What should we save from the wreckage of mass media?

    I was a little worried I was too negative in my talk for last night’s event “Telling the Stories of Science,” sponsored by the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science (PACHS). But the audience was terrific and all went well. Nobody came up to hit me afterwards. I usually write out my talks, then outline them, then say something roughly equivalent to what I wrote, with inevitable ad-libs and forgotten lines. Here’s what I originally wrote:

    I thought since this event was organized by a historical association, I should talk about something in today’s world that historians might discuss in the future. I’d like to talk about this seismic shift we’re seeing in the way people get information.

    For decades, newspapers and magazines served as a primary source of public information about science. As science advanced beyond what we learned in school, we depended on print news and the occasional documentary to keep us up to date. It was a good system. People like me spent days doing research, sifting through journal articles, following scientists to conferences, detangling the disagreements between dueling experts, questioning claims, and capturing the excitement of science in comprehensible language.

    My science stories would be mixed with ones about world events, business and politics and the final product would land conveniently on your doorstop every day.

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    Now, newspapers are smaller, less ambitious and carry fewer rich, detailed stories about science. Very few young people read a print paper.

    Meanwhile, armies of bloggers are commenting on hundreds of scientific journal articles and press releases every week. There are more people than every doing science writing, but I suspect there are fewer than ever who do it as a full time job.

    This is having a big effect on scientists and the reading public.

    Where am I coming from? I’m now a professional blogger though I spent most of my career in mass media. I originally wanted to be a scientist but after doing a science writing internship with The Economist in London, I changed my mind. I later interned at Science News, and my first job was with the Journal Science, where I wrote about physics and cosmology for a readership of scientists in a variety of fields.

    I left that job in 1995 to come to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Scientists sometimes question my judgement over that move, but the Inquirer was one of the great American newspapers back then. It was an exciting place to work.

    There were some things I found weird about the way newspapers dealt with science. My stories often got bounced by editors, who said “this is really interesting but you have to tell people why they should care.”

    I thought this was a double standard, since sports writers didn’t have to tell people why football was important, and the feature writers didn’t have to tell people why they should care about Madonna or Lada Gaga. That double standard explains why so many newspaper stories have that familiar sentence, usually in the second paragraph, telling readers that the findings, if verified, would change everything about the way some people see something, or will lead to a cure for some disease.

    There’s a framework for front-page newspaper stories and science doesn’t always fit that naturally. And so, I thought one way to remedy this problem was to write a weekly science column. Columnists are much freer in form and style than news reporters. The Inquirer has had some legendary columnists and aspiring to start my own column became more than a goal. It was a dream.

    I started my column campaigning around 1999. It went nowhere. Finally, in 2005, an editor said I could write a column but she didn’t want a science column. She wanted a sex column. I thought it was an airheaded idea. But it was a column, and so I hoped it would be a step in the right direction. And I found there was a lot of science in sex, and a lot of sex in science.

    Many readers assumed the column was cancelled due to a right wing conspiracy. But in reality, I stopped writing it after two-and-a-half years because I didn’t want to settle. It wasn’t my dream to write a sex column. So I went back to lobbying for what I really wanted.

    I acquired a partner in lobbying. It turned out that our cartoonist Tony Auth wanted to illustrate a science column. And after months of lobbying together, it happened. We started a column devoted to evolution. It was called Planet-of-the-Apes and it was a joy to research and write. It generated great reader feedback and heated but smart discussions online and in an associated blog.

    Sadly, that column is no more. But the good news is that Tony Auth and I both landed at WHYY’s NewsWorks website, where we collaborate on a new science blog called Lightning Rod. And while it’s officially listed as a blog, I wish there was some other name for it since I am bringing many elements of traditional newspaper reporting with me.

    There are some merits of traditional mass media that I believe are important to carry forward into this new digital world – especially when it comes to science reporting.

    I’ve noticed some cultural differences between newspaper people and bloggers. These have to do with attitudes toward experts and the lay public.

    Science bloggers like to write about science literacy, which many seem to revere. They are constantly complaining and bemoaning the lack of science literacy in the public.

    I’m going to state something heretical right now – I think some of this science literacy talk is a cop-out. People are not working hard enough to make stories readable and then blaming the readers for not being smart enough.

    It’s ingrained in newspaper culture that if you can read, you should be able to read our stories. If you can’t, I assumed I hadn’t worked hard enough to be clear and comprehensible.

    I feel the burden is on the writer – readers are entitled to quality information about the world whether they are science-literate or not.

    There’s also a different attitude toward experts, with bloggers wanting experts to get more respect. This was illustrated well in a recent post by a scientist on the topic of an expert named Nate Silver – a professional forecaster. The blog post cheered Silver’s correct prediction because he thought it would help convince people to put more trust in experts.

    I’m not against experts, but they don’t always agree. You can go to four or five top experts and find completely different takes on such subjects as the safety of genetically modified salmon, risk of CT scans, connections between genetics and autism, the best way to store nuclear waste or how much of our DNA should be thought about as “junk.” All of those experts could write blog posts and at least some of them will have to be partly wrong.

    It’s not that experts can’t be trusted – it’s that they can only see things through one pair of eyes. They see reality from one perspective. That’s why there is no single voice of science on, say, what types of research should be done on our fellow primates, on cats and dogs? Or how much money NASA should spend on manned vs. unmanned space flight. What risks are acceptable for human subjects in medical experiments?

    The other problem is that experts can be misleading when they get out of their specific areas of expertise. Remember when everyone was talking about arsenic based life? I covered that story for the Inquirer, which all started with a much-hyped NASA press conference. I thought NASA was presenting a false narrative. They tried to tell us that the scientific community was too stodgy and too stupid to realize that life could be based on different biomolecules from the ones that make up earthly life. And it took one heroic young researcher to set them straight with bacteria that used arsenic instead of phosphorus in the DNA.

    I knew the narrative was a lie because I’d talked to very creative biologists who had produced alternatives to DNA. And the press conference didn’t make clear how much arsenic was supposed to have gotten incorporated.I called a number of experts and produced a story that exposed the false narrative and the many reasons scientists doubted the claim. It wasn’t that hard. But my story was drowned out among what may have been hundreds of thousands of blog posts.

    You’d think the public would be well-served with all those bloggers helping out, since many of them are scientists or at least graduate students. But of all the effluent of blog posts, only two were critical and those only went after technical aspects of the experiment – not after NASA’s public dishonesty.

    What went wrong? Many of those bloggers didn’t have expertise in anything relevant to that particular story. And not all scientists have good critical thinking skills.

    A few print reporters bungled this story too, but overall I’d give them a C-.

    Science bloggers get an F, or using the trendy lingo many of them like – epic fail.

    But I don’t want to end on a negative note. So I’ll conclude with the first really big science story in America, the most famous science experiment ever done in Philadelphia, and the subject of my first story for NewsWorks.

    I’m talking about Ben Franklin’s kite experiment, and there’s not just a story about science here, but also a story about the way science was covered in the media.

    Now, the kite experiment was eventually written up in the local newspaper – the Pennsylvania Gazette, but who do you think got to cover this historic story?

    It was Ben Franklin, who also owned the paper.

    Problem was, he wrote it in such vague terms that readers weren’t even clear if he or someone else did it. Historians are left questioning whether he flew the kite at all.

    Now if there had been a good rival paper in town Franklin never would have gotten away with this. Science writers would have wanted all the details, and, preferably, to go see it for themselves. If there was a blogosphere back then, we’d end up all the colonists speculating on who flew the kite and whoever was most popular would end up being considered correct.

    Whether he did or he didn’t do it, Franklin deserved credit for revolutionizing the theoretical understanding of electricity and devising experiments to test the idea that clouds were electrified and this electrification of clouds caused lightning.

    But considering this most famous American scientific experiment of the 1700s, we have a shockingly sketchy record of it today.

    We’ve come a long way since then in the way the press evolved and became the media. I hope we can remember our past and learn from it, and distill what is crucial about the free press in America and bring it along into this new century.

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