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Writing About Science: No Easy Answers

By Matt Thompson

This could all be very controversial.

Cornelia Dean, science writer extraordinaire, former science editor of The New York Times, takes issue with the notion that newspapers are supposed to educate the public. Not so, says Dean. Our job is to give the news, to tell the truth about what's happening in the world.

A quibbling distinction?

Consider the prostate cancer screening test, widely recommended for men over 50. Although, as the adage goes, "early detection saves lives," the mortality rate for prostate cancer has not dropped since the screening test became widespread. And the test itself carries the risk of making men incontinent or impotent.

Basically, it's not at all certain whether the screening test saves lives or damages them in the big picture. The science journalist's job, Dean said, is to report this uncertainty, not to hold back from fear of discouraging people or confusing them about testing. Our impulse to be didactic shouldn't distract from our responsibility to tell the truth.

"If the issue is confusing," Dean said, "then confusion is an appropriate response."

Posted in ethical reporting, science, sessions.Science Narratives for an Election Year, speakers.Cornelia Dean on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink