Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

The rise of scientific journalism

Dissidents from the Wikileaks have founded a competing organization called OpenLeaks. This new organization would differ from Wikileaks in two important ways: (1) it would be less centered on one character (such as Wikileaks’ Assange) and (2) they would not publish the original documents, relying instead on the media to process them.

But OpenLeaks is missing the point! Newspapers have always received leaks. They don’t need OpenLeaks. In fact, I suspect that much of the information available to Wikileaks was already accessible to many journalists. The technology that Wikileaks uses to ensure the anonymity of the leaks is hardly exotic in 2010. Certainly, the New York Times can afford it.

Rather, Wikileaks’ main legacy is its contribution to the rise of scientific journalism:

“We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?” (Julian Assange)

Some may cringe in hearing Assange describes what Wikileaks does as scientific. But it is accurate nonetheless. Popper famously defined science in terms of falsification: “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations.” And that’s usually where the good journalists stop: they provide falsifiable statements. However, falsifiability is not a sufficient condition for scientific rigor. Indeed, it is better to say that science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

When journalists interview experts and report what they have to say… without checking the facts for themselves… they fail to understand the most important lesson of our times. Even when they speak in good faith, experts are wrong all the time. And most often, experts are not motivated by the truth, but by their own interests. So economists will fail to see a failure in their models, because their publication record depends on certain assumptions. Computer Scientists exaggerate the promise of a new technique because they need to apply for a big research grant next year. Medical researchers depend on wealthy pharmaceutical companies to maintain their status. So, not only are researchers wrong, but they are also systematically wrong. The biases of any given expert is probably shared by the other experts in his community.

Unfortunately, too few people understand what science is. They believe it has to do with running experiments or doing mathematics. These are merely the tools most scientists use. They are not science itself. Once you understand what science is, you see that anyone can be a scientist.

Of course, it is amusing to learn that the Vatican does not use email. But what is really at stake with Wikileaks is that the public can doubt the experts, whoever they are. You do not have to believe the journalists or the pundits. If you are curious, you can investigate the facts yourself. And indeed, hundreds of people are analyzing the diplomatic cables leak on Wikipedia. You can participate too!

Further reading: The Decline Effect and Kitty Kelley