Fighting the idiocy on the internet

“Science journalism is dying in the mass media…only those really interested in it will continue to purchase specialist science media…TV news and  documentaries will become dumbed down in order to compete with the idiocy on the Internet” –  Science journalist response to a Nature survey.

Question. Should we let the old media to be supplanted? In other words, is science journalism worth saving? I don’t mean the idea of science journalism, but the institution that exists today. Science blogging primarily came into existence because scientists wanted more influence over what was being published and what the public had access to. Frankly, who can blame them?

Basically all that is being published in the mass media today falls into three categories: wacky science, scare stories and scientific “breakthroughs” (which apparently occur every five seconds, how many “cures” for cancer have there been?). Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, summed it up by saying that,            

“Newspapers realize that they can get their audience by peddling crap instead of real science”

The mainstream media requires quick and ‘accurate’ science content. They need stories that will sell newspapers, magazines or get audiences tuning into their station, day after day, month after month. Oh and they need it now.

What does this mean for the story? Content-wise? It means that, generally, you’re either going to get the ‘crap’ Myers spoke about, or you’re going to get material straight from the scientist (through a journal article, science blog or media release, etc) which can oftentimes not be the easiest thing in the world to make sense of.

What about the in between? Princeton and Yale University are trying to improve coverage of environmental news on websites, by taking a new approach to science journalism. Michael Lemonick, a long-time science writer for Time magazine, said that his job at the Princeton website requires him to listen more closely to researchers. However, Lemonick stressed that this doesn’t mean that researchers make the story into a ‘dry, scientific paper’,

“They have to recognize the needs of the journalist, but we have to recognize the needs of the scientists. We’re kind of fusing the two cultures.”

‘Fusing the two cultures’. I think that’s where the solution lies for the future success of science journalism. Stop taking the easy option. There is no need to dumb down science; we have to remember that there is a difference between dumbing down and making it understandable for the public. We need to give the public information they can understand and not treat them like idiots.

Check out the video below. WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES. How is that science? That is what is getting through to the public. And that’s the problem.

The “idiocy on the internet” needs to be fought. I think it’s possible. Do you?

Reference: Supplanting the old media? (Geoff Brumfiel)


9 comments on “Fighting the idiocy on the internet

  1. I don’t think I can agree more with your sentiments here. Part of the reason I wanted to do this unit, and want to do further study in some form of communications, is because of a dire need (in my personal opinion) to explain science and what I do to others, rather than render an oversimplified and inaccurate representation of it. If we, as communicators and scientists, treat the public like idiots, they are far more likely to ignore what we have to say, rather than take the information and apply it to their lives for the better. It is up to us.

  2. I agree with your message here, Brogan. It is true that we need a balance between hard-hitting facts that may seem dull to an audience, and items such as the polar bear video
    -messages that are changed into something (quite ridiculous) by the media so that people will pay attention, and their curiosity will be piqued.
    It’s a hard balance to find I think, but it is a worthwhile cause, so that items such as the polar bear video aren’t circulated, and science facts are represented more clearly and accurately.
    Great post!

    • Thank you both for your comments!

      I agree with you Kate, this is certainly a career option that I am considering. Especially after seeing the polar bear video. That’s what hit me the hardest I suppose. I was feeling pretty good looking through the Yale and Princeton science coverage websites (they are to be commended for the effort they are putting in!), but then stumbling across the polar bear video destroyed all those good feelings. It’s material like that that is dangerous. That’s the idiocy that we need to fight!

      Carmen is right – we need to keep science factual and accurate, but we also need to work on keeping it interesting for the general public. That ‘balance’ is not the easiest thing to find, but it is certainly a worthy goal to strive for!

  3. I like your video Brogan.
    I think the way of thinking of scintists are different from that of journalists. What they want and have to think about are different.
    I think scientists are thinking more about statistics and details so they need time to research on it. Compare to this, journalists want dinamic stories as soon as possible so that they can atract the audiences.
    As you mentioned, both of them have to come to a compromise. In this case I think science journalists are essential in our life and it is good to have media divices so that anyone can join to the discussion and you can get variety of opinions and informations. However, on the same time, consumers have to be carefur which informations to take and use.
    I think it is the time for consumers to think about what they should know for themselves.

  4. Hi Brogan! Interesting issue you blogged about. I agree with your views.

    However, I reckon the media isn’t completely to blame. Scientists also have a responsibility to develop a better relationship with the media, as much as journalists need to get the facts right and help improve the public perception of science and technology. Both need to take the initiative to build that relationship and gain each other’s trust, so that together, they can improve what and how scientific information is portrayed in the media. This will take time and effort.

    Keiko’s point about consumers needing to choose for themselves is a valid and good point. But sometimes it’s difficult to do that when, in this age of modern media, people are constantly bombarded with information. It is difficult even for me to figure out what information is real sometimes, unless I had a good understanding of a particular topic or actually took time to critically think about the information being presented.

  5. Hi Brogan,
    I found your blog is really interesting, especially when you used the “polar bear” video to illustrate your message. However, I think it is a bit extreme when saying the media is dumping down science. In my opinion, some of the shows from the mass media maybe lack of accuracy or in fact they may simplify too much of the science to serve a particular group of audience. It’s the same for journal articles where they serve a more ”high-end” science with fact and accuracy. It does really depend on who is the target audience. Therefore, we should not give all the blame to the media.
    As you have mentioned above, mass media and science journalism are like two cultures, hence, each of them serves a different group of people with different messages being delivered. So, it is not easy to fuse the two cultures. I agree with you that a possible solution would be to create a new culture that can compromise the two and create a balance of both engaging factor and accuracy in science. In fact, this is what we – the future science communicators are striving for!
    Great job, Brogan 🙂

  6. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments!

    I don’t want you all to think that I’m blaming every individual that makes up the media. I’m blaming those that make video’s like the polar bear one, and set their information up as “science”.Those are the ones that are ‘dumping down science’.

    Whilst I think it is important for people to have a choice (with respect to deciding what information to believe, etc.), I also think it’s important to ensure that the information they are given portray’s the facts (i.e. the real science), but is still interesting and is able to draw them in.

  7. That polar bear video is incredibly visceral; it was an excellent example that really hammered home your point about the danger of spurious or misleading “science”. I felt very shocked and not a little repulsed afterward. That kind of sensationalized story is useless on both the science front and the socio-political front, considering it is too emotional to likely actually change people’s behavior.

    But I also feel some sympathy for journalists who, as you said, “need stories that will sell newspapers… day after day, month after month. Oh and they need it now.” If journalists are already feeling so pressured to churn out articles that they incorporate bad science, how can we, as Science Communicators, change that habit and culture? I would be a little wary, that if we just write more articles refuting the bad science, we would only be creating more information for the audience or consumer to filter, which, as Yvee pointed out, just makes it more difficult to understand.

    I feel that the most dangerous media are those that use bad science with an ulterior motive, like the polar bear video. They’re *using* science (rather than explaining or reporting or elucidating a concept) as “evidence” for some goal, which is what bad governments and leaders have done throughout history to justify their actions.

  8. Hi guys, I agree very much with that final point, Miela. “Using” science, rather than telling it is a dangerous practice. Not to mention that it completely disregards the point of science in the first place; to understand things. To me, this is what increases the culture of those who will quote “science” as an explanation for things, without actually looking into the concepts themselves. We all know the kind, those who will say “It’s full of antioxidants” or who discuss “detoxing” without understanding what antioxidants are, and whether or not there is evidence in a “detox”. Poor reporting on science is at the heart of the problem with public understanding, but I think more fundamental than that, even, is the need for the public to appreciate science as a fluid, dynamic process, not a pillar of absolute knowledge and cures to all ails. I believe our role here is to assist the culture to change, to get the public excited about science for what it is, not as the token it is so often used as. So, who is with me?

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