Are you one of those people who like stories about science? Do you watch the news about volcanoes in Iceland and goggle at the Rings of Saturn? Then you’re one of the consumers of science as presented by the Media – and this is a guide for you.
The Media has an awesome task. The Media – TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, journals, websites, iPhone apps – must produce something to fill with content twenty-four hours of every day, for every week, of every year – world without end (we hope). Stories involving science make decent filler; fortunately there are a lot of science stories and there are many different kinds of stories. Occasionally there are exciting events such as natural disasters that play longer with scientific explanations. There is even an ill-defined but existent and dedicated audience for science stories. Given what it has to offer, why wouldn’t the Media cover science? So, worldwide there are thousands of stories involving science every day.
This flood of science can be confusing. To help make it a tad more understandable, I’ve broken down the Media coverage of science into seven categories: Great Science, Real Science, Cool Science, Weird Science, Junk Science, Crap Science, and Not Science.
Of course, the biggest category of all is Science Not Covered, but it’s not relevant here. Nor is the opinion of scientists particularly relevant. I mean, face it; what scientists actually do, or their results, is not so important most of the time. If it’s important, then it’s what the Media makes of it that counts. Besides, the Media has to struggle with science. Most media people are not rocket scientists. There are just too many kinds of science (called disciplines, although who knows why). Some of the science requires years of study to make head or tail of it. Scientists often use incomprehensible language (even though it’s often in English). Some of the concepts are so difficult they make the head hurt.
So the Media must deal with science stories the best it can. If the science is too complex – dumb it down. If the language is too full of jargon – take all the jargon out. If the concepts are not easily understood – make the piece shorter and leave out the hard stuff. Keep the headlines simple. If the science title is “Myocardial infarction seen as mediated by novel stem cell infusion,” by all means simplify it to “Breakthrough in treating heart disease!” Most of all, if the story won’t sell; then narrative needs to be added. This kind of narrative framing is difficult but necessary for the Media, as it must not only fill every hour of every day with content, but do so in a way that keeps the audience’ attention available for the advertising.
The end result, as I said, is a lot of science coverage. It’s useful to understand the different kinds as they are presented by the Media:
If the Media had their way, ALL science would be GREAT. As it is, reality usually forces a cooler tone, down to BREAKTHROUGH, and REVOLUTIONARY. You’ll find that almost all great science in the Media comes from the great institutions. Pedigree is everything, mainly because it’s a kind of shorthand – Harvard, Yale, Princeton qualify (all U.S. of course). Pedigree makes it easy; there’s no need to fact check. If the laboratory or school isn’t in the top 20, the coverage drops in intensity. From the Media perspective great science is usually limited to the way it is perceived to affect people, which is okay, but leaves out a lot of fundamental science that’s really important but a long way from application. Unless, of course, there’s some kind of celebrity attached to it, which means anything to do with Einstein.
You can tell when the Media covers something that’s real science because 1. The result is often difficult to understand. 2. The story itself is boring. 3. There are big words and actual scientific terms. 4. It has a long list of credits. 5. The results may be preliminary or not even important except in an incremental way, but that will not be mentioned. Don’t worry; this kind of story rarely appears in the Media.
This is science at its Media best. It includes things like pictures of Saturn’s rings, or a fly eating a pollen grain in super magnification. A lot of cool science has pictures or video (in fact, it might be only pictures or video). Of course, cool is in the eye of the beholder – usually that of the editor or producer. Some cool science is actually technology. The iPad is cool, obviously. Lots of big-boys-toys are considered cool. Rockets launching are cool, if a little overworked.
Weird science is a staple for many science outlets and the mainstream media. The weird stuff makes great filler and can reliably get attention. It includes stories like surgery on three headed dogs and the reason for curlicue duck vaginas – that sort of thing. Voyeurism and titillation are the point. Luckily for the Media, science deals with a lot of pretty weird shit. The behavior of animals is always popular, especially when it reminds people of crazy human behavior. Messy, icky, disgusting science is wonderful especially if accompanied by pictures. Neuroscience is popular, particularly when exposing the supposed cause of some human pathology or irrational behavior. You’ll know Weird Science because it’s just so…weird.
In some ways Junk Science is a variant of Weird Science, just less interesting on an individual item basis. A good example is the many studies of vitamin this or that. Some of these are studies done by commercial interests, companies selling vitamins. Most of the studies have a limited sample – one country, a certain demographic. It is very common for any given vitamin study to be contradicted by another study within a few years. Eventually there are so many studies that a study of the studies can be conducted. Even for that collected result, a new study usually comes along – perhaps more fundamental in approach – and all the other studies become obsolete. The process is, more or less, normal science. However, with Junk Science the results are ultimately pretty much nil.
This is the science involved with half-truths, or tidbits of science surrounded by a soup of non-scientific narrative. The science isn’t necessarily ‘wrong,’ it’s just not right. It can be spotted, sometimes, more by what it leaves out – other opinions, other results – than what it includes. This is a broad category. It includes science conducted by self-interested parties, often organizations with an agenda. Much of the Crap Scientific work is hastily done, mainly because there is a short window of opportunity for its PR value. This is science tailored to fit the Media. Some of the science, especially the published results, is misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong. Unfortunately, this can be hard to detect. Many times there is just enough science to create the appearance of legitimacy. Of all the kinds of science in the Media, this is the one that gives scientists the most difficulty. It plays on science’s own ambiguities and uncertainties. When it comes to Crap Science, acceptance comes down to trust. Unfortunately, science and scientists do not have a corner on that market.
Some of what the Media reports in the realm of science, isn’t science. For example, things paranormal – ghosts, telekinesis and the like – are sometimes covered as science when there purports to be a ‘study’ about them. Once in a while subjects with scientific pretensions but no scientific credibility make it to coverage, for example, Creationism, homeopathy, and dowsing for water. Such topics can be disguised as science and are not always easy to spot unless you’re familiar with the references. To complicate matters, science does studies of things Not Science, and this too gets picked up by the Media. Not Science and Crap Science are two categories where propaganda and political agendas are common. Their echoes in the many incessant ‘debates’ can be difficult to sort out.
So, what are people to think about science as presented by the Media?
Some would say that any attention given to science is good for science. That’s confusing science with celebrity.
Others would say, to each her (or his) own. As if the rotation of the Earth was a matter of opinion.
Since the presentation of science by the Media is largely for the purpose of making money, I’d say caveat emptor.