Daryl Ilbury

The sad tale of disunity in science journalism

In Eish!, Science on August 6, 2012 at 6:18 am

Budding science writers perhaps?

Many years ago, as the creative director of a science communications company, it was my responsibility to design a series of science shows and workshops aimed at senior primary school learners. Our aim was to break down the perceptive barriers that children developed around science, especially before they got to the level at school where they would choose their final subjects of study.

Our biggest challenge was the fact that many of their teachers had, themselves, never studied science beyond junior high, and were therefore a little reluctant to teach it. It was no surprise then that their pupils inherited this mindset.

Decades later, as a science journalist, I am still confronting the same problem, but mainly with a purely adult audience.

It’s obviously a problem I share with my fellow science journalists; but there’s an added complication: instead of there being a cohesive attempt by science journalists to educate media consumers about the magic of the natural world, there seems to be division within the ranks.

I have written about this before, but a recent blog entry on Forbes online by the journalist John McQuaid made me realise how seemingly disparate is the difference between scientists who write as journalists and journalists who write about science. He presents the fascinating case of the highly successful science writer Jonah Lehrer, who allegedly included some rather dodgy facts in one of his books, and how another science writer, the neuroscientist Daniel Bor, publicly took him to task.

One of Bor’s more interesting assertions (which he later tempered), is that all science journalists should have a PhD in a science field before they are let loose on the unsuspecting public. I smiled when I read this, because whilst researching my final project on the state of science journalism in South Africa as part of my Masters in Science Journalism, I interviewed Prof Lizette Rabe of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, who said that, in an ideal world, all journalists – irrespective of their ‘beat’ – should be armed with a BSc.

My research also threw further light on the rather sad reality as I have known it since those early years as a science communicator, that science is not as ‘popular’* as it should be.

I expect most science journalists would agree with me on that; but that many of them would disagree with me on this: science journalists with a specialised science degree are more comfortable writing for an already dedicated science news consumer, and in so doing may help preserve the isolation of science from the non science news consumer. In essence, they may even help perpetuate, perhaps even intentionally, its aura of exclusivity.

On the other hand, journalists who have evolved into science writing (my intended emphasis!) are more likely to help break down the perceptive barriers that still exist for most people around science, even though they run the increased risk of technical inaccuracies slipping by in their writing – inaccuracies that would be glaring to specialist science writers. This is especially the case when a sub-editor or editor doesn’t know any better.

So whereas Mr Lehrer presented some factual errors of science in his writing (which are avoidable) and appears to have misrepresented the nature of their origin (which is inexcusable); and even misquoted Bob Dylan (which seems to verge on the sacrilegious), I am a little uncomfortable with the witch hunt that seems to have manifested itself within certain members of the media. Here’s an example from Damian Thompson of the Telegraph.

Science holds the key to breaking down the cultural, religious and political ideologies that are tearing humankind apart. It is therefore far too important to remain the exclusive domain of a specialised elite; and the journalism entrusted with its propagation is far too threatened to become a battleground for infighting.

*popular |ˈpäpyələr|adjective:

1. liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group: “she was one of the more popular girls in school”,

2. intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals: the popular press.

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  1. This is so interesting. I’m glad to have found your blog.

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