Horgan, whose author bio on his blog says he takes “a puckish, provocative look at breaking science,” has focused on a recurring them in recent posts: what he described as “the unhealthy influence of profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies on our health-care system”. He explored this idea in a post about the prescription of psychiatric drugs to children and one about the accusation by Michele Bachmann that drug company Merck may have influenced Rick Perry’s 2007 proposal that girls in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Similarly, the Science Fair section of USA Today, which covers science stories it considers novel and intriguing, said it aims to “explain why breakthroughs are important, and what scientists did to reach their conclusions”. Dan Vergano opened up the process of science in a recent piece on the increasing susceptibility of some researchers to the “file-drawer” effect - failing to publish experiments that did not work out. The article was based on a study of studies that was published in the journal Scientometrics, which pointed to the potential harm to scientific progress caused by what the paper’s author, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, called the “loss of negative data.”
As science critics, journalists are also curators of scientific content. They gather selected science-related news, opinion and commentary and present it for their audience in a structured format, often as a narrative. The science section of the British newspaper The Guardian, for example, features Story Trackers, where reporters trace the development of major science stories as they happen. The newspaper said that, “in the hours and days after an important science story breaks, The Guardian science desk provides updates and links to external sources of information and comment”. A recent story tracker curated content about the final space shuttle mission, gathering a variety of online material to allow readers to follow the unfolding story in one place.
Discussing the thinking behind Story Trackers, the paper’s Environment and Health News Editor, James Randerson, told us: “We made a very conscious decision to add value to stories by doing this kind of curation role, and basically admitting that we are not the fount of all knowledge, that we do have the ability to present information in a useful way and to hopefully decide which information is useful and which isn’t”.
Despite these shifting roles and emerging practices, a core component of science criticism remains the explanation of new scientific findings. This type of explanation, however, can be enriched by including historical explanation: where the research fits into existing scientific, social, economic and political domains. This expanded explanation was part of some coverage of the faster-than-light neutrinos, but has a place also in routine science coverage.
The dominant way of thinking about the role of science journalists historically was to view them as translators, or transmitters, of information. Now, however, a powerful metaphor for understanding their work as science critics is to see them as cartographers and guides, mapping scientific knowledge for readers, showing them paths through vast amounts of information, evaluating and pointing out the most important stops along the way.