Some years ago, when I was about to receive the Elite Research Prize from The Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, my son, Milton, 8 years old back, then asked me: ”Dad, I have to ask you something. What is that you do, and why is it important?”

It is often easy enough to answer the first part about what it is that you do. It is easy to lose sight of why it is important in the day to day operations of taking care of customers, solving mathematical problems, or writing newspaper pieces, depending on whether you work in a convenience store, as an engineer, or as a journalist.

To answer the second part you have to look at your job in the greater scheme of things. Now, the noble task of any teacher is to prepare the next generation to take over; for a police offer, it is to secure law and order and uphold the laws democratically agreed upon; a paramedic saves people’s lives whether or not the lives are in the public or private sector. That’s important!

At the university, the most important tasks consist of research, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. One goal is to understand and explain the workings of the world using state of the art scientific methods, seeking the truth about nature, society, humanity, and technology. Another goal is to teach classes, and, like the teacher, prepare the next generation to go into healthcare, business, politics, or to work at knowledge-producing institutions whether public or private. A third goal is to inform citizens, decision-makers, the press, and other interested parties where the tax money and grants are going and how the knowledge produced at the university may be part of making this world a better place, “for you and for me and entire human race.” That’s important!

From this perspective there is not much of a difference between science and journalism. According to the principles stated in the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the primary obligation of journalism is to the truth, but not in an absolute or philosophical sense. This journalistic truth “is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information.”

The world is constantly evolving and thus journalistic truth, just like scientific truth, is tentative. Journalism has to be as transparent as possible when it comes to sources and methods making it possible for readers to make up their own minds about their views and the correctness of the information put in front of them. That’s imporant!

Journalism should also be careful to avoid bubble formation and always keep news in proportion but not leave out important details. Journalist’s Resource notes that “Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map.”

The reliability of this map is challenged by fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, misinformation on the web, biased and polarized interpretations of what is real, us-versus-them narratives, populism and other post-factual tendencies that are continuously cycled around on established and more creative media outlets. In the same way, science is challenged by accusations of expert regimes, technocratic ambitions of the elite, etc. Both journalism and science are under siege.

“It is what it is,” as Robert De Niro says in Heat. The world is what it is. But our interpretations may vary severely as a function of political stances, ideological underpinnings, cultural imprimatur, religious convictions, and so forth. This is not tantamount to saying that there are no such things as facts and truth out there, but we may not have not always found them yet. That’s the reason why we keep asking questions in journalism and science. The world is recalcitrant ever so often; sometimes it doesn’t reveal its secrets to us right away, if ever; other times we ask the wrong questions; sometimes facts catch up with us in surprising ways, forcing us to admit we were initially wrong politically, religiously, journalistically, or scientifically. We are forced to change our minds even if we thought we were right at the outset. It’s annoying, but we become the wiser on the way. It is what it is!

Knowledge is still the best means we know of for rational deliberation, decision, and action. The truth is always popular even when it comes as an inconvenience. That goes for journalism and science on a daily basis. That’s important!

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Vincent F Hendricks is Professor of Formal Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Elite Researcher of the Danish State and Director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. He is the author of many books, among them Infostorms (Springer Nature 2016), Mainstream and Formal Epistemology (Cambridge University Press, 2007) The Convergence of Scientific Knowledge (Springer, 2001). He is also the author and editor of numerous papers and books on bubbles studies, formal epistemology, methodology and logic. Hendricks was Editor-in-Chief of Synthese and Synthese Library 2005-2015.