The Media on Science

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A person’s response to science depends largely on the medium in which the science is communicated. Rarely does the public hear about the everyday events in a laboratory; breakthroughs or merely interesting results are translated many times before the public hears of them. The journey of a piece of data is like a game of Telephone: it starts in the lab; is detailed and revised in publication; is interpreted through a public relations officer or other communicator at the organization where the lab resides; gets published as a press release; and is picked up and interpreted again, over and over, by the media. What an Internet reader reads about dinosaurs, comets, or cancer research is the result of many steps of simplification, distillation, and editing, the purpose of which is usually to attract clicks rather than to educate due to the goals of the publication rather than of the scientist. The problem, as shown by recent AAAS polls, is that the general public is uneducated about science. They to support “science” as a concept but are not educated on important matters like GMOs nor on matters of what scientists do and how their work affects the world. Many people don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about “chemicals.” An insane 24 percent of those polled said basic science is not worth government funding.

What is the best way for the public to learn about science? That’s a complex question, and one that’s difficult to answer. You might say people should go to the source: the scientific journals themselves. After all, journals have rigorous requirements for publication: a study must 1) be a new contribution to the field (either a sufficiently different iteration of an old idea or a completely novel idea), 2) have clear, controlled, reproduceable methods, and 3) present data that show what the scientist has claimed to measure has in fact been measured. Lots of experiment are performed, but not all experiments get published. Science, the flagship journal of the AAAS, says on its website that “of the more than 12,000 top-notch scientific manuscripts that the journal sees each year, less than 8% are accepted for publication.” (Even those 8% of papers have their problems: the number ofretractions is high and climbing, though the reasons for this aren’t quite clear. And there are plenty of problems with scientific journals’ opaque preferences and criteria, not least of which is the need for more negative data.)

But assume that reading journals will give you access to the major goings-on in science. The problem with reading journal articles is that they are patently illegible to the average person. The May 8 issue of Science does contain some editorials that you might see in a general-interest publication, such as “Give women an even chance”; “Telescope clash deeply rooted in Hawaii’s past”; and “Promises and perils for the panda.” These seem straightforward and interesting enough. But under Reports, the publication includes such articles as “Identification of molybdenum oxide nanostructures on zeolites for natural gas conversion” and “CENP-C reshapes and stabilizes CENP-A nucleosomes at the centromere.” Good luck to anyone even with a college degree in beginning to understand the terms used in these papers, let alone the significance of the data themselves. If all you ever saw of science were papers with titles like these, without any additional context, it’s not hard to imagine why you might think science is unworthy of public funding: what good is all of this, and why should I care?

Another problem with journal articles is basic access. Faculty, students, and other researchers with accounts at colleges, universities, and other research institutions get free access to journals (or they receive a discount for a personal membership). Anyone can publish a subscription to Science for $99 (print) or $50 (digital only). Now, this is surprisingly cheaper than, say, People magazine (which costs $112 for a print subscription and $134 for print and digital combined). Of course, while you can get the vast majority of your celebrity news fromPeople, Science is just one science journal of hundreds, and while it may be one of the most prestigious, you won’t get all of your major scientific news there. You’ll get only what Science has deemed interesting enough to publish (and remember it has room for only about 8% of the “top-notch” papers it sees).

If you’re a part of the scientific community, you have access to everything, but most of us rely on intermediaries to tell us what’s newsworthy. Science does have free content in the form of news briefs, but though these are written by journalists and media professionals interpreting science, not the scientists themselves. Worse, much of what the media reports on with regard to research coming out of universities is based on press releases, which may misinterpret the findings, apply a political spin that needn’t exist, and barely quote the researchers who produced the data. Imagine reading a novel written by a PR flak who merely quotes a novelist. The solution is not necessarily to make scientists write their own press releases or to make every science journalist get a Ph.D., but more needs to be done on both sides to produce readable science materials the public can understand. It’s not enough to publish a clickbait-y, science-ish article about why men and women disagree about sex or why chocolate may boost your mood: the public deserves access to real science—in many cases, it’s science they’re funding through their tax dollars. The problem of whether the public is educated enough to understand even basic scientific concepts will be the topic of another blog post, but for now, it’s enough to say that the middle man isn’t getting the job done.

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