The trouble with activism as expertise

There are two broad problems I’ve seen so far with writers/journalists quoting activists in science, health and environment stories as experts. (This post deals entirely with the Indian context.)

First: Who has time for activism? The answer almost always is someone on the mainland, far away from the place to which their activism actually applies, typically in a city. As a result, the activist is often unaware of ground realities, tends to be more idealistic than pragmatic and (often) has greater access to the media than people of other demographics.

Second: Who are activists? This is a prompt about what makes the activists ‘experts’. The answer is ‘nothing’ because activism is not on the same plane as expertise. However, reporters often conflate the two mantles because activists are more vocal, as well as louder, about what they believe should be the outcome whereas experts are typically quieter and harder to access.

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These attributes spotlight the overarching responsibility of science journalism to interrogate and understand expertise, its forms and its function. IMO, the simplest way to conduct these exercises is to apply the editorial edict of “show, don’t tell” to all aspects of all science stories – including the quotes. Following this guideline could be good practice for everyone from rookies to pros, but it’s aimed mostly at rookies.

An important outcome of this is that it clarifies why expertise is better used to provide opinion, not fact, because the former is a variety of “show” and the latter, of “tell”. For example, you don’t use an expert’s quotes in a story to lay out how CRISPR works. That’s your responsibility as a science writer/journalist anyway. Instead, you ask them what they think about gene-edited human embryos, and probe further down that line.

In fact, assuming there’s a clear distinction between facts and opinions at all times, it’s important to separate experts from their facts and marshal them towards expressing their opinions as informed by those facts. Two reasons why. 1) Facts are immutable by definition, can be assimilated from more than one source (assuming availability) and don’t need expertise to be invoked. 2) Discussing opinions allows us to better scrutinise what this person believes instead of knows while silencing the prestige this person may have accrued for knowing. (That’s the popular conception of the scientific enterprise anyway.)

Generally, the edict works well to unravel expertise because it helps the writer know where the line is beyond which expertise transforms into authoritarianism (or behind which it devolves into naïvety). In pithier terms, it forces the writer to work harder to unpack a story by treading the fine line between respecting the authority of experts and not relying on it too much at the same time. It has the added advantages of allowing the writer to keep from editorialising and making it easier for the reader to assimilate their own (reasonable) takeaways.

So by all means quote a physicist who is also an activist with Greenpeace or whatever in a story about trophy-hunting. “Show, don’t tell” will help you cover your base as well as keep the expert from taking up anymore space in your story than is permissible. But this is for the rookie – and maybe the pro working in uncharted territory. The pro who is also in their comfort zone shouldn’t be quoting a physicist in the first place. One reason they are pros is because they know which problems should be solved using a given method.