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Now More Than Ever, the World Needs Good Science Journalism


Now More Than Ever, the World Needs Good Science Journalism
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A meme that popped up on my Facebook page recently shows an illustration of a man and woman dressed in primitive garb. They are standing next to a woolly mammoth and what appears to be a brachiosaurus. A pterodactyl swoops overhead. The caption reads: "CREATIONISM: Because it's a lot easier to read one book than a bunch of hard ones."

The idea behind the picture is clear: People who buy into junk pseudoscience like creationism do so because it's easy, while studying real science, like evolution, is anything but.

Of course, there are many reasons why large segments of the citizenry choose crackpot theories over science, but the meme gets at a larger issue. Why are so many people today so alienated from science, on issues ranging from climate change to the very origin of our species, even as science and technology become ever-more ubiquitous features of our lives?

Well, science is hard. Few of us really understand it very well, and those scientists who have a knack for explaining and popularizing their work - such as Stephen Hawking or the late Carl Sagan - are sadly few and far between.

That's why the work of science reporters is more important than ever. The problem is, in a time when journalists are more likely to be laid off than hired, the budget ax is claiming science desks in newsrooms everywhere.

In an article on the American Physical Society website, Michael Lucibella lists some of the losses: CNN eliminated its general science desk, which included reporters Miles O'Brien and Peter Dykstra and five producers. The Boston Globe ended its Health & Science section, and The Los Angeles Times and the Columbus Dispatch curtailed much of their science coverage.

Journalist Tom Siegfried, who was laid off as science editor of The Dallas Morning News when the paper axed that department, tells Lucibella that "there are lots of people who realize how important science is, but there is little attention paid to how important science journalism is. Not having a flow of good information about what science is doing is bad."

Of course, all news beats are important. Readers need to know about local government, the schools and the crime beat, and few papers could survive for long without providing plenty of sports coverage.

However, most of us can grasp the basics of workaday beats like government or crime. Budgets are cut, taxes are raised, politicians bicker. We've heard it all before. Likewise, no one needs to explain to readers the meaning of a bank robbery or a house fire.

But if covering a city council meeting is a prosaic, meat-and-potatoes staple of news, science couldn't be more different. Indeed, more often than not science is, to non-scientists, baffling and counter-intuitive.

Just look at the paradoxes presented by quantum theory. Light waves act like particles and particles act like waves. Matter can go from one spot to another without moving through the intervening space. Information moves instantly across vast distances.

The police beat it's not.

It's the complex, thorny nature of scientific theory that makes science reporting so crucial. Good science reporters take such challenging material and do their best to make it understandable to the average reader.

And they do more than that. Science reporters understand that scientists are fallible human beings who are not above engaging in wishful thinking. They're not immune to the kind of emotionally charged behavior the rest of us engage in. They cheer when their experiments prove a hoped-for finding, and are crestfallen when the results point the other way.

That means science journalists must be especially vigilant when reporting on research that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. They must understand that however enthusiastically a scientist embraces a theory, it's only a theory until it's been proven in the lab.

We need good science journalists, now more than ever. Even in an era of lean newsroom budgets, news outlets should make every effort to preserve science reporting.

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