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    Science Is Awesome! Sack The Journalists!
    By Richard Mankiewicz | February 18th 2010 12:25 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Richard

    I used to be lots of things, but all people see now is a red man. The universe has gifted me a rare autoimmune skin condition known as erythroderma...

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    In December 2008 CNN announced that it was closing down its whole science and technology production team and moving the environmental agenda into their general news. It was as if the news world had just lost a continent, prompting four of the world's leading science and environmental journalism groups to pen their first ever joint letter of protest. "In wielding this axe, your network has lost an experienced and highly regarded group of science journalists at a time when science coverage could not be more important in our national and international discourse." Nevertheless, the axe fell.

    One could be cynical about a media company such as CNN and see how science stories would get in the way of weather reports, advertising and their wars on critical thinking. But a month earlier, Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine also guillotined its bureau in Cape Canaveral where NASA launches its rockets and shuttles. Both these events happened just a month before President Obama promised that science would move back to centre stage.

    “It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”

    Scientists felt momentarily soothed by such lofty ideals, and yet those cuts in science communication went ahead anyway. The disconnect between the importance of science in global affairs and the amount of science actually reported is of serious concern. It is as if the science is being dragged down to the level of partisan politics. It is as if there were an attempt to remove the science from debates that are actually almost wholly scientific in both their origin and their solution. Let's switch channels for a minute to business news.

    The business and finance news outlets are a completely different world to headline news. Where corporate media news concentrates on disasters piled on top of calamities and are interrupted purely to bring the viewer back to anodyne advertisements, the finance channels are all full of smiles with cheerleaders urging their stocks upwards to a bright new high. The purpose of business channels is to sell financial products to viewers. Very rarely do real world events outside of these electronic casinos barge their way onto the screens. Sober reflection and technical analysis can be had on numerous excellent websites and newsletters but mainstream business news is about flag-waving.

    Both mainstream news and business news have their audiences and their product lines to sell. What does science news have to sell? Put another way, why do people read or watch science news?

    Before I'm accused of dumbing down science even further let me recount a story that I found amusing some years ago when I was researching how science started in the medieval universities of Europe. The life of a medieval chronicler was part hagiographer part diarist, even if the subject was already dead - especially when the subject was Charlemagne. The Life of Charlemagne, written by the Monk of Saint Gall starts off with a tale of two wise men.

    "Now it happened, when he had begun to reign alone in the western parts of the world, and the pursuit of learning had been almost forgotten throughout all his realm, [...] that two Scots came from Ireland to the coast of Gaul along with certain traders of Britain. These Scotchmen were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning: and day by day, when the crowd gathered round them for traffic, they exhibited no wares for sale, but cried out and said,"Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale."

    Now they declared that they had wisdom for sale because they said that the people cared not for what was given freely but only for what was sold, hoping that thus they might be incited to purchase wisdom along with other wares; and also perhaps hoping that by this announcement they themselves might become a wonder and a marvel to men: which indeed turned out to be the case. For so long did they make their proclamation that in the end those who wondered at these men, or perhaps thought them insane, brought the matter to the ears of King Charles, who always loved and sought after wisdom. Wherefore he ordered them to come with all speed into his presence and asked them whether it were true, as fame reported of them, that they had brought wisdom with them. They answered, "We both possess it and are ready to give it, in the name of God, to those who seek it worthily." Again he asked them what price they asked for it; and they answered, "We ask no price, O king; but we ask only for a fit place for teaching and quick minds to teach; and besides food to eat and raiment to put on, for without these we cannot accomplish our pilgrimage.""

    The story may be apocryphal and worthy of a Monty Python sketch, but our 9th century scribe continued that Alcuin of York, an Englishman, soon also beat a path to the Emperor's palace and - to cut a long story short - the establishment of cathedral schools was the first tentative step towards what became some of Europe's earliest universities.

    However, is science 'wisdom for sale'? Or is it being given freely to a public that does not appreciate its value? Why, indeed, do people follow science news? One online survey by the New York Times yielded some unexpected results. Far from being a misunderstood backwater, the paper was suddenly made aware that it was its most popular section in terms of having the most shared articles online.

    The research analysed those articles that were featured on the NYT homepage and the frequency with which readers shared those articles by email. Such featured articles came from across all the NYT sections and the rate of sharing hovered around the 20% mark except for the science articles which averaged 30%. Both the researchers and the Times were so surprised that they looked deeper into what exactly was being shared, and why.

    Many of the articles being shared, ignoring categories for the moment, had some expected qualities, such as being of practical value, or creating a sense of fear or panic (our Orwellian faux wars), or trying to shock one's friends. But topping all these standard journalistic emotional techniques were articles that could best be described as creating a sense of awe - a sense of both the beauty and mystery of the universe. These could be the natural beauty of the Earth, or of other planets, or even the surreal beauty of quantum mechanics. The most popular articles were, without abusing the word, awesome! And science articles were the most awesome of the lot!

    If this is true then why are science communication jobs being axed? What's going on here? My feeling about awesome science articles is that we really haven't come far from the vaudeville acts of Victorian London amazing the crowds with the wonders of electromagnetism - we really haven't. We all know how fundamental science is to our economy, politics and society in general, but this isn't the level at which people interact most with science. Arthur C. Clarke's law that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." still sadly holds true within our own communities. The problem with treating science as magic is that the person also relinquishes responsibility for understanding the universe. Invoking a spirit to protect one's house means that if the house should collapse one can blame oneself for provoking the spirit's wrath rather than pointing the finger at shoddy builders. (I live in Thailand - the supernatural trumps rational thought every day.)

    The level of basic scientific knowledge remains depressingly low. We have just finished the International Year of Astronomy and the Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) website vows to continue the outreach work started during that year. A CAPjournal article, "Astronomy and the Media", quotes a National Science Foundation study where less than 15% of people understand what a molecule is and less than 50% know that the Earth goes round the Sun once a year. That last piece of statistic has to be put into the context of American religious teachings, however. But having to define a molecule at every mention of the concept makes for dull stunted articles. The internet solves that by providing hyperlinks and it looks like links to a science dictionary are more important than links to related stories.

    But is this situation any different to the financial news sector I mentioned before? The vast majority of people take the advice of pundits, financial advisers, insurance salesmen, accountants and bankers, or anybody who can make the seemingly unintelligible easy to understand. Ignorance and innumeracy are not limited to how people read science articles - it cuts across every facet of current affairs where analysis is needed. But people do look for financial advice because of their obvious concern for their own financial well-being. There appears to be no similar compulsion to turn to the science pages.

    However, the same CAPjournal article above also has astronomers pleading that making their work public is vitally important. “the one percent spent on outreach brings the other 99 percent needed to get the project done." The author thinks this quote is perhaps extreme but for different reasons to myself. If science is advertising itself then 1% spent on this is woefully inadequate - try 10%. But here we see that science does have something to sell... itself.

    But from my experience, it will need a different breed of science journalism to really sell science - to bring science into its cultural place in society. One thing that hitech companies quickly learnt is that technology does not sell technology. The best product from a technical point of view does not always win in the savage marketplace. People buy technology for what it does, not for how it does it. All those awesome science articles have their place and it is good to see that the human spirit has not yet been wholly crushed. But I once worked hard to promote science as a cultural phenomenon - there were some successes and perhaps I should start to plough this furrow again. Just like the technology inside your mobile phone, science is everywhere and yet completely hidden. We need to bring the science out without breaking the box.

    So, where has this journey brought us? C. P. Snow's "two cultures" lives on, as does science as an awesome but distant form of natural magic. In 1963 Aldous Huxley published an essay entitled "Literature and Science" in which he discusses the emergence of popular science and the role of the science communicator. I often turn to it when I have doubts about the importance and utility of what I am writing. To paraphrase from memory, for Huxley the job of the scientist is to create new language, the job of the science communicator is to make that new language meaningful to the rest of society. Some 50 years have gone by since Clarke, Huxley and Snow discussed these issues. Have science communicators failed?


    Mark Changizi

    Great piece, and great to meet you. -Mark
    A great article.  If you want to be heartened, just do a Google search for 'boring science' and one for 'awesome science'.  Awesome beats boring hands down!

    I do both kinds.  ;)
    I agree with Mark. Great piece.
    Thanks a lot guys! I'll fall off my perch now :-)
    I'd started writing the above article when, on my random surf, landed on Mark's article that has a similar theme. That's when I thought I'd join the discussion on SB. Thanks for the warm welcome.
    Andrea Kuszewski
    You are absolutely right, Rycharde. The only solution that I see right now is to keep communicating science to the public as best we can, and hope that others follow suit. The technology age (meaning the increasing importance of the internet for communication) is creating a new market and a new venue for solid science communication, and by joining SB, it is a step in the right direction. :) Welcome!
    Welcome to our community. You've made a great contribution.

    But topping all these standard journalistic emotional techniques were articles that could best be described as creating a sense of awe - a sense of both the beauty and mystery of the universe. These could be the natural beauty of the Earth, or of other planets, or even the surreal beauty of quantum mechanics. The most popular articles were, without abusing the word, awesome! And science articles were the most awesome of the lot!

    One of the greatest science communicators was able to create this sense of awe, which is why his books still sell so well: Richard Feynman.
    But the great thing about Feynman is that science didn't come across as inaccessible magic. He was great at conveying the scientific thought process.
    Gerhard Adam
    But the great thing about Feynman is that science didn't come across as inaccessible magic. He was great at conveying the scientific thought process.
    Feynman was also quite liberal with the phrase "no one knows" which effectively gave the audience "permission" to also be baffled, confused, or questioning.  This is part of what made Feynman so accessible.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I am at the AAAS meeting as I write this and the general lack of cluelessness about blogging and direct communication I have heard in the first 30 minutes, on one hand, and elitism on the other, is pretty amazing.  But a room full of science journalists can be forgiven for being cloistered.

    I will disagree with the contention that the level of scientific knowledge among the public is low.  I think the level of factual memory may be less but memory will be less prized in the future compared to today.   I seem smarter than I am because I remember a lot but our children will know how to find what they need in a limitless data universe so efficiently memory may be a non-issue.

    As I write in a comment on Mike when we discussed sports writing and science writing, football fans are not less knowledgeable because they do not know how many yards Jim Brown rushed for - they understand concepts, trends and history.  So it goes with science.  A proper definition of a molecule is less important to me (would I be able to pass that one?  Dunno) than understanding concepts.  In the first three years since this started I have been stunned - and I do not use that word lightly - at how much people know about science.

    What they tend to do, though, is frame it through their politics and cultural beliefs just like some in science and the media do, which is something we set out to avoid doing.
    Hi Hank

    thanks for the comment. I'm going to be posting lots of info about science communication in the UK as the government there has just released a raft of documents. From past experience the UK seems to be way ahead of the USA in terms of promoting science. I'm not sure why that should be, perhaps having the BBC with a remit to both entertain and educate helps (although PBS does the same) and the religious influence on science is less.

    I take the distinction between knowing facts and concepts, but as I've recently been writing more popular science I do get comments which show a complete lack of knowledge of basic concepts. I don't expect anyone to know the half-life U-238 (I can't remember either) - and it's easy to look it up - but I've had many not know what 'half-life' means. The concept is important as it occurs frequently in pharmacology, not only nuclear physics, to quantify how long it takes for drugs to leave the body (nicotine, for example, has a half-life of about 2 hours).

    Will you be reporting on the AAAS?
    I guess I am here to write about some of the big developments but the overall topic is science communication - unfortunately they don't have anyone at all giving presentations who has actually done it. They have government employees and academics giving talks on how to reach the public and no one in the top two (us and scienceblogs.com) doing a presentation. The NSF does not know how to communicate with the public - they have a multi billion dollar budget. They want to learn how to do effective communication? We got successful doing it for free! So if you want truly clueless, don't look at the public about science facts, look at AAAS about science communication. :)
    Damn, I'm in the wrong country! Can we have some NSF money for science comms?

    Why aren't you and scienceblogs doing any presentations?

    Sounds like the UK 20 years ago. I know, the UK is a lot smaller but surely the lessons have come across the pond? We have the BAAS, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the Science Museum, the Wellcome Foundation and more all pulling in more or less the same direction.

    I got funding for a project some years ago from the BAAS and RS - I figured that if people don't come to science events then take the science to the people. And where do most people go to at least once a month? The dreaded shopping mall! I don't like malls, but this was work. It's cheap, it works, sure it needs some people but unemployment is high so that's not a problem. The cost per visitor ends up being really small. The mini-exhibits can easily be changed with changing themes and sponsors. It can also make some money by selling stuff too.

    The standard reaction was: "Why are you bringing mathematics into a shopping mall? You're crazy... erm... hold on, that exhibit looks interesting... lemme have a go."

    I assume we aren't doing any talks because we did not apply and we did not apply because the committee that picks the topics does not actually know anyone doing these topics.

    It seems baffling that the two groups responsible for what must be 80% of the direct-science-to-people content on the internet are not on a single panel here discussing it.

    We did a 'science of fine wines' event a short while back and I think informal events, coffee shop meetings and things like that, are terrific venues.  The issue in more of them tends to be scientists themselves - it is just as much work to do a presentation for a coffee shop or a mall as it is for a large audience and time is limited so they would rather not.
    Let me interrupt the love fest. This is another affirmation of what I believe: the only way to get better science writing--and i mean writing that is not simply trying to garner some kind of momentum for someone's grant proposal--is NOT to "sack the journalists" but rather to inculcate journalistic practice and values--like dedication to the truth regardless of whom it pisses on. that is the big difference between science "communication," which i regard as a marketing device, and science journalism.

    Greg Critser

    dedication to the truth regardless of whom it pisses on
    Greg: you are a man after my own heart.  Way to go!

    per urina ad veritas.