Scientists don’t ‘say’

As anticipation for a Covid-19 vaccine reaches fever pitch, mainstream news media referring to the research using the term ‘scientists say’ forget a key point about scientists: they don’t speak with a unified voice.

[An extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick]

The game of science has players and, importantly, it has rules. And nature may fight fair, but she’s reluctant to surrender her secrets. She is continually adapting to everything we throw at her, and the resultant complexity of the game means that humans have to be both creative in our strategy and methodical in our tactics, if we are to gain even a foothold.

To make things even more complex, there is no single strategy for scientists to keep their eye on the ball. Broadly speaking, there are two: one

Don’t blame Covid-19

Alright, I’ve had enough…I have to say something. As a science journalist and writer, I’ve been keeping an eye on the coronavirus with a mix of fascination and grim satisfaction. Fascination, because such viruses are rare, and grim satisfaction because the blind panic taking hold is what happens when qualified science journalists are cut from the news equation. Let’s get the science stuff out the way: Firstly, this coronavirus is so new there’s still confusion over what it’s called. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 because it’s related to the SARS coronavirus we saw in 2002-2003. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘novel coronavirus’, meaning ‘new’, because it was only identified at the end of last year. The World Health Organisation refers to ‘COVID-19’. That’s not the virus, but the disease that develops from the virus - an acute respiratory illness akin to a nasty bout of flu.

The unwelcome eye of journalism

Abstract: There's been a nasty shift in South African journalism... Swimming upstream is a challenging endeavour - ask any salmon - but when the end task is a noble one, even if death - as in the case of the Pacific salmon - follows shortly thereafter, it can be argued that it's worth it. However, fighting against a tide of tabloid journalism has left science journalists wondering if it isn't easier to completely change species. Anyone entrusted with trying to get more science and critical thinking into the media, will be familiar with the edict of most editors that their readers, viewers or listeners 'don't have an appetite for science'. This is of course utterly ridiculous because we are all consumers of science; there isn't a single element to our lives, and how we live it, that isn't examined or improved on by science. But

Should editors be our moral arbiters?

Abstract: Are TV news editors really qualified to determine what we watch? On 20th October 2011 Muammar Gaddafi was captured by rebel soldiers, taunted, beaten and shot. His body was then publicly displayed and abused. You will remember it because it was shown on TV. It savaged some of the fundamental moral guidelines of broadcasting, but was considered justified for reasons that are dubious. It deserves re-examining now because South Africa is, unfortunately, being increasingly riddled with such 'Gaddafi' moments. Shortly after the murder of Gaddafi I had the opportunity to challenge a professor of journalism and one of the UK's most respected authorities on issues around morality in the media why the local TV stations aired footage of his capture. I asked him who makes the decision whether or not I, as a viewer, should witness Gaddafi's obvious distress. He missed the broader

Piggy, and the death of journalism

Abstract: Look to Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' for the tragic future of journalism... You should keep this magazine; and one day in the not-too-distant future show it to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren and explain to them how in the old days you used to pay money to read something written by people called 'journalists'. They'll be amazed and surprised, even laugh at how bizarre such a notion should be. I'll be long gone by then, my final days spent as a dejected pauper, strapped to a gurney, thrashing around and frothing at the mouth, shouting between the spittle about how democracy killed a discipline and an art form, and steered humanity towards idiocy. If you have a sneaking suspicion where I'm going with this, I'd hazard a guess you've read William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. Like Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', it endures as one

The state of science journalism in South Africa

Abstract: In a country racked by violent crime, political infighting and scientific ignorance, the quest of the science journalist mirrors that of a famous Greek mythical hero... According to Greek mythology, Prometheus, a titan, forged mankind from clay, and knowing that mankind needed fire to survive, he lit a torch from the sun and brought it to Earth. Zeus considered the fire stolen, and was so incensed he punished Prometheus - an immortal - by having him chained to a rock, and a giant eagle tear at his liver every day. It's a myth imbued with themes of discovery, bravery and loyalty; but the bringing of knowledge, represented by fire, to mankind, is why the analogy of Prometheus is used by the University of Stellenbosch's Professor George Claassen to describe the state of science journalism in his country. Prof Claassen is the popular archetype of

You know what they say about what they say

Abstract: Science explains why you should beware those who employ the wisdom of they. You know what they say: a good man is hard to find. If you're nodding your head in agreement you're guilty of employing one the oldest tricks in the book of twisted logic, as well as a form of selective thinking popular with psychology. Don't feel bad, just about everyone does it. Forget war correspondents; investigative journalists are the real hardcore purveyors of the so-called 'fourth estate', because, like Jack Russells on acid, they'll dig and dig until their paws are bloody and the evidence of their digging is piled proudly next to them. They believe in following the trail to find the original source of a claim, because that is where you'll find not only true accountability but also the real nub of a story. Science journalists have to be investigative