My last rant was perhaps somewhat intemperate. Carl Zimmer, who along with Ed Yong I really respect as a science journalist, tweeted it with the line:
@carlzimmer: Man, @john_s_wilkins does not like newspapers.
This is not quite true. I like some newspapers. I do not like the newspaper industry. I worked in various media positions for thirty years. In that time I have seen the best and the worst of journalism (and Carl and Ed are the best). The point of the Twain quote in the last post was that only one in fifty “newspapers of the average pattern” was a virtue. The standard justification for a free press is that they are mostly okay. They mostly aren’t.
But this does not detract from the very good work done on occasion or by good magazines like National Geographic. It is possible to report science without dumbing down or misrepresenting. Carl once interviewed me about a subject I spent ten years working on, species concepts, and his piece in Scientific American (a patchy magazine sometimes) covered the territory well and without distortion.
So what was I getting at? Very simply this: if you want an informed population, put not your faith in the mass media, but in education. No amount of good or ordinary science journalism will improve the public understanding of science. This is hardly a novel view, and it is largely the consensus view in science communication studies.
But let us first ask what legitimate functions science journalism does play, and how it can be done well. First of all, what is meant by the phrase “science journalism”? This covers, in my view, everything from garish front page stories about the latest “breakthrough” in cancer research and “genes for” this or that, through to well written books like Brian Switek’s Written in Stone, or Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers, to name two recent excellent books. Carl himself has one or two excellent books, including his recent Evolution or A Planet of Viruses (still waiting for the review copy ). What differentiates bad from good science journalism?
In my mind, the difference lies between “gee whiz” and “this is why”. Science is not a list of discoveries or results; it is a process of discovery and getting results. There is reasoning and work involved, and if you don’t understand the principles behind the reports, you don’t really understand the reports. Any book that just says “scientists have discovered that…” is bad journalism. It tells you something, of course, but doesn’t give you understanding. Good journalism (in science or any other field) tells you why things are what they are and how they came to be that way. It involves narratives, of course, and I never said that narratives, where they are called for, are bad. But good journalists tell narratives where they are required, and not merely for the sake of having a narrative.
For example, there is a narrative, beginning with Arrhenius in the late 19th century, about how we got to understand global warming. But if the goal is to provide understanding of global warming, all that history and personal development is simply drama for its own sake. If you want to understand climate and the reasons why we think the earth is warming, instead focus on the models of energy sinks and sources, ocean transport, the hydrological cycle, etc. The story merely gets in the way. A good journalist will tell only so much of the story as is needed to explain these facts and inferences. A bad journalist will ignore the facts and inferences for the story and personalities, simplifying down to stupidity the actual science, or even just dropping it altogether. As Einstein once wrote:
Anyone who has ever tried to present a rather abstract scientific subject in a popular manner knows the great difficulties of such an attempt. Either he succeeds in being intelligible by concealing the core of the problem and by offering the reader only superficial aspects or vague allusions, thus deceiving the reader by arousing in him the deceptive illusion of comprehension; or else he gives an expert account of the problem, but in such a fashion that the untrained reader is unable to follow the exposition and becomes discouraged from reading any further. If these two categories are omitted from today’s popular scientific literature, surprising little remains. [Quoted in Fahnestock 1986: 276, from 1948]
So what must a good science journalist do? If they are not to write an academic tome, they must select and report what they think is relevant and important, but whatever else they do, they absolutely must report facts. There is no need to make them dramatic if they aren’t. The reader can be asked to do a bit of work. As Terry Pratchett once said, education is Lying to Children, simplifying and paring away complexity, and then adding it back later as the students advance. A science journalist must Lie to the Reader to an extent, but not by adducing opinions from the ignorant in order to maintain interest, nor by lazily using tropes like “gene for”, but by fairly and clearly reporting on the, you know, science.
The industry doesn’t support that. Few are able to make a living like Carl or Ed, researching, talking to the scientists carefully and extensively and not merely a ten minute chat to get some pull quotes to fit a story they already have written in their head, nor just topping and tailing press releases (often written by ex-journalists now posing as university public relations experts) and putting a byline on them.
How does education get around this set of limitations? In an ideal world, by building on increasing understanding of the processes – the methods and reasoning styles – of the actual science. Instead I see evidence that too many pre-university curricula are based around passing exams, which is to say, focussing on the results. However, we know how to educate, even if we don’t do it properly a lot of the time. Educators do not need my advice, but they do need me and everyone else who gives the policy makers their marching orders to support extra funds and resources to do it.
And there’s the problem right there. We have been so acculturated into expecting the media to educate us in an entertaining fashion that we have increasingly defunded and removed opportunities for good science education, and moved to “infotainment” and high technology in schools. We do not know how ignorant we are, and so we do not ask the policy makers to support education properly. Instead we think that by adding another computer based technique we can solve the problem amusingly, with drama, to pique interest.
Another rant I shall make one day is on the industrial nature of education today (shades of Illich!), but the point now is that we are misled by media to think media is the solution, when it is the problem. How to do this better? Stop thinking that communication is the solution to the misunderstanding of science. Start teaching better.
Next, I shall issue a solution to world peace…
Fahnestock, Jeanne. 1986. Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written Communication 3 (3):275-296.