Ed Brayton, who I admire greatly, has a post that runs afoul of my “death of science journalism” sensitivity meter. You see, Ed came across a National Geographic story that says something dumb about “carbon dating.” Ed is surely right on the point of substance, and National Geographic should not have made the error. I certainly don’t mind him pointing that out; but when you also get something like this–”I’ve bitched and complained about the sorry state of popular science writing for years. Here’s another textbook example…”–I get uppity.
The sorry state of popular science writing is not a matter of errors in stories. These will always occur; they’re regrettable but unavoidable; and most important, they’re relatively trivial in comparison with the carnage currently happening in the science journalism world. The “sorry state of popular science writing” is a product of the ongoing collapse of the newspaper industry–the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its last copy, and its science writer Tom Paulson, a guy I greatly admire, is now out of work–and a variety of other factors that are structural and economic in nature: The decline of newspaper science sections (the Boston Globe is the latest to go), the near total lack of substantive science on cable news, and so forth.
Or to put it another way–the writer Ed excoriates made a mistake, but by God, at least she still has a job and cares about science. That’s the broader context that I believe must be highlighted before any more bashing of individual science writers is justified.