In this post, I continue working through my thoughts in response to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America. In this post, I focus on their discussion of the mainstream media and of the blogosphere. You might guess, given that I’m a member of the science blogosphere, that I have some pretty strong views about what blogs might accomplish in terms of helping the public engage with science. You would be correct.
A fair portion of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (reviewed here) explores conditions of American life that make it harder for the public meaningfully to engage in science — or easier for them to disengage. Prominently featured here are the changes that newspapers and television have experienced in recent decades. Mooney and Kirshenbaum write:
[M]any kinds of important newspaper coverage are disappearing: Foreign affairs reporting is struggling; many papers’ previously respected Washington, DC, bureaus are vanishing. As for books, they’re out, too, and in early 2009 the [Washington] Post cut its stand-alone book review section. Meanwhile, those reporters who stick around the newsroom are increasingly required to become part-time bloggers, posting their stories online and them updating them throughout the day, expending their energy struggling to keep up with the twenty-four-hour news cycle rather than being able to dig in, investigate, learn, reveal. (68)
These shifts are linked, of course, to newspapers’ need to generate profits for their owners. Part of this manifests itself in reconfigurations that cost less: not stationing reporters oversees, or in the nation’s capital, not producing separate newspaper sections (for book reviews, or for science coverage). And part manifests itself in measures intended to give the readers what they seem to want, like constant online updates of developing news stories.
And the problem isn’t merely newspapers. Some specialized science programs notwithstanding, television is probably worse. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent of coverage. Even as the Post and Globe were upending their science pages, CNN cut its entire science, space, and technology unit. (69)
Here, it would be interesting to have some insight into how the decisions regarding science coverage at newspapers and television networks were actually made. Were these decisions driven primarily by their understanding of what their audience wants (not so much science, or science to the extent that it doesn’t cut into coverage of politics or crime or celebrity shenanigans)? If so, how did they get a handle on their audience’s news priorities? Or, were the decisions driven primarily by the costs of producing quality science coverage? What kind of audience clamor for science coverage would have been enough, in the minds of the media moguls, to justify the price of more or better science news?
I mentioned in my review of Unscientific America that the dynamics of extreme capitalism have a lot to do with the mainstream media’s choices about what news and entertainment to deliver to the American public. As things stand, it is not enough for the media engagingly to deliver reliable information — it also has to make money. Given the cost (in money and time) to produce quality science coverage, such coverage will be judged a bad investment unless consumers are willing to pay a lot for it, or unless a huge number of consumers demand it.
That hasn’t been the consumer response. Some people may cancel their subscriptions to newspapers that abandon their science pages, but certainly not enough that the newspapers are forced to reinstate science coverage.
Of course, what science coverage there is in the mainstream media is frequently the target of criticism from scientists, who point out when the facts have been mangled, when the long-term potential of a research finding has been hyped as a near-term payoff we can expect, or when the journalistic understanding of balance ends up presenting as controversial conclusions which, within the scientific community, are not controversial.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest that part of scientists’ unhappiness with the mainstream media’s science coverage stems from a misunderstanding of journalists’ strategies for getting their lay audience engaged in a story. They write:
[T]he science-media divide springs from causes far more diverse than the mere fact that two groups don’t always admire each other. Although they’re broadly united by a search for the “truth,” the practical ways in which scientists and journalists pursue that end vary widely. Media coverage tends to be episodic and event-driven, always in search of the dramatic and the new. In contrast, science is an ongoing process, at times exciting but mostly dull and monotonous, frequently characterized by false starts and dead ends, yet cumulative in its development of increased understanding. But journalists rarely write about or even perceive the process: They don’t have time for covering the slow growth of knowledge. (71)
Oddly enough, going simply by what is published in the high impact peer-reviewed science glamor mags, the picture you get of science from scientists isn’t all that different from what the journalists offer. What is published is what is hot and new (and the embargo process ensures that it is kept hot and new until it is officially published), a catalogue of successes and surprises that hardly hints at the painstaking labor and abundant false starts and dead-ends that scientists take for granted.
One wonders if the science glamor mags are taking a lesson from the mainstream media’s coverage of science as a parade of achievements, or vice versa.
However it happened, though, the scientists reading the science glamor mags presumably remember, from their own experiences trying to build new knowledge, that the typical scientific paper offers merely a snapshot of the arduous process that goes into generating, testing, and understanding new findings. They can at least imagine some of the trial and error behind the scenes, and generate their own excitement in reading about a research project that succeeded. The narrative of how the knowledge was built would need to be much more detailed to convey this excitement to a non-scientist.
Of course, non-scientists might be looking for excitement other places than the science section. If that’s the case, recent decades have brought many more places to look for that excitement:
First cable came along, providing hundreds of channel alternatives for those who wanted to disengage from serious news, and increasingly politicized platforms for those who remain plugged in — for example, Fox News and MSNBC. And it was just the beginning. The Internet’s transformative powers may ultimately make cable’s impact on the media seem trivial. Now newspapers are on the verge of extinction, but we have millions of blogs to suit every interest and political persuasion, and Google News to sift our headlines. If cable revealed a new continent of media choice, the Internet blasts us into a new galaxy.
The consequences are profound. Citizens who don’t care much for science can easily escape it now. Ditto for citizens who are bored by politics: They can steer away from that particular channel or that particular corner of the Internet. The Food Network is waiting. (76-77)
First, peevishly, I must object (as I’ve done before) to the authors slagging on the Food Network. In the show “Good Eats,” Alton Brown regularly engages with the science of various foodstuffs and cooking processes. This is the very sort of everyday science, communicated accessibly, that makes the fabric of our lives richer, and I’m inclined to cram a beignet in the pie-hole of anyone who’d suggest otherwise.
Of course, that wouldn’t be very civil of me.
To respond to their main point here, it is true that we can now get hundreds of TV channels, but I don’t know that it has done much to dispel the feeling we used to get back with less than ten channels that there was nothing good to watch. (Maybe you’ll find a channel with CSI, but it’s bound to be an episode you’ve already seen.) People will choose what they want to watch from the available options. These options may be many numerically but are relatively few in terms of media ownership — undoubtedly this shapes the range of choices in interesting ways, since the programming offered reflects corporate judgments about what people are looking for, as well, perhaps, as corporate philosophies that may be connected to other pieces of the portfolio (e.g., if you’re owned by an oil company, you may be disinclined to provide a lot of coverage of environmental or political impacts of oil). If science programming is not among the options, it won’t be included in the viewing. But ensuring that science programming accounts for a certain healthy proportion of the options does not guarantee that people will, therefore, choose to watch it. More and better science coverage may draw in some number of viewers with a preexisting interest in matters scientific, and maybe even some channel surfers. But even back when there were three major television networks, when local and national news broadcasts occupied more air time and commanded more resources, people still managed to disengage from it.
Again, only part of the story is the quality of water in the diversity of drinking troughs. Ultimately, it’s up to the horse to do the drinking.
Here, we get to the issue of whether the internet (including the blogosphere) can successfully bring the American public back to science by offering options that newspapers and TV do not. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that the internet has found good use as a channel for political lobbying around scientific issues, and as a site for scientist-to-scientist communication. They also observe:
Blogging helps provide a more democratized, user-friendly, and open-access dialogue about science, especially at a time when the non-subscriber price to read a single article in Nature is $32. (112-113)
But, on the whole, their assessment of the internet and the blogosphere as an instrument by which to interest and inform the public is pretty pessimistic. (The chapter title “The Bloggers Cannot Save Us” is a clue here.) The internet provides a dizzying array of information, they acknowledge, but most of it is crap.
As someone who spent a good deal of time in public libraries back when the catalogue was still on little cards in long drawers, let me assure you, it was ever thus. The magnitude may have changed, but the need for critical evaluation of the available sources of information is nothing new.
And even then, lots of folks managed to stay disengaged from issues they felt like avoiding by never going to the library — or by going, but only picking up books or periodicals that were exactly what they were looking for, speaking not only to the subject matter with which they wanted to engage, but also to their preexisting biases.
Part of the appeal of the blogosphere is that it provides people like scientists with the tools to provide content for interested netizens. Whether or not there is a huge public demand for descriptions of newly discovered dinosaurs, discussions of new neurological research, or debates about string theory, scientists can put these options on the table and trust that the interested non-scientists will (with the help of a search engine) find them. Since most blogging is done without regard to profit margins, hundreds of thousands of flowers of scientific content can bloom. While it’s true that there will be cranks and snake oil sales teams putting out “science” content, too, blogging scientists can also provide some online advice for non-scientists as far as evaluating the credibility of scientific information on the internet (and elsewhere).
Since the thrust of Unscientific America is that the American public is dangerously uniformed and disengaged on matters scientific, and that scientists need to step up to address this problem, you might think Mooney and Kirshenbaum would view the direct blogospheric engagement between scientist and non-scientist as an important component of a solution. They do not.
At least part of this judgment they couch in terms of the time commitment:
[H]ow much time should the scientific community be spending online? (113)
As opposed to doing what? Consulting with Hollywood filmmakers? Lobbying Congress? These are ways that the authors argue more scientists should be spending time — and these, just as much as blogging, could be expected to cut into the “real” duties of the scientist (research, grant-writing, teaching, etc.). If scientists are to do more to communicate with the public about science, then whatever is involved in doing that is bound to take time. Either this will require a rethinking of how scientists ought to be spending their time, or a division of labor within the scientific community that designates some members who can spend significant portions of their time on communication tasks — some of which, conceivably, might involve blogging.
The sense I get is that the authors are not worried about the amount of time per se that blogging consumes so much as the type of output they think we can expect from that investment. They write:
Blogging also consumes a vast amount of time due to the speed of dialogue and the demands of “feeding the beast,” a set of pressures that inevitably leads to much quick writing and posting rather than deep, sustained thought, and that favors polemicism over nuance. (113)
“Inevitably”? Speak for yourselves, kids. Some of us bloggers would rather miss a news cycle than post before we’ve thought an issue through carefully. (I’ll confess there may be a connection between my own slowness of turnaround and my philosophical training — it’s hard to get through a paragraph without anticipating three objections and trying to answer them in advance.) This is not to say that there isn’t an investment of time, simply that there are bloggers getting a good return on that investment as far as the quality of the work they produce. Attracting regular commenters who are interested in thinking hard and teasing out nuances can also create conditions for productive dialogue without a lot of additional labor on the blogger’s part.
And the fact that a good number of blogging scientists write consistently excellent posts while fulfilling the obligations of their offline scientific careers (including teaching and producing kick-ass scientific results) suggests that there are scientists with the enthusiasm, communication chops, and time management skills to create and maintain blogs that can engage the public in scientific results and the scientific life. Even on a small scale, I would count this as a positive development.
However, Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem concerned that there are negative aspects of science blogs that outweigh the positives:
The single biggest blogging negative … is the grouping together of people who already agree about everything, and who then proceed to square and cube their agreements, becoming increasingly self-assured and intolerant of other viewpoints. (114)
This does not describe my experience of the blogosphere — which is not to say that people cannot find their cozy echo-chambers if they want to. But not everyone is looking for one. Lots of people find it bracing to seek out challenges to the assumptions and patterns of thought they find comfortable. For those seeking it, it isn’t hard to find disagreement and to engage with it constructively, at least if you are not coming to the blogosphere with the goal of escape.
And escape seems a habit that humans can cultivate in a wide array of circumstances. Even before the internet and cable TV, folks who wanted not to engage with science news — or any other segment of the news reported on TV or radio, in newsreels, or in the papers, could (and did) tune it out.
We’re good at ignoring messages regardless of the medium.
Do the folks looking to challenge their preconceptions and get out of their comfort zones do it at top-trafficked blogs? Honestly, I don’t have the empirical evidence to make a sensible judgment on this question, and I don’t know that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have this evidence, either.
Speaking just for myself, I find the most interesting (and growth-provoking) challenges in settings where it does not feel like I’m just one person in the audience for a piece of mass communication. Rather, I grapple harder and better when the communication works like a conversation, with a back and forth between people presenting the content and then responding to questions and even following up with their own questions. It may be the case that this kind of nuanced and productive exchange might happen more easily or more frequently on smaller blogs rather than bigger ones. Again, though, this is a hunch for which I have no hard data.
Now, if they buy my premise that meaningful public engagement with science does happen in conversations on at least some of the smaller blogs, Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s worry may be that these smaller blogs just don’t reach enough people. Even if there are lots of them where interesting, challenging, and well-informed conversations are going on, there are many members of the public who are not part of the conversation. Either there aren’t enough cozy virtual science salons to meet the needs of all the non-scientists, or the non-scientists aren’t finding them.
It’s true that the mass media will reach more people than this blog ever will. But if conversational engagement with the issues is an effective way to move people beyond their preexisting comfort zones, perhaps mass communications is the wrong tool for the job. If real engagement is the goal, reaching larger numbers but doing it less effectively doesn’t sound like a promising option.
This question of what kind of communication we’re attempting (one-to-many or one-to-one) is one of the issues where bloggers on different sides of the framing wars seemed to talk past each other, largely, I think, because those on different sides of the argument had different assumptions. Back then, I wrote:
The sort of data Nisbet identifies as crucial prior to developing your strategy to communicate your message — from focus groups and polls — assumes not only that the group of people with whom you’re communicating are relatively homogeneous and stable (with regard to the assumptions and core values with which your message will need to resonate), but also that you pretty much have one shot at getting your message across. In other words, framing is a strategy that assumes mass communication (via TV, radio, or print media, for example) where the person trying to communicate the message lays it out and the intended audience takes it or leaves it.
It is not a strategy that assumes a back and forth interaction between communicator and target audience.
I think the bloggers and others who are not sold on the strategic importance of polling and focus groups see themselves engaged in communication that involves a real back and forth. In that exchange with the people with whom they’re communicating, they can find out what it is those people take as given and what they value. Indeed, to the extent that their communications are happening at a smaller scale (maybe in online conversations of a hundred people on the high end), they can probably get better information about the people they’re talking to than polls or focus groups would yield, since they aren’t getting information about people approximately like their target audience — they’re getting information from their actual audience!
(Of course, it’s more complicated than this if your target audience includes lurkers and not just commenters. However, the ability to comment means that members of the target audience can say, “That sounds good!” or “I don’t buy it and here’s why …” or “I’m not sure I understand this part …”)
Similarly, to the extent that science is communicated in classrooms, it’s not a problem that professors don’t plan their lessons around the polling data. They can, and do, keep adjusting their delivery of the message on the basis of the ongoing feedback they receive from the actual audience they’re trying to reach (i.e., their students that particular term).
Not too long after that, Matt Nisbet put up a post about the ethics of framing. The first of the guiding ethical principles he identified was this:
Whenever possible, dialogue should be a focus of science communication efforts, rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approaches.
You’ll recall that Unscientific America was authored by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, not Matt Nisbet, so Nisbet isn’t on the hook to defend Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s claims, and Mooney and Kirshenbaum need not accept Nisbet’s assertions about the most effective and ethical ways to communicate with the public about science. Still, I think there’s circumstantial evidence in Unscientific America that supports the claim that Mooney and Kirshenbaum see two-way communication as an important part of what ought to be happening between scientists and the public. For example, they write:
Scientists know what advances are under way and debate them regularly at their conferences, but they’re talking far too much among themselves and far too little to everyone else. … We need the experts themselves to launch new initiatives to bring these topics into the spotlight, before it’s too late to have a serious dialogue about them. (10)
Blogs and similar avenues of communication strike me as more likely to produce something like a dialogue — one in which scientists and non-scientists hear and respond to each other’s points — than a newspaper article or a weekly science program on TV.
So even if the bloggers can’t completely reverse the American public’s estrangement from science, isn’t blogging a tool that could make a difference?
If the primary goal is to help the American public become more scientifically literate and engaged, there’s a secondary goal: making people more accepting of science as a human activity and a source of information with which to shape personal and policy decisions (or making them more accepting of certain lines of research, or making them more accepting of the allocation of public money to support research, or whatever). Perhaps a public relations campaign using mass communications to pursue such a secondary goal would be just the ticket. But this doesn’t mean that the more personal, responsive communication via blogs isn’t still valuable in helping a lot of individuals engage more meaningfully with scientific issues.
Certainly, in terms of the broad recommendation Mooney and Kirshenbaum make that communication with the public ought to be conceived as a part of a scientist’s professional responsibilities, online tools like blogs are a relatively easy way to start implementing the recommendation. There’s a very low barrier to entry in terms of availability of free or cheap blogging software and hosting (not to mention the technical know-how required of the blogger), one can get a blog up and running very quickly, and the rapid response from the audience with whom the blogger is communicating can be intoxicating. Of course, there are the foreseeable downsides of using blogs to implement communication and public outreach as a professional duty. Making blogs more “official” might mean getting posts approved by administrators or public relations or legal departments before they’re published. Blogging might end up being officially evaluated in hiring, tenuring, and promotion decisions. Such high-stakes evaluation might push scientist-bloggers to adopt a tone that’s more formal and less personal.
I’m not convinced this would be a good thing. One of the most interesting features of the science blogosphere is that it puts scientists on display as actual human beings, with personalities, senses of humor, various interests beyond their professional focus, and human frailties. When they only see (or imagine) scientists in official contexts, non-scientists can forget that scientists are people, too. Being reminded of this fact might to a lot to make non-scientists seek out engagement with scientists. Thus, filtering the blogginess out of science blogging might end up being counterproductive.
From personal experience, I think it is possible to blog in a way that addresses your research interest, your teaching focus, issues within your profession, connected issues that you see as especially relevant (or interesting) to the public, and aspects of your personal life, to do it in a way that accomplishes your intellectual goals and communicates effectively with a heterogeneous audience, all without pissing off the people cutting your paycheck. So maybe the blogginess of science blogs isn’t necessarily an impediment.
But Mooney and Kirshenbaum aren’t betting on the blogosphere to bring the American public and the scientists together. They write:
[I]t’s a Wild Wild West out there, yet another incarnation of the free market applied to the communication of science. And though all the chatter and back-and-forth may produce strong feelings and intensely committed communities fired up about particular issues — on either side of them — it’s not unifying us behind science or bringing it back to the center of our culture. Science blogs, at least as they currently exist, don’t seem to present the kind of intervention necessary to restore science’s stature and relevance in our national dialogue. (115)
Set aside the concerns I’ve voiced before that I’m still unclear on the particulars of where exactly the American public is supposed to end up as a result of all this communication (as scientifically literate, happy to accept the expertise of scientists at face value, enthusiastic about funding more science from public coffers, etc.). Couldn’t bringing science to the center of our culture include giving non-scientists regular windows into the culture in which scientists think and work? Wouldn’t blogs actually be a way to directly involve more Americans in dialogues about science with scientists rather than relegating our “national dialogue” to televised debates between proxies from the news media, the government, and the private sector.
If science blogs as they currently exist are not the right communicative tool for the job, where are the descriptions of how blogging might be reconfigured to accomplish the goal more successfully?
Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s worries about science blogging, I think, have most to do with their concerns about the effects it might have on the public when blogging scientists blog about topics other than science — say, religion. If the public cannot distinguish between a blogging scientist and one who’s blogging as a scientist (i.e., speaking authoritatively about her areas of professional expertise), Mooney and Kirshenbaum worry that this confusion may do harm to the public’s understanding of science and its place in a society that contains much besides science.
We’ll take up this issue in my last (expected) post on Unscientific America, the one considering the book’s take on the science-religion culture wars. With luck, that post will be up in the next day or so,