Ann Finkbeiner, author of 2007's The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite (among other things) and contributor to The Last Word On Nothing, recently had a fascinating exchange with one of my favorite journalists, USA Today's Dan Vergano.

I read USA Today twice a week, I buy it when I go out to breakfast and I read the whole thing - except for things like the weather and television listings. Why would a guy who can't even order breakfast in under 1,000 words read USA Today?  I respect people who can get to the point. I've never had my name appear on a USA Today article that didn't start out at over 1,000 words but end up under 600, and every time I was impressed by how well editors were able to 'get' the high points, comment effectively about where to pare it all down, and help achieve some clarity.

Dan can tell a story in 400 words and I always feel like I got a little smarter afterward. That's an art.  And he had a doozy of a story to tell in Conversation with Dan Vergano: the Science Ghetto - namely that "mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks" were what science writers were giving the audience, and that a lack of meaningful context reinforced the idea of "a secret garden walled off, and walling itself off, from the rest of the world." 

Kind of like hipsters who don't want to be caught caring - it's cooler to be ignored by the proletariat than to actually want to be read by anyone except each other. And then everybody can complain that no one cares about science.(1)

But of course people do care about science. It is just science journalism they can do without. The science audience just in America is 65 million people, science literacy has tripled among adults since I was in college, all of that while science journalism jobs have plummeted.  A chapter in Science Left Behind discusses the decline of science journalism and as an outsider looking in (very much not part of the science ghetto hipster elite), it was obvious that science journalists had lost their place in the discourse because the public did not trust them and, for the most part, scientists did not trust them either.  If you are not going to be trusted guides for the public and ask the awkward journalistic questions of people whose work you happen to admire, the public does not need you. It's just cheerleading and they can get that from press releases in Science Codex or Phys Org.  That chapter also shows how to fix it. (2)

Science journalism is not the high-value, high-prestige part of news you think it would be. But was it ever? I don't recall any TV show having a science journalist as a character. Maybe science journalists need to dress more like George Reeves and less like Shaun White. Male fashion sites still run pieces about this guy. 

So Dan made his points in his succinct fashion but what he wrote played on a lot of levels - and maybe that is why a lot of people in science media seem to have missed the point. 

His point was not to diminish duck sex or ants walking up cocoa plants or any other fine or bizarre or suitably cosmic bits of writing - but to note that science journalism is not going to be relevant to people when it's not ... relevant to people. But, almost as if to make his point for him, a whole lot of people that are insiders showed up in the comments section to circle the wagons around ... each other. They apparently don't see the irony of that, instead they contend that they are victims of public dopiness or corporate greed and imply that Dan is blaming the victim.

He's not blaming the victim, he is stating the obvious as an insider. There are a lot of big issues happening but when is the last time science journalism tackled them? Why not write about fracking? Can science writers not separate their political inclinations from their jobs enough to paint a real picture of the actual important issues of the day without coming off as an unregistered PAC? Can journalism outline how the EPA and the administration (yes, even this one) is engaging in politicization of science? Lots of political journalists have been able to call out politicians we know they voted for, without worrying that their party will lose an election because they were doing their jobs.

A little self-reflection is not a bad thing. "The reality is the scientific enterprise is wedded at the tailbone to our government, military and corporations," Vergano notes, a short, sharp way of clearing the matter up. Does anyone not think military programs are politically controlled? Yet if you note that about science, the denial is autonomic. There is almost no capacity for looking at the true nature of science journalistically - journalists and bloggers all like scientists (or are scientists, in the case of much of Science 2.0) and scientists want to believe they are independent, nothing at all like the agenda-driven corporate world. Why is there no outstanding journalism tackling that giant elephant in the room? Or the political skew that, were women or minorities anywhere near as underrepresented as Republicans, would be the source of protests and picketing in academia all over America? That kind of insight would make the real world of science relevant to readers.  And then other media companies would be scrambling to find people who could do the same thing.

But the fear is that doing journalism about science, rather than "isn't nature awesome and weird" stuff, would feed anti-science deniers or politicians who are against science.  Few want to do what most people consider journalism - and then writers wonder why no one feels the need to hire more science journalists to write about supernovae or the evolution of traumatic insemination or human teeth made from urine.

Science journalists love science so much they are selling the sizzle but not delivering the steak - and then complain that the customers don't want to buy what they cook. People stop coming to your restaurant when you do that. "And it has contributed to the trade being regarded as a low-prestige, low-value part of news," Vergano says, meaning that science writers are not advancing journalism overall, the way political and economics writing does. And they are not further advocating science by becoming leaders in media.

Instead, it may be that journalists are turning science into a specialty resource rather than a part of the broad public discussion - it's just expert quotes. When that happens, people only turn to it when there is nothing else to read, like I do with the weather and television show listings. 

You know what people get paid to write television listings? Probably nothing.


(1) They are both hilarious throughout the discussion. Ann, on the tendency of science writers to be willing to work for free at giant corporations, blogging or even writing articles, because of the promise of 'exposure': "And being exposed to those readers gets me what? They’re all venture capitalists burning to send mortgage checks to science writers?"

Exactly. If you are a writer writing or blogging for free at a corporation where the people recruiting you are paid, you are a sucker.

(2) No, I will not tell you. Did you not read Note 1 where I said to stop working for free?  Buy the book.