Evolving Thoughts

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.

Later: of course, as soon as I published this post, I found that Nature has an essay and op-ed up on this matter, and the Columbia Journalism Review a comment on that.

Comments

  1. #1 Ian Spedding, FCD
    March 22, 2009

    …of course, as soon as I published this post, I found that Nature has an essay and op-ed up on this matter…

    Typical crappy Nature reporting, they mention Maiyarrgghz and even spell his name right.

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    March 22, 2009

    *blink* There’s a right way to spell his name?

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 23, 2009

    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.

    Yep. This is a very good point. There has always been a tension in primary and secondary education between teaching critical thinking and indoctrinating citizens into their role as compliant workers/consumers in capitalist states.

  4. #4 Ian H Spedding FCD
    March 23, 2009

    *blink* There’s a right way to spell his name?

    Hmmm..well, perhaps “right” is the wrong word. What, after all, can we say is right in this context? Do we privilege the claim of the nominal owner of the name or do we acknowledge that that we have no rational basis for grounding claims of nomenclatural priority, that no one spelling shall be privileged over any other, indeed that any attempt to grant authority to one claimant is no more than classificational imperialism which can only be subverted by cleaving to post-millenial taxonomic relativism.

    It’s probably what that fight at Sydney Airport was all about. That wasn’t you, was it, making some off-colour remark about species definitions?

  5. #5 Courtney
    March 23, 2009

    Comrade PhysioProf has a point.

    I am all-but-student-teaching certified (AKA A.B.D.) to teach science and social studies from grades 5 – 12. This tension between “truth” and “citizenship” is noted in the professional education literature. Sadly, the literature has come down firmly on the side of “citizenship.” Why?

    1) meeting national education standards (which don’t mention truth anywhere),

    2) meeting parental expectations. When teaching school-age children, parents can make your life living hell. It’s easiest to toe the line.

    3) meeting administrative expectations. School boards and committees determine what gets taught and when, and your ass can be fired for not teaching or teaching in addition to what the committee or school board has determined.

    My Teaching Methodology instructor actually said that if you wish to keep books in your classroom to read, CYA requires:
    a) getting permission for those books to be in the classroom from the principal,
    b) creating a justification for those books by written curriculum alignment, and
    c) gaining parental permission for those books to be read by a youngster.

    No wonder classrooms are empty of all but texts! (And we all know how good public school textbooks are….)

  6. #6 Thony C.
    March 23, 2009

    *blink* There’s a right way to spell his name?

    Pee Zee Matheist

  7. #7 Mike Chelen
    March 24, 2009

    Interactive journalism through digital resources such as blogs provides an inimical resource that attracts attention to scientific topics and discussions. This primary resource can be likewise be capitalized through advertising, merchandising, and other attention based revenue sources. Keep in mind that this situation is not entirely new, as much of traditional media’s revenue is similarly derived from attention based advertising.

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 24, 2009

    Interactive journalism through digital resources such as blogs provides an inimical resource that attracts attention to scientific topics and discussions. This primary resource can be likewise be capitalized through advertising, merchandising, and other attention based revenue sources. Keep in mind that this situation is not entirely new, as much of traditional media’s revenue is similarly derived from attention based advertising.

    Dude, you left out the words “leverage”, “synergy”, and “stakeholder”. C’mon man, get with the program!