Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science

Article excerpt

Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science. Sharon Friedman, Sharon Dunwoody, and Carol Rogers, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. 277 pp. $79.95 hbk., $32.50 pbk.

For every Ph.D., the ironic adage goes, there is an equal and opposite Ph.D. Nowadays the public, journalists, and policymakers regularly confront scientific studies that contradict previous studies and experts who disagree over how to interpret scientific data.

This book addresses the fuzzy, perplexing nature of communicating and understanding contemporary science. Chapters address such contested issues as AIDS, biotechnology, global warming, dioxin, cold fusion, and the possibility of life on Mars. However, the book is not organized around issues. Rather, the issues serve as examples of how scientists, reporters, and the public interact in the science communication process.

The editors have organized the book into three parts: Interpreting Uncertainty, Science in the Public Arena, and Beyond the Basics. Each of these themes is the subject of both contributed chapters and a panel discussion. Contributed chapters are chiefly written by communication scholars. Panel discussants are mostly science journalists or scientists. Discussants vary on each panel; they include the director of the National Science Foundation, two Pulitzer winners, a Nobel laureate, and a MacArthur Foundation grant winner.

This mix of academics, journalists, and scientists adds breadth to the book. Hence Communicating Uncertainty could serve as supplementary reading for advanced courses in science journalism, public journalism, or public policymaking. Communication scholars will find it useful as well; chapter contributors usually offer in-depth reviews of the academic literature on their topic. These topics include how journalists and scientists represent uncertainty, how the public responds to uncertainty, the meaning of uncertainty, understanding audiences, and using systematic thinking to evaluate science.

As with most multi-contributor volumes, the reader will find some ideas repeated from chapter to chapter. Several contributors and panel discussants use the global warming controversy to illustrate the dysfunction of the media's equal-coverage doctrine. They note that such coverage gives equivalent weight to the position of a small minority of dissenting scientists who deny that harmful climate change is happening.

Other chapter contributors show that media coverage can also give readers the mistaken impression that scientific consensus is solid when it is not. …