Sunday, April 12, 2009

Science journalism and the public understanding of science

I didn't have much to say about the results of last year's U. S. elections, except for this. After all, this is mainly a blog about science rather than politics.

However, politics is never that far off stage. There has been abundant evidence since the elections that, politically speaking, things are definitely looking up for science in the U. S. I don't think I need to take time now to enumerate the details.

Nevertheless, while science is in a much better place politically now, it is still in a very awkward place socially, as I went into somewhat here.

As further illustration of the theme of the social and economic problems that science is now faced with, let me offer just a few references, with special emphasis on problems besetting science journalism and the conflicts between bloggers and "real" science journalists:

Scientists & Science Journalism in the age of Blogging
A science blogger makes some observations, and provides an abundance of links, on the controversy that erupted last December on the news that CNN had axed its entire science team.

Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?
Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other, asks Geoff Brumfiel.

Review: The Open Laboratory: The best science writing on blogs 2008
A very mainstream media publication, NewScientist, uses the occasion of (what was purported to be) a book review – on a collection of highly rated science blogging – to slam bloggers ("While newspapers may indeed have an abysmal track record when it comes to reporting on science, many blogs out there are far worse.") – rather than to review the book. (Talk about examples of "responsible" and "objective" journalism.)

On science blogging and mainstream science writing...
In response to the previous travesty, a journalist/blogger offers a responsible, even-handed view of science writing in the blogs vs. the mainstream media.

Adumbrating a theme we'll take up later, regarding the death of the newspaper industry, there's this:

A tired "solution" to the newspaper dilemma
Some reasons, but hardly the only ones, why the newspaper industry is failing.

And let's not forget that all this is really about a problem that's larger and more important than the demise of a bad business model or a technologically obsolescent industry:

American Adults Flunk Basic Science
A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive reveals that the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test.

There's no time to discuss those items in detail right now. Read them if you want some background. I'll come back to the problems of newspapers and science journalism in general, but first some reflections on the overall importance, which is rather ambiguous, of science in our society. The problem is larger than journalism – it encompasses our educational system too.

On the one hand, many scientific activities are generally well-regarded and well-respected – even admired. That list includes, just to give a few examples, space exploration, the science and technology underlying computers and other electronic technology, and many aspects of scientific medicine.

But on the other hand, there are many problems as well. There are significant amounts of skepticism regarding climate science and the risks of global warming. The science of evolution by natural selection is under constant attack for purely ideological reasons. Many people are distrustful of, or even hostile to, various parts of scientific medicine, and instead place their faith in unproven, or even untested, forms of "alternative" medicine.

In addition, economic problems are hastening the demise of traditional forms of journalism that in the past have provided the public with generally accurate and essential information about scientific matters that affect the public welfare. Science journalism that remains appears, at least to some observers, to be increasingly shallow and superficial.

And if all that weren't enough, there are serious questions about the adequacy of the quantity and quality of instruction in public elementary and secondary schools. Although public school teachers of science and mathematics generally continue to do their best under difficult circumstances, they often face an uphill struggle against cuts to educational budgets, the meddling of ideological interest groups that want to control or limit the teaching of subjects like evolution, and the difficulties of keeping up with the robust growth of scientific knowledge.

All this is occurring at a time when strength in public understanding of science is needed more than ever in order to cope with serious problems such as climate change, new and possible epidemic diseases, depletion of natural resources like water and energy sources in a world of rapid population growth, side-effects of pollution and environmental damage caused by increasing use of technology by this same growing population, the existential threats posed by proliferation of rapidly evolving "weapons of mass destruction", and the emergence of new kinds "weapons" aimed not at people but at global information and financial infrastructure.

There's a lot to be worried about these days. But at the same time, we are still in the early stages of development of new, powerful information and communication technologies – the Internet, wireless communication services, and cheap, portable devices to receive, digest, and store a flood of electronic information "content".

And on top of that, biotechnology may, at long last, be ripening to the point where developments of new ways to protect and enhance health and longevity are close at hand. Among the possibilities are stem cell therapies, new kinds of vaccines and antibiotics, "personalized" medicine, and effective treatments for devastating diseases like cancer, deadly endemic and pandemic infections, heart disease, and diabetes. But there are important public policy issues in this as well – especially how to make it widely available without further inflating the already hefty amount of gross domestic product allocated to health care.

All this is to say that "public understanding of science" is at least as important as ever. Yet two of the main institutions that should be responsible for building and maintaining this understanding are deeply troubled.

I don't have the answers, of course, but now let me return to a narrower issue – the collapse of the newspaper industry – that very well serves as a metaphor for the larger problem

Regarding the fate of newspapers, and probably other forms of communication printed on paper (i. e. journals), consider this essay of Clay Shirky (with thanks to Digby):
[O]rganizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. ...

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Shirky is talking about technologically driven "revolutions" in the ways of society. The change that the distribution of scientific information is undergoing is one of these revolutions. And about revolutions he says:
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

There's a lot of debate going on right now – as far as people interested in and involved with science are concerned – over more than just the fate of science journalists who rely on print media for a living. There's debate over exactly how the results of scientific research is recorded and communicated to other scientists, let alone to the general public.

Here's Shirky again, speaking of newspapers but applicable to much else besides:
So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. ...

[T]here is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time.

Perhaps, in these revolutionary, transitional times, when old, accustomed ways are breaking down, people who are earnestly concerned about such things as science and "public understanding" of science will have to take matters into their own hands.
For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

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Anonymous Tara Laskowski said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks for the interesting, thoughtful post. A lot of what you're saying reminds me of one of our George Mason University professors, James Trefil. He's very interested in bringing a basic understanding of science concepts to the general public...and thinks in order to make intelligent daily decisions, one needs to have an understanding of the way the natural world works.

He's also willing to try anything to get his message across! Most recently--a partnership with some of the 76ers cheerleaders. Check it out:

7/06/2009 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

Thanks for the comments, Tara.

James Trefil has a fine history of writing about science.

I don't know exactly what "76ers" are, but the videos were... um... interesting.

7/06/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Tara Laskowski said...

Hahaha! The 76ers are the Philadelphia basketball team, and these are the cheerleaders for that team. :-)

Jim says, "Why not cheerleaders? If it gets people interested in science, then I'm all for it."

I'll let you know if we see any results from this project. At any rate, it's at least quirky, right?

7/07/2009 06:14:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

Indeed, that it is. ;-)

7/07/2009 07:03:00 PM  

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