Popular Media Should Do Science

Lest you think I’m transforming the entire site into cute-baby-pictures-dot-com, let me reassure you that while the posting frequency may drop off a bit, Uncertain Principles will always be your go-to site for slightly ranty blogging about issues of science and larger culture. Well, one of them, anyway.

This is brought to you by a recent post at Physics and Physicists, in which ZapperZ takes issue with the New York Times. The Times wrote a silly piece on radioactive granite countertops a while back, which the Health Physics Society responded to, prompting ZapperZ to write:

When will these popular media ever learn that science isn’t done in between the pages of their publications?

It strikes me that this is almost exactly backwards. What we need is not for popular media to stay out of the science game entirely– what we need is for the popular media to do science right. We should be asking for more science, not less.

I’m not saying that the original Times piece was actually a hidden gem, or anything. It’s actually a pretty typical example of their lifestyle writing– vaguely awful people with more money than sense, reeking of entitlement, and so forth. The garbled science is just icing.

But the problem with the science angle isn’t that lifestyle reporters have no business talking about science. The problem with the story is that they haven’t done a good job of doing science.

There’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be doing science in the lifestyle pages of the Times— in fact, there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t’ve done exactly what the Health Physics Society did, namely, go out and measure the radioactive emission of a whole bunch of granite countertops. The only thing stopping them is the mistaken belief that Science Is Hard, and something that normal people don’t do.

This is, as regular readers of the blog know, something of a pet peeve of mine. Science is a process, not a priesthood– anybody who can read the New York Times has what it takes to do science. Science doesn’t require fancy degrees, big long words, or white lab coats. All it takes is a systematic approach to looking at the world around you.

As scientists, we shouldn’t be grumbling that lifestyle reporters are messing about with scientific terminology. Rather, we should be encouraging lifestyle reporters to do real science. If somebody comes to them with an interesting anecdote about a pediatrician who had his granite countertops removed for fear of radiation, they shouldn’t just report the anecdote as if it were data, or wave the story off because it’s science, and Science Is Hard, or at least too hard for the lifestyle sections. Instead, they should do the experiment.

There’s no reason why the New York Times, or any other paper, shouldn’t do science, at least at the Mythbusters level (which is really all that the Health Physics Society managed– if you want to get picky, their report is awfully shoddy, too). If you’re doing a story about radioactive countertops, don’t just talk to wealthy suburbanites about their kitchens, test some damn countertops. Go down to the warehouse with a Geiger counter. Buy a bunch of radon test kits, and seal them in plastic bags with hunks of granite for a weekend, and report the results.

What we need is more science, in more places. The problem isn’t that popular media attempt to do science in their publications, the problem is that they don’t do it often enough to do it well. The world would be a better place if there were scientific data reported in the lifestyle sections of the New York Times.


  1. #1 Coriolis
    August 11, 2008

    While you’re right that science doesn’t require fancy diplomas & such, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about how wierd the whole idea of experimentation really is. I think I was listening to a lecture of V.S. Ramachandran who pointed out that one of Galileo’s two famous experiments was dropping 2 balls to show that heavy objects don’t drop faster. It took about 2000 years for someone to drop 2 balls and disprove Aristotel. I think it’s pretty clear that the mentality that goes in just seeing if shit works is really not ingrained in humans naturally. Or maybe it is and we spend a lifetime destroying it.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 11, 2008

    “The world would be a better place if there were scientific data reported in the lifestyle sections of the New York Times.”

    Traditional end-runs around editorial ignorance are the likes of: science books (i.e. Susskind’s “My War with Stephen Hawking” or Peter Woit’s “Not Even Wrong”) reviewed in the New York Times Book Review Section, along with Science Fiction (i.e. Benford’s “Timescape” or Egan’s “Incandenscence”); science documentary films (i.e. “A Brief History of Time”) reviewed in the New York Times Arts & Entertainment Section, along with Science Fiction (i.e. Disney’s dreadful “Black Hole” or the clever Time Travel trilogy “Back to the Future”); science documentary television (i.e. “Wired Science”) reviewed in the New York Times Arts & Entertainment Section, along with Science Fiction, and sitcoms (i.e. “Big Bang Theory”). And, of course, Tuesdays we have the excellent New York Times Science Section.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 11, 2008

    Last night NPR interviewed the author of the new Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Yes, it was technically a Noir / Alternate History / Jewish Americana, and beat harder SF such as by Stross and Scalzi, but still a Good Thing.

    He spoke approvingly of Science Fiction in general, as something that he reads and finds therein great diversity, and as an ongoing conversation between writers and readers. It would be nice if we could remind NPR to always the author of the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, at each Worldcon, and, for that matter, to televize Hugo and Nebula award ceremonies. Again, this is a back door to Science as such in popular media, but we’ve discussed in other threads the sometimes very close connection between Science and Science Fidction.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    August 11, 2008

    New Hampshire is the Granite State. EPA and Haz-Mat (in bunny suits) must dig it all out and safely bury it in a monitored hazardous waste landfill, say in Nevada or Washington State. A small user fee to be levied upon taxpayers to compensate households whose Officially injured children must be relentlessly studied forevermore.

    (What about chronically exposed New Hampshirites? What about chronically exposed New Hampshirites.)

    On a less jovial note… Superannuated Civil Defense geiger counters were handed out to school kids to do field surveys of their homes and neighborhoods. That was quickly and quietly ended: 1) Water softener resins reycled from “polishing” nuclear water plant cooling loops, 2) sheetrock made with waste gypsum from superphosphate manufacture, actinides and decay daughters segregating with calcium, 3) granite in aggregate and concrete doing crickets, 4) smoke detectors, 5) grime on CRT TV tubes.

    When do Federal raids on machine shops start? Surface plates are black granite.

  5. #5 marciepooh
    August 11, 2008

    I’d just like interject that I am appalled that a geology instructor didn’t realize that the pink granite in her foyer might contain radioactive minerals for 4.5 years.

    More good science stories would be nice, but I’m not sure stories like this one help the cause.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    August 11, 2008

    More good science stories would be nice, but I’m not sure stories like this one help the cause.

    I’m not saying that this was a good science story. It was a missed opportunity for a good science story, and that’s the problem.

  7. #7 mdiehl
    August 11, 2008

    There are a few good science reporters out there. One is Andrew Schneider, Senior Correspondent/Investigator for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He pushed the story on the Libby, MT asbestos mess. He does a blog – Secret Ingredients.

  8. #8 Tom
    August 11, 2008

    Your link to Zapperz’s post takes you to the Health and Physics Society page. Here’s the correct link


  9. #9 Kevin
    August 11, 2008

    I agree with you 100%. Despite the fundamental role that science and technology plays in shaping our society and our culture, public exposure to science is marginal. We need more and better reporting–and not just in the lifestyle section. While celebrity scandals and minor political skirmishes of no lasting importance are standard headline news items, advances in science and technology which will impact people at all levels of society are typically given short shrift.

    it isn’t just a question of reporting. There needs to be changes in thinking at the editorial level. All the daily ins and outs of politics–much of which is posturing, grandstanding, and gamemanship–is treated as serious news while the daily business of science is treated as non existent. I generally don’t watch news programs because I have a entirely different view about what is and is not important than mainstream producers and reporters.

  10. #10 ZapperZ
    August 11, 2008

    I think my intention in the quote has been misunderstood. I am not saying that the media shouldn’t report ABOUT science, as accurately as they can. I am saying that DOING science isn’t done in popular media. Science isn’t done that way, especially when “research” is done haphazardly with little regards for proper scientific methodology. The popular media simply does not know how to do that.

    Now, one can argue that they should. But till they actually get to that stage, science has only been properly done in various respected scientific journals, where work are peer-reviewed so that all relevant information and methodology are addressed and the work is presented in a clear, accurate manner. I sincerely doubt that the NY Times piece would pass peer-review.


  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    August 11, 2008

    Now, one can argue that they should. But till they actually get to that stage, science has only been properly done in various respected scientific journals, where work are peer-reviewed so that all relevant information and methodology are addressed and the work is presented in a clear, accurate manner. I sincerely doubt that the NY Times piece would pass peer-review.

    I think the importance of peer review is greatly overrated. Peer review is a quality check on science, but it’s not what defines science.

    Science, at the most basic level, is about attitude and approach– it’s about taking a systematic approach to looking at the world, and trying to understand it in terms of basic principles and observations. You can be scientific without going through peer review.

    This is shown quite clerly by the contrast between the NYT story and the Health Physics Society report. Neither of them would have a prayer of making it through peer review–the HPS report omits a good deal of important information that it would need to make it into a journal– but the HPS report is clearly scientific, while the NYT story is not.

  12. #12 ZapperZ
    August 11, 2008

    But how is one to know if something has observed the principles of physics? The general public? This is the same general public where 50% believe in supernatural being, and almost half do not know the earth revolves around the sun.

    To expect popular media to know how to properly do science is expecting way too much. This is the same publication that publishes horoscopes everyday, and has no problem in reporting over-unity machines without knowing which way is up.


  13. #13 AlGehart
    August 11, 2008

    If the tenants of scientific study include looking at a wide range of samples before proclaiming “proof”, then not only is the HPS response lacking, but so is the criticism of the NY Times story.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was the third person interviewed for the NY Times story, the MIA and Dr. Llope were the first two interviewed. Our little group also has a conversation going with Dr. Toohey, president of the HPS.

    First the facts behind the issue. Most granite countertops are low, around 5 to 15 uR/hr gamma and 5 pCi/g of radium. Those types of granite are reasonably safe.

    Then there are those granites that measure upwards of 50 uR/hr, 100 is easily found, with many examples of 300, even 500 uR/hr Gamma. The small chunk of reddish granite in both the NY Times story and the CBS story was one of my samples. Our scintillators (PM 1703 with a tiny crystal) read that sample at around 220 uR/hr, which was an average reading for that entire 18″ x 72″ slab remnant. Several experts (one PhD, one oncologist, and one radiologist) measured that chunk with bench top lab equipment and found from 600 to 900 uR/hr of Gamma.

    Two things though, there was a slab with this remnant at over 500 uR/hr from our scintillator. Double or triple that if the small sample measured by the experts is representative of the larger slab.

    Then take the even hotter slab we found, with a 800 uR/hr hot spot.

    The HPS stated they found an 80 uR/hr slab but decided on using 20 uR/hr as the average, then splitting that in half to 10 uR/hr for calculating their example.

    See where this is heading?

    Equating the HPS to the NY Times and commenting on the scientific basis leaves out the fact that one is supposed to be an expert in these issues, while the other is basically a reporter jotting down notes as fast as she can, then interpreting them without a science background. Would not the HPS be held to a higher standard?

    I can tell you that after speaking to a reporter for an hour on a story, they will use what they understand, not much in most cases. I can tell you that they will usually butcher the science in the three minutes they have to tell both sides of the story. I agree that a good science reporter would have been a better choice, but Kate did her best to sort out the claims from both sides, the Physicist and the Radon expert, against the stone industry trade group.

    Being a fabricator and not a scientist, I am a little confused why the critics of these articles don’t pick up a phone and ask some questions before critiquing. Had the HPS known of the existence of hot granites, perhaps they would have continued to look till they found some. Oh yeah, they did find a hot one, only 80 uR/hr, but discard it they did.

    Like Galileo’s dropping two balls, someone has to have the curiosity to do an experiment. Dismissing an article as unscientific without asking questions or testing a handful of granite samples and basing a scientific opinion that limited sample are both poor methods to arrive at the truth.

    We have a few Youtube videos showing some pretty hot granites being measured. Look for TCSrock78, or just do a search using “granite countertop radiation” and you will find them.

    Not flaming anyone here, just asking to ask questions before making up your mind on this issue.

  14. #14 Ray Peacock
    August 13, 2008

    As we reported on this same silly but sad story on August 9th, I added the following comment and think it’s worth repeating here, if for no other reason than to lay the basic blame on the Times for bad press reporting. I believe that’s directly related to either the motives of the Times or their staff’s competence or both.

    “Here is a link to ‘Testing Your Granite Countertop for Radon’, a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2jhBeJt95E) created to dispel the effects of such unfounded Radon fears.

    “If the young woman in this video could do the test properly and so easily, what the heck did the contractors who sparked this hubbub do? We can only wonder and shake our heads. Also it leaves open the question about The Times’ verification of the story details. HPS [The Health Physics Society] isn’t on Mars.”

  15. #15 Lab Lemming
    August 14, 2008

    With the recent downturn in US housing, kitchen contaactors probably need business. What better way than to get a radon testing guy to spike his kits and panic people into doing an emergency renovation?

  16. #16 MRW
    August 18, 2008

    A good example of scientist “doing” science.

  17. #17 MRW
    August 18, 2008

    oops… that should, of course, have been journalists, not scientist.

  18. #18 Hank Roberts
    August 19, 2008

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