The short version: Pinko Punko was disturbed at how very little actual communication of content was involved in a presumably science-centered media frenzy. The “journalists” in question neither sought actual informative content from scientists (let alone striving to understand that content), nor passed on anything like it to their viewers. To those of us who expect journalism to communicate actual content (or at least try to), this is disturbing.
Hoping that perhaps, from this brush with media frenzy, Pinko Punko could offer a more precise diagnosis of the problem, I asked:
Is it a supply-side problem — primarily, one of incompetent science journalists, or of journalists who think they understand more science than they actually do? If so, could this be the answer to our oversupply of science Ph.D.s (i.e., send them to the press conferences and the newsrooms)?
Is it a demand-side problem — with the public unable to get the least bit interested about science (at least when there’s a good Congressional sex scandal or a celebrity behaving badly), or interested but without the requisite understanding of the most basic details of science to really “get” the scientific findings they might be interested in?
Do the people on the supply end misjudge the interest or intelligence of the people on the demand end?
Can we lay this all at the feet of people who use print, audio, and video news to sell ads?
The diagnosis? Probably all of these are at work. That means it’s time for a cunning plan (which in its present form involves no turnips but possibly a little mind control). Here is a slight elaboration on the manifesto I posted at Three Bulls!
We must infiltrate the ranks of teachers to convince the wee consumers-in-training that science is cool AND that you don’t need a larger-than-average brain to understand the basics of science.
Of course, this probably means that in the long term, we need to re-examine what’s involved in teacher training — not only to ensure that student teachers know their science and have a well-stocked pedagogical toolbox, but also to ensure that the science-lovers are not driven away by an ed-school curriculum that is not sufficiently interesting and/or challenging. Paying teachers a decent wage seems like it could help here as well.
We must build in the populace an inexplicable hunger for truth — or at least, for reporting grounded in solid evidence. (I’m not sure how to do this. Perhaps repeated screenings of A Few Good Men?)
No really, we can handle the truth!
The next part of the plan is partly in response to Pinko Punko’s observation that “what was also going on besides the murder of scientific facts was the murder of other facts, like moving quotes to different contexts or simplifying quotes. What we would call fabrication, what they would call sloppiness.” Once we’ve developed a hunger for truth (rather than for mere truthiness), “sloppiness” is not going to do the job:
We must then hijack the broadcast signals (which should be a trivial matter with the help of Science) for demonstrations of the fabrications and falsifications in the “journalism” (whether on science or other matters) that has gone out already. After this, our crack “truth squad” will break into transmissions to set the record straight as necessary.
When accuracy matters to the news consumer, surely news organs will be able to cough up the funds for serious fact-checking, right?
We must extend the attention span of the consumers of news. (ADD meds in the water supply? We’ll figure somethin’ out …)
OK, putting drugs in the water suppy might not be the best way to do this. But getting over the idea that anything worth knowing has to be something you could get from a 30 second soundbite is absolutely essential. Here, I think local and network TV news are probably as much to blame for short attention spans as is everyone’s favorite attention-span scapegoat, MTV.
We must kidnap the celebrities and replace them with doubles who inexplicably talk about recent work in science when interviewed on the red carpet or after their DUI arrests.
Actually, we don’t even need doubles in every case. Danica McKellar could (and does) chat about the intellectual challenge of proving mathematical theorems. Milo Aukerman, Greg Graffin, and Dexter Holland could organize a biology conference/punk rock festival. Surely there are others.
If there were an actual clamor for science reporting that was detailed, informative, and grounded in fact — a clamor not just from scientists but from the people, speaking in large numbers — then news organizations would have no choice but to provide it, lest they lose their audience (and ad revenue) to someone who would. Right?
I mean, the mass media can’t effectively convince the people not to care about science, can it?