Can the Media Help Science?

By Pollack, Henry N. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Can the Media Help Science?


Pollack, Henry N., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IS IT REALLY ESSENTIAL THAT THE PUBLIC understand science? Why not let scientists do their thing, and let the rest of the world get on with its business too? Unfortunately, in the modern world, that is a path we can ill afford to follow. Whether we realize it or not, science is too much a part of the fabric of our lives to be shunted aside as a curious sideshow. The economy, national defense, environment, and our health are more than ever before dependent on scientific progress. The emergent role of information technology in our economic productivity, the feasibility of a ballistic missile defense shield, the human contribution to climate change through the combustion of fossil fuels, the implications of the newly mapped human genome--all should be reminders that we cannot divorce ourselves from science, even if we might like to. And yet for all of the obvious relevance of science to our daily lives, many people remain ill equipped to assimilate much beyond the rudiments of science.

If our schools have generally failed to develop an awareness and appreciation of science, one can envision a second line of defense against scientific illiteracy: scientists working closely with the mass media to inform and educate the public. When issues of scientific understanding or misunderstanding arise, should we not be able to turn to television, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Internet for clarification and insight? With their billion dollar budgets, talented staffs, and sometimes close working relations with practicing scientists, the potential for making science accessible would seem high. Both scientists and journalists are generally well educated and have similar intellectual foundations: inquisitiveness, skepticism, and an ability to piece together a story from incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information. Surely, the science education that has been left undone by the schools can later be remedied by scientists and the media.

That is a big responsibility for both scientists and the media, and unfortunately one for which they are both generally unprepared.' Scientists are frequently uncommunicative, the media are impatient and internally competitive, both groups misunderstand and to some extent mistrust each other, and neither typically feels a strong responsibility to educate the public about science. Add to that mix the fact that there are many forces of obfuscation at work, for example, the special-interest groups such as the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, that do not want to have certain scientific issues clarified, nor uncertainties placed in context and evaluated. But within the media there are also forces at work that effectively undermine scientific understanding. Many talkshow hosts on radio and television consider their first role as one of entertainment; on the rare occasion when some science makes its way onto the chart, it usually fares poorly in the give and take of talk. It is not that the hosts at the outset intend to make the science unclear, but many are unwilling to invest the time to understand the complexities.

The Scientists

Journalists need sources. They cannot report about science if scientists will not talk to them. And scientists like their work to be recognized. Can they get significant recognition other than from the media? Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of science education, the answer to this question is clearly "yes."

The principal form of recognition that scientists seek is recognition from their peers. This comes in the form of publication of their research results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. It comes from research grants awarded on the basis of peer-reviewed competitive proposals. It comes from salary increases and promotions bestowed on the basis of peer evaluations. And for a very few, it comes from winning prestigious awards such as the Fields Medal in mathematics, the Crafoord Prize in earth science, or the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, medicine or economics. …

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