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?