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Science and the Media

by Kirsten Sanford, Mar 06 2009

I spend a large portion of my time these days considering how to best explain scientific concepts or discoveries to the public. Granted, the audience is a crucial part of the equation. You don’t create something for children the same way that you do for aged academics.

But, as I look at the way that science reaches the majority of the public, and how the public responds to it, I (and I’m not alone here) find that there is something wrong. People just aren’t getting excited about science.

And, they should be getting excited! There is so much amazing work being done that will change our lives to the point that our grandchildren will laugh when we tell them about our ipods, computers, planes, and trains.

So, why aren’t people interested? Where is the information falling by the wayside? How can the trend be changed?

I’d love to hear what you think.

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27 Responses to “Science and the Media”

  1. Sprawn! says:

    I think self-orientation is the key. You need to immediately tie the discovery or expansion of knowledge to something tangible and personal. People confuse science (“Canadian Scientists discover new methods for electronic variation of the refractive index of Tungsten.”) with Technology (“Can you access your facebook on your iPhone? Scientists say ‘Yes!’). Making the tungsten story “sexy” is not an enviable job. Popular science writing has the formula down. They usually start with the far off implications and tie it to current research.

    Will our Grandchildren surf the Information Superhighway with their minds? This University of Michigan Computer Scientist says, “Yes!” He is working on a “cyber glove” that gives users the ability to reach out and touch the Internet. “By 2010,” says Dr. Feldstrom, “the Internet (a technical name for the Information Superhighway) will be fully integrated to every item of clothing, every jet pack, and even some people’s brains.” Some of Dr. Feldstrom’s Graduate Students are living cyborgs, connected to e-mail 24 hours a day. “I envision a day when, using cyber-gloves and cyber-eyes,” the Dr. says over a Starbucks “Frappucino”, “my Graduate Students will be able to play Tic Tac Toe with other Graduate Students on the other side of the world!”

  2. Doubting Foo says:

    …meh…

    lol, j/k.

  3. “So, why aren’t people interested?”

    Because of the complexity issue. Science moves forward with exponential speed, and just as the complexity of medical science creates the need for specialization (few could know it all with clinical efficacy), science in general is that much more complicated and complex. Understanding science also requires a certain level of skill in maths, and this too puts general public laypersons off. Ultimately, I think it comes down to, well, laziness. The ‘wow’ factor that interests people concerns the technological applications of science more than the underlying science itself, that is, most folks are interested in how to operate their iPods, TVs, etc., less so in how they are engineered or upon what scientific principles they are based.

    The following assessment may accrue more to my age and origins in the comparative horse & buggy days of the 50s & 60s, but it seems today’s public is quite spoiled by multiple media resources for instant entertainment – read instant gratification – which obviates their willingness to exert the effort and time necessary to understand and develop true interest in science. This excludes that rather small percentage of people from any generation who love science right out of the gate, of course.

    “Where is the information falling by the wayside?”

    Pursuant to what I suggest above, it falls by the wayside when the reader/viewer/listener finds himself not fully entertained within the first 15 seconds of whatever science education effort is presented to him. This is intentionally hyperbolic of me… but is it?

    “How can the trend be changed?”

    Much depends on the venue in which the science education or information is being presented, in that it makes a difference whether the milieu is captive or not. If it’s a grade school or university course, the audience is somewhat captive, but if the science ed and/or info is free range, listened to or not on the whim of the consumer, it has to compete with some formidable options among the aforementioned wide range of instant entertainments, most of which comes to people via the same media sources, side by side and a click away whether mouse, remote, etc.

    I would advocate a comprehensive review and study of science media programming that has worked in the past, considering methods of presentation, media venues, content, etc. Perhaps what has worked in the past can work in the future. Certain science programming found me an eager consumer and student, while some did not. We all know Carl Sagan as an icon of science ambassadorship to the public, but it might be profitable to study why he was so successful with it. You could line up 20 astronomers, all of whom would be sharing the same basic content as did Sagan, and yet Sagan emerged as the most successful, the most ‘popular’. Currently, the general public might struggle to name an astronomer and those who could would very likely name Phil Plait, due to the success of the Bad Astronomy website and its offshoots, but why? Why Phil Plait? Bad Astronomy is hardly the only astronomy website ever launched – why did it take off where others did not? Was it the science? The delivery? Was it merely Plait’s Brad Pitt-like handsomeness?

    In a nutshell, research has worked in the past and see if it informs us how to proceed now and for the future.

    Other seminal science-in-the-media venues that would warrant review to see how and why they worked might be the old Jacques Cousteau oceanography and marine biology TV specials, Sagan’s NOVA series, of course, Connections, the science series by historian James Burke, and… I’m sure others have their favorites as well.

  4. That should have read:

    In a nutshell, we should research what has worked in the past and….

    I had what appears to be a contiguous, coherent thought going there for a minute and the shock made my fingers tremble.

  5. Jeff says:

    Lack of focus?

    For the whole of the 1900s there was at any time basically one science theme in the public’s attention:
    Advanced Chemistry (synthetic fertilizer, chemical weapons)

    then Einstein, (by himself!) (Properties of light, etc.)

    then “the Atom” (-power and -bomb)

    then putting a man on the moon

    After that ‘impossible’ task was reached, I think there was a sense of “well now we’ve done it all”

    The apparent ease with which the next focal point topic was achieved, the explosion of global communication technology, continued the attitude “what new science? we can do what we want already.”

    The Genetics theme of the early 90s was popular, but when the quarter century prediction for sequencing the human genome was completed in, what, 8 years, I think people were a little alienated.

    The big current theme is tackling global climate change. But it’s not focused. You’ve got the science of the causes: Meteorology, oceanography (ocean currents and levels), chemistry of atmospheric gases, and softer issues like economics, sociology and morality. And you’ve got solutions: biology (carbon sequestration, all the biofuels), chemistry (fuel formulations, novel photo-voltaics, new batteries, artificial carbon sequestration, etc), physics (wind power, power grids, new nuclear power, new vehicles, etc). There’s too much. Your average person can’t keep it all organized in his head. Compare all that to “Splitting the Atom” or “Understanding Our Genes”.

    Now throw on a thick layer of neglected science education (in schools and at home) and it’s no wonder why someone who ever spent 15 minutes trying to get a vague idea of what “Quantum Physics” is about decided to go test drive a Prius instead. (String theory, N-Theory, HOW MANY DIMENSIONS!?)

    Possibly people are more interested in the questions scientist are currently asking than in achievements or results. The questions are probably more accessible than the way the answers are being sought or the answers that are found. The questions provide focus, too.

  6. The Mother says:

    I agree with the previous commentator, that complexity is the issue.

    As a homeschooling mom (NOT because of religion, thank you) with a medical degree, I have found it possible to teach real science to my kids. But most of the other moms (and a lot of the school teachers) really don’t have the background to understand real science, especially cutting edge science, well enough to teach it.

    And if a whole generation of children grow up without a real understanding, that’s another generation that will rely on media dumbing-down for their science news.

    My suggestion? Stop teaching science in high school as a computational course. Although I will grant you that the ability to calculate the trajectory of an arrow might be useful in, say, grad school, it doesn’t teach fundamental understanding. We should teach science CONCEPTUALLY.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think most of the HS teachers are prepared to do so.

  7. MadScientist says:

    1. people presenting are boring

    2. ignorant people assume they know it all, so they don’t see what’s interesting

    3. people are trained like sheep to believe that science is for geeks in white coats

    4. people have no idea how science affects them

    5. people watch too much c-r-a-p on TV and believe everything they see from Star Trek to Oprah to John Edward. (Sad really; I love Star Trek, but if people believe what they see on a show that’s only meant to entertain, they have something wrong with their head.)

    There are probably many more reasons I just can’t think of.

    Hmm … then again, one thing does come to mind. When I worked as a volunteer at a hands-on science place similar to San Francisco’s Exploratorium, I worked very hard to make any explanatory text as short as possible. As Albert Einstein allegedly said: “As simple as possible, but no simpler.” My reasoning was that I had no time to stand in front of a huge poster and read for 5 minutes. In contrast my colleagues often wrote epic vapid essays because they think they’re so clever and want to show the world how clever they are. What happens in reality is people look at something that resembles Das Kapital, nod and say “yep, that’s for geeks” and move on. SO – the moral of the story is: put some thought into what you present. Too many words just get in the way. It’s certainly not easy; I once spent two whole days just to come up with 5 short sentences to explain what I wanted to explain. (And seeing how I rant on here, you can imagine how difficult it is to write few and short sentences.)

  8. Smorg says:

    Why aren’t folks excited about science today? I think it’s mostly because science is often taught in too abstract a manner in school. Kids learn the terms and how to ‘operate’ them in class, but they aren’t encouraged enough to try to APPLY the concepts of science to real life.

    It would be so cool if the books of Richard Feynman are made mandatory reading for science teachers. I think the way that Prof. Feynman’s father taught him to be inquisitive and to seek evidence-based explanation to things rather than to look for what an authority figure say is the answer is most instructive of how to groom young scientists rather than to teach someone to do science. Feynman grew up to learn about that himself when he went to teach physics in Brazil for a year and got frustrated that kids there were being taught how to pass the exams rather than to actually learn science. Try spreading this series of youtube clips around ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk8TVopOBGE ).

    Teaching the virtue of the ability to doubt (to not afraid of and to be able to admit to being wrong) and taking care to apply all scientific concepts to real life as the lesson goes is the key to sparking and keeping kids’ interest, imho.

  9. tmac57 says:

    I agree with MadScientist, simplicity is the way to get people started to be engaged in science. You have to walk before you can run so to speak. We live in extremely complex times. If you stop and think about how many things in our lives there are to be concerned about and conversant in ,to truly understand….well, it is a very daunting task.
    As soon as someone starts to hear something that they find inaccessible , the fingers go to the ears the mind numbs, and the ‘booooooring’ alarm goes off in their brain.
    K.I.S.S. and entertaining and they will (might?) come.

  10. Max says:

    If Oprah promoted science instead of pseudoscience, would her audience be as huge and loyal?

  11. Bill says:

    Part of the problem is in how the masses consider “science”.

    - Is science what those geeky guys in lab coats do? If so, I’ll never understand it, so there’s no point in watching or learning.

    - Is science represented by Big Pharma, poisoning our kids with vaccinations and looking for more pockets to line with cash?

    - Or maybe it’s represented by the nutjobs who promote Kinoki foot pads, promising with very scientific-sounding terms that they can cure anything, maybe including global warming, by selling me some magic sticker that will suck all my toxins out through my feet?

    - Is science represented by the fueding dieticians who told me that some specific food will help prevent future heart attacks last week, but tell me that the same food will destroy my liver this week?

    - How about “The Secret”? It promises that quantum physics will allow me to turn the universe into my own personal Santa Claus just by learning how to think correctly? Quantum physics is science, right?

    - Or is science a tool of the devil, released upon the world in an effort to undermine religious literalism and fundamentalism?

    - Or maybe its the folks with the blinders at LHC, madly pursuing science despite the fact that they have a good chance of creating a black hole or strangelet that will destroy the planet.

    I’ll admit that these examples are each tortured into rather extreme straw men, but in the guise of presenting what it considers a fair, balanced view of issues, the media gives anyone promoting these kinds of views far more air and print than they should. This kind of coverage clearly poisons the well when science is discussed in the media. And with such a muddled picture of “science” being pushed, it can’t be much of a surprise that some people have lost the Wow! factor.

  12. Mike says:

    I just wanted to take a second to mention one place where science in the media is being done very, very well. PBS has a new science show for preschoolers called Sid the Science Kid and it’s all about the PROCESS of science. This is a remarkable feat for a children’s show and one that should be shared and celebrated with parents and teachers of young children everywhere. Just wanted to put that out there. The website is http://pbskids.org/sid/

  13. MadScientist says:

    Einstein was known for his humorous explanations (but you had to be something of a geek to appreciate them). My favorite is the one about the “wireless telegraph”. It went something like:

    The telegraph is like a very long cat with its head in New York and its tail in London. When someone pulls on the tail in London, the head meows in New York. The wireless telegraph is exactly the same – but there is no cat.

  14. “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.” – Albert Einstein

    I got and appreciated it, cementing my geekhood.

  15. Dr. Dave says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this question, and the related one “Why are scientists so uninterested in discoveries in areas other than their own?”

    THE ANSWER IS: “I don’t know” BUT, people are over-worked and stressed. They get used to, and get to like, news in sound bites that are easy to digest. Science is uncomfortably tentative (“Studies suggest…”) while charlatans are so tantalizingly definite (“You can lose 100 pounds TODAY drinking carrot juice!”).

    Another problem is the reporting of individual studies without analysis. Each is presented as “definitive” and as they triangulate in with better hypotheses, the public perception is “no one knows”. So one study says that Vitamin E staves off cancer by mopping up free radicals. We rush out and stock up on it. Then another says that without free radicals at all we get more cancer. So we flush the Vitamin E down the toilet. Then another study says OK, but the dose is crucial, but by this point most people have tuned out and just want to see what Britney is doing today.

    I agree with everyone who points out that scientists need to be more media savvy, to make science more interesting and competitive with entertainment (which is what ‘news’ has become). It is a separate skill from research, publication, classroom teaching, and conference presentation. We somehow have to get the people that do this new skill well into the public eye.

    Maybe science needs a “spokesmodel”. Interested, Dr. Kiki???

    ;-)

  16. Bob says:

    It’s a shame that the schools I went to (k-12) were religious and private, for they really stressed the point of “Science can’t explain everything! But something else does…” and you can see where I’m going here. Because evolution was treated as a joke, I never truly learned about it until college.

    As someone who grew up in the 90′s, let me tell you what I remember about science as a kid. My best memories were of going to the children’s museums in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. TV, seemingly a major factor for kids, kept me interested through shows like “Mr. Wizard”, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “The Magic School Bus”.

    We should all know how to get kids interested in science: INTERACTIVITY! No one wants to just sit and watch something happen, they want to make it happen, experience it, and be able to ask questions throughout.

    That just gave me an idea for getting adults re-interested in science: what if we had scientists (who weren’t promoting some sort of activism or pseudoscience, those would be a big turn-off) walking around the streets of major cities with quick experiments to educate people with science that could later convince them to try and learn more? They could take the place of street magicians who provide quick entertainment but (the major difference from the scientists) cannot explain their secrets, leaving the audience only amazed but still just as ignorant. It would be a small step.

  17. MadScientist says:

    @Dr. Dave:

    Why are scientists so uninterested in discoveries in areas other than their own?

    Why do you say that? In my experience it is mostly the inferior ‘scientist manque’ who has no interest in anything but their narrow field. Most scientists I know like to read about what other people are doing in very different fields. Then there are some like myself who would simply could not do their job without reading a little about developments in a variety of fields. One of my former employers is wasting huge amounts of taxpayer money on projects which are doomed because the company simply does not have the right people for the job – everyone involved knows too little and cannot develop an intelligent view of the problem and the means to successfully address the challenges.

  18. Max says:

    Bob, that reminds me of George Nobl, who set up a math table in Times Square.
    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/apr/math/

  19. Cambias says:

    First, I’m not sure that the basic question is accurate. People ARE interested in science. Consider the popularity of “Mythbusters” or the current Golden Age of nonfiction publishing. The interest is there.

    The problem is that it’s so badly served. School science education is dreadful — dumbed-down, repetitive, and often taught by teachers with less knowledge of, or interest in the subject than the students. The textbooks are written to avoid giving offense to every crackpot, fundamentalist, activist, and pressure group.

    Meanwhile, in the media, science reporting is somewhere below proofreading classified ads on the status scale — and when a science story does make the front page or the top of the broadcast, that means it’s snatched away from the science beat reporter and handed to one of the “stars,” who doesn’t know ANYTHING.

    My solution is hardly a magic bullet, but it would help: more science education in liberal arts colleges. That way the students who will become the journalists, educators, lawyers, politicians, etc. of the future will at least have a decent grounding in basic science concepts and methods. It would be a start…

  20. amanda says:

    No one wants to pay for journalism.

    My dream was to be a science journalist at a major metro newspaper … I went to a school with a graduate program in science journalism.

    Closest I got was finance.

    Newspapers are being replaced with blogs and TV news is full of pundits. Even Scientific American and Discover magazines sensationalize and do a crap job of reporting/translating new studies.

    The number of organizations doing real journalism is dwindling fast, and we should be terrified.

    /rant

  21. Max says:

    “The Week” magazine had a contest for readers to come up with a headline about a new study that discovered something really obvious.
    The winner: “New study finds that most new studies are overturned by future studies.”

    I usually ignore new studies unless they’re huge. I prefer to see systematic reviews make the news.
    If you form a big picture from the latest news, you’d think that more people die in airplane crashes than in car crashes. What I want to know is whether cars or airplanes are safer.

    Media-savvy scientists could use “controversies” over Intelligent Design, vaccinations, and the LHC, to tell the whole story without giving equal time to nutjobs.

    I liked the TV specials about “killer lakes” and “monster waves” that showed scientists solving mysteries. They were deeper and more suspenseful than gee-whiz science shows, and they weren’t any more complicated than a soap opera.

  22. Darrin Cardani says:

    What Cambias said!

    And I hate to be a downer, but I never enjoyed Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye, Beakman, or any of those shows. Mr. Wizard seemed like a confused old man to me (though I was watching him in the 80s, not at what was probably his peak). Bill Nye and Beakman both seemed so intent on keeping things moving quickly for short attention spans that they never really explained anything to my liking. These days, I watch Nova, which sadly only runs about 20 episodes per year. Trying to watch Discovery Channel or related networks is often disappointing. Either they’re pushing pseudoscience, trying to stretch 3 minutes of information into 30 minutes, or covering stuff that isn’t really science or isn’t really interesting. (Don’t get me wrong, there are a few decent shows on those channels, but not as many as there could potentially be.)

  23. Ron says:

    I think Sid The Science Kid is a good start – - my 3 year old was explaining to my mother what an inclined plane is this past weekend.

  24. Dr. Dave says:

    @MadScientist

    If only this lack of interest were confined to the scientist manque! I should say that most of my experience is with colleagues in a university setting. While a notable few are “real” scientists, many are ‘academic scientists’ in the most pedantic meaning of the phrase. This is where I have seen the greatest lack of interest (and understanding) in breakthroughs in other sciences, or even other sub-disciplines in their own specialties. What confers validity on their work (dubious as we may find it) is the massive financial support that their research receives from the government.

    That said, the ‘real’ ones are more fun.

  25. sonic says:

    “Science” has become a vague general term.
    Narrow your question and I think the problem solves itself.

  26. kabol says:

    this article deserves more discussion.

    another contributor to this site was lamenting the lack of media attention to skepticism and science (in a more snarky way) and his article received a lot of feedback.

    granted, ambush skepticism could be somewhat effective and quite amusing, but i’d rather see skeptical media saturation.

    i’m not sure why it isn’t happening already.

    there’s one lonely little science channel.

    i’m guessing nothing will change until the greedy arse people in charge of the media are skeptics themselves.

    actually, skepticism wouldn’t matter. if they’re greedy, they won’t care what they put on the airwaves.

    as evidenced by what we are all watching now.

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