But reporting failures won’t be easy, and journalists will need to take care in presenting such stories. In fact, a number of scientists are reluctant to even use the word failure. Joy Zedler, an ecologist who has surveyed the use of words like “success” and “failure” in ecological restoration studies, has argued for striking such terms from scientific vocabulary, believing that they misrepresent the scientific process. (In his editorial for Restoration Ecology, Hobbs also cautioned that success and failure are “relative terms.”) And Knight raises another concern: if journalists start reporting failures, it may strain the press’ relationship with the scientific community.There’s a chance that researchers might be less inclined to speak to reporters, especially if news articles that include failures are received poorly by news consumers, or even journalists themselves.
Case in point: in June, Nicholas Wade wrote a post at The New York Times’s Tierney Lab blog about a recent development in schizophrenia research. The news, that schizophrenia is actually caused by many random genes rather than a specific handful, is a large departure from the previous school of thought. Wade’s reaction to the research, however, was antithetical to the optimistic press releases that were sent to media outlets: “It seems to me the reports represent more of a historic defeat, a Pearl Harbor of schizophrenia research,” he wrote.
But is “defeat,” which implies failure, the right characterization? While the latest insights into the genomics of schizophrenia may mark the end of one line of thought and the beginning of a new one, that is progress, not regression. While Wade was correct to challenge the press releases’ claims that the new schizophrenia research amounted to a “breakthrough,” his disparaging article exemplifies the type of reaction that science journalists need to avoid when covering so-called failures.
“Science adds to its knowledge by confirming hypotheses through experiment, but it also adds to knowledge – learns – through finding out that hypotheses don’t work,” said David Bruggeman, contributor on Prometheus, a (now defunct) science policy blog. That’s a key point. Science is a process, and there’s no better way of conveying that to the public than by reporting all aspects of the field. We hope that Restoration Ecology’s “Set-backs and Surprises” is itself a successful experiment and that, with it, reporters will learn a bit more about the beat they cover and help readers understand that science is not black and white.