Last week, most of the attention of the media, Old and New, revolved around the question if it is McCain supporters or Obama supporters who are more likely to think that Britney Spears is teh hawt (dunno what the answer is, but I recall seeing some statistics about the overwhelming lead by the Red States in porn consumption, TV watching, numbers of adult establishments and number of visits to such establishments per capita, and this may or may not correlate with the perception of Britney Spears as attractive to certain subsets of the male population).
But her name has also been mentioned a number of times recently in discussions of poor scientific understanding by the American public, the role of scientific reporting, and the role of science blogs.
For instance, for the longest time, the most visited post on the entire scienceblogs.com network was a post about Britney. It was one of those throw-away posts, with a silly title, a one-liner, a picture and a link. Something that takes no thought and about two minutes to post. Something almost all of us post sometimes, just to fill the page. For fun. Not a post that requires hours of research and writing. The success of that post (I have not checked the site-wide stats in ages, but perhaps the Expelled and Crackergate posts have beat it down to third place now) is sometimes invoked as an example how the general public is much more likely to search the web for “Britney+Spears+naked+picture” than to search for scientific content (watch my sitemeter go wild after posting this!).
At the second Science Blogging Conference (the content of the wiki will find a new online home soon), Britney Spears was again invoked in a similar role in the ‘Framing Science’ session. She is what the media serves, and she is what the masses want to see. No room for science.
But how would the modern American media look like If Scientists Were Tabloid Fodder? Notice, again, the mention of Britney in that post. Notice also how Sara Aton is deemed as famous as Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. A quick search of my blog found these two posts that mention Sara Aton, so you know who she is – brilliant, for sure. Makes me happy that my colleague gets such attention!
Then, in a recent post, Trey goes back to the ‘Framing Science’ session at SBC’08 and gives a different analysis of the problem than what Jennifer proposed at the time (read the whole Trey’s post – it is very informative and thought-provoking).
Victor, in the comments, makes it even more clear – the difference between now and then, now being 2008 and then being, let’s say, 1958, is in the distribution. With three TV channels, a local paper or two, a local radio station or two, everyone got the same serving of both news and entertainment. This was a “push” – the information is pushed onto the audience, who has to take it or go live in a cave.
Today, the media reality is that it is a “pull” model – there are so many outlets, hundreds of cable channels, increased numbers of magazine, millions of blogs, satellite radio, that everyone searches for information and entertainment they are interested in. And ignore the rest.
So, if NBC served 15 minutes of science every day in 1958, everyone got to see 15 minutes of science every day. And could talk about it around the water-cooler the next day. Today, even if NBC still gives its 15 daily minutes, this means that most people get zero minutes of science news by not choosing to watch NBC, while those who are particularly interested know where to go to get their daily fill which is probably measured in hours per day (just try reading every single post on scienceblogs.com every day and following every link – it’s a full time job, ask the Overlords: they are paid to do it and still cannot manage to!).
It is now like that about every topic imaginable: a small number of people particularly interested in a topic have MUCH more sources today than ever. But it is also possible to ignore everything else. Thus, most people ignore most topics. Thus, most people ignore science.
Yet we agree that, at this day and age, a certain level of scientific understanding is more important than ever for general population. So many decisions one makes in personal life, in health-care choices and in political choices, require better understanding of science than the general population ever had in history. The general ignorance of science is nothing new – as Trey points out, the surveys indicate that the levels of scientific understanding and knowledge have been holding steady for decades in the USA (and probably also everywhere else in the world).
How do we increase scientific knowledge and understanding of the general population? No matter how good we are at science reporting and science communication as a whole – and I wrote a lengthy post recently claiming that we are – this will not matter as long as this is a “pull” culture and most people will never get to see any of that science communication anyway, be it good or bad.
The only way to do this is to somehow revert to “push”. But that is impossible in the current media ecology. Reversal to three TV channels is impossible, not to mention a really bad idea.
So, the media is not the way. While the science communication in the media, Old and New, has to be there, and has to be good, it will not be the venue for increasing science literacy in the general population.
The only venue I can think of, the only place where “push” still works and people are literally forced to listen to things they personally don’t care about – is school.
But science education in the USA is abysmal. What little there is of it is taught in a horrendous way – memorization of seemingly useless factoids. Solving puzzles. Learning Latin names for body parts. It is hard, it is boring, and it makes no sense.
The only way to make a scientifically educated population is to completely rethink science education – to make much more of it compulsory for graduation from middle and high schools and colleges, to make it interesting and relevant, and to put stress on the process and method and the historical context rather than on the factoids. To make the kids interested in science (they are born interested, then lose interest later – let’s see how we can keep them interested instead). To teach the kids how to remain interested in science, how to find and WANT to find relevant scientific information for the rest of their lives.
But this takes a lot of political muscle, especially since we are facing a ridiculous educational system in which the schooling is run by local boards, often filled with total incompetents. I guess all of us who got out or lucked out of the tenure-track trajectory should run for local school boards and start the revolution from within….
Unless you have a better idea?