Unpopular Science | The Nation


Unpopular Science

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Here an obvious question arises: if the Internet is most directly responsible for the decline of newspapers, then can science blogs and science-infused websites fill the gap?

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.

Science content on the web is certainly booming. It's estimated that there are some 1,000 science blogs, and that's undoubtedly a very conservative figure. Science blogs often focus on hot-button topics such as vaccination, the teaching of evolution and the politics of climate change, and devote considerable time to parsing new research findings. Often written by scientists or science journalists, they're highly attuned to the many problems that have plagued the coverage of science, like phony "balance," and tend to avoid or even denounce them--with verve and attitude.

In other ways as well, the Internet has become the go-to place for science. According to the National Science Foundation, it ranks second only to television among the leading sources of science information for the average citizen and is leaving other, older sources far behind. In particular, when Americans want to find information about a specific scientific topic, they go to the web far more often than they open a research book.

Undoubtedly, one can find excellent science information on the web, but the question is whether most people will find it. Newspaper science journalists in their heyday wrote for a broad and diverse slice of the public. On the Internet, though, it's all about finding your particular micro-community. The web atomizes us--and while it certainly empowers, it empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side--anti-vaccine advocates, anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers all have highly popular websites and blogs, and there is no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating them back.

This problem was on full display in the 2008 Weblog Awards, a popularity contest that featured a tight race for Best Science Blog. The two leading contestants: PZ Myers's Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula), the online clearinghouse for confrontational atheism, and Watts Up With That (wattsupwiththat.com), written by former TV meteorologist Anthony Watts, a skeptic of the scientific conclusion that human activities have caused global warming. Both sites are polemical: one assaults religious faith; the other constantly attacks mainstream understanding of climate change.

In the end, Watts Up With That defeated Pharyngula, 14,150 votes to 12,238. The "science" contest came down to the religion-basher versus the misinformation-machine, and the misinformation-machine won. That speaks volumes about the form science commentary takes on the Internet.

That's not to say blogs lack any benefits; they have many. But the Internet is not unifying our culture around a comprehensive or even reliable diet of scientific information, and it isn't replacing what's being lost in the old media. Perhaps Sabin Russell put it best, on the very day he took his buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle. At 4:44 pm he posted his second entry on a social networking site that some tout as journalism's future. It read: "This is the way my career ends. This is the way my career ends. Not with a bang, but a Twitter." Russell had fourteen followers at the time.

Given that the decline of science journalism is being driven by overwhelming technological and economic forces, it might seem unstoppable. But perhaps instead, the answer lies outside the free market: with the creation of not-for-profit sources of science journalism and commentary, meant to last for long periods safely insulated from market upheaval. An example might be Climate Central, a new nonprofit that supplies a variety of journalistic content relating to climate change, including footage for television programs like PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

Another group of nonprofits--universities--can take the lead in institutionalizing new priorities so that communication, a subject given notoriously short shrift among scientists in the past, becomes a focal point. Especially among the youngest generation of researchers--graduate students, recent PhDs and postdocs--there's a hunger for training in media outreach. These scientists want to obtain the skills that can help them explain their work to a broader public, and there is hardly a time when they will have greater need for them than now, when the journalists who might once have been expected to do this work simply don't have jobs any longer.

For such communication training to become more common, however, we'll need a paradigm shift among the nation's population of brilliant scientists. Immersed in vital research, they have paid relatively little attention to the business side of the media and how it affects them. They've tended to view the press as having a high moral "responsibility" to cover research--period. In some sense, they still think we're in the age of Edward R. Murrow. In fact, it's the age of Bill O'Reilly.

In light of the media upheaval, scientists can no longer assume that a responsible, high-minded press will treat their ideas with the seriousness they deserve, delivering them to policy-makers and the public for sober consideration. Instead, partisan media will convey diametrically opposed versions of where science actually stands on any contentious subject--consider, for example, the difference between how Fox News and NPR cover climate change--even as most of the public (and many policy-makers) will tune out science more or less completely, besieged by other information options.

That's the media reality we live with, and facing it head-on is necessary not only for scientists but for everyone who cares about the impact of science and good information on public policy. We must stop assuming today's media will dutifully carry the best and most reliable knowledge to policy-makers and the American public. Rather, it falls to us to shift gears and carry that knowledge to the entirety of the remaining media, and well beyond. In the latter endeavor, we may have to create media of our own.

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