As part of my job I occasionally get emails from young people (well, younger than me) who want to know this or that about science communication. I don’t know why they ask me, I feel I know about as much about the subject as they do, but that’s the way it is. (They also ask for career advice, which I’m even less qualified to answer.)
So this guy has an essay he’s writing, on the role of the science journalist in the 21st century, and his opening question stops me dead:
Why do you think it’s important to have good public communicators of science?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn’t know the answer to that. Why do we get so wound up about the state of science journalism in the UK? Why do we rest the science literacy of the public on the over-burdened shoulders of men and women who simply write the news? I don’t see anyone on a soapbox blaming the writers of the finance pages for the eye-watering level of personal debt in this country. I don’t hear of anyone losing sleep over the lack of column inches that philosophy generates. Why do we need good public communicators of science?
The classic reply is that the public, mewling kitten that it is, makes important health decisions based upon what it has read in the latest newspapers. I’m a touch skeptical of this claim. I think the latest round of headlines probably feeds into a nebulous, muddled view on the role of coffee and tomatoes in cancer, sure, but people swearing off either entirely? Even the MMR controversy, held up as the bête noire of UK science journalism, failed to push measles notifications above their 1990 peak (but then, immunisation rates are still recovering, so perhaps we’re overdue a epidemic. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong about this). Secondly, this reply only covers health, which is a fraction of the science covered daily in newspapers.
Naturally I don’t want to believe that our constant harrying of the press is borne out of naked self interest, which is why the essay question above is so important. Why does it matter if the proverbial man on the street has a cock-eyed view of science? Does it really have a substantially detrimental impact on his life? If he makes life-changing decisions based on what he read in a newspaper, without consulting a GP, is he just an idiot?
Writing in the Guardian, Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner discuss the various ideas for improving science coverage raised at the recent ABSW conference. One of these is for a “kitemark” that would distinguish the best quality science writing. I have reservations that such a badge would work. As Chambers points out, creating a system, convincing newspapers to join it, and policing it are likely impossible goals. To filter out all the bad science in our media, the badge would also have to cover the health, lifestyle, opinion and op-ed pages. The real stone in my shoe, though, is the creeping suspicion that accuracy is far more important to us science nerds than it is to readers. Indeed, the entire UK media was recently called out by our cousins over the Atlantic for its enthusiastic churnalising of transparently bullshit PR-led fluff. Put simply, accuracy and truth when it comes to science reporting just doesn’t seem to rate very highly to most people. It feels like this badge is there more for us science nerds than the general public – a kind of opaque snobbish review. Excellent journalism is its own kitemark, surely?
So, I’ll push that question over to you. Is it important to have good public communicators of science? Or is it just important to us?