Not Everybody Finds Science Interesting: Science Reporting and Niches

Colin Schultz has an interesting post on science reporting, in which he bemoans how science journalism has become a small niche and is not consumed by a wider audience:

The issue of recognizing and confronting the fact that not everyone is interested in science is where niche journalism programs like the one at NYU can falter. Jabr remembers the awkward, glazed-over eyes he used to find staring back at him when he tried to share his enthusiasm about science. But when you are surrounded by a tight-knit group of like minded people, it is easy to forget how wildly interests can vary....

The big problem is that this tight-knit group expands far beyond the walls of the class room. People who are interested in science form their own virtual subcultures.

"I've sort of discovered this whole online community of science communicators. And it's amazing - they're always talking to each other, and they're always producing great work, and I love being a part of that community online, or trying to be," said Jabr.

"But sometimes I do wonder if - I wonder about the other spheres. Are they intersecting with this science communication sphere at all? Or is it just sort of its own bubble. And I hope it's not, and I don't think that it entirely is, but at the same time there isn't a huge effort to reach out to overlap with the other spheres on there," said Jabr.

To this online group of science communicators, science is inherently interesting, and requires no justification to be discussed. But here is where the ultimate problem lies - the people who are interested and willing to research and report on science have a ready-made audience of people who are already interested in science.

It's great to have a market, but where is the need to reach outside of it to report, not on scientific breakthroughs, but on the concerns of the rest of society?

I've heard similar complaints before. As a scientist, I've come to terms with the notion that most people want the Cliff notes version.

Working on microbiological questions, I can tell you when some people ask me what I do, I typically get three reactions:

1) They look nervous, perhaps because they believe I will infect them with something.

2) They ask for the 'Cliff notes' summary, and then make it pretty clear they don't really want to know much more; this is the majority response.

3) They proceed to tell me all about that nasty urinary tract infection they had last month. I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THIS. But thanks for sharing! (This has actually happened.)

Woe is the scientist. But is this really any different than for any other profession? Political scientists, economics, legal scholars, historians all have the same complaint. Most professions believe that if people spent more time learning about their subject area, we would be better off. And probably we would be. But the 'eat your spinach' motivation for journalism of any type isn't going to fly (if it ever has), especially in an era where it's really easy to access more entertaining information. How many people really read every news article to its end?

I've come to grips with this personally. I'm not sure what this means for the science news business, but I don't see it as a crisis for science itself.

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As a chemist, the two most common responses I get are "I hated chemistry" and "wow". Whether or not that's followed with a request for the Cliff's notes summary varies.

I tend to get either looks of disgust or expressions of amazement that people actually do that for a living. The high school sports team I coach still thinks I'm lying about what I do as a day job.

MRW, same line of work, same responses.
I always liked the riff on the old DuPont line...Better things for better living through chemistry. That gets 'em thinking, even if only for a moment.

I usually find that if some idiot I encounter on the street doesn't like science, they're usually too dumb to understand it.

By Katharine (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

And of course, the response to "I am a mathematician" is usually "I was never any good at math". Like, do I care? Rarely, someone responds "Math was my favorite subject", but of course, they mean something at the high school level, which fact again doesn't interest me.

I've long been tempted to say "thank you" in response to "I was never any good at math". After all, my salary is that much higher as a result!

By william e emba (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

In teaching freshman level general education biology, I told a series of interconnected stories. Statement on the student evaluation sheet, "Biology is interesting and important." got 90+% yes answers. The students were all non science majors. If you discuss science from a historical perspective and include the human elements, it can be made quite interesting.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

Have to agree with Jim, this was also my experience in teaching university courses in environmental engineering with an emphasis on microbial and chemical processes. As two courses were required for all engineering students, I knew I was doing an OK job when I got grudging admission from mechanical, structural and electrical engineering students that they learned a lot, rather than skip or nod-off in class.

Like Jim, I solidly cross-linked key concepts from various discipline angles to real-world problem-solving and historical examples. Concept and application retention was much better than strictly adhering to standard within-discipline lecture formats.

You get used to the deer-in-the-headlights look when asked about what you do for a living.

Either everybody wants to talk about drug abuse, or I am an unusually witty, charming and engaging individual.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

Most science reporting is so poor that it would be a public disservice for it to be read by a wider audience.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Unfortunately, many people nowadays have lack of time or attention, so curious irrevelant fact is simply spam for them.

But, actually, I would like to see more science well reported. Not primitive (if well meaning) environmental propaganda, not dumbed down facts, not giant tooth-snapping monster variety.

I don't work in a science field, and none of my friends share my interest in science though a few will tolerate my excited retelling of medical things I have read.

Science blogs feeds my curiosity, and gives me a bit of a community feeling via the comments section. I would love to find more people interested in science in my community.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Honestly, people seem to like it when I talk science, but that's mostly because my fields (herpetology/biomechanics) allow me to talk about cool animals doing cool things like leaping across chasms and eating each other, as well as stories about catching snakes and alligators. People may not be super-jazzed about the nitty-gritty science part, but they *love* animals, especially weird/cool/huge/dangerous ones.

It even works in class - my students in vertebrate zoology remembered the reptile taxa much better because I "spiced it up" by noting which species in the collection had bitten me (about 30% of them, 70% of the snakes).

What the hell is a scientist? Can you just run out on the sidewalk and declare you are one? That seems to work. Are you even writing for a general audience? If I were to figure out that you have a strategy I would be doubly surprised, once for me, once for you.

What common characteristic do the so-called science blogs have? Hint: it's not science. It's that you guys are dead earnest with emphasis on the dead. Variety or perhaps levity are looked at with disdain, because whimsy is not dead earnest too, with emphasis on the dead.

The commenters try to match your tone. They are mostly boot-lickers.

As often on science blogs Colin Schultz misses the whole point. He does not realize that you guys are still learning your job, writing. Often, your brains, as shown by your blogs, are not worth inspecting.

You guys hardly have a clue as to what's interesting to a general audience or how to talk about it. There's the rub. Colin S. blames the patient for not responding to the medicine, as dished out by science blogs.

I like the mad biologist, who knows why, but don't let it go to your head. You too are still learning your job. You've got a lot of company and there are only two exceptions, one who leads the pack, and one who just left for another realm.

My opinion of course, which you can devalue as it preserves your egos without regard to -----.

Concern troll's concern noted.

I think part of the issue, at least if I'm asking for a Cliff Notes summary, is that without spending between a few and a few dozen hours with textbooks and other materials its generally impossible to actually understand what someone in a technical field is doing.

By Timothy Underwood (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

What common characteristic do the so-called science blogs have? Hint: it's not science. It's that you guys are dead earnest with emphasis on the dead. Variety or perhaps levity are looked at with disdain, because whimsy is not dead earnest too, with emphasis on the dead.

It seems like travesti is completely lacking in levity and seems to be treating scienceblogs and this blog in particular with disdain.

Isn't it ironic.

It also seems travesti is a pointless spamlinker. David is the one displaying irony.