Journalism professor Michael Bugeja hits the nail on the head with this one.
It is my biggest complaint about science coverage in the mainstream media, which forces very nearly every science story into one of three narrative templates:
- Dreadful disease-of-the-week
- Gee whiz science innovation and/or technology entreprenuer (usually male) saves the world, discovery-of-the-week
- How the next apocalypse will be caused by this instance of science run amuck
I suppose we can thank Wired magazine for adding "technology entreprenuer-heros" to Number Two above. I love Wired magazine, and I'd really love to write for Wired, but I gotta tell you, the feeling that I'd have to include some variant of Number Two in every story I'd query makes me hold my nose and write for my blogs instead. I wonder if Wired deliberately chose this narrative path, a variant of the cyberpunk anti-hero cowboy, jacked-in to the system, or if it fell into it with the tech boom. It's been copied by other entreprenuer-hero magazines ad nauseum (Fast Company, Business 2.0).
So if mainstream media is screwing up its coverage of science and producing pathetic science writing, I'd hope bloggers, many working in technology fields, would do something to correct the larger error in their mainstream narratives.
This is for those bloggers who enter these spaces not to write endlessly about themselves, but rather, to use their blogs as a way to SHARE what they find interesting in the world, to say "Hey, lookee here!" and let their blogs be a way to interact with the wonder and silliness and oddness and create or enter watercooler conversations about these things (Boing Boing has too much oddness and not enough conversation, if you ask me).
Translating science into something relevant and understandable to a wider audience could bring real joy to bloggers who love and are fascinated with science, even if they've had to face the fact that most jobs in science don't allow them to indulge very much of the wonder that first drew them to the field. Yeah, I'm talking Popular Mechanics readers, Wired readers, sure, but ANY workshop tinkerer, ANYONE who loves to read and engage with how things work. Science is NOT impossible arcana. It can be accessible to those who don't have precise disciplinary specializations.
Just as I preach the need for public intellectuals in the Blogosphere, I also hope this space can help popular interdisciplinary science to thrive, so that it becomes an avocation that doesn't stop when you discard your childhood chemistry set, or rock tumblers, or that fun build-it-yourself radio kit.
Yeah, that was me as a kid. Somewhere along the line, someone in school (maybe me) decided my aptitudes ran toward the humanities (they surely do), but I never fell out of love with science and curiosity and a desire to invent. I know there's others out there like me.
Michael Bugeja has some advice below for would-be science writers, and by extension, bloggers. Bloggers have an opportunity to do mainstream media one better, because they don't have the commercial imperatives of advertisers to force every science story into one of those three godawful narratives. Bloggers are expanding this world of discourse, so I'm hoping they can expand on these narrow-minded science story templates.
But if bloggers excerpt and condense these stories, they run the same risks as journalists. They can reduce things to sound bites, decontextualize, and oversimplify just as badly.
Here's some tips on how to avoid doing that:
Sound Science or Sound Bite?
I direct a journalism program at a science-oriented university where my colleagues are modern-day alchemists, turning corn into fuel, conjuring twisters in wind tunnels, or morphing visitors at our virtual reality lab into plant cells during photosynthesis.
These professors rank among the most ingenious, passionate people I have ever met.
Put some of them in front of a reporter, however, and all bets are off.
Being misquoted in the media is commonplace, especially when the topic concerns science. Depending on the error, a quotation out of context can catapult a scientist into the national spotlight where the person gets to clarify the remarks and do it again, only this time for a mass audience.
Journalists, of course, are partly to blame for overselling science. True, big national newspapers and broadcast outlets have seasoned correspondents. Science happens everywhere, including college towns like mine, Ames, Iowa, where agricultural biotechnology is on display in fields and on shelves of supermarkets. Many reporters who cover science do not fully grasp it, interviewing sources with polar viewpoints on genetically modified products or exotic animal diseases.
My colleagues diagnose mad cows. Reporters love mad cows because the beasts in question have or do not have the disease. Better yet, we eat on average 67 pounds of beef annually per person, ensuring the story will be read. But the science of immunohistochemistry to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory is, on occasion, an arcane topic for the reporter who also does restaurant reviews.
To put this into perspective, consider this: The scientist who visited my university and who reportedly made that comment happens to be the same person who wrote the essay, titled, “Creation Myths: What scientists don’t — and can’t — know about the world” in the journal In Character. His name is Robert Hazen, author of the extraordinary book, Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins, and a professor of earth science at George Mason University.
Read Hazen’s book, if you haven’t already. When you do, you realize that his comment as reported in the Ames Tribune actually is based on the molecular fossil record. Most reviews of his work note how fair and balanced his theories actually are.
You can’t deduce that, however, by reading the 387 words in the story about his talk at Iowa State University on February 3, 2006. You need to glean the 339 pages in Hazen’s hard cover book.
And in this numerical comparison is also the problem at hand.
Bites from Books
Below are some of the most influential books that helped shape a century of science, according to The American Scientist, the magazine of the Scientific Research Society. To illustrate my point, I have reduced each work’s premise or conclusion into a sound bite — an excerpt taken out of context — [...]
What would be the outcome, I wondered, if reporters attended lectures by authors of these great books, quoting them out of context in the year of publication, given the social mores of those times?
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (1954): “Although obviously superior to cocaine, opium, alcohol and tobacco, mescaline is not yet the ideal drug. Along with the happily transfigured majority of mescaline takers there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory” (p. 66).
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (1959): “[M]an is seen not as a static centre of the world—as he for long believed himself to be — but as the axis and leading shoot of evolution, which is something much finer” (p. 36).
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962): “Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (p. 8.)
- Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Fractals (1977): “Why is geometry often described as ‘cold’ and ‘dry’? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain a coastline, or a tree.… Mathematicians have disdained this challenge, however, and have increasingly chosen to flee from nature by devising theories unrelated to anything we can see or feel” (p. 2).
- Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man (1988): “Who knows what the chimpanzee will be like forty million years hence? It should be of concern to us all that we permit him to live, that we at least give him the chance to evolve” (p. 252).
- Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992): “If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers” (p. 251).
- Denise Schmandt-Besserat, How Writing Came About (1996): “[W]riting emerged from a counting device.… Each change of reckoning device — tallies, plain tokens, complex tokens — corresponded to a new form of economy: hunting and gathering, agriculture, industry” (p. 122).
If you have read these books, you would realize that the above citations require substantiation. Those excerpts make great pull quotes in print or sound bites on air. However, taken out of context, they also provoke as much as inform. That is why I caution scientists to at least qualify similar remarks with humbler disclaimers, especially if they believe passionately in their assertions.
[Robert Hazen says]
“So what’s a scientist to do? My approach is to explain three things:
“First, describe what we think we know about the topic (and, if possible, provide a little background about the measurements and theory that support that knowledge). How do we arrive at our conclusions?
“Second, explain what we DON’T know about the topic, including the uncertainties, the controversies, and a sense of how much weight to place on different ideas. It’s always best to be honest about our imperfect state of understanding.
“Third, and equally important, explain what we’re doing to find out more.”
According to Dr. Hazen, science is a never-ending adventure.
I feel the same way about journalism.
Michael Bugeja, who directs the journalism school at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).