Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Importance of Serious Science Journalism

On my last evening in Tampa, I sat up very late having a few drinks and discussing physics and related topics with Sean, Don Marolf, Wendy Freedman, Eanna Flanagan and a few other people. One was was K.C. Cole, who is one of the country’s best science journalists, and a wonderful writer in general - she was awarded the 1995 American Institute of Physics Award for Best Science Writing. You should check out her books, for example The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything. We were also joined by David Harris, who is a physicist turned science journalist, and who is Editor-in-Chief of the excellent Symmetry magazine, jointly produced by Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).

When I give public lectures, or speak to non-scientists at parties, or on airplanes, or at other social events, I find that people are, in general, fascinated by physics, particularly cosmology and particle physics. There seems to be a genuine hunger out there for direct contact with cutting edge research. A crucial role in feeding this hunger is played by well-written science reporting, of the kind that K.C. and a number of other writers provide. Their craft is not a simple one, and most certainly does not merely involve regurgitating what scientists write, but in a “dumbed-down” way. Rather, these people spend immense amounts of time agonizing over the physics, trying to understand the subtleties, avoiding the myriad pitfalls that can make a science article misleading, and interacting with scores of scientists to get the story right. I have a great deal of respect for what they do and think they provide a service that a civilized society deserves.

So you can understand why I find it so disturbing that K.C. feels that the number of dedicated science writers actively employed in the United States in dropping. To give just one significant example, Tom Siegfried has been let go as part of a large staff cut at the Dallas Morning News. Tom is an immensely talented science writer, who deftly tackles hard topics in his columns. As the American Journalism Review puts it, the paper
"... killed its weekly personal technology section and eliminated a weekly science section (firing three of six staffers) that had won numerous accolades and prizes. Those prizes include a National Association of Science Writers award that was being announced even as one of the winners, the esteemed writer and editor Tom Siegfried, was losing his job."
I think a reduction in the number of science journalists is a serious problem. It’s not just because I want people to read all about the cool things that are going on in my field (although I admit, that’s a small part of it). As our world becomes increasingly complex, crowded and interconnected, a basic understanding of science and technology is an essential requirement of an educated electorate. We are already facing a host of issues - stem cell research, genetic engineering, climate change, the energy crisis, weapons of mass destruction, missile defense - just to give a few examples, that cannot be understood without an appreciation of some basic scientific issues. At the same time, we are constantly bombarded with nonsense and pseudoscience that preys on the scientifically uneducated - astrology, alien abductions, homeopathy, magnetic therapies, perpetual motion machines and many, many more.

Already it is next to impossible to find a sensible discussion of science on network television, where many people get their “news”. If we lose responsible science writing from print journalism as well, I think that’s a huge blow. How are members of the general public supposed to make rational decisions about the policies of government if they don’t know the first thing about the technical facts that underlie many of them? It’s clearly impossible. Obviously all newspapers can’t employ a full time science journalist. However, if you are reading this and you live in a large city with a newspaper that you think doesn’t contain enough science and technology reporting, I encourage you to write letters to the editors. Tell them what you want and why it’s important. Other, like-minded readers may see your letters and join in the call for more quality science journalism.

In the in-flight magazine on my flight back home, there was a lengthy article in a section called Informed Sources, purporting to explain how acupuncture “works”. Much of the article is devoted to explaining the function of the Qi, or life force, that flows through all people. Check out this quote

"Writer James Swan had badly injured his shoulder while halibut fishing near Homer, Alaska. He wrote a column about treating his injury through acupuncture. `In traditional Chinese medicine,' he says, `an injury is seen as the result of multiple causality and a symptom of overall imbalance in Qi, caused by excessive or weak flows of Qi from or to internal organs.… From this perspective, when I was injured I was fighting seasickness, so my stomach meridian was weak. It was cold, and the choppy seas were somewhat frightening, causing weakness in the kidney meridian, as the kidneys are associated with fear. When you are frightened, your breathing shallows, producing less Qi, so the lung meridian would also be weaker. Accordingly, these external conditions made the shoulder weaker and injury more likely to occur.' "
Real science writers please help us - we need you now more than ever!
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