There are a lot of folk who think they have a handle on how to communicate science to the general public, and a lot of folk, mostly scientists, who think nobody else does. But I was reading Carl Zimmer’s twittering today, about Rebecca Skoot getting a column gig for a new magazine devoted to issues of interest to women, Double X. It hit me that science journalism is not dying, it is having to adapt to a new business model.
Traditional media made its money from advertising and sales. It used a broadcast model of publishing – a single source (the printing presses or the transmitters) to many consumers (readers, viewers, listeners). Since each vehicle controlled a set number of consumers, one could sell space and time for advertising at a rate that the market would bear. This, in turn, funded the employment of the people who provided the content that made the audience want to buy the medium.
The internet really screwed that up. Now you have everything from narrowcasting (small numbers of transmitters to dedicated small numbers of consumers) to peer-to-peer publishing, and there is no control over source material any more – once it’s online, it is accessible from more than one site, even with intellectual property and licensing.So how to fund a genre of journalism? What’s the business model?
There remains one scarce resource, and from that another arises: time. It takes a lot of time to read all the information out there. Sturgeon’s Law, originally referring to science fiction, applies here: 90% of everything is crap. So if you want reliable information, filtered by those who can tell good from bad, there is a market. Double X if done well will provide that authority based on time, the time used by its journalists, so that readers don’t have to do their own filtering of material they are not persoanlly and professionally invested in. Such magazines and other sources are useful and sell a scarce commodity.
But they are vulnerable to invasion by what game theorists call hitchhikers: if you have a Double X, which is reliably authoritative, any parasite that can do so would be well advised to try to publish in it. So the George Wills of the world will try to subvert that authority for their own agendas, and once a source has been compromised this way, its authority is never solid again. This is, after all, what happened to the mainstream news sources themselves, in the 1950s and thereafter.
So the Business Model for science journalism is fraught with fragility. The only way to prevent that subversion is to ensure that there is a critical mass in the population of critical thinkers. And the only way to ensure that, is to teach science to those preparing to be in the population as adults capable of making a decision on these matters. You need a population competent to tell that when the Pope says condoms do not prevent AIDS, he’s talking crap. You need them able to tell that those who say autism is caused by vaccination, or that vaccines do not work, and so on, are talking crap. Journalism won’t help if there are journalistic sources prepared to propagate crap. Only education will do that.
This is why, by the way, alternative medicine advocates, anti-global warming interests, creationists, and so on all try at some point to control what gets taught to students. They know that what is said in the media is irrelevant if they can introduce doubt about science early on. We form our basic attitudes to knowledge and authority early on, so education is the key to both success and failure of science. While you may “convert” some people from thinking in non-scientific ways, they are just the foam on the current, so to speak. To change the current itself, you need deeper processes.
So good luck to Rebecca, and Carl, and those who fight the good fight in the media. They do valuable work, and it has immediate effects in different issues of importance to the social discourse of the day. But without proper education, without enough people in society who can look and say “That doesn’t sound right”, the fight is lost, no matter what the business model used to fund their activities. In any case, science journalism will continue in new and evolved forms, adapting to the new ecology of the post media baron era.