The only people concerned about fewer science journalism jobs were those in the science journalism community and those at the unethical schools that sold specialized journalism classes - Columbia's two-year program in "Environmental Journalism" for a whopping $80,000 comes to mind. Scientists said science journalists did a terrible job and the public clearly didn't want simplified science, that is why media bosses knew they could cut the departments without any backlash from their customers. It doesn't take a specialist to write Scare Journalism and Miracle Vegetable Of The Week stories and science journalists had stopped being trusted guides for the public. Instead, they primarily defended science or were cheerleaders - which is the kiss of death in real journalism.
This part of the Science 2.0 movement was created specifically because the world does not need science journalists. Yes, there are still good ones, like Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, but unlike every local paper, where regular journalists are essential, there don't need to be a lot of science journalists. Instead, this part of Science 2.0 filled the science journalism vacuum - scientists don't trust journalists because journalists get it wrong and the public doesn't trust journalists because they are biased, so we made the scientists into the journalists.
Since 2006, I have developed a great deal of respect for quality science journalism, along with editors - even though early on I insisted we needed neither.
But I am not everyone - and it showed in a recent event.
In a recent interview, the legendary entomologist Professor Edward O. Wilson said of the disagreements Professor Richard Dawkins has with him on evolution: “There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and there never has been, because he’s a journalist, and journalists are people that report what the scientists have found and the arguments I’ve had have actually been with scientists doing research.”
Ouch. Not even a scientist, simply a journalist. That is even worse than being dismissed as a teaching professor.
Dawkins was gracious in his response, a gift he sometimes has in bursts. Wilson was referring to 'the selfish gene' and kin selection. Dawkins simply said Wilson was wrong in his non-belief.
Both men have their critics, Dawkins from some on the right wing and both by many from the left. I was at the World Science Festival in 2009, which was also honoring Wilson, when Professor James Watson, he of the double-helix Nobel prize, said to his friend that he should keep talking about "uncomfortable truths" even if it arouses the ire of "unpleasant leftists." Science is science, it is supposed to be outside culture gerrymandering. And no one does that like the left, as we see all too often.
I wrote then:
In biology, people often tend to think of right wing and/or religious people as the enemy of science and evolution. James Watson , for his seemingly careless way of speaking, was choosing his words and his meaning very precisely, and his enemies are the real enemies of science because they claim to believe in it, but only if it matches their cultural agendas.The "unpleasant leftists" are primarily in the social sciences and the humanities. Science is a weapon in their culture war, a tool to engage in social engineering. Dawkins is ethical enough that he will not be cowed by them any more than Wilson was, as he has shown. There is no shortage of people on the left who vilify Dawkins as they see fit.
Yet Wilson has few critics inside science whereas Dawkins has many. The selfish gene is not taken seriously, as Wilson noted. But it's hard to say what the legacy of Dawkins will be.
When I was young, Stephen Jay Gould was derided, as was Carl Sagan. Of Gould, John Maynard Smith, Emeritus Professor at Sussex, once wrote, "Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists."
Carl Sagan was so ill-regarded that the National Academy of Sciences wouldn't admit him, and if you saw some of the sociologists, psychologists and fringe biologists they let in, you would recognize how poorly that meant he was regarded. Yet today both Sagan and Gould highly regarded by a generation of young researchers who saw them on television. I won't mention names, but a short while ago a large publication took out a reference to Sagan that I made in an article, because none of their editors took him seriously. Nor, they believed, did their readers.
But young scientists are the most media-intensive generation ever known. Sagan was on television so they regard him quite fondly, much differently than older scientists or editors do. He was inspirational to them even if his cultural and scientific claims were fashionable yet wrong. Gould was also on television and not just for science, but for things like baseball.
Science culture has changed a lot since the days of Gould and Sagan. It used to be the place for mavericks to pursue uncomfortable truths but now the ultimate endorsement is instead mainstream validation - working for the government, or blogging for a large corporation or being on television.
So future generations will likely be kinder to Dawkins than his peers have been. TV has become our history, as the saying goes. And that means Wilson could end up being a footnote.