Where do you find the best science reporting?

March 8, 2017 • 9:15 am

Reader Peter called my attention to  two nice pieces on Real Clear Science and Infografic that evaluate popular-science reporting sites for both accessibility and quality.  Each outlet is scored on two axes: quality on the X-axis (evidence-based versus ideologically driven, i.e., is the reporting trustworthy?) and whether or not the content is sufficiently compelling and avoids sensationalism (Y axis). Nature and Science are, of course, scientific journals aimed at a professional audience, but their “popular” summaries are often comprehensible to laypeople; and these two get the highest ratings. I agree, though there is one writer in particular whose pieces are at best mixed (I won’t name the person.)

Have a gander (click to enlarge):

The best explanation of the rankings is at Infographic, written by Alex Berezow, a science writer and Senior Fellow of Biomedical Scienc at the American Council on Science and Health. His notes are indented, and I’ll make a few comments of my own (flush left)

Why Is THAT Source Listed There?

Some of our rankings may surprise you. Here are more detailed explanations for a few specific choices:

The best of the best. By far, the two best sources of science news (besides ACSH and RealClearScience, of course!) are Nature and Science, both of which have news sections aimed at the general public. The Economist is excellent for people who are mostly interested in global news and politics but have a curiosity for science. NewScientist and Live Science are perfect for true science geeks.

I don’t read The Economist, though I’ve written for them (contributions are anonymous). I highly recommend Nature and Science, whose overviews (not the articles themselves) are sufficiently non-technical to be appreciated by many readers here. They are scrupulously accurate, with that one exception I mention above. I think you can subscribe to the week’s content for free, and I believe many of the “popular” pieces are free as well.

No love for Popular Science and Wired? They’re okay. While some of their content is good, our biggest problem with them is that they are prone to wide-eyed speculation and clickbait rather than serious science news analysis. Physics World has the opposite problem. It is very serious and well reported, but the topic selection is esoteric and of interest to few people.

What’s wrong with Scientific American? For a long while, Scientific American became the headquarters for left-wing social justice warriors and others who felt bashing conservatives was more important than reporting good science. (Previously, that dubious distinction went to ScienceBlogs, but nobody reads that anymore.) SciAm’s best content is generally stuff they reprint from other outlets.

Agreed. I haven’t looked at Scientific American for years, and their blogs are often SJW in tone, biased, or overblown. I’ve rarely discussed any of them on this site. One welcome exception is the excellent site Tetrapod Zoology by Darren Naish. As for ScienceBlogs, I do read one good site, Respectful Insolence, featuring the anti-pseeudoscience posts of surgeon Orac.

The New York Times is a joke. The NYT — America’s alleged newspaper of record — has itself quite a record of unscientific transgressions. The paper promotes dubious fad diets, cited the quack Joe Mercola on a story about the safety of wearable electronics, and gives voice to organic foodies. It also published a story on a fake disease called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. The NYT regularly reports false information on GMOs and agriculture, perhaps none so egregious as this utterly abominable article by Danny Hakim that compared pesticides to Nazi-made sarin gas. If it wasn’t for the fact that some respectable writers like John Tierney and Carl Zimmer also publish there, the NYT’s science coverage would be comparable to that of the Huffington Post.

I think Berezow is a bit hard on the Times, but he’s right about Carl Zimmer and John Tierney, and I would add to that pair Natalie Angier, who publishes pieces that are not only accurate and compelling, but amusingly written. The rest of the science writers, especially those old dudes who write about physics and biology, I can leave or take. It would be nice the paper would include a regular column by a scientist (Olivia Judson did a good job in that role before she left), and I really mourn the increasing percentage of news in the “Science” section that is about human-related issues. Yes, there’s a human health part of the science section, but too often human stuff slops over into the “pure science” section. We’re only one of about 50 million species!

I should also recommend Ed Yong’s columns at The Atlantic, which are often very good. Have a look at the link to Berzow’s “record of  unscientific transgressions” at the New York Times, which surprised me, especially what it says about writer Michael Pollan’s distortions.

It really is time for the New York Times to clean house. They should hire Carl Zimmer as a regular staff member instead of a stringer, fire the superannuated writers who don’t do a good job on physics or biology, hire some good young talent (though that is rare these days), get a scientist to write a column, and cut down the human-related stuff in the “pure science” section.

Back to Berezow:

Beware British tabloids. News sources like the Daily Mail and The Telegraph serve up a disproportionate amount of sensationalist garbage. Avoid.

Not a single cable news source is worth your time. While CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC might be useful for other things, they are mostly awful sources of science news. Any science news reported here should be verified for accuracy.

I’ll add that NPR doesn’t do a great job with science either, though I much like Science Friday. 

Pure garbage. The biggest purveyors of fake science news are Natural News, Mercola, The Food Babe, and InfoWars. If they ever report something truthful, it is almost certainly by accident. Even a broken clock is correct twice per day.

I’d add PuffHo there, too, but I’m biased, as that place is my bête noire.  Here are today’s “top science stories” from that place:

Finally, read Berzow’s other piece, “How to spot a fake science news story.

I welcome readers to chime in here, or add sources not listed.

51 thoughts on “Where do you find the best science reporting?

  1. Looks about right to me. I’d add PCC to the top left of the chart 🙂

    Here is a similar chart but for news sources (if it displays):

    [IMG]http://i63.tinypic.com/kak36w.jpg[/IMG]

      1. It would be interesting to see where readers of these various sites would put those sites on the chart.

  2. A little surprised at some of the ratings. Scientific American did stumble on occasion, but I don’t see how that would cause it to slide to where it is overall. I am amused and not surprised about the similar mediocre rating of Science News. Many excellent examples of over-hype can be found there pretty much daily.

  3. I’d like to put in a good word for Cosmos (not to be confused with Cosmo), an Australian science magazine. Not a lot of depth but good breadth, and a glossy fun read.

  4. The map omits blog-like science outlets like WEIT and physorg or Carroll’s Preposterous Universe. It is also missing IEEE and SciDaily and APS-Physics highlights. I think the gizmodo (io9) deserves a little better review.

    A well educated reader can parse crap. Bottom line. News stories are easily assessed for their veracity.

    1. One trouble is educating readers so they can discriminate. Working in a library makes me appreciate how undiscriminating students are – extrapolating that makes me feel gloomy. We have to give them the tools to think & learn about evidence, & how to read between the lines.

    2. I think very highly of Carroll’s Preposterous Universe, but apparently he is very busy because he only posts a new article about every other month or so. Or it may be that he is turned off by his comments section. I’ve sprained my eyes more than once reading through the comments there.

  5. John Tierney, really? I didn’t know he still wrote for the Times. I may be recalling his political rather than science columns, but I always thought of him as a bit of a crank. A quick look at Berezow’s Real Clear Science piece suggests he is pretty far over on the ideologically driven scale himself.

  6. I usually go to The Atlantic after WEIT in the morning. Ok reporting. Go there today and find a story on Florida “Panthers” on your porch. Be warned. Sad ending.

  7. I enjoy reading pieces by Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Specter and Maria Konnikova. Subject matter is well-researched, highly interesting and often pertinent to current affairs. Sad to see the veritable Newyorker not even mentioned.

  8. The Daily Mail – worst for the medical reporting as people take those as gospel. Torygraph used to be quite sensible. It certainly is not a tabloid though – still broadsheet! I suppose the Observer gets lumped in with the Guardian though they are different papers with a different history.

  9. Just for fun, Nature has an editorial in the news section on this topic and the RCS report, titled “Science journalism can be evidence-based, compelling — and wrong.”

    The article is critical of the report, and concludes that “The relationship between science and media reporting is far from simple, and both sides should remember this.”

  10. Hard to compare TV and magazines. You can read and reread the written word until you understand it so you’d expect greater density and precision.

    Also, while science articles in The Guardian might be accurate, that’s entirely cancelled out by the hatred of scientists – particularly white middle-aged male scientists – expressed in the non-science pages, and their passionate defence of one regressive religion in particular.

  11. Discover is my favorite magazine. Another good one is Archaeology put out by The Archaeological Institute of America.

    I used to subscribe to Smithsonian but got tired of all of the pages upon pages of advertisements.

    I recently let my subscription to National Geographic lapse. While most of their science articles are still good, they have injected way too much religion for my taste. It is not worth the price for reading only half of each issue.

    I would also recommend a website called Universe Today for insightful news about astronomy, cosmology and space exploration.

  12. New Scientist must have upped its game in the last few decades. I once subscribed to it but stopped because I thought the reporting was not up to par. I have never trusted babes.

  13. I was disappointed to see MIT’s Technology Review listed as – not usually compelling enough to read. I read it. It’s compelling.

    1. Me too. I don’t get the vertical axis criterion. What one finds compelling depends on the reader. Personally, I do not find the Smithsonian magazine compelling, but that is my taste.

      1. What you find compelling varies over time. Until two years ago I was purely into physics and astronomy: biology just seemed kind of messy.kind of ‘messy’ compared with the clean, mathematical precision of those sciences. Then something clicked and I started enjoying biology.

        Maybe physics provided a comfortable sense of order when I needed it. Or maybe my interest in physics and astronomy was maintained by a love of science fiction and science fiction writers are generally more competent in those sciences.

  14. Some blogs and blog-like websites on science that I think are good in their own sometimes odd ways:

    Age of Rocks
    Bad Astronomy
    Botany Photo of the Day
    Deep Sea News
    Echinoblog (wierdness)
    Germination (disease)
    In defence of Plants
    Laelops (fossils)
    Naturalis Historia

    There are lots of others, of course.

    Age of Rocks and Naturalis Historia take on creationism from Christian but insistently scientific viewpoint.

    1. One I find good is “Exposing Pseudo-astronomy”
      https://pseudoastro.wordpress.com/

      (Astrophysicist Stuart Robbins puts out a fine podcast — makes difficult subject matter quite accessible, and made interesting by his extraordinary patience displayed when debunking pseudo-scientists who misrepresent it.)

  15. Now and then whenever someone mentions that a stopped clock is correct twice a day, I feel compelled to mention that a clock running backwards is correct four times a day, (and that you can do a computation on it to figure out the right time.)

    1. Of course a stopped 24-hour clock is only correct once a day – which proves that a 12-hour clock is twice as good.

      Take that, garlic-munching Europeans!

      cr

  16. I cut my scientific teeth with Scientific American in the late 60s, but gave it up when it tried to copy the format of Omni, and present the number of articles of New Scientist. I missed the detailed reports that you could actually study. One SA article i will never forget was by Robert T. Bakker wherein he argued for the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs. I also learnt much about how supernova form, and DNA, and stuff. And of course the wonderful Mathematical Games at the end of the magazine by Martin Gardner were often the piquant dessert to the main course, as it were.
    What I miss in these impecunious days is
    the capacity to purchase the interesting titles
    one sees recommended on WEIT and elsewhere. Libraries are useful, but the book on your shelf is available to re-read at whim, and to share with friends.

  17. The Telegraph HAD excellent science reporting in Tom Chivers before he left to Buzzfeed. Now, I have to admit that it is, with the occasional exception like the superb article they did a few months back on antibiotic resistance, pretty pathetic. The Telegraph has lost pretty well of all the half-decent science journalists that it had due to cut backs ….

  18. Interesting. I note with amusement that Scientific American rates below the Guardian in that list. And down in the bilges, PuffHo rates below Faux News.

    Who woulda thunk it? 😉

    Having seen some appalling dreck on the ‘National Geographic’ channel, I’m amazed that it comes as high as it does, but I assume the ratings in the chart are based on their magazine rather than TV programs.

    cr

  19. Nice and very useful infographic. I can vouch for ‘The Economist’, it has some very interesting news stories every week, sometimes overlooked by many other outlets. I recommend it.

    I would also like to add a new magazine, STAT, which focuses on health and medicine/Pharma, and has had some good long-form articles that I have read recently.

  20. I’m surprised PBS isn’t on the list for its top notch science series, especially Nova, superb for many years. The science specials that appear from time time are usually excellent as well. The Newshour’s occasional science stories are also usually good. PBS belongs up in the left corner of that chart. Other science channels (cable or satellite only) are a mixed bag, occasional excellent series, interspersed with a lot of junk “pretend science.” The Science Channel has “How the Universe Works,” with Laurence Krauss, Phil Plait, and other top scientists. But this is a short series that shows up only occasionally. A lot of the rest is mostly junk filler. National Geographic Channel occasionally has some good series (e.g., Cosmos). Hard pressed to recommend others.

    Magazines. Skeptic (quarterly) and Skeptical Inquirer are excellent.

  21. I wouldn’t rate some of the general articles in Science that highly, the writers often displaying a frightening lack of knowledge of the literature. The Times seems not to be in the chart. Many of its science factoids are rubbish – who on earth selects them?

  22. I am surprised that New Scientist [!] and National Geographic is on top of the list – but maybe New Scientist recovered from its abysmal slump of click bait journalism!?

    Mentioned in the thread was Ars Technica and Quanta, which I agree with, and Bad Astronomy, which I do not (since it is so often SJW).

  23. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is an industry-funded front group (Chevron, Monsanto, Phillip Morris, ExxonMobil et al)) that regularly plumps for corporate interests:

    Most people who read the news probably concluded that ACSH–described in numerous stories as a “health advocacy group”–was some sort of impartial consumer organization[. … The] ACSH is anything but a critic of industry. Since its founding in 1978, it has actively courted industry support, offering itself as an off-the-shelf, available-on-demand source of “sound scientific expertise” in defense of virtually every form and type of industrial pollution known to the 20th century.

    As Ralph Nader trenchantly observed, “ACSH is a consumer front organization for its business backers. It has seized the language and style of the existing consumer organizations, but its real purpose, you might say, is to glove the hand that feeds it.”

    The ACSH was a featured villain in John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s outstanding book Toxic Sludge is Good for You, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to understand how PR firms and industry front groups actively disseminate corporate propaganda in order to distort public discourse.

    Caveat lector.

Leave a Reply