Science in the media

Science in the media

“Science”, said Dawkins, “is fun, in the sense that it is the very opposite of boring.” Science sans sensationalisation has a stark beauty that requires patience and perspective to appreciate, not entirely unlike a symphony or a sculpture.

Sadly, a world that invented the phrase ‘tl;dr’ and thinks the iPod is an ‘invention’ can scarcely be expected to muster either. The media usually has two solutions to this problem.

First, it shunts ‘science and technology’ news to a special-interest section, far from the hallowed first-page status of items of genuine historic import, like the sartorial misfortunes of minor celebrities and romantic entanglements of hockey forwards. I have no doubt that had our media been entrusted to cover the news in the ancient or Edwardian world, most would have concentrated on spring fashions in stolae and scandals in silent movies than Archimedes’ principle and the invention of the aeroplane. They obsess over the unnecessary, the frivolous, and the parochial, while missing or ignoring what is truly meaningful.

Last year, we managed to confine antiatoms, assemble a genome from synthetic components, and build programmable bacteria. Voyager I sailed beyond the reach of solar wind. It was discovered that Homo sapiens interbred at some point with Denisova homini as well as Homo neanderthalensis. Curiously, none of these – not antiatoms, not D. homini, not synthetic genomes – made headline news in any newspaper or on any network. Even being a semihuman demigod doesn’t cut it.

Where science is covered, it is either dilated or diluted beyond decency.

An article begins – “A significant quantity of antidepressants exists in the Montreal water”. It goes on to say that the amount has significant effects on fish’s brains, without affecting human health either through the water or the fish. A casual skim might have given the reader exactly the opposite idea.

“Scientists: Triceratops May Not Have Existed.” Actually, all they said was that Triceratops may simply be a young stage of Torosaurus. Its existence was not in question.

The LHC studies nature at the level of quarks, leptons, and bosons; the elementary subatomic particles. That’s… staggering. Rutherford and Thomson barely scraped protons and electrons. In about a century, we’ve gone a thousand times smaller, picking apart the fabric of it so finely that we may find out why matter has mass in the first place. How can we come to terms with this amazing achievement? Fall back on a semi-mystic name for the Higgs boson, of course. “Large Hadron Collider fired up in ‘God particle’ hunt!” Is there no reprieve?

A final peeve – science news that is neither science nor news. Periodically, a high school student will repurpose a potato to conduct ions between two electrodes, and this will be presented as a work of prodigy. Almost as regular is the ‘discovery’ that keyboards, which aren’t regularly washed with strong chemicals, contain more bacteria per unit area than toilets, which are. Since office workers aren’t dying off by their hundreds, it is safe to say that this is not a cause for panic and paranoia, and doesn’t deserve its price in newsprint.

A little optimism balances the despair of unemployment figures nicely, and I suffer a bad pun as cheerfully as the next victim, but there’s a line that mustn’t be crossed. Science stands or falls by the truth, the complete truth, and naught but; science reporting must as well. Too often, possibility transmutes into promise, caution is transcribed as unqualified confidence, correlation is promoted to causation, and uncertainties and experimental error are ignored for good copy. Good copy, perhaps, but bad science, and not particularly praiseworthy journalism either. Science, ultimately, is hurt, discredited as a discipline of conmen out to deceive the world with amazing promises they did not make and cannot hope to fulfil.

This isn’t to suggest that newspapers stop covering science and technology. Science combines the intellectual loftiness and joyous satisfaction of the Arts and Culture section with the practical worldliness of the Business supplement. Some science is better than none. It is the only human endeavour where we seem to make  consistent progress. Everyone seems to remember a golden age when politics and business and the environment and popular music used to be better, and probably were. The one thing that keeps accumulating its brownie points and moving ever onwards and upwards is science, and people deserve this bit of good news. The victories of science don’t belong to any single university or company or country. They are human achievements. They earn their place and ought to be celebrated.

We suggest that newspapers cover science like they cover sports. When a sport is covered, it is in excruciating detail to please the most obsessed fanatic, so much so that it feels like reading a foreign language for anyone else. That’s all right. It really is. Newspapers know that, for those column inches, they can afford to serve only the loyal followers and everyone else still has the rest of the paper. I am sure that no one actually reads an entire newspaper. Rare is the person interested in the wine review, the commodities market, the rugby standings, the crossword puzzle, the foreign policy op-ed, and the return of Mamie-pink bathroom tiles (N.Y. Times, 31 Dec last).

So… don’t. Don’t try and capture every reader in every column. Neither water it down nor sex it up. We can take our science neat. Once in a while, when something truly immense occurs, do elevate it to the first page like you might an Olympics haul or a 13-Oscar film. The rest of the time, write it well and write it for the passionate, and the rest will have an option of not rushing in. It will remain part of the public record, and it will remain accurate, complete, precise and dignified

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