The website I log on to most is ESPN.com. I don't know what that says about me as a scientist, but it says a lot about my interest in basketball. I've been following the NBA since my early college days (was a Knicks fan, switched to Celtics when I realized the Knicks wouldn't be good for a decade) and I watch as much as I can. I follow stats, I play fantasy sports, I read articles and articles about articles. I'm a sports fan, and I'm one of millions.
Eventually I switch over to a science-based site like a journal or a blog (hey, you too!). I'll skim the site for articles that are either relevant to my field or that sound interesting. Most things I skip. I realized that while I love and practice science, I don't feel like I'm a fan of science in the same way that I'm a fan of sports. In fact, I would be hard pressed to list more than a handful of people that I would consider actual science fans. And this is my biggest issue with science journalism.
Fandom requires 4 essential elements:
1) A person or product that endures over time- usually several years.
2) The ability to feel a loyalty to that person or product over another that is similar, preferably a rival. There needs to be an emotional investment.
3) The ability to follow the person or product over time as if following a story, with an appreciation for history and future possibility.
4) The ability of the person of product to present in such a way that the fan can find correlations and life lessons for his or her own life.
In a recent podcast with ESPN writer Bill Simmons (who literally wrote the rules for being a fan), there was a discussion about the TV show Lost with TV critic Alan Sepinwall. They brought up something about the show that made me think of science journalism. They said that the writers of the show were doing something that had never been done- they were making it impossible for the show to acquire new fans. The people that started to watch the show early (like myself) could be really involved in the last season, while those who saw it for the first time this season would just sit there, confused.
Science, from the perspective of a fanbase, is a lot like season 6 of Lost. To be interested in physics or neuroscience or paleontology is not hard. It just seems interesting. But it is a much different thing to follow if you're a newcomer.
Science journalism is there to bridge that gap. Lots of people would love to be fans of quantum physics. The field is full of intriguing personalities and specialties. There is controversy and debate. There are centuries of rich history and realistic possibilities for the immediate future. Most people will never have the advanced mathematical or abstract understanding to really get what each paper means, and they shouldn't be expected to. But there is a much larger audience that can appreciate the story of what is taking place.
Imagine the power of fandom being applied to science. Fans invest. Fans cheer. Fans dig deep to understand what they're following so that they can look good talking to other fans. In other words, they become educated. How often have we lamented the low education level of scientific knowledge in this country?
But science journalism, in most of its forms, isn't designed to encourage fandom, it's designed to report things that sound interesting. A typical article in Scientific American or Discovery or Popular Science have very good writers who can pick out a topic, discuss it in a way everyone can understand, and present it so that people want to read it. People who read it generally like it. But those magazines are not fan magazines. Once the article is read, it's possible that the reader won't encounter another article on that topic for months, maybe years. There is no incentive to retain the information, and no future article that will act as a synthesizer or updater. They will never remember the names of the scientists or where they came from. They won't know what happens next. It's a grocery store sample of a food that isn't on sale. You taste it, you like it, and it's gone.
Now, let's say that someone was inspired to want to learn more. Say they read a story about brain circuits and wanted to learn more. They Google it, search Wikipedia, and then try to get at the roots, the fountain of the original information. Here they are met with a wall of jargon and technical information with no context, and there is no reason not to get discouraged.
Where science journalism really fails is the middle ground, the fan ground. People are pushed forward with interest but pushed off by the barrier of specialization and advanced knowledge basis. There is nothing to carry people forward. There is no flowing story that people can regularly access. Blogs are a way around this, but they also have problems which are well known. There is no reliable way to become a science fan in most any field.
Here's what will happen when science journalism successfully recruits science fans, based on the rules mentioned above.
A typical individual, say, a local businessman, will be able to ...
1. Name his favorite scientific sub-field.
2. Name the top five current scientists in that sub-field, and be able to pick out a favorite.
3. Name the top five scientists ever in that subfield.
4. Name at least one scientist in the field that he can't stand.
5. Tell the story of what happened in the field this year, and why it was so much better than last year.
6. Buy a t-shirt representing the sub-field.
7. Argue with a fellow fan about a controversial topic in the sub-field, even if the exact technical aspects aren't understood by either.
8. Cross his fingers for a much anticipated break-through.
9. Be thrilled when he wins his Fantasy Science League (oh, it can be done!)
10. Remember the Collins/Venter rumble like it was Frazier/Ali.
Science journalists have the serendipitous duty to report on things that are inherently interesting. Look at the popularity of science fiction (i.e. Lost) and you realize the strength of the draw. Imagine if the dedication of science fiction fans became the dedication of science fact fans. Why are they not the same?
I would answer that question, but I have to go. The game's on.