On the media (or press)

It seems like I’ve been stepping on a lot of people’s toes lately, so in an effort to foster more camaraderie and less belligerence between the “old media” (this is not derogatory, but rather refers to anything pre-internet news source or classic journalistic source) and “new media” (this includes internet-era news sources, bloggers and the like), I’d like to put down my thoughts on the state of science journalism on the internet today.

  1. I do not think all media is bad at science. There are a multitude of great science sources out there that handle the issues quite well, mostly associated with professional societies like AGU or APS or through more popular-slanted journals like Science or Nature.
  2. I do think that science journalism (not science writing) is vital in news media and bloggers cannot fully replace – heck, I don’t have time to track down and talk to all the players regarding a specific issue and that is where science journalists earn their bucks.
  3. That being said, if you just look at an aggregator like Google News and look up a current interesting science topic, you’ll find that a vast majority of sources are just not very good. Sure, there are the Live Sciences of the internet that handle the material well, but on the whole, there is a lot of misinformation being disseminated.
  4. In my opinion, the problem is that many of these news sources are second-, third- or more-handing the news rather than looking at the primary source. This is because (a) they might not have anyone that can understand it; (b) they don’t have the time to do it or (c) they don’t care.
  5. I also think that many media sources will look for the “hook” before looking for the real ramifications – this is the “eyes” problem with internet news: you need to get people’s attention and fast. It started in TV news, with sensationalist coverage (Al Capone’s vault anyone?) and the internet has embraced the format.
  6. I also think the rampant antiscience sentiment in a lot of the US, combined with a lack of proper science education has promoted a generation (or more) that either (a) doesn’t care about science and/or (b) doesn’t understand enough to question some of these questionable sources.

So, how do we solve this?

  1. We need to make science fascinating again. It has become so myopic in many fields – mostly thanks to the current academic structure to publish or perish. People are interested in science, just maybe not the Nd isotopes of minerals found in a specific hydrothermal pool in upper Mongolia.
  2. We need our new Carl Sagans, Arthur C. Clarkes or Stephen Goulds – people who understand science and can advocate for it. I have trouble thinking of anyone filling those roles anymore.
  3. We need to strength science education at all levels – and I’m not talking about standardized tests. I’m talking about teaching the scientific method and making people want to think about science and how it is done. That is what makes people interested, not memorizing the formulas for 100 minerals, but rather how they form and what that can tell us about the Earth. Science should be a hands-on event that fosters thinking rather than memorization – the current educational system in the US emphasizes the later thanks to the love of testing we now have.
  4. We need people who understand science and have been trained to become journalists. I hate to say it, but maybe we don’t need another 1,000 science Ph.D.s trying to become professors, but rather they should try to bring their love of science to the public through journalism and writing.

I think that covers a lot of what I think about the state of science journalism on and off the internet. I think the real problem is likely the deeper, societal anti-science sentiment that doesn’t foster scientific thought. I also think that we’ve taken a lot of the wonder out of science – that sort of Victorian mentality that anything is worth pursuing because it might be interesting. The business model that only science that will have a practical end result or that will have a successful outcome has neutered a lot of the ingenuity of science. Science is about looking at the universe and thinking “this is amazing, how does it work?” and somehow we need to get back to that both in science as a discipline and society as a whole.


  1. #1 Fitz
    November 6, 2009

    Well said, old chap !

  2. #2 doug
    November 6, 2009

    Part of the challenge is that “anti-science” has become a potent political tool, attracting power and money to an agenda that seeks to discredit science, confuse the public, discourage the teaching of science, demonize scientists and so forth. It’s a sad measure of this movement’s success that the media has such an easy time pushing junk science out to the public, while parents and educators have such a hard time improving the level of science education in the schools.

  3. #3 eileen
    November 6, 2009

    Along with the “anti-science” political slant of some groups, there’s an “anti-religion” bent to some prominent scientists, also. I heard an interesting interview on NPR a few weeks ago (I can’t remember the person’s name, or his book!) but he basically agreed that we have a problem with science communication because we don’t currently have scientists like Carl Sagan, who could dialogue respectfully with people who held different views – instead we have people like Dawkins, who are argumentative and dismissive of other worldviews. The “anti” attitude is now perceived as going both ways, and we have no bridge. 🙁

  4. #4 Erik Klemetti
    November 6, 2009

    Eileen, I fully agree with that. The polarization on both ends is a major problems. We need dialogue and in the current state of American society, it is not possible. People don’t want to talk about a middle ground anymore, especially when it comes to science and religion. We need understanding of both science and religion without the polarizing lens (no pun intended) that we see in much of media these days.

  5. #5 k8
    November 6, 2009

    Your last point addresses the question I left on yesterday’s post. Who wants to be the scientist that becomes a journalist? And is that an acceptable goal for a scientist today? The pay is even worse than your University job. And who is going to take you seriously in the academic world if you haven’t done some major research at some point in your lifetime? Would that person be taken seriously by “real” scientist like yourself? And do you spend 8-10 years getting your PhD and then not “do” science? There’s a niche here somewhere that’s not getting filled or promoted to up and coming scientists.

  6. #6 Erik Klemetti
    November 6, 2009

    That is a major problem – that one has to be a researcher at a university in order to “do” science. Part of it is funding, but a major part is that the current system only perceives value from people within the system. What stops someone from doing both excellent public outreach on science through journalism and “real” research as well? Nothing really, except that our established system wouldn’t know what to make of the person, at least not in the physical sciences.

  7. #7 Dave
    November 6, 2009

    I think another major problem is that science (somewhat) and math (definitely) at the high school level are taught by people who have teaching degrees with no hard background in their subject. I have had and met many HS science teachers who had no college major science. (IE Chem 111, not chem 101) This even worse with math. Being self taught, or adult studies class in science is not the same as taking a semester or two of science for a science major.

    You have generations of students being taught math by people who hated math in high school. My personal experience was I had two calc teachers in HS, one was an old math geek, the other was an english teacher who had switched to fill an open position. One taught me, the other presented a class that he didn’t really care about.
    Of course if you like math, and are good at it, and can teach, there are much better paying places to be than a HS.

    I also run into a PhD prejudice, where to publish or do peer review, getting a PhD in an unrelated subject makes you more credible.

  8. #8 Erik Klemetti
    November 6, 2009

    Another excellent point, Dave. Secondary schools are being populated by people who have taken very few rigorous college-level courses in the subjects they will teach. Instead, they get weighed down by the eduspeak crowd who want teachers to only take classes on methods of teaching. That is all well and good, but if you don’t know the material, it doesn’t matter if you know all the pedagogy, you’re not going to convey the same sense of excitement as someone interested intellectually with the material.

  9. #9 Fitz
    November 6, 2009

    Well let me tell you all how to make things better.
    There ARE a few areas of science being well presented to the masses right now.
    Astronomy – the “Universe” series is interesting and well presented.
    Meteorology – admit it, you were hooked when you saw “Twister”
    Biology, Sociology, Anthropology – you DO watch Nova dont you? Or Animal Planet?
    Quantum Mechanics – ha! ask anyone who Quark on Deep Space 9 is. If you think science education is so poor in this country, ask anyone how to make a wormhole to travel thru time. Everyone knows what a black hole is.
    I’m willing to become a “journalist”
    I want to do an educational TV series called “Rocks”, and cover volcanoes and earthquakes. But the learning curve is very steep.

  10. #10 Erik Klemetti
    November 6, 2009

    Its funny, I’ve read (and talked to people) a number of times how geology just doesn’t know how to “think big” like the physicists and astronomers – this was in regard to big projects like space probes and the like. Some of that has changed with EarthScope and the like, but geology hasn’t done (beyond dinosaurs and volcanoes) a great job of marketing itself the same way the string theory people have, for example. Geology doesn’t have a seminal TV series like “Cosmos,” “The Origins of Civilization,” “Evolution,” or “Planet Earth”. Maybe some TV producer out there should take note …

  11. #11 doug
    November 6, 2009

    Maybe “How it’s made” or “Dirty Jobs” would be the right venue to showcase the cooler aspects of geology (along the lines of “the rocks in our lives”. After all, when you look at where things come from, we’re really still in the stone age aren’t we?

  12. #12 Ron de Haan
    November 7, 2009

    Erik, I agree with your view how to make science interesting again but I don’t agree with your selection of science sources like AGU or APS or through more popular-slanted journals like Science or Nature.

    AGU and APS no longer represent independent science but blindly support the political view of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

    Science and Nature are filled with bogus stories about melting ice caps and other biased non scientific bla bla.

    At WUWT you can find a petition signed by hundreds of scientists who have protested the AGU and APS letter send to Congress and senate that Global Warming is happening.

    It would be a great help if this kind of institutions would take a neutral stand in regard to science.

    Otherwise the world will lose all trust in the science and the scientists.

  13. #13 Fitz
    November 7, 2009

    “How the Earth Was Made” is pretty good, but they’ve sexed it up and dumbed it down, with the unfolding mystery angle and the long recaps before and after every commercial. I like The Universe better. But they have the advantage that pictures of planets are generally always cooler looking than pictures of rocks.
    On the other hand, geology wouldnt need to have as many expensive graphics, and finding out you live 2 hours drive from a volcano has more impact than learning a quasar is billions of light years away.

  14. #14 mjkbk
    November 7, 2009

    My take on the journalistic lack, even dismissal of REAL scientific understanding? Most journalism schools attract HUMANITIES students, with a natural bent towards literature and writing. They tend NOT to take on anything more than General Ed requirements in empirical studies like science, math, and technology. Many of them will remain woefully ignorant in those areas during their professional lives, not only due to lack of training but to lack of AFFINITY.

    I don’t know what the solution is to this problem. You really can’t blame journalism majors for being uninterested in a more rigorous science background. After all, how many physics and geology majors want to be news writers? Not nearly enough, obviously.

  15. #15 John Grant
    November 7, 2009

    We need our new Carl Sagans, Arthur C. Clarkes or Stephen Goulds – people who understand science and can advocate for it. I have trouble thinking of anyone filling those roles anymore.

    Michio Kaku? Neil DeGrasse Tyson? Richard Dawkins?

  16. #16 S Singer
    November 7, 2009

    I would agree with mjkbk a bit. There is no guidance for the two together. I am currently a college student who is trying desperately to major in geology and geophysics. I love geosciences in general and have an aptitude for them. But here is the catch, after I started college I became physically disabled. You can not imagine the amount of people (including professors) who have told me I can’t go on in my major at all, because I simply can’t go on in the field. I have considered science writing, I actually love to write but the journalism schools are not even close to set up for science based writing, it is all humanities. If anyone has a solution to this issue I would love to hear it. Because Erik is right, and there is a good chance there are more people like me out there who would make good science writers but have no path to follow.

  17. #17 Fitz
    November 7, 2009

    The Scientist-celebrity route is one way to present information, but there are others.
    Eriks Blog is journalism in one form. The only thing keeping him from being as well known as Neil Tyson-DeGrasse is ratings. TV is still the Big Dinosaur.
    The key is having a Producer/Director who insists on accuracy and has the skill to make science interesting.
    Look at what outstanding work Ken Burns has done with History. Imagine what he could do with Volcanoes.

  18. #18 Passerby
    November 7, 2009

    You have a largely science-illiterate public, the result of several decades of educators ill-prepared by their university eduction for teaching science in public school. It is well known, that the easiest degree to earn on campus is an Ed degree. Older educators weren’t required to keep up with science innovation (1950s-1970s); they taught the material in outdated textbooks, because population growth/baby boom era had stretched public education resources to their limits.

    The larger issue is that education has failed to connect the dots of cause and effect, to make science applicable to everyday living. For instance, most of us have no real clue of the mechanics/physics and chemsistry of municipal services – public water supply, sanitation, road construction and maintenance, power and gas supply. Not surprisingly, taxes are not equated with municipal operations, and therefore tax levees to improve these services are difficult to pass. Pass-the-buck, therefore, has resulted in a generation of shorting infrastructure improvement and expansion, the point of exceptional risk and even crisis in many locations. All floating under the radar of your average Joe and Jane, because they are science-ignorant, and even anti-science, as in the cause of misconstrued vaccine preservatives as a cause of autism.

    As a former academic, I see very little respect and trust for science and math, because it’s true: our educators themselves are uncomfortable with these subjects. You don’t trust and admire what you can’t understand.

  19. #19 mike don
    November 7, 2009

    One of the things which kick-started my interest in science was science-fiction. Back in the ‘golden age’ writers like Clarke (already mentioned), Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement and others inspired a generation. Clement’s imagined worlds especially were solidly grounded in basic chemistry, physics and geology (His story ‘Hot Planet’ is one of the few SF tales where volcanology takes center stage). Good hard-science/tech sf writing is still out there (Greg Benford, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan etc) but sadly the big bucks are now on endless brainless fantasy sagas. Perhaps this reflects the current paradigm rather than being a cause of it, but it’s still depressing

  20. #20 mike don
    November 7, 2009

    ..and having pressed submit, another off-the-wall thought has struck. While geology may not have the media sex-appeal of astronomy or genetics, it’s not going to produce a TOE or solve the Mystery Of Life (the answer is 42, of course) field volcanologists must be working in the most physically dangerous of all scientific disciplines. A biopic on, or a TV series about, characters like Haroun Tazieff, The Kraffts, Frank Perret and so on might do some good.

    Provided the big-money men don’t insist that EVERY volcanic eruption must have streams of brightly glowing lava.

  21. #21 Denise
    November 7, 2009

    “the problem is that many of these news sources are second-, third- or more-handing the news rather than looking at the primary source. This is because (a) they might not have anyone that can understand it; (b) they don’t have the time to do it or (c) they don’t care.”

    I am from Hong Kong. We have very similar problems here when the media try to cover geological / scientific stories.

  22. #22 llewelly
    November 7, 2009

    At WUWT you can find a petition signed by hundreds of scientists who have protested the AGU and APS letter send to Congress and senate that Global Warming is happening.

    Please read this survey 3146 Earth scientists.

  23. #23 llewelly
    November 7, 2009

    At WUWT you can find a petition signed by hundreds of scientists who have protested the AGU and APS letter send to Congress and senate that Global Warming is happening.

    If you refer to the Oregon petition, it has been repeatedly debunked; start here.

  24. #24 PiedmontPete
    November 8, 2009

    I have to agree with many of the comments by Dr. K and the readers. Many have stated that public’s and media’s scientific illiteracy is a result of education system and much of the poor quality of primary and secondary school science ed. can be blamed on lack of funding. Although this is true to a degree, we must also address the shams that some (by no means all) geoscience education programs are. I had the misfortune to experience this while a visiting faculty member. Like many lackluster departments that did not attract many students, the department I worked for decided to dumb down the core curricula and emphasize “hot” trends like geobiology and geoscience education. While the faculty who pushed geoscience ed. stopped research and teaching in their original fields, at the same time did not bother did not develop and teach an effective series of courses for aspiring teachers, particularly for earth materials. Instead they had the education students take courses designed for geology majors that the ed. students lacked adequate preparation for. In the mineralogy class I taught most of the ed. students had not taken a chemistry class since high school and some only had a general survey class like geological hazards as their prior experience in geology. Although some were competent and I tried to balance teaching them without removing what the geology majors needed to learn, there were a fair number of ed. students who either were in way over their heads or simply refused to try. Long story short, some of those who received Cs and D’s complained to the chair and after the dean of students discussed the situation with their parents (in violation of FERPA I may add), the TA and I were called on the carpet for this. Although we stood our ground, most of the students in question were able to substitute other survey courses and now are “teaching” in several Mid-Atlantic school systems.
    Sorry for the long post. While I hope this disgraceful episode is unique, it illustrates one way we get earth science teachers who are certified, yet unqualified. Higher education needs to look closely at what goes on in some of the geoscience education programs that have been started in recent decades to see if they really prepare teachers or are just a cash-caw for lazy faculty and administrators.

  25. #25 Ron de Haan
    November 8, 2009

    Science today is held hostage by the AGW/Climate Change alarmists.
    And so are our institutions and our media.
    That is the real problem.

    Science has turned into propaganda tool feeding the alarmist agenda’s.

    Sorry to say this but it’s the truth.

  26. #26 doug
    November 9, 2009

    Re. 25, it’s pretty hard to distinquish between what’s alarmist and what’s prudent in the present perspective. For example, all along the west coast building codes have been revised as earthquake science has improved our understanding of potential risk. Is that just alarmist propoganda from the construction and insurance industries designed to infringe on our property rights and religious beliefs? How about the science that points to lung cancer caused by smoking or birth defects from Thalidomide? Another case of “science held hostage”? Science is a pretty broad endevor, more easy to contaminate with misinformation than to hold hostage. But that’s just an opinion based on some facts and observations, since my truth meter has been a bit tired of late.

  27. #27 Bronwyn Noble
    November 9, 2009

    Why do we have problems?
    People don’t read anymore. Therefore, we can’t use the written media to get the important audience — children — hooked. We can’t use museums as much as we once did because, in the cities with good museums, schools don’t have the funds for school trips.
    But the people we must reach were born after about 1999. Anyone older who doesn’t already love science is spoiled meat, unless the subject is computer-oriented.
    So, what do we have left? Horrors, I hate to say this. Television and Movies.
    Right now, most science in these media is terrible. My husband hears more about how bad the science is from me than dialogue (except for Numbers, which should be on at another time and day because I have learned so much about math and physics from it — everyone throw stones).
    People who love science have mouths and know how to write. Networks and production companies crumple under mass criticism. Start writing letters telling them how bad the science is. Scientists: start volunteering to help make it better.
    Complain when something like the current trend to horror stories about 2012 are broadcast. Stop moaning that there is no Carl Sagan — he’s dead, but there must be people who aren’t. Michio Kaku comes to mind — I’m not sure how good he does science but he sure explains it well. Find others in your midst and promote them. Demand equal time. Make sure that television writers get it right.
    If science is boring, then scientists themselves have to make it more accessible and stop waiting for someone to come along.

  28. #28 Cate
    November 10, 2009

    Well said and inspiring words. Keeps up my will in not becoming another Ph.D. but maybe head for science jornalism… I sometimes feel a bit lonely in being so fascinated by scientific phenomenons. Maybe I should take this as a motivation to show others in a clear and simplified way, what is moving me about certain things in physics, technical things and so on…
    Young people make themselves a great fun out of hitting each other’s beer bottle on the neck. The result is that the beer is swelling out of the bottleneck. I suppose none of them knows why this happens. It’s a pretty stupid example, but it becomes clear what I mean, when you see the same guys yawn about inertia in physics lesson…

  29. #29 Erik Klemetti
    November 10, 2009

    Cate – I definitely know my fair share of people who wish they didn’t listen to the “academic” crowd that looked down upon non-academic (at least non-professorial) careers.

  30. #30 S. E. Hoffman
    November 11, 2009

    RE: #25 “Science today is held hostage by the AGW/Climate Change alarmists. And so are our institutions and our media. That is the real problem.
    Science has turned into propaganda tool feeding the alarmist agenda’s.”

    In actuality, all of the predictions made so far by climate scientists have been UNDERestimates. As more data come in, present-day climate change is shown to be faster and more far-reaching than has been predicted in the past ten years. My opinion as an earth scientist: the climate scientists have not been alarmist enough! Just the reality of the rapidity of melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet scares the hell out of me. The then-heavily-glaciated area where I did field work in 1982 is now almost entirely cleared of ice! We’re all dancing on the lip of the climate change caldera. Nothing proposed by any government so far is sufficient to save humans from catastrophe. Without radical efforts to reduce CO2 entering the atmosphere, my prediction is that at least 1 billion people will die from the effects of climate change by 2030 (drought, famine, sea level rise, extreme storms, wars over resources, etc.) – and that’s probably an underestimate because I’m being too conservative. — Oh, and I am not part of the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change (IPCC) and I haven’t signed any petitions. The people who are putting out the propaganda against limiting greenhouse gas emissions are the people who are making lots of money from coal and oil, and they want to keep making lots of money, no matter how much harm their industries do. The really serious question is whether or not we will be able to reform our political systems to remove the influence of these vested interests. I don’t think it’s possible, and my plans for the future have been made accordingly. Rupert Murdoch’s lifetime accomplishment will be the destruction of all that we love about this planet.

  31. #31 doug
    November 11, 2009


    thank you for pointing out that by the very way its organized and compiles its data, the IPCC tends to underestimate the climate changes trends and lag behind even easy-to-observe phenomena. While I agree with most of your comment, I am a bit sceptical about the 1B estimate of future deaths, mostly because I think it undervalues human resiliance and adaptability. Also, I think the notion of “resource war” is quite overplayed in the press and elsewhere. War is perhaps the most inefficient way or distributing resources, and when you look back at the historical record, there are few cases where widespread war was predominantly due to resource grabs. Rather, War has been most often intigated by megelomaniacs for internal political reasons, though often using resources, ethicity, etc. as the pre-text for the conflict.
    But aside from that debatable digression, the question of when and how the consequences of climate change come home to roost desrved serious attention. My own feeling is that we will see a series of local step changes in the regions, societies, and economies that are most exposed to the physical effects of climate change, rather than wide spread “collapse of civilizations” type phenomena. Will this add an additional billion untimely deaths to what otherwise would have occured due to repression, insurrection, government incompetance, economic distortions, pollution and ineffiecient distribution of resources and medicine? Hard to say, except that there doesn’t seem to be any element of climate change that helps bring stability and improved living conditions to the poorest and most unstable parts of today’s world. So living conditions in these places are likely to degrade faster than other places. If the rest of the world lets this happen, then your scenario of famine and conflict becomes more likely in those place and perhaps more likely to spread to other places.
    While in general I’m more optimistic than your note indicates, I think think its clear that there will both winners and losers, and many surprises between now and 2030.

  32. #32 motel townsville
    October 20, 2010

    Snoringly fertiliser and performing with wagers

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