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Unpopular Science | The Nation

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Unpopular Science

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Science journalism began as a specialized beat in the early twentieth century but burgeoned in the United States after World War II. The 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik was an especially galvanizing event; in response, US newspapers ramped up their science content, and a generation of writers cut their teeth covering the "space race." Another boom came in the late 1970s and early '80s, when Carl Sagan's Cosmos series reached 500 million people globally, and fifteen new science magazines, eighteen new newspaper science sections and seventeen new science TV shows were launched in the United States.

This article is partly based on Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

About the Author

Sheril Kirshenbaum
Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist at Duke University working to improve communication between scientists,...
Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney, host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, is the author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny...

Also by the Author

Political watchdogs like PolitiFact and the Washington Post's "Fact-Checker" are accused of favoring Democrats—but it is the facts themselves that have a liberal bias.

This "popular science" movement sought nothing less than to bring science to the entire public, to mediate between the technical and the lay, the wonky and the approachable. The thinking was that translating scientific knowledge into a form everyone could understand would help forge a more enlightened citizenry and, ultimately, a stronger democracy.

That ambition didn't last: deregulation and technological change would soon dramatically reshape the media industry. Policy moves during the Reagan and Clinton years, epitomized by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, helped foster mass media conglomeration, as a relatively small number of corporations began to pull together diverse media sectors--movies, television, book publishing, music, magazines, radio and many newspapers--and cram them into massive firms. Serious science journalism often fared poorly in this climate. Producing it required seasoned, highly trained journalists who expected to receive salaries commensurate with their experience and expertise. The conglomerates had a different plan--more revenue, less cost, rising stock prices.

Even as science coverage became squeezed in service to the bottom line, another trend emerged that made it increasingly difficult to reach broad swaths of America with scientific information--the loss of common media sources shared by large segments of the populace. During television's so-called golden age, the broadcast networks--ABC, CBS and NBC--provided a shared cultural experience and news environment and featured plenty of science. PBS joined them: Carl Sagan's Cosmos, its greatest science program, was a product of this era.

Then along came cable TV, providing myriad channel alternatives for those who wanted to detach from serious news, and increasingly politicized platforms like Fox News and MSNBC for those who remained plugged in. And already the Internet's transformative powers seem likely to make cable's impact on the media seem trivial by comparison. Newspapers are on the verge of extinction, but we have millions of blogs to suit every interest and political persuasion, Google News to sift our headlines and Twitter to titillate.

In this context, science media outlets like the Discovery Channel still exist, as do programs like PBS's NOVA--but only as one niche among many. Even the pinnacle of newspaper science journalism, the New York Times's Tuesday science section, reaches only perhaps a million people once a week, a small slice of America.

The problem with the decline of science journalism is not just that there is less attention overall to science; it's that the remaining science coverage is less illuminating. Instead, it indulges in a variety of journalistic pathologies that thwart an improved public understanding of science.

As a rule, journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new. When it comes to science, however, this can lead them to pounce on each "hot" new result, even if that finding contradicts the last hot result or is soon overturned by a subsequent study. The resulting staccato coverage can leave the public hopelessly exasperated and confused. Should you drink more coffee or less? Does global warming increase the number and intensity of hurricanes or not? Are vaccines safe, or can they cause an autism epidemic? Experienced science journalists know how to cover such topics by contextualizing studies and deferring to the weight of the evidence. Inexperienced journalists, though, are likely to leave audiences with a severe case of media whiplash.

Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming "skeptics" and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon's human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community's very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking "balance."

For a disturbing glimpse of what to expect from a media world with vastly fewer trained science journalists, we need only recount how much of the press managed to bungle the most important science-related story of our time: global warming. We were warned and warned again about climate change, yet for decades did nothing as the problem steadily worsened. In large part, that's because the US public continues to rate global warming as a low priority, and politicians respond to that public. Both have been getting their cues about what matters from the media.

The mass media, however, got the climate story wrong in multiple ways--first, by covering it as a "he said, she said" controversy during the 1990s (bowing to pressure from special interests and their pet scientists, who strategically attacked the scientific consensus) and then, even after moving away from such "balanced" coverage, by providing far too little attention to the story overall--hardly proportionate to the grave planetary danger it poses. Climate change keeps worsening, yes, but how often is it the kind of news that can trump all the other urgent matters demanding media attention?

In fact, though coverage of climate change in the worldwide newspaper media rose sharply in 2005 and 2006, it declined after that, apparently overshadowed by the economic collapse. But scientists are growing increasingly terrified of what global warming could do--among other things, submerge coastal cities--and are now contemplating further meddling with the climate system (so-called geoengineering) as a last-ditch effort to reverse it. We may yet escape such worst-case scenarios, but if we do, it won't be thanks to the press.

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