Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pop culture isn't knowledge and pop-science isn't science: why society seems unable to tell the difference

We are in a media era.  There have for centuries been the occasional public scientist, seeking attention and recognition, grandstanding to the public.  Apparently Galen was like that in classic Roman times.  Edison was that more recently.  Scientists with their magical apparatus did public lectures and tours in Europe, making sparks and exciting demonstrations of vacuums and so on.

Not that long ago, however, most scientists were as dull as a black-and-white photograph.  Their journals were that way, too.  No orchestrated press releases about their every tiny finding described as earth-shaking.

Yesterday the New York Times had a feature on actor Alan Alda's attempt to teach scientists to get out of lecture mode and explain things better to the public.  This sounds great, but in our time it probably would be better, far better, if professors stayed in their labs and lecture halls....and Alan Alda stayed in Hollywood.

The reason is that these days going public for scientists doesn't mainly mean making sure that the great unwashed can understand the latest discoveries of science.  Instead, it means honing the lobbying and PR skills that one can use to hype one's research and of course the vital need for more funds.  This is too bad, and there is no obvious answer.

One thing is that science journalists, and their jobs, have become largely shills for the same objectives: exaggerating, excited lobbying for whatever happens to come down the pike this news cycle.  Science journalists often are not well trained, and/or don't have the time to actually understand the stories they do.  But more importantly, to us, they are not doing their most important duty as journalists:  they are not protecting the public against manipulation by power or insiders, which is the most important job of the Fourth Estate.

We certainly need comprehensible explanations of what science is finding, so the public (the taxpayers) can see what they are getting, and can understand their world.  But we also need skeptical treatment of claims, to show what the public is paying for but not getting.  When entrenched interests, such as universities have become, are fervently lobbying to maintain their slice of the public pie, the journalists should be understanding enough of what the science is about to call us on our exaggerations, and pare us back unless or until we become more modest in our claims.  These days, we need to be more modest in our expectations for support as well.

Instead of always finding reasons to say our current result shows the desperate need for more, more, and even more, perhaps rewards should go to those who can take current findings and show how s/he can learn more, but with less or more modest resources.

Of course, the physicists, having now claiming to have found the smallest of the small (the Higgs Boson), now desperately claim they need the biggest of the big: a 100 Km loop around Geneva, to do more and more expensive efforts to find less and less.

It's a game, almost an entertainment game, these days.  It's surprising that, actually, some real science does seem to get done.


Louis said...

Mhmm, it's not about entertainment, stock pictures, celebrity, heroes, or TED.

"Being serious" about science needn't mean being solemn/sombre. Wonder's a potent thing, and the worst part is that to call out another scientist/blogger for adopting any of these media tropes is poor form — deprogramming from all this tripe we consume is hard, but worthwhile.

“... after all, the sciences have made progress, because philosophers have applied themselves with more attention to observe, and have communicated to their language that precision and accuracy which they have employed in their observations: In correcting their language they reason better.”

— Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

Holly Dunsworth said...

I had many many professors who I'm guessing never had a lick of education training who might have benefitted (or their lecture halls might have benefitted) from a few lessons from Alan Alda.

Holly Dunsworth said...

And that's how I see the potential for my work, if I ever got the chance to take his workshop

Holly Dunsworth said...

For the vast majority if profs "the public" is hundreds of students per year

Manoj Samanta said...

What is the 'free market' role of scientists in the society? What benefit can a scientist claim to provide to the society, when government does not pay his salary?

I thought about it for a long time 8-9 years back and came to the conclusion that scientists exist (or existed historically) to entertain. That does not mean a scientist has to put make up on his face and dance like Katy Perry. We are talking about the same entertainment space, where zigsaw puzzles, crosswords, mathematical problems, etc. exist. There is an intelligent subclass of society, who gets entertained by thinking and not through crass jokes. Scientists can survive by entertaining them with unusual ideas.

The newly defined roles of scientists in 'curing diseases', 'building computers', etc. are either government-imposed or comes in the domain of technology.

Manoj Samanta said...

From that viewpoint, why a person is left-handed is more ideal science problem than trying to cure obesity through GWAS.

Ken Weiss said...

There is plenty of truth in your comments. In a way, the difference is, if there is one, that in the past the entertainment was for the well-off, in their salons, but was not aimed at draining the public purse as it is today based on selling snake oil.

If the entertainment industry wants to foster high-appeal science stories, then let the entertainment industry pay for the science.

Then, for the real problems, that can devastate lives but don't make for good television, let's use our resources efficiently and without all the public bragging. More humble science certainly deserves public support if it is about genuine new basic knowledge or about real public problems, like serious disease, energy and resources, and so on.

Manoj Samanta said...

> in the past the entertainment was for the well-off, in their salons

That is true, and I came to the second realization - "democracy is anti-science". I was impressed by José Ortega y Gasset, who foresaw the same in 1920s -



Pascal Lapointe said...

I think if you change your perspective, you will discover that science journalism (and communication in general) is not as dumb and as excited and as unscientific you seems to believe. Maybe you should enlarge your view outside of the dumbest. Maybe identify the journalists and medias you consider good, and show them as models, so that both groups, scientists and journalists, would know what you consider as a common ground for dialogue.

Ken Weiss said...

This is a valid point. But with a Story of the Day in every major outlet, I think we are being overloaded with hype and that the journalists are just not being critical (that is, circumspect) enough. But in the future I'll try to keep an eye out for well-done stories and post about them.

I also do believe that scientists when they 'go public' are very often, in my field at least, doing that to lobby for funds (whether or not they say so). It's the timbre of the day, in my view, even if I'm more cynical than you are....

Pascal Lapointe said...

Well, here is your problem. Lot of daily newspapers doesn't even have a science journalist anymore. Most science journalists I read doesn't work for newspapers but for magazines. So you see, your perspective should be enlarged.

Ken Weiss said...

I was off the mark on this post. My concern was the dumbing down of science reporting, the daily portrayal of findings as major miracles, and the training of scientists to pander or exaggerate to the public media to lobby for funds and so on.

Ken Weiss said...

And of course there are many very fine science journalists who are responsible, try to present a measured view of what is really important, and so on. We know some of them.

Still, one has an obligation to call the profession on its mutual-reinforcing roles with scientists for spin and promotion when that is what's going on.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Some of the reactions here highlight a small problem with daily blog posts. We have a long-running conversation here, many times these points have been hit upon, many times they include discussion of things mentioned in these comments, but when a newcomer reads just one of these posts, like today's, how are they to understand that longer view we've come to take for granted as daily posters here?

Louis said...

Linking back to 'em is a start ! :~) If not in-text then a little closing “see also…” can help organise thoughts on an issue. Stops good posts going to waste to boot

Ken Weiss said...

Seems a good idea.

Anne Buchanan said...

Here's the important point here, I think -- just as political journalists should not be mouthpieces for politicians, science journalists shouldn't be mouthpieces for scientists. But both are all too common.

As Ken wrote," But more importantly, to us, they are not doing their most important duty as journalists: they are not protecting the public against manipulation by power or insiders, which is the most important job of the Fourth Estate."