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Education, Journalism and Science

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.


  1. David Duffy David Duffy

    1) Science is largely funded by “the people”, so scientists and institutions want headlines too. Scientific funding can directly depend on the perceptions of the population eg charities funding medical research, as well as those of politicians eg big science.

    2) The general scientific journals (eg Science, Nature,,,) too are anxious for publicity in other media outlets viz embargo policies, press releases.

    3) In reviewing a given scientific grant application, it is very common for a funding committee to have no members with expertise in the specific area. One is then dependent on external reviewers, and on the scientist to explain their work in a sufficiently general fashion – in other words practice the skills we would expect from a good journalist.

  2. Interesting. Taking this further, I wonder if the whole enterprise of science communication is over-ambitious. From a personal perspective, I know how difficult and how long it took to get to anything like competent knowledge in my little field – and I feel I have no hope of really understanding most science.

    Perhaps rather than trying to make everyone understand the scientific issues (which seems like and impossible task) we should encourage people to realise that they don’t know, and should probably keep their traps shut. This goes in some ways to your point that we don’t know how ignorant we are. We would need to get to grips with that at least.

    • Which they aren’t. Somewhere between 5 and 20% of medical papers have some methodological issues at worst.

  3. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    Surely John it is all about stupid but in a chocolate sense. – How to get science to the dark side of ‘The Sun.’

    That worthy newspaper’s headline – ‘LIFE ON MARS (Well something up there has wind)’ – not only appeals to the base instincts of my level of stupidity but also tells the result of NASA spending billions on science’s search for Martian chocoholic microbes – and it is scientifically accurate to a fault – well, if it had a couple of question marks.

    NASA’s ten year take on the subject is that there is definitely methane on Mars – well in summer – and Curiosity has found it – well no – but will if it keeps looking – other wise we’re just doing very boring science – so we’d better keep it sensational – there is life on Mars – or has been – perhaps – but to be honest we’ve categorically found neither methane nor a single microbe.

    Of course I’m a farmer as well as a plumber. I spend much time pushing a wheel barrow full of manure. There are countless microbes in my wheelbarrow. In a cubic yard of soil there can be 4,000 different species – generally 2,000 science can identify, 2,000 unknown. Their action and purpose (for want of a better word), for most of them, is only vaguely understood. For many millions of years though, microbes have been life’s farmers and gardeners – and successful at it too. – Now science appears to be doing its best to sterilise agriculture – chemical fertilizers – hydroponics – generally with the aim of mass production and huge profits for a few – however now, vitamin, mineral and trace element levels in food is often 60% lower than recommended levels.

    Malthus on the efforts of agriculture to produce more abundant crops to feed an ever increasing Victorian population said:
    “We may be quite sure that among plants, as well as among animals, there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is.”

    Science does it best to push to find that limit.

    James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory began with his realisation that for the time life has existed on the Earth, the Earth’s temperature has remained suitable for life. (Thus a lower than expected temperature is the signature of life on a planet.) At the same time, all the other planets in the solar system have continued to rise in temperature as they absorb solar radiation and are at their expected temperature. – Yet still science seeks signs of life on Mars.

    Of course we are now involved in perhaps the biggest scientific experiment of all – researching how long it might take for the Earth’s temperature to get back to where it would be if life had never happened – continuing to burn as much fossil fuel as is possible so that greenhouse gasses might provide sufficient runaway warming so that a positive result might be obtained in a generation – so we don’t miss the excitement. – I mean that’s clever, you’ve got to admit. – And just think of the headlines.

    How we should measure stupid or clever. Is it stupid to push a wheel barrow of manure, pondering the microbial interface between soil and healthy crops. – Clever to search for no sign of life on Mars. – Stupid to overpopulate the planet as species become extinct at an alarming rate. – Clever to think of ways to scientifically produce genetically engineered crops to suit mechanised farming, one tractor doing the work of fifty men, whilst much of our gross population are either starving in abject poverty or languishing on the dole with no job and just a little money from state benefits.

    But that is what journalism is about – like virtually everything else – doing a job to make money to buy food. – I mean it would be stupid just to get a spade and a wheelbarrow and dig in the ground to grow food.

    But this is all very depressing isn’t it. – I think I’ll go back to where your last post led me. – The Sun. – It was very interesting reading their scientific pages – much can be learnt – particularly about anatomy.

    Somehow we must learn what is reality. – That to me is the root of stupid and clever. – Too stupid or too clever lie on either side of that middle ground.

  4. Jeb Jeb

    ” We have been so acculturated into expecting the media to educate us”

    I must have missed the papers the day the article demonstrating that was printed.

  5. Jeb Jeb

    I wonder at times if at least a part of the problem is just that people can’t give voice to political concerns and often mix it up for something else when it comes to ant-science rhetoric.

    Nuclear. G.M. spring to mind. Don’t doubt the science here but I would have misgivings letting the political classes here run one small public toilet let alone successfully regulate and police these industries or negotiate a balanced financial deal in the general public’s interest with the financial groups lobbying and that nice seat on the board that often seems to come retired politicians way.

    People do not have the language or terms to express concerns fully so it comes out as mad scientists develop half loaf half cow they must be stopped. Perhaps under the surface it is not so black and white.

    Political rhetoric does have a tendency to paint things in such anxious terms. The fault always lies with out-groups, bias of the evil enemy who controls the media etc. It is a standard political fantasy which avoids the need for self reflection or internal adjustment in position.

    Whatever the case education rather than wielding the big stick of blame at an outside group would appear the smarter answer.

    • Jeb Jeb

      I am certainly guilty of behaving in this way in a dispute situation I have not thought through but need to act as it effects my life in some way. I suspect I am far from alone.

      Language and symbols used in dispute can be very odd looking indeed, as the work they do as at an emotional level I suspect (boy is my terminology crap). In the moment it makes perfect sense.

  6. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    I am picture person – writing is torture. – – To be an academic, first understand a subject, then write an essay to show the understanding. I could never be an academic. – I love reading though – probably because a good writer paints word pictures I can assimilate.

    Here on John’s blog, he writes pictures so well, of deepest questions of the present – and their counterparts in the past – stimulating me to consider yes, I see that picture – and those certain feelings of truth they arouse.

    Jeb’s Byssus blog – of mediaeval writings and more – paints something else though equally well. – A much darker world of uncertain feelings – populated by demons, witches, and faeries in an uneducated past. – In the popular press of the day, the witch hunter was the scientist – demonstrating absolute truth to the crowds entertained round the pyres – the hero facing the wrath of the devil.

    Should we fear the scientifically founded version of society wielded by business and power politics – in the same way we might now think it right to have feared the witch hunter.

    Where is it leading us to?

    More to the point – where ought it to lead us to?

  7. Jeb Jeb

    Thanks for the kind words John. My blog is actually rather badly written, and the last two posts on witchcraft are more sloppy than usual its a complex subject.

    I find it difficult to write when I see so much nonsense written on belief by members of the scientific community. I would not even discuss what my research is actually based on as i would not open up the people I have sat listened and attempted to understand to the ridicule and contempt in which many members of this community delight in.

    It is a disgrace. Many in physics and biology hide behind a day job and venture into subjects they have not studied, have no interest in and clearly have not researched, write bigoted crap and then claim they have some monopoly on scientific understanding.

    It is as far from science as you can get. It is rude, it is arrogant and it should go away and reflect deeply.

    “where ought it to lead us to?”


  8. Roger Shrubber Roger Shrubber

    John, John, John, What manner of bizarre utopian nonsense is this?
    Any and all efforts to educate the masses is of value. Much of it will be rather inept. Some of it will be missing the point and some of it will be supporting the wrong team.

    Ultimately journalism is like composting. Don’t expect it to be pretty and it’s bound to have a stink to it. But it ultimately it’s the best way to feed the growth of understanding. Just wash your hands after handling.

  9. John the Plumber John the Plumber


  10. Gareth Nelson Gareth Nelson

    To me it is a short step from journalism to the public intellectuals. I wish I could say I learnt something from them — the likes of Steve Gould and Richard Dawkins for examples. Such is not the case. Alfred Russel Wallace is another — another writer for money, self professed in his case. Maybe journalism is most meaningful to children, and we naturally grow beyond its appeal.

    • I think public intellectuals (Lawrence Krauss being an example) provide a good target for correction. Do they improve understanding? I tend not to think so (some honourable exceptions, such as Bronowski). Even as targets they are not adding to understanding, since their views tend to take the field. However, they do motivate people like me to learn about a field, so there is something better than science journalism involved here.

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