Andrew Revkin started with an interest in marine biology and took his love of science all the way to a reporting job for The New York Times.
Revkin, a science reporter for the Times, spoke on the need for accurate reporting and knowledgeable editors in science journalism Tuesday to about 65 students, faculty and community members at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ Bowers Auditorium.
Revkin said he thinks several problems hinder accurate scientific reporting. He discussed the incompatibility of news and science, as well as the pressure on journalists to report new discoveries or exaggerate the importance of findings, or risk having their articles cut. He said he knows the limits of news reporting firsthand — he said he typically had only four hours and 500 words in which to summarize an idea or phenomenon.
Revkin mentioned a basic science quiz recently given to editors from a wide range of newspapers. Of 500 newspaper editors who took the quiz, the study found only 51 percent knew that dinosaurs and humans had not lived at the same time. The crowd, a significant portion of which consisted of forestry or environmental science students, laughed.
“Newspaper editors are the gatekeepers of our consciousness,” Revkin said.
He said he thinks a general lack of public knowledge about science — especially in the fields of technology and health — exacerbates some of the media’s inaccuracies that result from the rush to report things before other news outlets.
Revkin said he thinks newspaper editors should make an effort to become better acquainted with science and maybe even visit labs when they get a chance.
“We have to find ways to widen the net,” he said.
Revkin, who majored in biology at Brown University, said he created a new Environment beat when he began to work at The New York Times in 1995. While many newspapers are excising their science sections, he said, he thinks The New York Times works hard to maintain its Science Times section.
Revkin told audience members it was refreshing to see so many people interested in forestry. He also said he thought he had an important duty to make people aware of the need for increased public knowledge of science.
“The basic thing I’m trying to convey is that there are so many problems out there,” Revkin said. “We need an educated society or our problems will just get worse. Journalism is the key factor.”
He added that the onus is not only on the writers but also on the readers.
“Readers must also educate themselves,” he said.
Monica Araya FES ’07, a Ph.D. student in environmental management, said she enjoyed the speech but wished Revkin had addressed the topic of journalistic freedom.
“He was very honest, and that always helps,” Araya said.
Revkin said he had planned to speak at Yale last February, but his talk was delayed by the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. He said it had been a “strange year,” alluding to the shuttle explosion and the plagiarism scandal at the Times involving former reporter Jayson Blair.
Revkin has written two books, “The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest” and “Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast.” “The Burning Season” won the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Prize and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. It was published in nine languages and served as the basis for an identically titled HBO film.