The great media relations debate is starting to wind down, but there’s still a bit of life in it. In particular, I want to comment on something that Bora said, that was amplified on by Melinda Barton. Here’s Bora’s comment:
Everyone is afraid to use the F word, but the underlying tension is, at its core, the same as in the discussion of Framing Science:
The scientists want to educate.
The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).
There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance.
I’m on record as saying that I think the problem with “framing” is about politics, not science, but even leaving that aside, I don’t agree with this. Or, rather, I think that the conflict that Bora and others see here stems from a misunderstanding of what education really means.
The key thing you need to understand is that sometimes, education requires lying to children.
“Lying to children” here is a term of art, derived from a Terry Pratchett book, in which he makes a distinction between lies and lies-to-children. Lies-to-children are stories that we tell to children that aren’t precisely true in every detail, but that convey the right basic idea.
The “Schoolhouse Rock” version of how a bill becomes a law is a lie-to-children, because it leaves out all sorts of sordid but important details about how the process really works– amendments and filibusters and conference committees and pork and lobbyists and all the rest. It gets the basic idea across, though, in a way that a more complete description wouldn’t. Explaining the full process of how a bill becomes a law in practice is not something that grade school children are going to be able to understand, but a simplified version set to a catchy tune will get the basic idea across, and you can come back later and add the full details.
In a certain sense, Newton’s Second Law is a lie-to-children. It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. F=ma, provided you’re talking about macroscopic objects moving at low speeds. If you start talking about really small things, you need to worry about quantum mechanics, and if you start talking about speeds close to the speed of light, you need to worry about relativity, and life gets more complicated. But for high school students or pre-meds, who aren’t likely to ever encounter quantum particles or relativistic velocities, Newton’s Second Law is good enough, and it’s something that they can get their heads around. If they grow up to become physics majors, we can come back later and add the full details.
Most of the problems scientists describe in dealing with journalists involve a refusal to recognize the need to lie to children. Either people are offended at having to “dumb down” their research to communicate it to the journalists, or they’re offended that the journalists did the “dumbing down” on their own, without the approval of the scientists. One way or another, the stories end up being lies to children, and some scientists get offended by that.
The problem here is that the general public needs the lies-to-children version of the research– they may not be literal children, but they’re not going to grasp the full complexity. Somebody has to provide that version to the general public, and if the scientists won’t do it, the journalists have to.
Refusing to provide the lies-to-children version of science for the mass media might seem like a principled dedication to educating as opposed to informing, but in fact it’s pretty close to the opposite of educating. Education is the process of helping people learn things that they don’t already know. Real education requires not just giving people correct information, but giving them that information in a form that they can handle. If you’re not taking into account the background of your audience, and tailoring your explanation to suit their background, you’re not teaching, you’re lecturing.
And sometimes, effective teaching will require you to lie to children.