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The problem of science reporting and science popularization

By noodles in Media
Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:42:39 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

Recently I saw an article on CNN online, in which the science reporter was supposed to write about the new atomic clocks being installed soon on the space station.

As I read on, it became shockingly clear that the reporter was woefully incapable of reporting on a scientific topic, either due to ignorance, or pure inability to grasp the subject matter.

Rather than recap the severe problems in the original article, I'll try to address what I see as the larger concern. I've seen other articles where I had twinges, moments of worry that science reporting was falling to reporters with inadequate background in the sciences ( and i'd have thought high school provided such adequate background), but this latest article has me shocked.

Is this a trend?Are there simply not enough reporters available with an ability to understand and digest a press announcement from scientists?On the scientist side, I'll grant that they aren't always stellar communicators, but even so, at the larger institutions, I'm sure the announcements are worked over ahead of time in order to prepare the ... "science for non-scientists" version, which hopefully will be understood adequately by the gathered press.

Science reporting isn't just a niche genre of reporting, it addresses issues that are at the heart of some of our most important public policy debates: cloning, genetic engineering, global warming, encryption, and so on.

If the press is the "Fourth Estate", an important component of our governing institutions, what happens when they are unable to inform the public effectively on important issues?I view this as somewhat as serious as if a reporter declared in an article that Afghanistan was in South America, or that Britain still ruled India. The news media are a trusted source of information that feeds democracy - we need it to be trustworthy.

Taking in an even broader scope, in recent years we've lost some of the most effective voices in communicating science to the public : Carl Sagan , Stephen Jay Gould, and Isaac Asimov leaving us swiftly running out of recognizable names in science popularization.

While there are others out there, working to communicate science to the public, few have attained the prominence of these three. Not that I think, mind you, that most people would recognize thier names, but they were even so the most effective public educators on science that we've ever had.

At the same time, works of misinformation purporting to be science popularization are becoming increasingly common. From Fox News, who've given us such darlings as the Moon Hoax documentary ( dissected and debunked here ) and Alien Autopsy, have taken the lead in misinforming the pubic, but they aren't alone.

There are more and more programs out there, feeding misinformation into the public sphere, and weakening the hold that rational thought and critical thinking have on the public, which indirectly (or directly) strike at their ability to comprehend scientific topics. Examples include the widespread frauds of the various TV psychics like Miss Cleo ( who interestingly isn't in trouble for misrepresenting herself as a "psychic", but for misrepresenting her billing practices. And don't even get me started on John Edward - I've gotten thoroughly tired of debunking him for my more easily gulled friends.

Is science to be saved?Will the media continue to provide crass misinformation and fraudulent "psychics" to the public in the guide of legitimate reporting?Will actual science reporting fall more and more often to reporters who have, at best, a poor grasp of basic principles and concepts?

In short, a question - is it possible that we face a trend? A shortage of persons both science literate, able, and willing to communicate to the public?Sagan was held in contempt by his peers throughout most of his career for this efforts at science popularization. Despite the fact that a great many people can trace their early interest in the sciences to his Cosmos television program, he was often looked down upon, for not doing "real science".

On the cultural level, will we find others willing to sacrifice their careers to go forth and be science's PR flack?In the newsrooms, how can we ensure clear and accurate news reporting on science?Though they seem like separate problems, I worry that they may be linked and arising from similar causes - a general decrease in science literacy among the group which serves as a source for both science popularizers and science reporters. That source is of course, the general public.


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I've read or viewed a work of science popularization by
o Stephen Hawking 44%
o Miss Cleo 6%
o Carl Sagan 17%
o Stephen Jay Gould 5%
o Isaac Asimov 19%
o None of the above 1%
o Do my schoolbooks count? 4%

Votes: 117
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o article on CNN online
o Carl Sagan
o Stephen Jay Gould
o Isaac Asimov
o Moon Hoax documentary
o dissected and debunked here
o Alien Autopsy
o Miss Cleo
o misreprese nting her billing practices
o John Edward
o Also by noodles

Display: Sort:
The problem of science reporting and science popularization | 120 comments (109 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
wormholes! (2.26 / 15) (#1)
by tps12 on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 06:47:58 AM EST

I am glad the author managed to bring the focus back to what really matters: WORMHOLES!!!! TIME TRAVEL!!!!!!! ROBOTS!!!!!!

Your opinion does not matter (2.78 / 14) (#6)
by MickLinux on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:50:59 AM EST

In case you haven't noticed, your government and your media have become one.  The media has dwindled down to only 5 major providers, laws and regulations limit the entrance of new players, and those 5 providers essentially pick the government -- thus controlling the Executive and legislative branches, while influencing the judicial branch heavily.  

I hate to say it, but this kind of thing happens.

However, when it does happen, it becomes less important to convey science (or any other truth) than it does to control the politics.  

So -- YES -- the failure does affect politics on important issues.
and -- NO -- the media has no reason to change that, and every reason to keep things the same.
and -- TOUGH LUCK -- your opinion on this matters not a whit.

There are many kinds of despotism, and you are encountering one of them.  But almost by definition, a despot is not likely going to be overthrown before it destroys its entire power base (in this case, America) to the point that maintaining the despotism costs more than it is worth to the despot.  

There's not a lot you can do for America; may as well take care of your family and find a better place.  Or get on with your life and make a living right there, and hope things don't get too bad.

P.S.  PI ought to be equal to 3.  News at 11:00, vote coming up in the Oklahoma state legislature in 1 week...

I make a call to grace, for the alternative is more broken than you can imagine.

Heavy on conspiracy, but true (3.40 / 5) (#15)
by 8ctavIan on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:36:32 AM EST

I think you've overdone the conspiracy but, but what you say is essentially true. TV and Radio are no longer in the news business. They are exclusively in the ad business. They really always have been in the business of selling ads, but old FCC rules made them pay for their privilege of using the public airwaves by offering news. Years ago, major networks felt a certain pride in their news departments. They no longer do. They only look at them in terms of profit and loss.

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. -- H.L. Mencken
[ Parent ]

Overdone conspriacy? (2.50 / 2) (#29)
by ka9dgx on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:51:53 AM EST

Considering that this conglomeration of media into a borglike collective may be hiding the deliberate provocation of war, and the resultant attempted takeover of the world via "anti-terrorism", can you really say it's overdone?


[ Parent ]

But (none / 0) (#105)
by davidduncanscott on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 04:20:58 PM EST

they told me that William Randolph Hearst was dead!

[ Parent ]
Just the tendency of the system (none / 0) (#76)
by zocky on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:25:10 PM EST

It's simple. For any set of rules, if every player is playing according to the rules and trying to maximize his profit and cut his losses, the game tends to end up similarily. Without conspiracy.


I mean, if coal can be converted to energy, then couldn't diamonds?
[ Parent ]

thank you mr. nash. (none / 0) (#100)
by Subtillus on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 12:38:54 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Not conspiracy - political economy (nt) (5.00 / 2) (#96)
by Swashbuckler on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 07:58:07 AM EST

*Note* - this comment contains no inside K5 humour because inside K5 humour is only for/by K5-wankers. Media does not = "community."
[ Parent ]
no shortage (4.00 / 4) (#7)
by danny on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:55:20 AM EST

I don't think there's a shortage of popular science writing out there - both from scientists themselves and journalists/popularisers. Sure, there aren't that many writers with the stature of those you mention, but you don't have to be famous to produce good science popularisation. Check out my popular science reviews for some suggestions.

The problem is more that only a small fraction of the population actually read popular science, whether in books or articles. Why is it that so many glossy magazines have astrology columns (even if they are often spoof/entertainment ones), whereas only science magazines really cover science? Perhaps because of a shortage of good content or science writers, but you'd think local newspapers could syndicate content easily enough. Or perhaps because there's not the demand - perhaps because a large fraction of the population leaves school with a dislike of science.

Anyway, science journalism is one career that really does tempt me. I should just start writing articles for my web site...

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

maybe not a shortage, but who're the champions? (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by noodles on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:14:57 AM EST

It's not so much that I think one needs to be famous to be effective, so much as i suspect being effective would naturally entail becoming famous. Sagan didn't go out looking to be a celebrity, except inasfar as becoming a known name made it easier for him to get access to media outlets, press coverage, and wider distribution of his works in general.

Does that make sense? Not sure if I'm saying this clearly.

[ Parent ]
Maybe not a shortage, but it's not getting through (2.50 / 2) (#64)
by mudrat on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 04:53:41 PM EST

I agree with you that there is a lot of quality science writing out there, but I think the point the author was trying to make is that science writing is not getting across to the masses. The level of science writing in the popular press is woefully inadequate, as is the level of scientific knowledge among the general populace. I think a big source of this is that people who are introverted and like working with the calculator rather than the pen are more likely to go into a scientific career, while people who communicate well are encouraged not to go into science. From my experience, young people who are talented communicators are discouraged by teachers, peers and guidance councillors from choosing a careeer in science or engineering. We can only be thankful that people like Carl Sagan and Ian Stewart did not listen to this wisdom or managed to miss it and went on the show the wonders of science to the masses. What science and engineering need are more people who are willing to tell the world about science. People's view that science is a sort of black box which the government pours money into and which might produce a Cure To Cancer one day must be changed. Not only will this change bring more popular support for science, but it will also help to reduce the popular appeal of the pseudosciences.

[ Parent ]
science and writing (none / 0) (#114)
by janra on Mon Jun 10, 2002 at 12:44:40 PM EST

I think a big source of this is that people who are introverted and like working with the calculator rather than the pen are more likely to go into a scientific career, while people who communicate well are encouraged not to go into science.

That sentence triggered a memory from high school. I was applying to the engineering program and university, and when my english teacher found out about it, she said I was such a good writer it would be "a waste" for me to go into science. The councillor encouraged me to go into engineering, though, and I'm glad I did.

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
What is wrong with the CNN article. (4.58 / 12) (#13)
by djmann88 on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:28:26 AM EST

I cannot figure out what is wrong with the CNN article, even though I have a degree in physics. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to use the atomic clock for measurements of relativity. Previously they have put atomic clocks on 'round the world' planes for 6-8 months and observed the time dilation at the end of that. Oh well, perhaps I know more than the editorialiser.

Slightly more subtle issue. (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by doru on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:45:21 AM EST

Well, the CNN article is illegible...

Kostelecky's page is here, with a little more information on Lorentz and CPT violation. Here's one of his papers.

If I understood it correctly, they want to see the difference between two collocated clocks, based on different atoms and this would provide information on some fundamental parameters.
I see Rusty's creation of Scoop as being as world changing an event as the fall of the Berlin wall. - Alan Crowe
[ Parent ]

The wrongness with the CNN article. (5.00 / 2) (#20)
by djmann88 on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 09:38:10 AM EST

Thanks for clearing it up for me, both 'doru' and 'blowcat'. Although after reading Kosteleckys papers, I find the underlying physics model a bit suspicious. The main issue is that the article assumes too much background knowledge, and skips over many major facts. You are right to suggest this is an unintelligble article.

[ Parent ]
Problems with the article (5.00 / 4) (#18)
by BlowCat on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 09:25:22 AM EST

  1. It's impossible to understand before reading to the end of the article, which "Einstein's theory of relativity" the experiments are going to prove or disprove.
  2. The article hints that the theory of relativity may be proven wrong, but doesn't give any idea why. Shouldn't that be said after (and if) the experiment gives unexpected results, not before?
  3. "Likewise, a clock on its side will tick at the same rate as a clock that is upright -- at least it will on earth." - not true for most clocks that "tick".

[ Parent ]
What isn't wrong with it? (3.66 / 3) (#21)
by CheeseburgerBrown on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:07:29 AM EST

What a convoluted, underinformed excuse for journalism. Look at the way the author seeks to manufacture tension by suggesting that the station crew may (inexplicably) *not* be performing the experiments...

The writer of the CNN article should be drawn and quartered, and then burned at the stake (in a very scientific way).

Gibbons leading the blind!

I type, you read.
[ Parent ]
The problems (as i see them) with the CNN article (5.00 / 10) (#25)
by noodles on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:54:37 AM EST

Among other major flaws, it suggests that "Einstein's Theory" is in danger of being competely tossed out the window, without specifying which one. This suggests to me that the author lacks a fundamental understanding of the scientific process of continually refining theories over time. Seeking new evidence which woud require a modification of the theory isn't anything as radical as the headline suggests - it's mainsteam practice of throwing more and more data, and looking for discrepancies. The quotes included in the article seem to show that this is indeed all that is taking place. Despite this, the reporter, or perhaps the reporter's editor, threw a hyperbolic headline on it though, implying an unusual situation that simply doesn't exist.

That means a coin will always fall straight down, whether you drop it while standing still or while inside a moving vehicle.
This is a really bad illustration, since it speaks more to simple momentum than anything relativistic, thus throwing a dollop of confusion on the reader.
Likewise, a clock on its side will tick at the same rate as a clock that is upright -- at least it will on earth.
...and if somebody can tell me what a tipped over clock has to do with relativistic time dilation, I'll be surprised.
But newer theories involving gravity and particle physics have led some scientists to speculate that Einstein's idea may not hold true in space.
It has nothing to do with being in space!! The author here is looking at an experiment being done in space and leaps to the obvious conclusion that it must be the space bit that is special here!! This means someone seriously failed to educate the reporter on the mission/experiment. The reason they are doing a test of relativity using atomic clocks on a space station is the same reason they used to fly atomic clocks around on planes - to run them up at a high velocity for a long period of time, so that after much time had passed, they could be brought back down to "normal" speed, and compared to clocks in the 'base' frame of reference, most likely on Earth, to see what difference in time is told. The clocks in space should have experienced (more) time dilation, and show less time having passed in thier frame of reference. The test of Einstein's theory is in how much less time they show.

"By comparing extremely precise clocks that can operate under zero gravity," Kostelecky says, "miniscule changes in the ticking rate might be found as the spacecraft moves around the earth."
This does confuse me and make me wonder if they are testing special or general relativity - is it the relativistic effects of time dilation at speed, or passage thruogh curved spacetime that they are testing?? Or both?? Frankly, the article could use a whole lot of clarifying. But then so could mine. :) Folks are right, it looks like I've mixed two related topics (science popularization and the popularization of bogus information/fantasy-as-fact ). All I can say is that in my head I see them so intertwined as to be merely two expressions of the same underlying problems/processes in our culture.

So are wormholes and time warps likely to move out of science fiction and into science fact? "It's very difficult to say what would be within the realm of possibility," Kostelecky says, "but any small changes in clock ticking rates are not going to lead to 'Beam me up, Scotty.'"
At this point, I think the scientist was trying to be polite with the reporter.

[ Parent ]
Last Quote (4.75 / 4) (#47)
by Matrix on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:42:45 PM EST

To me, that last quote sounds like Kostelecky smacking his head and humoring the idiot asking the questions. After all, if he just said, "What the hell are you talking about? How does that have anything to do with this experiment?", he'd probably get a very negative writeup.

"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
[ Parent ]

In related news... on Discovery Channel (none / 0) (#74)
by xee on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:50:45 PM EST

There was a really great (as great as this CNN article) show about the origins of galaxies on Discovery the other night. At one point in the show we're talking with an astronomer studying the center of the milky way. There's one scene where it cuts to her laughing and saying something to the effect of "The earth is in no danger of being swallowed up by this black hole." It was like the cameraman and reporter (who we never see) had to tell her to try not to laugh. She was obviously just entertaining the entertainers. If you know what I mean. And I think ya do.

Proud to be a member.
[ Parent ]
The other half of the problem (3.00 / 1) (#70)
by pyramid termite on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:32:21 PM EST

This means someone seriously failed to educate the reporter on the mission/experiment.

Often, a reporter's not going to be any better than the information he gets from the people he's interviewing. It's not an investigation he's doing here - the job is to go talk to some people, possibly on the phone and ask them to explain just what it is they're doing. If they don't do a good job of explaining it, neither is the article. It's bad enough when the reporter doesn't understand the issue involved, but if the scientist doesn't understand how to communicate it clearly to him, things are going to be even worse.
On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
Science Reporters in the Popular Press (4.80 / 10) (#17)
by wiredog on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:52:41 AM EST

Are, for the most part, trained as reporters and not as scientists. Think how much a well educated (in the sciences) science reporter would have to know. He would have to have undergraduate knowledge of math (through calculus at least, plus stats and probability), biology (including micro and some genetics), physics (including quantum theory), chemistry (organic and inorganic), astronomy, astrophysics. Then there are the various engineering fields.

Now there is some crossover. A person who pulled a double major in math and physics would only need a couple years to pick up the astronomy/astrophysics material. Two more years for the basics of biology. Another two for the basics of engineering. If he goes full time he could pick up that, plus the chemistry, in about three years. So seven years of college. Add in a year to learn how to write for a popular audience (as a journalist). Eight years of college before he gets his first real journalism job.

Or he can spend 4 years in college learning journalism, with some math, and pick up the rest as he goes along. Most specialist journalists (covering military, politics, intel, science, etc.) work that way. They start out covering local/small stories and work their way up to the major stories. But they work full time, so few go back to college to pick up the newest/greatest academics in their area of specialization. They learn on the job. There aren't many of them.

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post started out covering the police beat (including a third rate burglary at an office) and worked his way up. John McPhee (read "The Control of Nature" and "Annals of the Former World") also started on small stuff, and increased his knowledge over time.

As for Sagan et. al., a scientist who can write for a popular audience is rarer than a journalist who understands calculus.

"one masturbation reference per 13 K5ers" --Rusty

Or he could (3.00 / 1) (#75)
by R343L on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:00:33 PM EST

...take math up to say diff eq and statistics should be in there (maybe 6 or 7 courses?)
...take 4 or six semesters of physics (to get up to some relativity and quantum mech. and an astrophysics course) WITH labs
...take 4 semesters of chem (two inorganic and two organic) INCLUDING labs
...take intro biology and then take courses in say, genetics, ecology, and maybe physiology or something else. Again, with labs.
...take some psychology and maybe some sociology (2 or 3 courses)
...take some history (say a general survey of world history plus some more restricted courses like western civ or chinese civ) (maybe 4 courses)

That's maybe 30 courses.  That would be around 120 units at the college I went to which is exactly what they want you taking. 4 units is how much a science with lab was usually but a math course was usually only 3, so there would be some room for extra courses.   Obviously the standard gen. ed. courses would be waived, but I don't think that's so bad considering the breadth of study.  They don't need to be taught to write per se...the history at least would be a writing course.  Maybe they could take a course or two in  journalism specific writing, etc.

How's that?  I think that would at least give someone enough general knowledge that they wouldn't pull sh*t out of their *ss*s when writing a science article.

"Like cheese spread over too much cantelope, the people I spoke with liked their shoes." Ctrl-Alt-Del
[ Parent ]

Sharon Begley (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by arthurpsmith on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:14:29 AM EST

Sharon Begley, who used to do the Science Reporting at Newsweek and is now apparently at the Wall Street Journal, has been consistently producing excellent science reporting for years, on topics ranging from fundamental physics breakthroughs to broad overviews of medical practice and understanding (for example on the development of the brain in childhood). I don't know much about her background except she graduated from Yale with a B.A. probably in the 70's, and she's been a science writer for 25 years now. Here's one bio. Just to show there are at least a few science reporters out there who know what they're doing. Now how can we get more like her?

Energy - our most critical problem; the solution may be in space.

Some of today's top science popularizers... (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by sebpaquet on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:15:29 AM EST

(Richard Dawkins, Murray Gell-Mann, Marvin Minsky)... like to hang out on http://edge.org. I recomment you start your visit with the Third Culture page.
Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.
Yeah (none / 0) (#88)
by medham on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 01:41:29 AM EST

And have you noticed how they all are of the lunatic libertarian right there? Coinicidence?

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

What do you think? [nt] (none / 0) (#117)
by sebpaquet on Fri Jun 14, 2002 at 01:48:36 PM EST

Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.
[ Parent ]
Pet Psychics!! (4.00 / 4) (#24)
by sasquatchan on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:18:49 AM EST

Well, the Miss Cleo reminded me that I saw an ad on TLC for the "Animal Planet" channel having a new pet psychic series.

Boy, I used to respect those channels, if for nothing else then some simple home projects, but I'll stick with Norm and the "New Yankee Workshop" from now on :)
-- The internet is not here for your personal therapy.

It really is funny. (5.00 / 4) (#26)
by SnowBlind on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:26:14 AM EST

We went to one just to see how pet psychics worked.
Took our 2 year old female cat "Stranger" to see the psychic just for grins and giggles. The psychic said the cat was unhappy about the bell around her neck (duh), the colors in the house, but really really loved us. (sure it does, we feed it)
I asked for more info on the color thing, as the cat is COMPLETELY blind!
The session was abruptly over, no charge.

There is but One Kernel, and root is His Prophet.
[ Parent ]
Seems obvious to me.... (5.00 / 2) (#34)
by Elkor on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:01:35 PM EST

I asked for more info on the color thing, as the cat is COMPLETELY blind!

Well, I don't know about the cat, but I'd be unhappy if I couldn't see a damned thing and had this constant ringing in my ears every time I moved.


"I won't tell you how to love God if you don't tell me how to love myself."
-Margo Eve
[ Parent ]
Yeah, tough for her. (none / 0) (#48)
by SnowBlind on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:48:22 PM EST

If she quit catching things like a Jedi, We would'nt have to that.
Made her even more slinky in her movements.

There is but One Kernel, and root is His Prophet.
[ Parent ]
Heh. (4.00 / 1) (#38)
by porkchop_d_clown on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:14:21 PM EST

As far as I know, even sighted cats don't have color vision - like dogs, they see in black&white.

I feel like I've lived my live in screensaver mode....

[ Parent ]
I think cats have some color vision (4.50 / 2) (#44)
by toganet on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:00:55 PM EST

The cones in their eyes are most sensitive to blue and yellow, I believe.

I've heard their visual experience described as "a world of fuzzy pastels."

Johnson's law: Systems resemble the organizations that create them.

[ Parent ]
+1 For Highlighting Ignorance in Popular Media (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by thelizman on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:39:27 AM EST

It has been my experience that the popular media (tv, print, internet) has by and large been sorely unqualified to comment on most anything with any degree of credibility and insight. Instead, they act as paper pushers, rehashing corporate press releases.

Your article needs work. You spend a lot of time asking the same fundamental question over and over again. But I don't think I've seen anyone else really address specific instances of hack journalism.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
dont misquote me (1.00 / 3) (#30)
by turmeric on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:52:17 AM EST

go read some books about indentured servitude.

[ Parent ]
Your words.... (3.00 / 3) (#33)
by thelizman on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:58:10 AM EST

Click here to see the rediculous and moronic statement you made. It's not a misquote. It's what you said.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
[ Parent ]
middle passage (none / 0) (#109)
by patina on Fri Jun 07, 2002 at 04:14:12 PM EST

You're being petty on this point.  Irish and others were barbadosed and thrown into galleys for passage to the new world.  Many died on the voyage.  What would call it when somebody hits you on the head, puts chains on you and transports you across the Atlantic, with a minimal concern for your well-being or safety?  

[ Parent ]
Curious people are few, deep inquiry too (4.55 / 9) (#28)
by sebpaquet on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:51:39 AM EST

I think that as long as curiosity and experimentation do not become a dominant trait of our culture, science news for the general public will not be very informative. Most people will limit themselves to superficially reading superficial stories that make them dream about immortality and time travel but won't put in the effort to achieve a deeper understanding. So that's what you're bound to see in mainstream news.

Curiosity can arise out of concern for the future, and I tend to believe that concerned citizens build a demand for reliable reporting on such issues as global warming. But long-term forecasting is not exactly a staple of our current civilization, so I don't see this becoming mainstream any time soon.

Also, the methods of science education have got to improve. As it is now, the vast majority of people come out of school convinced that they cannot understand science.

However, there will always be a subculture of people who are interested in science even though they are not themselves scientists. The specialized media who cater to those people are likely to be accurate sources. So people who actually care will have the means to get what they need.  (For those who don't know, there is a Scoop-like science news site over there.) If science reporting were to vanish from CNN.com and such, the main thing that would change is that people would no longer be constantly reminded of how great science is for improving our lives. As a result of lesser "brand visibility", popular support and funding for science would gradually diminish in favor of astrology and similar practices.

On a related note, one point that you didn't touch upon but that is worth mentioning is, as science journalist John Horgan points out, that science reporting is often lacking a critical stance towards science.
Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.

On the contrary! (5.00 / 1) (#63)
by thebrix on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 04:32:26 PM EST

I remember hearing an interview with Melvin Bragg, who ran Start the Week (Radio 4 programme at 9am on Monday morning) for many years.

At first the programme had interviews with journalists, authors, musicians and similar. Then a couple of scientists came on because they happened to have written popular books; the reponse from listeners was so overwhelming that the whole balance of interviews shifted and, towards the end of the run, each programme was primarily science-based.

So there is much general interest in science; my personal experience is that much is stifled in school (and rekindled later by some of the excellent science-based programming in the United Kingdom) where, certainly in my time 15 years ago, courses were horrendously dull and, crucially, barely tackled 20th century physics because of the 'necessity' to prepare for examinations in which numbers were plugged into remembered equations. No wonder people are turned off when what is taught appears to be dodging the big issues!

(As an aside, I heard a very strange lament from someone in the field a few weeks ago. Apparently popularisation of astronomy and astrophysics in the United Kingdom, by people like Sir Patrick Moore and Heather Couper, has been so effective that too many university courses have been set up and there is a overproduction of graduates of about 50 per cent per annum! Although the lament is unsubstantiated, as my partner is a lapsed cosmologist I can understand it ;)

[ Parent ]

medical requirements (4.33 / 15) (#31)
by jnemo131 on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:53:51 AM EST

My dad's a fairly prominent oncologist working with gene therapy, and his department has a policy that every report that is generated by the company must have a report accompanying it that can be understood by a 7th grader. I used to be paid to read these and explain them to the author, to ensure they could be understood. This policy should be applied to today's science, it seems, as hopefuly a solution to "the trend".

"I heard the droning in the shrine of the sea-monkey"
-The Pixies
Nice! (4.00 / 1) (#36)
by porkchop_d_clown on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:10:56 PM EST

Extremely good idea.

I feel like I've lived my live in screensaver mode....

[ Parent ]
But at what level? (5.00 / 4) (#39)
by Cuchulainn on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:20:13 PM EST

Applications for funding should have two parts - a general part for the layman, but there should also be a part that is for the specialists in the field (I use a funding application as the example because I work at a university and it's probably the closest thing we have to a company report)

Face it, some of science is hard and trying to always drop it to that level wouldn't work. It's why it takes so long to become a researcher.

I'm sorry if I'm sounding a bit touchy about this but it is something that annoys me - this idea that there is a priesthood of scientists willingly obfusticating their ideas. Talk to one and you'll see someone who loves talking about their work and trying to explain it. You'll also see someone who is only too aware that they are a public servant and often paid by the taxpayer. Why should we always be expected to try and dumb down our work? Admittedly, it doesn't help when so many general science publications (New Scientist, Physics World,   Scientific American) also feel the need to finish every article on some basic discovery with "An the researchers think that this could have an application in cloning / quantum computation / buzzword of the week" since this is something with which scientists themselves have an input


If so don't worry about it, stuff you eat when you're drunk doesn't count, just like stuff you say and people you sleep with. - Parent ]

yes, but (5.00 / 1) (#57)
by speek on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:30:32 PM EST

The idea from the parent post was to minimize the damage done when their report was inevitably dumbed down. This way, they had control over the dumbing down process and results. I'm sure they didn't do it because they thought the ideas could be expressed simply and fully, but rather out of "the lesser evil" necessity.

al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

Double Plus Good (none / 0) (#53)
by Wah on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 02:59:33 PM EST

this is also the general idea of a site that I've been working on. Not much there yet, but a blurb along the same vein is available here.
Choas and order, flowing down the drain of time. Ain't it purdy? | SSP
[ Parent ]
No formal requirements are needed (4.00 / 1) (#89)
by phliar on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 01:57:32 AM EST

I, for one, do not believe that a reporter needs to have taken all those course to be able to cover science well.
a fairly prominent oncologist working with gene therapy, and his department has a policy that every report that is generated by the company must have a report accompanying it that can be understood by a 7th grader.
This reminds me of an interesting -- I hope -- story.

My uncle is an endocrinologist. He feels very strongly that his mission is to improve the lives of his fellow humans; in particular, to reduce the incidence of heart disease and strokes, since his ethnic group has a high incidence of the same. To this end, he writes articles for the monthly church newsletter.

A few months ago I visited him and read one of this columns. I was laughing hysterically: you could have taken that article and sent it in to The New England Journal of Medicine or Lancet. It was filled with technical jargon and data like blood levels (to three significant places!) of things with long scary names.

I decided to re-write one of his columns. I have no medical background; I have an interest in etymology, so I have a passing acquantaince with latin roots and the like. I was able to make guesses about what all those terms meant. I simplified the language, threw out all the numbers (as he wailed in anguish: "but that's important!" I reminded him of the popular maxim about popular science books, that every equation reduces the sales by half.)

In the end, the article was less than half its original length, and comprehensible to your average high-school graduate. I've met a few reporters, and they were all intelligent enough to have done the same.

Here's the rub, though: the rewrite took about two hours, including talking to him. Does a reporter with a deadline have that kind of luxury for an article that's about ten column-inches? No; we who care about our pet field of interest must do this work for them. I do my part by helping out with aviation-related stories.

Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

that is the coolest thing i ever heard of (4.00 / 1) (#101)
by Subtillus on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 01:19:51 PM EST

when studying I always said to myself that if I couldn't explain what I was doing to the dumbest person I know, than I don't really get it yet.

[ Parent ]
explorations, with Michio Kaku (3.50 / 4) (#32)
by turmeric on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:56:58 AM EST

cnn is owned by turner broadcasting which is owned by AOL time warner, which owns several million cable subscribes, internet users, several dozen magazines, cable tv channels, etc et etc etc etc etc etc.

by choosing to watch CNN you are actually part of the problem, not part of the solution. why dont you listen to Michio Kaku, an actual PhD whose show can be heard on the Pacifica listener-funded radio network? see these urls:

Dr Kakus homepage

Exploartions, with Michio Kaku


in other words, if you want science reporting to get better, then why not patronize better scientific reporting?

Kaku kant konvey (none / 0) (#71)
by xee on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:32:55 PM EST

Hyperspace (one of Kaku's books) didn't do justice to lots of theory. I dont care what kind of degree he has or how good of a physicist he is. (Actually, I do, but that's unrelated.) He couldn't make an analogy to save his life. His metaphors can't be extended enough to fairly represent the idea at hand.

Proud to be a member.
[ Parent ]
How about "Most" or "All" of t (1.00 / 1) (#35)
by porkchop_d_clown on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:06:36 PM EST

I'm not allowed to read Gould if I read Asimov?

I feel like I've lived my live in screensaver mode....

One minor niggle... (4.75 / 4) (#37)
by Cuchulainn on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:11:04 PM EST

Scientists don't have aproblem with people like Sagan because they aren't doing "Real Science" (whatever that is). Rather, it's a worry that they might try to use their published works to make an end run around the peer-review process. While most are honourable enough not to do something like this, the ones that do get our hackles up(cough*Wolfram*cough). Yes, there are also problems with the peer-review process itself, but it's one that we can agree upon and one which seems to work quite well...
If so don't worry about it, stuff you eat when you're drunk doesn't count, just like stuff you say and people you sleep with. -
Wolfram (2.00 / 1) (#50)
by Evil Petting Zoo on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 02:03:09 PM EST

For those who missed the Wolfram reference, the June issue of Wired is running a story about his upcoming book, A New Kind of Science. You can view the entire article here.

[ Parent ]
Wolfram (5.00 / 1) (#69)
by xee on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:28:22 PM EST

He expects his work to be peer reviewed before it's used for anything serious. The difference that you fail to realize is that he released his work in bulk without opening it to peer analysis as he developed it. He has his reasons/excuses for doing this. It's unfair to blast him for this without at least mentioning that he has his reasons.

I've been reading ANKOS since it came out and have been following other's opinions of it on USENET for several weeks. Reactions are consistent with what he said in the interviews. He said that a lot of people wouldn't get it -- at least not right away. He was right about that. A lot of people dont get it. Maybe that'll change sometime, but for now, there's lots of people judging his science by his personality and his methods rather than evaluating the work on its own merit. This is the easy route. "Phew, i can blast this guy because he didn't do things like everyone else. That way i dont have to read a 1200 page book and upload 20 years of research and a career's worth of knowledge into my brain."

Proud to be a member.
[ Parent ]
I'm on chapter 8 (5.00 / 2) (#77)
by Humuhumunukunukuapuaa on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:32:17 PM EST

What is there to get so far? What has he said that's not trivial? What does he do beyond displaying some pretty pictures? I know later on he's going to prove the universality of one of his automata. That's a nice result that's probably worthy of an article in something like a college math club magazine. But what's not to get?
[ Parent ]
Sagan not innocent (none / 0) (#78)
by epepke on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:35:50 PM EST

Remember the dire predictions of the smoke from the Persian Gulf oil fires, released by Sagan on a press conference, based on a one-dimensional atmospheric transport model with about 30 cells?

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
Thank you (3.50 / 4) (#40)
by fatllama on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:26:28 PM EST

I'm a physics grad student and spent the better part of yesterday flagging down office mates and comparing that CNN article to the most recent edition of the Onion. It was the worst example of science writing I've *ever* seen from either journalist of freshman lab student. I was about to write a K5 article, but here we are.

CNN (3.00 / 3) (#41)
by dirvish on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:37:04 PM EST

CNN is the popular press. They have to dumb things down. The average reader is at only at about an eighth grade reading level. If you want intelligent reporting about scientific topics try a research journal.

The issue was misunderstood, not just dumbed down (4.00 / 3) (#51)
by BlowCat on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 02:35:08 PM EST

The problem is that "dumbing down" happened in this case not on the way between the journalist and the audience, but on the way between the scientist and the journalist. It's quite clear that the author didn't understand the problem. I'm pretty sure that CNN can afford a journalist capable of understanding the issue before dumbing it down.

[ Parent ]
Irony (4.50 / 10) (#42)
by Ken Arromdee on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:44:23 PM EST

The story right beneath this, on my screen, is "Scientific evidence of previous Earth civilization discovered?"

Sagan (3.75 / 4) (#43)
by demi on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 12:54:15 PM EST

Despite the fact that a great many people can trace their early interest in the sciences to his Cosmos television program, he was often looked down upon, for not doing "real science".

I too can credit Cosmos for getting me interested in astrophysics and cosmology, but now that I know more I can see how some of the pedagogical devices he used in the show were more convenient than accurate. That's not sufficient reason to criticize the guy, but Sagan was someone that greatly enjoyed his public credibility and capitalized on it numerous times to influence public policy (testimony on the "Nuclear Winter", SETI advocacy, environmental issues). If there was ever any resentment of people like Sagan, it stemmed primarily from his position in the public eye and near the public ear. Most prominent scientists (just like most people) spend their entire careers in a sphere of relative obscurity; they can be the undisputed leaders of their field but rarely is anyone outside of their area able to appreciate it or understand it.

Stephen Jay Gould was another person that liked being a celebrity outside of his field. When he re-decorated his apartment, it was in the New York Times, for instance. That kind of thing makes some researchers look askance at Punctuated Equilibrium, which was obviously written to be a tome of the ages. In this day and age of soiled priests, ruined politicians, and foundered CEO's, people need someone that they can trust, and celebrity scientists can partially fill that role.

Not all of their kind are dead, either. For one, there's Carl Djerassi at Stanford who is very proud of his own accomplishments (which span many fields).

Here in Montreal, (none / 0) (#102)
by Subtillus on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 01:39:19 PM EST

We have Dr. Joe Schwarcz who teaches chemistry (organic) at Mcgill U. He also deirects the office for chemistry and society which is really just everyday, useful and not entireley dumbed down. He's also got a radio show and a saturday column in the only english newspaper.

if you're interested


and for some actual _free_ online lectures with powerpoint slides synced to them


[ Parent ]

Issues with reality (3.50 / 4) (#45)
by Ressev on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:04:46 PM EST

That people turn to Miss Cleo and the like is understandable when you live in a culture that views all things relative and nothing absolute. Thus science, for all its great value and contribution to society, the developement of technology, and understanding the mechanics of the universe, takes the same shelf as Miss Cleo, the Moon Hoax, and John Edwards. Since it then is taken to be on par with those elements, the news reporters only have to look good (sound good) and people will buy it.

Just my quick and speedy 2 cents.
"Even a wise man can learn from a fool."
"There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." - Mark Twain

Which begs the question.... (2.00 / 1) (#59)
by stinkwrinkle on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:43:46 PM EST

Which culture is this, where everything is relative and nothing is absolute?

[ Parent ]
It's not the reality, but the belief ... (none / 0) (#72)
by pyramid termite on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:41:44 PM EST

... that "everything is relative" that is so common in our (U.S) culture. I've been hearing this for many years from a lot of people - it seems to be a genuine folk belief rather than something that someone said. It doesn't help matters that many things assumed by others to be absolutes are relative, or that many of the absolutes people believe in are ridiculously wrong. And it really doesn't help when people suspect anything they've been told because so many authority figures have been lying to them, or that what we see as reality can be surprisingly suspect in some ways.
On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
not just a science issue (4.89 / 19) (#46)
by ellen on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:30:24 PM EST

This is not merely an issue of "science reporting... falling to reporters with inadequate background in the sciences". This is a problem with almost all present-day media.

In business, you provide a product or service to a customer. Most people who watch CNN think of the shows as the product and think of themselves as the customer. People who work for CNN, though, think of their paying advertisers as the customers and the viewers as the product. CNN and other media outlets want you to believe the first version, because it gets them more viewers than could be had by telling the truth. Even the hard-to-offend don't generally like to be thought of as "product".

The job of a science reporter on CNN is not to deliver accurate science, but to deliver the maximum number of viewers. The job of a political reporter on CNN is not to deliver accurate science, but to deliver the maximum number of viewers. For "science" and "political", keep substituting "international", "fashion", "business"....

The reporters involved may feel differently about this, but the people signing paychecks do not, or they wouldn't be signing paychecks; people without an orientation to profit are weeded out as candidates for decision-making early on. More important, they don't think there's anything wrong with this. Get them in a casual conversation and they'll tell you that news is a business like any other and that they have to show profits to their stockholders, just like any other business.

So, given this, who do you hire to be an on-air personality? The precise scientific commentator who wastes valuable company time double-checking facts and understanding the issues? No, you get an attractive presenter who makes a story punchy and interesting and thus draws more viewers. You don't hire someone who says there may be "minuscule apparent violations of Lorentz and CPT invariance"; you hire someone who's going to announce "Einstein was wrong! Right after this commercial break!" (This is usually followed by a 30-second promo prominently featuring the phrase, "You've got mail!" Ick.)

We wish things were different, of course. We care whether the news is accurate because we're junkies for genuine power like self-knowledge, scientific investigation, and profound understanding. They don't care, because they just want the illusion of power that comes with money.

I suppose the natural follow-on question is: In a world where information flow is so rapid that we choose to get some of our information from others, how do we maximize the accuracy of that data flow, especially in the presence of a millenia-old social structure where the prevailing value of profit stands in opposition to our sub-cultural need for accurate information?


Exactly! (4.00 / 4) (#49)
by sonovel on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 01:57:30 PM EST

I don't know much, but there are a couple of places that I know something. I frequently note errors in reporting of these areas. It seems everyone has the same experience (in different fields of expertise). So it seems to me that one shouldn't trust the media to get anything right. Most of them were Journalism or English majors in college, right? What do people (not in these fields) think of these majors? Distrust Authority!

[ Parent ]
Yes! We need to point out... (3.00 / 2) (#52)
by RevLoveJoy on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 02:44:01 PM EST

the difference between News for Entertainment and News for information. As you point out, substitute news with science, weather, politics and so forth.

Great post.
-- RLJ

P.S. -- by "we" I mean, you, me, savvy media watchers everywhere who realize that today's Popular Media is, well, a scam.

Every political force in the U.S. that seeks to get past the Constitution by sophistry or technicality is little more than a wannabe king. -- pyro9
[ Parent ]

Hybrids do exist (4.50 / 4) (#58)
by adiffer on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:32:29 PM EST

Our rocket team found a local news anchor that had enough interest in what we were doing to pay attention and get the facts right. Once we figured that out, we made sure he knew he was welcome to poke his nose into anything and ask anyone any question he wanted. He remained responsible for figuring out how to sell things to the advertisers and we rewarded his diligence with inside access the other reporters don't get.

For anyone that runs a project where technical reporting is important, keep an eye on the reporters that write about your project. Reward the ones who do well. Do this and we will have our influence on the industry to balance the advertisers.

-Dream Big.
--Grow Up.
[ Parent ]

All hail the BBC (4.50 / 2) (#94)
by thebrix on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 05:23:37 AM EST

For all its faults, it is fundamentally non-commercial, funded by a licence fee, and produces a great deal of output which could never be commercial. It has (misguidedly) tried to mimic commercial channels, but has been swatted down several times recently by various people. (Interesting, in recent times, has been an upsurge of complaints by commercial organisations who think it's 'unfairly competing' by dint of its very existence in some markets; well, make what you do better then!)

It's interesting that most Americans I've worked with (who come over here) start off by thinking that the idea of paying 109 per annum for a licence to watch television (and radio and Internet services) is a stupid idea ... then change their tune after a few months :)

[ Parent ]

A simple way to buck the trend (4.25 / 4) (#54)
by Wah on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:04:19 PM EST

Is to frequent sites like this one rather than giving your attention to CNN.

Really, it is that simple. If you want to take it to the next level, tell your friends about it.

Media is a competitive business and will adjust to give the viewers what they want. If enough people value the change in coverage, the change in coverage will come.
Fail to Obey?

Not good enough (5.00 / 3) (#65)
by Lord of the Wasteland on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:01:21 PM EST

Kuro5hin is a great site, but in its current form it is not a replacement for CNN or other reporting media. There are some great articles on K5, and some excellent analysis, but we simply don't mine enough raw data to stand on our own.

If you want to help change things, write letters to editors. Telling your friends about K5 might help to--some of the discussion here makes up for deficiencies in general media. Otherwise, to buck the trend, you really want to shift your attention to other media sources that have there own staff of reporters. K5 is good at talking about the news, but it doesn't find it on its own.

[ Parent ]

I've thought about this. Now. (none / 0) (#81)
by Wah on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:40:24 PM EST

..I want to aruge about it. :)

There are some great articles on K5, and some excellent analysis, but we simply don't mine enough raw data to stand on our own.

I don't know how much data you want? The "raw data" is simple prepared by other entities. Links are wonderful things and let CNN, BBC, etc. become mere reporters in a larger story. Yes, this type of media depends on the work of other. But the editing team here is really getting their act together. And publishing the stories that interest me.

Now, the changing stuff will come. Frankly, Rusty should be plenty in the black by now and if he isn't there's a problem somewhere. I think the next official hire for k5 should be a reporter. An honest to god, man on the scene. Where on the scene? Wherever we want to send him.

Three or four of those. At roughly 5 bucks a month we need about 3,000 subscribers to make it. Now all we need is a really good reason to subscribe.

Then things might get interesting.
Fail to Obey?
[ Parent ]

Defensiveness (none / 0) (#97)
by thebrix on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 09:00:08 AM EST

Writing letters to editors is unlikely to get you anywhere as there's no obligation to answer (except, in this country, in one instance) or even act on an answer given: in my experience media have become more defensive and less likely to answer complaints in recent years. (One prominent newspaper has only a fragmentary Web site and forces responses by phone or post; my conspiracy theory is that because, if there was any public electronic feedback, the newspaper's world view would be instantly, and obviously, torn to pieces).

I have the dreadful feeling that many media are beyond redemption and, if there is hope, it lies with K5 and its like.

And there's nothing unusual about not finding your own news. Consider the following paragraphs:

A majority of news is not originally obtained by most professional media; it comes from press agencies and is followed up.

A majority of news is not originally obtained by most amateur media; it comes from newspapers, television and the Internet and is followed up.

Not much difference really :)

[ Parent ]

The REAL problem (4.75 / 4) (#55)
by Skippy on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:12:12 PM EST

I think Wiley the cartoonist put it best. (Warning - Flash on page but not required to view cartoon).

# I am now finished talking out my ass about things that I am not qualified to discuss. #
deep linked (5.00 / 2) (#67)
by cetan on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:17:35 PM EST

far be it from me to deep-link anything and cause fear in the hearts of business majors, but you can avoid the flash if you just click here: http://www.non-sequitur.com/archives/comics/1993/june/0629.jpg

===== cetan www.cetan.com =====
[ Parent ]
Small nit (4.00 / 4) (#56)
by BurntHombre on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:23:03 PM EST

From Fox News, who've given us such darlings as the Moon Hoax documentary (dissected and debunked here) and Alien Autopsy, have taken the lead in misinforming the pubic, but they aren't alone.

Fox and Fox News are not the same thing. The programs you mentioned were on the former, not the latter, and I don't believe either program was presented as a Dateline-type news program. After all, one was hosted by Assistant Director Skinner and the other by Commander William Riker.

It can be done (4.00 / 1) (#60)
by illerd on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 03:50:18 PM EST

People have already said it, but I'll say it again. Just ignore irresponisble science press and pay attention to good science reporting. A great science news show on a public radio station I used to work for is This Week in Science (RA archive) on kdvs 90.3fm in Davis, Ca. The stories have about as much depth as your average CNN/NBC/BigMedia science story, but the hosts are initiated in the ways of science and present them with the proper spin (that is to say, a skeptical one). They're also hilarious.


Science Friday (none / 0) (#110)
by patina on Fri Jun 07, 2002 at 04:34:18 PM EST

I listen to Science Friday every week on NPR.  The host, Ira Flatow, is adept at cutting through jargon and spin.  Commercial news outlets have lost all credibility with me, although I suppose if they improved in accuracy and insightfulness I might find a way to pay attention to them.

[ Parent ]
G H Hardy on this issue (4.80 / 5) (#61)
by thebrix on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 04:16:10 PM EST

I thought (see a similar K5 thread) that 'mature journalists' were a solution - rather than getting people straight from university and training them as journalits, get people who've done something else (in this case, worked in a scientific field in some capacity, either in academia or in industry) before becoming a journalist.

But, then again, won't competent people - in the main - prefer to do what they were trained to do, rather than writing about what they were trained to do? Thus you could get incompetent scientists working as journalists, which is probably more dangerous than non-scientists who might just realise their limitations and ask competent scientists what's going on from time to time.

I fear this is a very hard nut to crack and G H Hardy, in A Mathematician's Apology (written when his powers were declining), put it poignantly:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists or mathematicians have usually similar feelings; there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

That is a black and white view, but there's much truth in it!

That said, if the scientist is allowed to speak for himself, and is not paraphrased or smothered, superb journalism is quite possible; this is probably easier with radio than with print or television. Listen to BBC Radio 4 [Real needed] at 9pm BST every weekday, which is the 'science slot', and you'll hear exemplary radio journalism.

Where we find journalists (none / 0) (#91)
by phliar on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 02:41:46 AM EST

I thought (see a similar K5 thread) that 'mature journalists' were a solution - rather than getting people straight from university and training them as journalits, get people who've done something else (in this case, worked in a scientific field in some capacity, either in academia or in industry) before becoming a journalist.

But, then again, won't competent people - in the main - prefer to do what they were trained to do, rather than writing about what they were trained to do?

I find myself in this kind of position.... I have a PhD in computer science, with minors in math and evolutionary biology. I tried the faculty route for a couple of years, but lost interest due to the brutality of academic life -- the constant bickering, back-stabbing, and politics. I moved to silicon valley, got involved in dot-com startups etc. and channeled my energies into free software, photography and music.

I've occasionally considered dabbling in science reporting. With friends I constantly find myself explaining and straightening out the mangled and bogus stories in the news. They tell me I have a knack for explaining things (and ask how come I "know so much" -- I have this sickness that I never forget anything, so I still remember everything I learned, for instance, in the one class I took on DNA replication and repair and protein synthesis, over ten years ago!) I've also helped reporters get their facts straight on stories having to do with general aviation ("little" airplanes) since that's something I care about - I'm a pilot -- and I want to spread the joy I get from it. However, I'm unsure what the right way is get started on actually writing for them.

I fear this is a very hard nut to crack and G H Hardy, in A Mathematician's Apology (written when his powers were declining), put it poignantly:
It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done.
Hardy was a bona-fide genius though. It is a well-known bromide that no mathematician (except Gauss) ever did anything good after his thirtieth birthday; Hardy knew it and expected it. Ramanujan died in his youth after doing some brilliant stuff; Hardy lived a long life. I don't have these problems, since I never displayed that kind of brilliance in my research! In any case, I always had other things going on to remind me that that stuff wasn't all there was.

Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

Attitudes are starting to change... (none / 0) (#104)
by Rocky on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 03:09:33 PM EST

...concerning the "thirtieth birthday" boundary.

Case in point: Andrew Wiles.

Besides, you have nothing to worry about: CS's don't have to think as hard.

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
[ Parent ]

Phew! (none / 0) (#107)
by phliar on Fri Jun 07, 2002 at 01:00:53 AM EST

CS's don't have to think as hard.
Thank god! (I chose theoretical CS, it's watered down just enough!)

Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

Oh, my God!! (3.00 / 2) (#62)
by mingofmongo on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 04:16:13 PM EST

I just read the article on CNN. Then I sent them a message asking if the section editor has any background in the subject. Not only did someone write that trash, but an editor signed off on it, and someone had to put it up on the site.

At least three, and possibly more people at CNN are totally incompetant. I don't mean they let a little goof slide, I mean they don't know anything about their subject. I've seen bad reporting from CNN before, but I've never seen simple idiocy like this before.

Fortunately, few in the USA, or anywhere else for that matter, care about science anymore, so no one but us will read it.

"What they don't seem to get is that the key to living the good life is to avoid that brass ring like the fucking plague."
--The Onion

CNN (3.50 / 2) (#66)
by cetan on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:09:22 PM EST

CNN is infotainment
Film at 11.

This is hardly new for CNN and/or CNN.com.  The level of incompetence has been rising for 2 years or more.  It's worth noting only to add a check to the "ignore CNN" box in your brain.

It makes life much better when you do that.

===== cetan www.cetan.com =====

What's really sad (4.50 / 4) (#68)
by kovacsp on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 05:19:31 PM EST

What's really sad is that the press release that this was based on has a simple extra sentence in the "coin paragraph" that really makes the issue a lot clearer and more accurate:

The theory, introduced in 1905, holds that if an observer moves at a uniform speed, no matter how fast or in what direction, the laws of physics and the speed of light are always the same. For example, if you stand still and drop a coin, it will fall straight down. Similarly, if you drop a coin inside a car while you're driving down the freeway at a steady speed, it will also fall straight down.
The information was right there. Maybe it was the editor that struck the necessary information from the paragraph. Regardless of who is at fault, I think he can all agree that this is a horrible piece of journalism. It always makes me wonder: when they get things this wrong about things we know about, do they get the thigns wrong that we don't know about?

yes, they do (none / 0) (#79)
by startled on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 07:46:11 PM EST

"It always makes me wonder: when they get things this wrong about things we know about, do they get the thigns wrong that we don't know about?"

They do, and it's very scary. The few stories I have actually been privy to have each contained several misquotes for the purpose of exaggeration, some even from printed meeting minutes. These were typically the local papers; I assume (for the sake of my sanity rather than any evidence) that the NYTimes has better fact checkers.

[ Parent ]
I have no doubt. (none / 0) (#85)
by NFW on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:02:23 PM EST

"It always makes me wonder: when they get things this wrong about things we know about, do they get the things wrong that we don't know about?"

If memory serves, this first hit me when the local paper started their "Personal Technology" section (home computers and internet stuff). Every time around there would be an article that misrepresented something fundamental. One of them was about usenet spam and CancelMoose, which might give you an idea of the time frame.

The first time, I wrote in to explain where they went wrong, and they printed my correction in a "letters to the editor" subsection. I got three such letters printed. Maybe in three consecutive issues, maybe it just seemed that way, but I was becoming a regular feature in the Personal Technology "Letters" section.. Then they either stopped printing letters to the editor, or stopped running the section all together, I forget which. I thought it was hysterically funny at first.

Then I started paying more attention, not just that paper, but all major media. My habit with stories on something I already understood was skip them, but after this I started paying attention just to see if they got it right. Internet stuff, Microsoft, skiing, snowboarding, the skateparks that cropped up in the last few years, whatever... I thought of myself as a cynical/skeptical person anyhow, but even so the level of misinformation really caught me off guard.

It's given me a large dose of skepticism when reading about stuff I'm not already familiar with. When I read an article about... say, agriculture... I just know there's a farmer in the next county circling sentences and drafting a letter to the editor. Not knowing which sentences are getting circled, I wonder why I bother reading at all.

And that's just honest misunderstandings about subjects that don't get too many people really riled up... What about stuff like global warming, Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, etc, etc, where you can safely assume that not every misrepresentation is "just" a misunderstanding?

On a related note, it continues to bug me how many magazines have a section where they just print a bunch of press releases, only edited for space.

Maybe that's where sites like K5 come in. It's a place to tell the world which sentences you circled.

Got birds?

[ Parent ]

The press release bites, too (none / 0) (#99)
by epepke on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 11:20:05 AM EST

Thanks for posting the link to the press release. It's almost as bad as the CNN story. True, the CNN clock-on-the-side bit is tremendously dumb. (Try it with a grandfather clock.) However, the bit about dropping something in a car is also dumb, and it's in the press release.

The press release is bad enough that it is hard to figure out just what they're trying to do. I'll take a guess, though. I can't imagine that anyone would go to such an expense simply to test the validity of GR; much cheaper equipment would do the job. However, the GPS satellites have accurate clocks, but these have been drifting, very slowly. Nobody knows for sure why. Anybody who has done GR calculation knows that they're hard, not because the basic idea is hard, but because you have to model everything to get it right. The Earth isn't a perfect sphere; it doesn't have uniform density; it interacts with the moon and the sun and all the other planets to some extent. Now, the GPS problem could be due to having left something out. One of the possibilities is that space-time at a small scale might be bumpy or ripply. I presume this is what they want to test to find out more. At worst, however, this would be a minor wrinkle (pun intended) on GR.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
why? (4.00 / 1) (#80)
by godix on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:32:50 PM EST

Science requires a large amount of effort to keep even moderately informed about. If anyone wants to follow a specific science area in depth they have to spend a lot of time reading publications, going to lectures, etc. to keep up. If anyone wants to follow science in depth I wish them luck, the field is so wide I doubt they could do it.

News requires little effort to keep up on but don't go in depth about ANYTHING, much less science. News organizatios are designed to publish one article with as much info in it as they feel it needs then move on to a different topic. If the topic is a continously updating one then the news organizations will follow it with one sentance updates if they follow it at all (the exception is the tabloid stories of course, things like Levy and Clintons love life get daily articles devoted to them). This design isn't by accident, it's because the news media knows their audience. The mass public isn't really interested in science, isn't really interested in depth, and is interested in a wide variety of subjects. Most people want to read a newspaper and come away with 'Oh, the space station is still doing experiements', 'I see there is still violence in the middle east', 'I had to turn on the air conditioner today, must be that damned global warming', and sports scores. Many people don't know even the basics about science today. I find that few know more about evolution than was original proposed in Origin of a Species despite the fact there has been decades of further research. Many would be suprised to learn that there may be baby black holes, even though Steven Hawkings wrote a best selling book about it in the 80's and Star Trek occasionally used it as a plot device. The average person knows quantum physics is about really small particles, but have idea what those particles are or do. Space research is only interesting when the Hubble creates a pretty picture. Any large news site doing a science article has to explain these basics before they can even start to explain whatever the news was. The result of this is obvious, you get people who don't know science writing articles that vaugely cover science for people who don't care about science.

The solution is simple, don't rely on CNN, MSNBC, Fox news, or any other programs targeting the mass audience for science news. If you're interested in science then look up and follow the much smaller news sites that target exactly that.

How unsurprising (4.00 / 2) (#82)
by stpna5 on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:45:11 PM EST

I've never worked in the field, but as an ordinary viewer/reader I've observed the following. It may have become abundantly evident when the sudden panic/live-news cycle of 9/11 happened. But the enormous vertical integration of print, radio, television and cable and broadcast outlets has resulted in an enormous brain drain and unimaginable gutting of expertise and staff. It is very obvious if you compare the thresholds of competence from '91 t '01 in any medium. A very tiny group of corporate managers now control all the information/content on every commercial outlet in the United States and many abroad. They would like those to be the only outlets that even exist very soon. The wholesale corruption, bribery and FCC-herded giveaway of public airwaves seems to have raised barely a whimper of concern from our vast sheeplike citizenry the past decade. (No public service requirements allowed.) Even recent strip mining of news, journalism and non-entertainment (current events?) programming has been mostly covered by entertainment stringers. Once upon a time the science and economics desks were the province of technically competent, even educated reporter-journalists. Many specialized in an area of endeavor. But now people seem to regard contrived, unctuous blather as debate, infotainment as reportage, and journalism.....what's that? If you are the advertising tail wagging the media dog why invest in competence or experience? Like all fixers, pimps and subdividers they have a credo:The younger and dumber your audience the better. Brute dumbness on a large scale is now a virtual marketing strategy. Just pick up your remote, or a magazine. Literacy is evaporating like vacuum tube technology. (Now the province of a small cadre of guitarists and audiophiles.) Raw information isn't news reporting and random stats are not journalism. When in the USA there are no longer hundreds of entrepreneur owners of newspapers, radio and tv stations, there is no competition, no excellence, no search for truth and lots and lots of public lying. Do you think we really know anything new about the numerous failures in every intellingence, immigration, military and transportation agency of government that enabled 9/11? We paid for every dime of their budgets. Nine months after the fact it is suddenly of political concern? I guess we aren't supposed to remember the numerous reports by, you know, --reporters-- on these same turf wars and system failures over very many years before they involved urban mass murder in our own cities and yet another undeclared war.

competence hasn't changed (none / 0) (#113)
by khallow on Sun Jun 09, 2002 at 04:48:50 PM EST

I haven't noted any dramatic change in the competence of reporters one way or another. As far as I've heard, the "giveaway" of US public airways was accompanied by payments of a large sum of cash. That seems to preclude calling them giveaways. Further, "public service" was and still is a bad joke. I'm glad the US government doesn't do as much of that particular silliness.

Finally, the blather about media concentration is getting silly. How is this different from the days before cable when three broadcasting companies effectively owned US TV (and most foreign countries were happy to have a single broadcast company). Perhaps, our difference is that I don't depend on these major media companies for my information? Ie, there are competitors out there on the Internet (even like K5) and I have found them.

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

The irony (4.00 / 1) (#83)
by izogi on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 08:47:11 PM EST

One of the ironic things here is that it's been going on since Einstein's theory of relativity came out.

One of the major US newspapers (I think it was the New York Times) didn't have any science reporters available nearby, so they sent an arts journalist to cover the story instead. What followed was one of the most sensationalist piles of mis-informed crap about a scientific development in history, and it's still responsible for some of the mis-information and incorrect beliefs about the theory of relativity by people in the general public today.

I can't remember the details so someone please correct me or fill in the gaps. I think David Bodanis wrote about it recently, but I can't check without having the book in front of me.

I think what it comes down to is that the mainstream media does not give people the facts. It gives people what they want to hear, which might be the facts or it might not. If a media outlet has a trace of integrity, it might instead restrict itself to not telling people what they don't want to hear.

Most people don't directly know or care much about science. Instead they see science as something that's supposed to change their future and do away with their problems as well as generally entertaining them when they want to be entertained. It's no big surprise that this is exactly the sort of thing people are told about science.

- izogi

the crux of the problem (4.66 / 3) (#84)
by slan on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 09:50:28 PM EST

An answer commonly offered here is "go to a better source of science news." And while that is a valid suggestion for us science nerds, it's also sort of beside the point (or at least beside what I think noodles's point is). The problem isn't that we (science nerds) can't find accurate outlets for science news -- obviously, we can, else we couldn't be having a discussion about the flaws in the CNN article. No, the problem is that the media doesn't know what it's talking about, doesn't care that it doesn't know what it's talking about, and doesn't seem to be making any efforts at improving its knowledge. One of the consequences of this is that the general populace who rely on such media outlets for their information about the world are ill-informed. (I realize many of them are willfully ill-informed, but that's a tangent). And I think it's got little to do with the size of media companies, or their number. After all, the media was a lot better at science reporting (and reporting in general) back in the halcyon days of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when there were three and only three networks. The root of the problem, I think, is that today's generation of journalists graduated from humanities curricula (journalism is part of the humanities in most universities) in which "science" is a dirty word, and the more general quest for objectivity and truth is itself seen as something of an authoritarian impulse. The same attitude can be found in philosophy, literature and social sciences curricula (in which many journalism students immerse themselves). The distinction between "truth" and "claims to truth" has grown blurry in the theoretical framework of the humanities, and a prevailing school of thought holds that "truth" is defined by power -- and thus, anyone claiming to speak truthfully or factually is automatically held in suspicion. And that's often a justified attitude! But taken to its extreme (which it has been, pedagogically speaking), it leads to the idea that all points of view are equally valid, that there are no objectively valid parameters to anything, and facts are nothing but socially-constructed myths. And from there we get people to whom science is seen not as hard to comprehend, but as irrelevant and arbitrary, no more reliable than the pronouncements of politicians. In short, it's a failure of fact-checking, fed by the attitude that "facts" are ultimately relative. The CNN reporter and editors think science has nothing to teach them, and that it's irrelevant both to them and the general public. Therefore, they need not worry whether the report is accurate, since the words of a scientist are no more "true" than the claims of a politician. The public suffers for it, often unknowingly. There are alternative sources of science news, true; but those resources are just as easily available to CNN science reporters as they are to the rest of us. The difference is that the CNN science reporter doesn't actually care what the science says, and so doesn't bother to check his facts, or even seek a competent level of understanding. We all did it (at least I hope we did), even with our busy non-science lives. Why can't CNN? As for who can take up the mantle of science popularization, I have two words: Michael Shermer.

punditrymediacreationsciencespeakpolitik (none / 0) (#95)
by stpna5 on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 05:24:38 AM EST

I think there are actually fewer, not more media companies. One company/six brands. Just like automakers. I must agree with most of the rest of this, except that sadly the same thing that happens to science writing has happened to all other types of reporting, and lord knows, the academic backgrounds of most reporters is nigh indistinguishable from that of most covergirls and sportsboys. It isn't just foreign affairs and war that now merit only subcontracted part-timers. The science/creationism 'encounters' I've seen recently due to some Ohio lawmakers deciding perhaps the earth really is flat was very frightening. (And I am no scientist.) Lots of political posturing, not much truth-searching. No debate. The hurry-we've-gotta-go-now approach of the mass electronic media to anything of substance now is akin to explaining the Spanish Inquisition, the Cuban missile crisis, or knock-knock jokes to your favorite dog. Except less entertaining.

[ Parent ]
The original story (4.00 / 2) (#86)
by izogi on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 10:07:05 PM EST

As CNN has recently been known to change and "update" web stories without notification in the same fluidic form as a television report, does anyone have a the text of the original article available? I have no idea if the one there presently is the original or not.

- izogi

noodles... (1.42 / 7) (#87)
by Noodle on Wed Jun 05, 2002 at 11:10:47 PM EST

Nice article, man...but really...what in the hell kinda username is that?!?!


ack !! (none / 0) (#112)
by noodles on Sun Jun 09, 2002 at 01:46:23 AM EST

i tried to come up with something supercool and mysteriously meaningful, but settled for a tribute to that greatest of goods, the only One True, food.

Ramen Noodles.


now, i'm going to have to think up an article on the username namespace shortage....

[ Parent ]
Science sucks! (1.00 / 9) (#90)
by johwsun on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 02:19:39 AM EST

only engineering is great!

why science sucks? (1.10 / 10) (#92)
by johwsun on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 02:58:00 AM EST

..because it is inductive and inferential, and it search the Truth without having 100% of the information. Thats why it always leads to the Lie.

In the other hand, engineering is not searching any truth. It is just trying to built usefull structures in order to help people in their everyday life.

It is a lie that engineering is based on science. I think that science is based on engineering. For example, after a lot of search, physics is now based on quantum mechanics, wich is engineering of course!

[ Parent ]

But enginering comes from science....izzn't it? (none / 0) (#118)
by fire spliter on Sat Jun 29, 2002 at 06:19:04 PM EST

No science means no research means no tecnology means no inventions means no product...which is enginering.

[ Parent ]
No! science comes from enginering... (none / 0) (#120)
by johwsun on Mon Jul 08, 2002 at 02:37:30 AM EST

..because the experiment is enginering. have a look at my diary to understand my thesis about science. Science is a inductive bullshit. It has no practical use. It tries to solve ALL problem with induction, and this is tottaly wrong.

[ Parent ]
why science is ... (1.00 / 11) (#93)
by johwsun on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 03:57:41 AM EST


A view from both sides (5.00 / 2) (#98)
by agapow on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 10:06:27 AM EST

As a working scientist, who's had some work featured in the media, and who's written articles for the popular press - science journalism is a tough job.

For a start, scientists aren't encouraged to communicate their work publicly. In some ways they're punished. For example, English academics are graded according to their productivity which includes the number of publications. Popular and undergraduate texts are specifically excluded from this count. So producing one of those works is not seen as any real contribution. Some battles in the public arena (evolution vs. creationism, GM foods) are so endless and unrewarding that anyone who involves themselves in these issues can count on spending a lot of time and getting little satisfaction.

On the part of journalists, the increasing professionalism (?) of their career probably doesn't help. Once journalists came from a variety of backgrounds. Now they largely come from journalism degrees. And if you're a reporter who has to cover 6 or more stories a day, and your subject is a tongue-tied academic ... it's a wonder anything gets through.

(There are some cases of journalists going for sensationalism or sheer laziness. I once worked next door to a lab that "cured" diabetes three times in as many years. On another occasion I was interviewed by a reporter who started his questioning with "I don't know anything about science, I normally do sport. This doesn't look particularly interesting to me but the editor said I had to do it. So what's it all about?". But these cases are few and far between.)

Fortunately, things are changing. Universities are now establishing lists of experts that journalists may consult. There are lots of good courses for scientists who want to work with media - the Royal Society courses in particular are very good. There's a constant flow of pop sci books being published. It's by no means as good as it could be, but it's getting better.

I know science journalism can be tough... (none / 0) (#108)
by mingofmongo on Fri Jun 07, 2002 at 03:01:25 PM EST

but the example article could have been better written by someone who had read childrens books on the subject. We aren't talking about little slips here. That stuff about clocks running on their sides is either frightening, or a laugh riot, depending on how much sugar is in your system... I wasn't entirely sure whether I was reading CNN or The Onion.

"What they don't seem to get is that the key to living the good life is to avoid that brass ring like the fucking plague."
--The Onion
[ Parent ]

academics will publish in the popular media if.... (none / 0) (#116)
by blisspix on Fri Jun 14, 2002 at 03:38:40 AM EST

they expect attention to come to the lab and consequently funds to continue the project. so often you read about projects that 'will cure cancer' that can't be written up in journals because they haven't even done any lab tests yet. oftentimes it's because they need to attract funds. what's the best way to do that? tell lots of people, ie the media. as for journalists being from media school, i completely agree. the age of the 'beat' specialist reporter is over.

[ Parent ]
It's my brother's fault (4.33 / 3) (#103)
by cestmoi on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 01:41:57 PM EST

First a bit of background. My family had a bad habit of teasing my mom. She was a wonderful woman but if you told her gullible wasn't in the dictionary, she'd believe you - for a moment. It would take her a second and then she'd twig to the source - us - and raise her credibility standards.

Unfortunately, it was a spiral. It became a game of trying to see how outlandish a story we could fob off. The point wasn't to get away with anything - the point was to create a truly ridiculous story with a patina of verismilitude that got past Mom. The net effect was to make us come up with some truly creative whoppers.

So,... we're all seated around watching Neal and Buzz in 1969 and were, like most of the country, enthralled. I looked across the room and saw my brother's eyes gleaming which was a sure fire sign of whopper-genesis. My mother was watching the tube so she missed it. At some point, Billy pops up and says "It's all fake! Look - no stars! There should be stars!" A little later when they're messing with the flag, "Look! the flag's waving! I'm telling you! It' a fake! At some point, someone's going to open a door in the wall and say 'Surprise!' You watch!"

Mom bit. Sort of. She looked at Billy and you could see her credibility defenses rising but at the same time she couldn't explain why the flag was straight out and she sort of understood why stars should be visible. Billy went into overdrive. His eyes weren't gleaming - he was in pure "Believe me. I know the truth here." mode. He convinced her at which point we all broke up. It was what passed for entertainment in my home.

After that, we would all add to the story but it was always in homage to the master whopper Billy pulled off.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't stop there. A few years later, I was talking with a good friend about how credulous people were about environmental hazards. Earth day was only a few years old and every one was quoting the Club of Rome's "we're going to run out of gas in 1985." So I introduced my friend to the "How big a whopper can you create?" game. Out of the whole cloth, in a dorm parking lot at U.C. Riverside circa 1970-71, Lee Coffee and I rolled a big one. Our story was "Radio Waves - they're everywhere! Do you know what they're doing to you? Did you know they're radiating your body right now? Radio is only a few decades old - nobody knows what the long term consequences of it are." and so on. We put a twist on the game and said the winner would be the person who heard the rumor from a third party first. That is, we'd both tell the story to whomever we saw. When someone came up to one of us players and asked "Have you heard about radio waves?" that player won the game. I won 4 hours later. I was amazed and depressed. Amazed because it had happened so quickly. Depressed because it corroborated what we had been talking about that morning - very few people think. Even fewer think critically.

Its the media..... (3.00 / 1) (#106)
by madgeo on Thu Jun 06, 2002 at 07:10:16 PM EST

The problem is that the news media sucks in general (at least as of late) so when you get to something "complicated" like science they suck particularly badly. Examples of why the media sucks:

1. Pop stars make the headlines as much as so-called hard news, in fact they ARE the headlines occasionally.

2. Media bias for the left. Go ahead and yell at me all you want, but I am not a fan of the conservatives or the liberals (I'm a Libertarian) and I see the left-lean increasing towards the front page when I read the newspaper. The editorials have always had it.

I have written science op/ed here on K5 and even with all the research I did, numerous people added to it on a few facts, and I found the critique refreshing, the media has no such fine science editorial protection.

One of the reasons weblogs such as K5 exist and are popular is because the media sucks. I wish K5 could hire correspondants that we could moderate when they are blatently stupid. Maybe the newspapers could learn something from K5. Maybe they WILL.

And now the BBC does the same (5.00 / 1) (#111)
by AlephNull on Sat Jun 08, 2002 at 11:51:23 AM EST

Looks like the BBC are now telling pretty much the same story. So did the BBC correspondant rehash the CNN story or did they both use the same source? The similarity of the text makes me wonder if someone (a scientist?) attempted to explain the experiment in non-technical terms and the reporters simply regurgutated it.
Political correctness is doubleplusungood.
You write (4.00 / 1) (#115)
by stpna5 on Tue Jun 11, 2002 at 08:36:19 AM EST

"If the press is the "Fourth Estate", an important component of our governing institutions, what happens when they are unable to inform the public effectively on important issues?" I assume this is to be read as the loose use of the term governing, as the worst thing the press can do and most antithetical to the First Amendment is be the handmaiden or worse yet, mouthpiece of government. Oddly, this is very often the case now when you have fewer owners of ever larger amalgams of media companies. When Fox headlines a caption during a live morning news broadcast as "Homeland Security--Plot Foiled" it is nothing so much as a smarmy commercial for the current administration's recent PR puffery for Tom Ridge, who has a mandate and an agency which resembles nothing so much as the kingdom of Freedonia in "Duck Soup" minus the focus, expertise and respectability.

Science writer Jon Franklin's 1997 lecture (none / 0) (#119)
by sebpaquet on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 08:36:36 AM EST

provides a very interesting  read about this problem. The guy has been writing about science for decades.

Quote: In 1989 I took a job as head of the science journalism department at Oregon State University. OSU is Oregon's premier science campus, and its journalism department was the only undergraduate science journalism department in the country. There are several graduate institutions that teach science journalism, but most journalists do not have advanced degrees.

In any event, shortly after I arrived the voters of Oregon approved a tax-cutting measure that fell heavily on higher education. OSU decided science journalism was expendable. I knew the news industry wasn't going to support the program, but I thought science might. The critical player was OSU's dean of sciences. I went to him, hat in hand. I'll never forget his response.

"That's your problem," he said. "We don't need you."

I left the university, of course. Shortly thereafter they closed down science journalism. It looked for a while like they might also close the ballroom dance program. But they found money to keep that. Also, that year, the university undertook a multimillion dollar renovation of its football stadium.

Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.

The problem of science reporting and science popularization | 120 comments (109 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
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