When I first started in journalism I worked as a general assignment reporter. After a few years, I decided to become a science journalist. I thought it made sense, to focus on a subject that fascinated me rather than continue to rattle around assorted news beats. But I still remember the look of frozen horror on my father’s face when I announced the decision.
As you may deduce, my father is a scientist. He received his PhD in 1955 from the University of Illinois, where in addition to studying entomology he learned the essential lesson that “real” scientists shared their work only with each other and did not attempt to become “popularizers” because that would lead to “dumbing down” the research.
He emerged from paralysis to say: “I hope you’re not planning to interview my friends.” A science historian at the California Institute of Technology once told me that this disdain is rooted in the way we teach science. In particular, he said, K-12 science classes in the United States are essentially designed as a filtration system, separating whose fit for what he called “the priesthood of science” from the unfit rest of us.
“Why would I want to interview boring old entomologists?” I naturally replied. This conversation was in my parents’ living room (father in armchair, daughter pacing) but variations on this theme occur any time, any place. Scientists won’t talk to journalists; they don’t want to waste their time “dumbing it down”; they don’t see it as “making us smarter.” So many of the good stories in science don’t get covered at all. Or the stories get covered only for an already science-literate audience – explored in publications like Discover or Science News – rather than for that far larger group, the science disenfranchised.
Last week’s editorial by Royce Murray, the editor of Analytical Chemistry, “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor” brought home the point that while the medium may change, the dilemma remains the same. My PLoS colleague David Kroll, has done a brilliant job of blogger defense, pointing out that many are scientists (like Kroll himself) or award-winning science writers, emphasizing the rise of smart science blog networks. He demonstrates perfectly that Royce’s broadbrush declaration “the current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists” shows that the editor failed to do his homework.
My first reaction to Murray’s piece was to wonder if he belonged to my father’s generation of scientists-who-hate-to-share. Sure enough, he received his PhD in 1960, reinforcing my feeling we’ll really move forward in improving public understanding of science when we approach it through Kroll’s kind of 21st century mindset.
For one thing, one of Kroll’s remedies is to suggest that more scientists became bloggers – yes, public communicators of science – themselves. I’ve always thought that my own profession of science journalism grew to fill the void created by scientists who couldn’t be bothered to “dumb down” their work. Since the mid-1950s, the National Association of Science Writers (and, yes, I’m a past-president so I like to mention it) has grown from several hundred members to nearly 3,000. At the same time, science journalism programs have sprung up at universities from UC-Berkeley to New York University.
Science writers, journalists, broadcasters and bloggers became the voice of science during a time during which too many scientists simply refused to engage. Scientists have ceded that position of power amazingly readily; ask yourselves how many research associations offer awards to journalists for communicating about science but none to their own members for doing the same. Ask yourself how the culture of science responds even today to researchers who become popular authors or bloggers, public figures. Whether young scientists are rewarding for spending time on public communication? And ask yourself how hypocritical this is, to complain that the general public doesn’t understand science while refusing to participate in changing that problem?
As it turns out, the culture of the “real” scientist who exists somehow separate from the rest of us has not been a boon for public understanding or appreciation of science. So let me make a case that it’s not too late for Prof. Murray and those who think like him to approach science communication differently. It doesn’t hurt to remember that we in the science-literate section of the bleachers aren’t the only ones who matter here. He writes that he’s worried about the anti-science voices on the Internet; the best way to counter is probably not through an inner circle editorial in Analytical Chemistry.
To end on a happy note, my father decided that he wouldn’t disown me after all, that having a science journalist daughter wasn’t quite as embarrassing as he’d anticipated. He started calling his friends to make sure they would talk to me. He went on the Today show and persuaded former host Bryant Gumbel to eat beetles on the air. Of course, he once gave an interview to the National Enquirer, under the impression that it was the National Observer. But as I keep telling him, he should congratulate himself on reaching a new audience.