Science goes through a chain of messengers from data to consumer. In between are fallible scientists, who speak often in incomprehensible jargon and often only partially understand what they observe, but often wish to gain notoriety with a major discovery (or need to publish or perish). Next, the institutional press offices decide what is significant and try to digest the jargon to layman level. The predigested stories are then delivered to science reporters, who sometimes sensationalize the filtered stories to make a name for themselves. Finally, the media outlets, prone to peer biases, dress up the products to grab the eyes of readers of their newspapers, magazines, or web pages. How much of the real scientific data remains at the end of this game of Telephone? Sometimes the bias is clearly evident, but often the product is delivered with all the presumptive authority of science. Once in awhile, a reporter comes clean about the dirty work involved.
First, a lesson from history. “This year is Galton year –a celebration of Francis Galton, a genius – but a flawed genius,” Steve Jones wrote for the BBC News. Galton’s accomplishments, such as weathermaps and fingerprinting for detective work, have been overshadowed by his darker side as the father of eugenics, popular in its heydey, but viewed today with the perspective of history as a disastrous social quest to purify the race of the unfit. Galton also created an “ugly map” of Britain to help men avoid bad genes. He left an enormous sum of money at his death for the Laboratory of National Eugenics at University College London – later abandoned by the University, though it retains a Galton professorship. Francis Galton had good press in his time; today, his reputation is clouded. It’s a lesson that the tides of history can change the prestige of a scientist and his ideas….
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