The Intersection

Well here we go….dutifully linking Bora, Brian, Isis, Laden…but excuse me, hasn’t this debate happened before? And has it resulted in anything other than sound and fury?

i-bbd44b20fe2861e3bbdb40f3b20b46e1-broken test tube.pngSheril and I have a long discussion of the science journalism/science communication problem in Unscientific America. I don’t want to steal our thunder here, but suffice it to say that most of what I’m reading on ScienceBlogs about this subject seems to miss the most important part of the discussion. Which is this: Science journalists are vanishing from the traditional media, along with specialized journalists of many other types. See my reporting on the phenomenon here and here. I’m really surprised this fact is getting such short shrift, because it changes the whole dynamic.

Those scientists (and science bloggers) who are inclined to beat up on science journalists, even as these journalists are basically the only people in the traditional media who actually do care about science–a crime for which they are generally being fired–are worse than off base. They’re firing inward. It’s massively counterproductive.

And if anyone honestly thinks science blogs are going to somehow supplant the mass media and bring science to all the people…well…that’s…hilarious.


  1. #1 Markk
    December 23, 2008

    I haven’t read most of the things you cite, but your point is a total non-sequitur if you think criticism of science reporters is wrong because they are vanishing. Look, these people, however well intentioned, have done a poor job in the last few decades at least. The fact that there could even be a book called “The Republican War on Science” shows that science reporters have not got the message of the facts and rules of the natural world across to the public anyway.

    Now maybe they were given an impossible task with constraints and demands from editors, but then maybe they shouldn’t exist as a separate group. If they are being dictated to by others as to what to write and the slant, then what is the difference? Vanishing as an area with special reporters or not, science writing for newspapers, magazines and television is always a legitimate area for criticism.

  2. #2 thingsbreak
    December 23, 2008

    Two quick points:

    1. If the science reporters are of the John Tierney variety, good riddance.
    2. Abbie had an excellent point about the negative consequences of journalists hyping stories and George Johnson responded in a way that suggests he doesn’t care about science (or at least scientists) as much people might believe- e.g. “stuck in your rat-hole of a lab”, “since [scientists] seem to not be able to [write]”, etc. If this incident gives Mr. Johnson or any other journalists pause before they “sex up” their next story in a way that will lead to dashed hopes and disillusionment, then I think we’d all be better off.

    Science is interesting enough that it doesn’t need to be “spun” in the way that Abbie was complaining about. And if a little blogging criticism is too much for them to handle, maybe they’re in the wrong field to begin with. Joe Romm (god love him) goes off on Andy Revkin about once every other month and it doesn’t seem to send Andy whinging off in hysterics…

  3. #3 Ashutosh
    December 23, 2008

    I don’t think science journalism is the real problem for science communication in America. Science education seems to still be the real culprit; it’s not that people don’t find science exciting even when it’s communicated effectively to them. In general of course they don’t. But more importantly they just don’t think it’s as relevant and important to their lives on a fundamental level. On the other hand they all reap the fruits of science on a daily basis. The reason for this schizophrenic gap between taking the benefits of science for granted and not appreciating the basic nature of science and a need to understand it seems to be major consequence of poor science education.

  4. #4 Orac
    December 23, 2008

    Yeah, I thought about joining in this kerfuffle myself but decided it was tiresome. Yes, we’ve heard a lot of it before. Still, George Johnson was a total tool with his crack about “your little rathole of a laboratory.” (What about his little rathole of an office?) That alone was almost enough to deliver a rain down a bit of not-so-Respectable Insolence on his head, but by the time I had noticed so many others had comments that I decided I just didn’t care enough to motivate myself to do it.

  5. #5 Dylan Otto Krider
    December 23, 2008

    I think it’s fair to point out bad journalism. We’re losing investigative reporters, too, which is making journalism worse for the same reason – you are losing people who actually know what they’re reporting. Lovley, for instance ( I hear ) didn’t know what she was getting herself into because she has no experience.

    I could say the same about a lot of political reporters. The less a reporter knows, the easier the mark inject BS into the mainstream, thereby making it “out there” for Couric.

    I think you have a point when we go after print journalists who are actually pretty good, but it is never filtered up, and those who do good reporting never make Drudge or Lou Dobbs – and Lou Dobbs, as we know, is willing to flak right wing propagandists from think tanks to distort this issue, without speaking to a single climate science.

    So, it may be laughable that we could ever circumvent whatever it is in cable news that makes them intent on lying to their viewers, but it is also laughable that MSM is capable of doing good reporting at the moment. Capitalism can’t support investigative journalists and science journalists, and blogs can’t reach the viewership.

  6. #6 Ethan Siegel
    December 23, 2008


    I’m a scientist, and I agree with you 100%. And I’m completely disgusted by the other scientists that I know who do this. And I let them know that it’s disgusting. Let me know if there’s anything more I can do to support the people who are out there trying to not only spread science to the people, but to spread the understanding of why science and scientists are valuable.

  7. #7 bsci
    December 23, 2008

    While I understand your righteous indignation here, I think there’s a limit to this train of thought. It seems the goal is to bring science to the public. This requires science journalists writing in places were people will read or watch and not just science writers who target the more exclusive book audience.

    I went to George Johnson’s website, and did a review of what he’s written in the past two years. There’s one article on the economics of building electric cars, one article on CPU sharing and AI, a retrospective on Irene Pepperberg and Alex, an article on the science of magic, an article on scanning 100-year-old astronomy photographs, and a mediocre article on neurotheology. That’s 6 articles in 2 years and most of them were of an historical bent. The rest of his writing was book reviews While some of the articles are quite good, he is not writing about current events. How can the public interpret current research if no one is writing about the science? If he is a leading light of science journalism that IS the problem.

    Why am I bringing this up? This is not a circular firing squad. This is one young science writer criticizing others with intent to push and encourage improvements and changes. The established writer attacks all criticism and claims everything is perfectly find and the fault lies only with arrogant scientists. That attitude need to change if science journalism is to survive.

  8. #8 Philip H.
    December 24, 2008

    A few points from a sceintist with a little (!) experience of the media:

    1) Part of what we’re seeing is not about science reporting per se; rather, the loss of science (and investigative) reporting expertise is part of the whole shift in “traditional” media. Newspapers are running into the ground, “traditional” TV networks have to compete in a 24 hour a day news cycle, and far too many consumers of media live for the sound bite. I fear for what will go after the sceince reporters are gone, but they won’t be alone.

    2) Many of the folks on SB are both sincere about science, and sincere about science communication. Part of the reason they are here is to fill the void that is being left by the changes I outlined above. They are also (rightly) criticizing the quality of what is left. Unfortunately . . . .

    3) The few science reporters who are still left in newspapers and on TV are being asked to do the near-impossible. They have to cover more stories with fewer resources, and in fields where knowledge and discovery make geometric leaps on a weekly basis (or so it seems). Faced with these mounting odds, the reporters do what they have to to sell the story (see #1 above about sound bites), which in turn results in the degradation of the reporting, which leads to righteous condemantion, which leads to loss of reporters, which leads . . . you get the point.

    So what sould we do? Well, when the CNN story broke a few weeks ago, I suggested a Science Debate 2008 – style response: wide letter and email campaignes, perhaps a website or two; heck even a few Nobel laureates as spokes people. HAsn’t amterialized yet, and I haven’t had the time to follow-up yself. But it might work.

  9. #9 Wes Rolley
    December 24, 2008

    Chris, you are looking at the problem through the science filter that misses the point that journalism itself is dying, or morphing into something as yet undefined. You see it in science. I see it in almost every aspect of the business. Example from yesterday’s television news. Almost every national network news, and most of the local news, carried the video from the water main break near Bethesda, MD with the rescues featured prominently. They did not even miss the irony of the fact that the flooded thoroughfare was River Road.

    Not a single one covered the fact that a containment wall failed near the Kingston, TN power plant of the Tennessee Valley Authority, releasing at least 2.6 million cubic yds of ash slurry into the surrounding watershed, covering hundreds of acres with gook up to 6 ft deep, damaging a number of homes and possibly flowing into the Cumberland River. None of them told us that the Bush administration has been rule making again to protect energy companies from the damages from such spills.

    I will suggest that this had nothing to do with any other consideration than the fact that the video from Bethesda with helicopter rescues was more “compelling” than the video from Kingston with its bubbly fields.

    In the long run, the real story was in Tennessee. Some bloggers (Romm) caught it, but who reads them anyway? And that is another discussion.

    Finally, there is the fact that, with all of the mistrust of MSM, there is a tendency of the general internet public to believe, without critical examination, everything the read on any site that criticizes MSM. It is this that allows the likes of Rush Limbaugh to get away with all that he does.

  10. #10 Raven Daegmorgan
    December 24, 2008

    In relation to one of the comments above about making science more palatable and accessible to the masses, I think a number of the reporters at The Daily Galaxy website are on to something in the manner in which they present current science news to the public.

    The short articles are written to be punchy and interesting, and often directly relate the science to everyday life (why should we care?), as well as explaining why seemingly obscure advances or data are so interesting/incredible in language the uninitiated can easily grasp and cheer about.

    Certainly something to take a look at in terms of making science more accessible to non-scientists and the general public, who are far more fascinated with snappy, bite-sized dialogue about the latest celebrity scandal than the invention of a working nano-scale car.

    Assuming there’s any general agreement that science news (and science itself) is skipped over by the majority as being (perceived as) dry, irrelevant, and uninteresting, leading to the dire straits in which science journalism finds itself today.

  11. #11 Eric Wolff
    December 25, 2008

    Journalism is not dying or disappearing. It’s spreading everywhere. *Paid* journalism is in deep trouble, mostly because so many people are willing to do it for free, or for very little money. It’s the market at work. This is why science bloggers who spend their days beating on science journalism in general drive me crazy: They themselves *are* the science journalists.

    Here’s my complete take, for the curious:

  12. #12 Pascal Lapointe
    December 25, 2008

    The problem we have here in Quebec, and you in the U.S., about vanishing science journalism, is triple:
    1) science journalists are a marginal group, so their problems does not create a lot of interest in the larger journalistic community
    2) science journalists are frequently mixed with science communicators (public relations officers specialized in science: in universities, research institutions, governmental agencies, etc.); so, in associations like the NASW, their “non-journalists” members do not see it as a priority, since their membership is climbing
    3) a lot of scientists don’t bother because either they don’t read newspapers, either they don’t like what they are reading. Sometimes it creates a legitimate indignation, as in Bora Zivkovic post, where they feel the world would be a better place without science journalists.

    So the result is, science journalism, as an entity, does not have a lot of ally. I think your call to scientists to react more strongly about media cuts, would be a good start.

  13. #13 savaƟ oyunu
    December 29, 2008

    very well blog thanks

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