Friday, December 05, 2008

Do people just not care about science and technology?

CNN seems to think that's the case. As others have pointed out (1, 2), they've decided to close down their science and technology division and fold that reporting back into their general news category. So, what is the message here? That the ad revenue CNN can generate from having good science journalism doesn't justify the expense? (I'm sure that they'll claim quality of reporting won't change, but realistically you're not going to get good science journalism if it's a part-time gig for people who are spending more of their time reporting on Jennifer Aniston's latest romantic trevails.) What does it say about our society that we're completely dependent on technology (and therefore science), and yet pursuing science or engineering is viewed as "nerdy" and even accurately reporting on it is judged not worth the expense? Sorry for the buzz-kill of a Friday post, but this really depresses me.

13 comments:

Joerg Heber said...

Totally agree with you Doug. There is still good science reporting, but it has now reverted to magazines like Science, Nature, Scientific American and so on.

While readers of those publications still enjoy great science reporting, the dumbing down of print media also means that the connection between science and the broader society is lost. This is not only sad, but also jeopardizes the recognition of the work scientists do, and ultimately, status and funding.

Incidentally, and forgive self-advertisement here, I just wrote the editorial for the Nature Materials January issue, and it will touch on a similar theme. Not such much reporting of science, but the relevance of it all. Will come out on Dec. 19.

Joerg.

Uncle Al said...

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/reality.png
(physical reality) - (empirical reality) = faith

Faith is embraced for merely believing. Every God makes a collection plate so vast that even He/She/It cannot fill it. Gods' dominion of poverty, hunger, disease, filth, death, and silk-clad priests with whips is a test of faith

Strike a match lit - that is science. Pray the same match lit a second time - that's faith. Be prepared for a long wait (followed by salvation!) "Hodie mihi, cras tibi."

Science is the evil IQ. Science winnows and prunes without mercy or appeal. Buy a sustainable computer that mostly works (Wincrap Vista is Green!) for a while rather than a perfect, long MTBF computer that Officially destroys the Earth.

The Dustinator said...

Doug, I think it's more that people just don't care about CNN rather than science and technology. I place the value of CNN's opinion of the worth of science and technology reporting somewhat below the value of GM's stock right now. I never watch CNN and rarely watch any other network news. I get my science news from Chemical & Engineering News, blogs such as yours, magazines, and, believe it or not, the Houston Chronicle (I still prefer to hold a newspaper in my hands than read from a monitor).

There is plenty to be depressed about without bringing CNN into it.

Dustin

DanM said...

You've just obsoleted them, Doug.

Doug Natelson said...

You're right, Dan. Now it'll be all my fault when CNN goes crying to Congress begging for a bailout, because their lousy business model couldn't handle the awesome might of my blog media onslaught.

Dustin, you have a good point, but somehow I doubt that things are any better at other traditional media outlets. Eric Berger is an anomaly of good science reporting.

okham said...

The thing is, in our society "well-read" persons, who wish to display their erudition, will talk about the last novel they have read, or their favorite philosopher, or musician, or movie director, or painter -- not about science. Whoever talks about science is not an intellectual, but a geek. Until we change that, there is not much hope, I think...

Ms.PhD said...

I've never seen ANY science reporting on CNN. Maybe the problem is quality and time slot?

But hey, at least that's another job I could think about creating for myself. I had been thinking about it already. Sort of an Air America for Science. I want to be the Rachel Maddow of Science on MSNBC when I grow up!

Doug Natelson said...

Ms.PhD - A good friend of mine from grad school wanted to do this. She was going to have the Dr. Dana show on the Discovery channel, and it would've been very good, too. Instead she ended up a program officer at NSF. Still, I like the way you think. It's an idea whose time has come.

Brennan said...

I think that CNN realized that science has really diverged from day-to-day impact on our lives, and reporting on it is going to either be a) marginally truthful, or b) technically overwhelming.

There was no upside. Technical stories are hard, and scientists are quite terrible at marketing science. How many buckyballs/nanotubes/graphene will change the world stories were written. How many were true. Conversely, the largest impact innovation in recent history was either steam-oxidation to form high quality gate oxides, or (my vote) DWDM optical fibres (and the associated tech--erbium amplifiers, ultra-purity optical sources).

I have seen the first covered once, and the second was reasonably covered, but mostly in the tech/movey press. It was, afterall, mostly corporate research.

---

Adn I don't think this will change--real technical challenges are large, difficult, and complex. We may not have good science journalism, but we do have first class online resources for almost any sort of research. Hobbyist science is in great shape.

So, bemoaning the lack of good press is, I think, wasted. What sort of press and what sort of stories would you want.

Congratulations, start a company, or a blog.

Anonymous said...

The answer to the question is simply that most people don't really care about science and technology, not the way scientists and engineers do. Most people are like Alf (from the TV series when talking about repairing his space ship): "I don't know how it works, I just turn the key and it goes." They don't care about the science and engineering that goes into making an iPod or a PET scanner, they just want one to use as needed. They don't see GMR-based hard drives, they see a computer as a tool to send email. They don't see bits and communications networks, they see "the Internet is for porn".

Most science doesn't impact most people in any way they recognize as science -- there's too much development for it to be recognizable as such. If it doesn't impact their lives in a way that can be seen despite not being a scientist, most people won't see it as science. Including appropriations committees, school teachers, and the barista making your latte.

Most people have things more important to themselves to worry about than science.

Whether you want to keep banging on, as Chad Orzel does, despite that image, and despite those facts, is an individual decision.

okham said...

Most people have things more important to themselves to worry about than science.

Well, but that isn't really the point -- they also have more important things to themselves to worry about than, say, defense, or the federal budget, or the fate of the big 3 auto makers, or anything that is happening outside the radius of where they live, or even their next door neighbor. At that rate, very little would be left at the end of the day.

In any case, I agree that trying to get people interested in the sciences because of the nice gadgetry that comes out of it is a losing proposition -- we should simply stop doing it. Not only does it not work (as you correctly say, people are interested in the gadget, not in the underlying science), it promotes a dismal view of the scientific enterprise and what it is all about.

Anonymous said...

Nope, the overwhelming majority of people don't care about science--it is a conclusion that I came to about a year ago and is one of the main reasons I am leaving science (hopefully sooner rather than later).

Look at our own government's priorities--we are bailing out AIG to the tune of $50 billion dollars (wait, did it increase again today?) for their own stupidity, almost double the annual federal research budget. And that is just one company! I won't get started on GM/financial bailouts.

I think the public apathy exists for several reasons:

1) Science is no longer accessible to the masses. The gentleman scientist (e.g. Boyle, Lavosier, Darwin, Franklin, etc.) making fundamental discoveries on the weekends is gone.

2) Science isn't flashy or sexy and discoveries take years to decades to develop.

3) There is no money in science (another reason why Americans don't go into it). If universities started handing out million dollar bonuses for each Nature/Science paper (a la i-banking) it would be a different story.

And since I am in a writing mood today, tangentially, I have always wanted to go into the street and poll regular Joe Six Pack with the following question: "Tell me the name of one LIVING scientist". I hypothesize that 60% would respond 'I don't know' and 35% would answer either Einstein or Al Gore.

the science diva said...

Science itself isnt popular. Look at medicine, that's popular. It has showes like Grey's Anatomy, ER and all those other dramas that show the trials and tribulations of doctors, and that's why it's popular.

If we had a Grey's Anatomy, something that showed the trials and tribulations and dramas of grad school (God only knows I had my fair share and continue to do so), then perhaps people would be interested. Let's think lowest common denominator first ;)