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.