By Nicola Jones
I have lost track of how many times I have received emails from hopeful high school students who read one of my news articles and wanted help with their project on sea level rise, or climate change, or volcanoes or earthquakes or the ongoing effort to grow enough food for the planet and keep emissions in check.
While I applaud these students for reaching out to a real person for help (as a journalist I find this the most efficient way to learn something new), I can’t help wonder what the heck their teachers are thinking, presuming that their teachers suggested this avenue of research. Sure, I have written news stories and features about sea level rise, climate change and all the rest, sometimes for authoritative publications like Nature or Yale Environment 360. Some of these articles must sound very convincing, chock full of facts, telling examples and compelling conclusions. I’m flattered, really I am. But I am NOT an expert in these subjects. I am an intermediary.
These emails I get are symptomatic of a bigger problem. Kids today aren’t being taught (or aren’t learning) how to vet information and expertise. Yes, I delved into each topic, for a while, and spoke to some leading experts about their research. But some of these articles are years old. And I never did the research myself; I’m a journalist who spoke to people, heard their stories, and tried to make sense of it all, briefly, and entertainingly, for my audience to read. As the saying goes, scientists know an awful lot about a little; journalists know very little about an awful lot. If these students want the current facts, they should go straight to the research papers, summary reports and people that I go to, not to me.
This is important. In today’s information deluge, there are ever-more people spreading their theories as facts and hiding behind a cloak of apparent expertise (think Wikipedia, which has the sheen of an encyclopedic authority but actually can be, and often is, biased or just plain wrong). People seem ever-more-willing to Google things like “should I vaccinate my kids” and follow the advice they find in Yahoo answers rather than on the pages of the World Health Organization. Particularly when it comes to science, people can be befuddled by a cloak of fancy jargon into thinking that something must be true. Take the famous case of the sad disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a resort in Portugal in 2007 – newspapers reported that a “forensic analysis” by Danie Krügel of the University of Bloemfontein, based on a “DNA sample and GPS satellite technology”, had traced the missing child to the beach. After some further investigation, it was noted that Krugel was director of security at the university rather than a researcher, and the “device” in question couldn’t possibly do what it claimed to do (read more here).
We need to be teaching our kids (and university students / journalists / scientists) how to weigh information in the information age. What’s the so-called expert’s background? Do they have a real medical degree or a PhD from a credible institution, or is “doctor” just a nickname? How many years’ experience do they have, and what sort of experience? Do they have financial motivations? Where does the funding come from for that website that looks like a newspaper but is actually the front for an advocacy group? I’d love for these high school students who reach out to me, and my kids, to have the skills to critically evaluate information, know who to turn to for facts, and generally not be swayed by uninformed voices.
I admit there are blurry lines here. I probably do know more than these students about the given subject. (I’m not cruel; I tell them politely what I know, which is pretty much whatever I wrote in the article they read in the first place, and point them in the direction of further, more robust information.) Some journalists become authoritative experts on a subject by dint of following one specific story for years, or literally writing the book on an obscure topic. Some scientists have good pedigrees but wacky ideas outside the consensus view. All the more reason to teach people how to assess expertise for themselves.
So, should you listen to me on this subject? I can tell you I have been a journalist since 2000, and I did a science undergrad before that. I have worked for UBC teaching science journalism (for which I was paid), and I am friends with Eric Jandciu who asked me to write this blog post (for which I was not). You could check all that, and maybe you should.
Nicola is a freelance science journalist, writer and editor living in the mountains of Pemberton, BC, where she splits her time between finding interesting stories and being a mom.