s not about reality, it’s all about a salary
…this time focusing on science journalism.

But the situation is worse than this. Gelman quotes science journalist Dan Vergano, and what he says is standard for his profession but it is not good news. And I couldn’t let this pass from Andrew:

“There will always be skeptical, thoughtful reporters such as Ed Yong…”


Funny to hear Ed Yong described as a skeptical, thoughtful reporter. Palaeoevolution, on which he often writes, is in a worse state than social psychology. You can’t even get to the stage of doing stats wrong when you can’t do experiments directly on the central issues in the first place because your job is discovering what happenED instead of what happenS. You should therefore be particularly careful, but instead, practitioners simply abandon all suitable scientific principles, and make all decisions on a social basis.

I gave a wry smile at hearing Andrew recommend seeking advice from explicitly a cognitive psychologist or computer scientist! I am both, and can identify both groupist/individual corruption/self-deception, and also major flaws at the heart of what little IT is used, but Yong never questions any current sacred tenets and never seeks outside (in any sense) opinions.

Vergano unwittingly highlights the deadly flaws in the profession of science journalism he teaches:

“Finding a collection of credible external sources…”

He has nothing but a social basis on which to grant credence. (He can recognise group approval but can’t recognise when the group is both wrong, and only joinable by those accepting group errors.)

“…to comment on science-related news (a quick, admittedly ad hoc, form of peer review…”

The latter understood as the heart of science only by those doomed to be involved in science but without a basic understanding of it.

“…often drawn from a literature search on a topic) is standard operating procedure for science news reporters.”

Try getting published in a corrupt field without being corrupt. You can’t get into the literature, so this will stop you getting questioned.

“It is largely what we do, asking outside experts to sanity check new results.”

It’s because there are no examples of Yong ever having done that, that he is such a nuisance.

“When enough of them agree that something is reasonable or newsworthy or both (or not), we report those reflections in our coverage of the news.”

When enough in a field realise that big improvements are often easier to block than to be adjusted to, the better scientific work is, the harder it gets to sell… on top of the hard job of doing it in the first place. And taking money out of the equation would actually make little difference to palaeontological science.

Until journalists understand that science is a process of duelling theories, and that all of it at one time had support from one person alone and so cannot be handled democratically, science journalists wil be no more than a series of self-righteous road-blocks to the best scientists. And it would help if journalists learned that science is not the Kuhnian “what scientists DO do” but the Popperian “what they SHOULD do”.

“That is how it is supposed to work.”

It isn’t. Good – indeed simply decent – scientific journalism has skepticism as one essential component (and not just imitation skepticism) and genuine competence in both the specific field and the nature of science in general, as another.

Last year when yet another piece of genuine science showed once more that peer review only corrupts science, Yong was preparing what was described as a “remarkable new book” on BBC Radio 4, on how your gut flora was important for your health. My mother told me that before he was born. Neither the BBC nor Yong ever acknowledge the corruption behind what they largely use to justify their mispractice.

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