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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Science Journalism and the Two Cultures

At the "Two Cultures" meeting in New York last May there was a panel discussion on "Science Communication." The four panelists, Carl Zimmer, Andrew Revkin, Ira Flatow, and Paula Apsell, were all science journalists. I found this disappointing since it implies that there are no scientists who are knowledgeable enough about science communication to sit on such a panel.

Carl has linked to the video on Science Communications so you can watch it yourselves.You won't be surprised to discover that there are many people who get blamed for the lack of science literary and the failure of science communication in America. But there's one group that comes across as being the experts and the champions of good science communication. It's not scientists.

This makes no sense to me. Science journalists are very proud of their role in communicating science and they lament the fact that the general public isn't getting educated. Doesn't the failure to educate the public conflict with the concept that science journalists are so good at what they do?

Carl Zimmer, to his credit, seemed to be the only one on the panel who was willing to discuss the failings of science journalists. Andrew Revkin, on the other hand, is very negative about scientists and thinks they are the problem, not the journalists. My question is at 47 minutes.


  1. Quick corrections: Shawn Otto was not on the panel. Paula Apsell, who is in charge of NOVA on American public television, was.

    And Revkin has criticized poor newspaper writing about climate change:

  2. The soundtrack of the video is virtually inaudible on my computer, but by putting my ear right up against the loudspeaker I managed to pick up most of your question and the response to it. However, it's quite possible that I missed some important points.

    Anyway, I found the response very feeble. As far as I could gather the panelist wanted to blame the scientist that he rmentioned who complained that after a two-hour session with a journalist the published report was completely messed up. Apparently he thought that she was at fault for not getting back to the incompetent journalist afterwards. But what would have been the point? If he hadn't managed to understand her work after discussing it with her for two hours, what chance was there that he would understand the correction? Even if he had, what chance was there that a coherent correction would appear?

    The people who complained about the infamous "Darwin was wrong" cover didn't get very far with the New Scientist: although the author concerned was springing up everywhere putting his position, he seemed to be 99% concerned with justifying himself and telling his critics they had got it wrong, and not all concerned about correcting the article, or about having made a free gift to all the creationists looking for something to quote.

    Incidentally, my renewal notice for the New Scientist arrived last week, but I decided to throw it in the bin.

  3. Incidentally, with my ear right against the loudspeaker I couldn't look at the screen at the same time to see who dealt with your question. I suppose I could run through it again to find out, but I haven't done that.

  4. I scrolled to 47 minutes to hear Larry's question and was disappointed in Andrew Revkin's response, especially his story about the "female" scientist. What would he call a scientist who is not female, a scientist? His use of "blah, blah, blah" implies that that's what he thinks of scientists' complaints.

    Carl Zimmer's response was much better, but when can we stop blaming the "current economic climate"? Will science journalism or journalism in general improve when the economy improves?

  5. Bleh to comment without even listening (lol sorry but my hearing is bad enough), I dunno how canada is, but in america I feel like all we need is a high school mandated philosophy course that gives at least some mention to Karl Popper. That alone would go a long way to bettering understanding of science here...