Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Modest Proposal: Take "News" out of "Science News"

While there are fantastic science journalists out there, unfortunately, science journalism as a whole is in a rather shocking state. Why this is so is endlessly debated, but my Modest Proposal is that there is far too much "news" in "science news".

Before we continue, I should say that I take it 'our' goal is to educate the public about both the findings and the methods of science. Of course, the mainstream media (MSM) is in the profit-making business, not in the education business. The science boosters among us (yours truly included), however, would like to square the MSM's profit motive with our educational goals, hence this post and many others like it.

In any case, here is the crux of my view that there is too much news in science news, expressed neatly as a slogan: Context Is King. It is an unfortunate fact, but the public is abysmally ignorant of science. (The data are best for the US, but there is no reason to think it's dramatically better elsewhere). Moreover, science is hard and often counterintuitive. So, to make any real sense of what's new - i.e. what's news - one needs to have at least some grip on what's already known, one needs background. If I don't know the first thing about human evolution, for example, it's going to do me no good to hear about the discovery of the Denisovans. If I don't know anything about the methods of science, a scientific controversy - the recent arsenic bacteria thing, for example - is going to baffle me. (Or I'm going to walk away with serious misconceptions at the very least). None of this should be particularly surprising, of course, nor is it unique to science. If I don't know the rules of American football (and I don't really), NFL news is going to make little sense to me.

The problem, though, is that often the MSM in effect assumes the public already has the necessary background knowledge to make sense of science news because their articles contain little or no context. The result is not merely a public that fails to learn about and appreciate new discoveries, it's a public that's positively misled about the findings and methods of science. My remedy is that science journalists change their focus: their aim shouldn't be to convey the newsy bit of science news, it's to convey the sciency bit of science news. And that means recognizing Context Is King: explain what we already know in the necessary detail in order to convey what we might just have found out. Obviously, this is hard. It takes work. And, whaddaya know?, it requires actually knowing something about science. (I'm looking at you, Richard Alleyne).

I should hasten to add, by the way, that there are already a bunch of science journalists who do exactly what I suggest. Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Malcolm Gladwell et. al. do not need advice from me about the importance of context. Indeed, any MSM journalist who would like to learn to do science journalism right can't do much better than reading the Yongs and Zimmers.


  1. Nice to know that my blog's attempts to explain basic science in simple terms are at least needed, if not always appreciated. Maybe not news, but some background for understanding it.

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