Rethinking Science Debates


Pipeline (Photo: btr/Wikimedia)

It looks like science debates have been discovered as another public relation tool for science and technology. Governments, institutes, even research projects contrive debates – basically to gain acceptance from citizens in order to continue undisturbed.

Science debates were quite a novelty when we introduced them on the European level as a tool for science journalists during ESOF Turin in 2010. Running a science debate can result in quite some new insights and questions worth reporting and questions worth asking.

But despite the original intention of introducing system critics into the science and society dynamics, debates degraded to gossip forums about symptoms.

In my presentation at ESOF Turin 2010 I used the parable of a pipeline, saying that debates are useless when the pipes are laid out and we are only allowed to talk about the content to be flushed. Instead, we need real debates at the start of the pipeline: Do we need the pipeline at all? Where should it be put? How long should it be? Which means: do we need such a research project? Or: why not creating a research project in response to our concerns?

Of course there has to be science for its own sake, basic research. We want to know how things work – or not. We want to know where we come from and where we may go. So an answer like: »we just want to know«, is a reasonable one.

As science journalist we should be familiar with the framing of our stories. We should tell our audiences why a discovery is so important, what the background of a research work is, where it will lead, or who benefits from it in what way. We made progress, no doubt. At least we have developed a sense for this kind of values.

However, my feeling is that our frames are usually too narrow, especially when it comes to the longer stories. I propose that we climb the next level in order to show the even bigger pictures, to approach system critics. That is something what is already inherent in investigative science journalism – and science debates can be complementary.

Can we really debate an already-funded project promising to develop something more energy efficient, when energy efficiency still means energy consumption? Can we debate a biotechnology project while knowing that the most profitable results go into the development of junk food, resulting in submitting another project in order to reduce the negative effects of such food using functional food? And can we debate a project at all where the results are already defined in the submitted proposal?

Again: we need to look over the edge of the plate – not to the next plate or around the table. We have to look the whole dining room, overlook a research in a very broad frame.

As an example: Europeans like to look at the US, where enormous investments in science and technology take place, where one quarter of all scientists of the world are congregated. But did the US society improve in face of the political power of creationists and climate change deniers, the output of more than double as much CO2 per capita and year as compared with Europe, the increasing number of people in poverty?

It should be our job as science journalists to find out how, where, when, under which circumstances society as a whole does benefit from research and technology.

So we thought that it is time to rise the topic again, rethink science debates, go back to their roots.

We will do that in our session „Debate-driven journalism: Science debates as a tool and opportunity for science journalists“ at WCSJ 2013 in Helsinki on 25 June among the parallel morning sessions. Speakers: Shawn Otto (USA), Priit Ennet (Estonia), and myself.

See also:

WCSJ 2013:

EUSJA News Summer 2013:


I was inspired by your talk in Helsinki and am now in the process of planning a new debate program. It would be very helpful to hear more about your experiences and how you have been able to avoid quasi-debates. How do you keep it , excuse the language, entertaining? Does the actual debate give enough information or do you do journalistic inserts as well?

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