journalists are educators

Most of us get most of our scientific education from journalists.

[this was to have been published in April 2010]

Mostly, in my work, I celebrate what Linda Lin (forthcoming) felicitously labeled “untamed” education.  Sometimes, I also fear the untamed, particularly when I am asked to imagine “educational policy” as it might be built up with an acknowledgment of the limits of schooling.  And so I celebrated/feared Oprah as a later day Benjamin Franklin, and as a sometimes force for mis-education (from the point of view of the sober public intellectual).

All this came to me when reading another editorial in Newsweek, this time by Sharon Begley (March 29, 2010).  She titled it “Why scientists are losing the PR wars.” She criticizes “scientists” for not communicating well, and “Americans” who believe both in the absence of intermediaries between God and individual (no priests needed for salvation, no expert needed for knowledge) and in the wisdom of crowds.  Classically, she criticized the people of the United States for being both too individualistic and too conformist.  “No wonder so many Americans have decided that experts are idiots,” Begley concludes.

There is just one problem here.  After all scientists are not trained to be (public) “communicators.”  Actually it is trained out of them in graduate school and only a few may have the nerve, late in their career, to address those who are not their peers in a language they may be familiar with, or through the media they have access to.  As for the non-scientists (including scientists in other fields than their own), where do they get their information?  As far as I can tell from my own experience, and that of a rather extended network of kin and friends including several Ph.D.’s., MD’s, as well as office workers and laborers, over close to a century (since I include grand-parents I came to know well and who were born early in the 20th century), these two or three hundred people got all their scientific knowledge from journalists.

There are exceptions to that generalization.  My grandfather learned about growing tomatoes in Southern France from his father, and from long experience.  Cousins who are radiologists have a professional knowledge of radiation and the human body that do make them if not first level expert knowledge producers, but second level ones with direct entry into that level.  But they have no more direct entry into the world of climate scientists than I have.  Actually, I can say that my first lesson in climate science came to my grandmother who liked to repeat, each time the weather was not exactly what she expected that “ils nous ont détraqué le temps avec leurs bombes atomiques.”  Atomic bombs, she had learned, by exercising her intelligence with what she had read in the popular press, might have an impact on the weather.  Actually this was the time, in the mid-1950s when the movement to ban testing bombs in the atmosphere was starting to be discussed.  So, having ended her schooling at the 6th grade around 1910, and then working mostly at the edge of the unqualified working classes of Marseille, she was not far off.

Half-a-century later, her grandson, with his PhD, and appointment as Full Professor at Columbia University, is in the same position in relation to climate science (and about all other forms of science except the social sciences) as she was.  I do not read primary sources in climate science, and I suspect I would not know how to read them, or how to evaluate the evidence.

Science News Cycle
If this is the case for most of the human population, and every evidence suggests it is, then the major educators in the modern world are journalists, and we should take the cartoon by Jorge Cham that I have already mentioned, as a model for the network that, transforms what Latour might call a ????, within the world of science that produces Nobel prizes, into the personal knowledge of the scientist’s grandmother, and, more fatefully, the knowledge that the polity, and particularly a democratic one, will use as it deliberates its own evolution.

3 thoughts on “journalists are educators”

  1. This blog reminds me of the times my parents call me up from Malaysia to ask me whether I heard of this or that new scientific discovery or invention, and I try to calm them down or keep up the hype, as the case may be. Somehow, being in academia, they have somehow put me in the position of vetting these scientific news for them (which they hear through the news in Malaysia, through satellite TV, beamed over from Taiwan/Hong Kong, etc.)

    I wonder, though, whether there will be a growing expectation for academics to play the role of communicator, particularly for controversial theories. I’m thinking in particular of Ted ( which is known for giving a platform for academics and artists of all kinds to speak their message in an “open-minded” forum. Some of these talks have been pretty “out there” for me (e.g. how to be immortal), others more down to earth. But this is a way for academics to learn how to communicate.

    On the side, while getting peer reviewed published journal articles are great for your career, I’ve heard privately that the best way to get funding it actually through popular magazines, like Wired, Scientific American, or something like that. I think there’s something to that argument. Somehow, academics have a love/hate relationship with “popular science” books.

    There’s also a book that I’ve been meaning to read. I found it on Jeremy Stoppelman’s blog (the founder of Yelp), his recommendation (which he found in “The Economist”) for a book called “Bad Science,” by a British author who essentially criticizes scientists (British ones in this case) for perpetuating pseudoscience and thus giving all of science a bad name. In this case, it is scientists who seems to have been bitten by the media bug and want to cling on to the 15 minutes. So, I guess it’s a double-edged sword.

    Science, media, popular culture, government…what a glorious mess!

  2. Although to some extent academics have been and always will be communicating their work, I really don’t see us (academics) taking on a more active role in the public discourse – not in America anyway (and of course, some academics have less pull than others). is the perfect example of why that is; because with changes in mediums of communication it becomes increasingly difficult for the layperson to comb through all that is out there (from climate change to immortality) in any meaningful way. Of course, it was always impossible – but that impossibility was hidden from most people.

    For example, Professor Varenne’s mother was able to draw connections between the articles she read, nuclear technology and raising tomatoes. Today however, there would be one-hundred and eighty articles, each taking a pro or con position on the effect of nuclear power on tomatoes, not to mention “comments” on the bottom of each page by everyday readers who lay claim to authority and quote “facts,” including (1) the role of illegal immigrants in stealing the tomatoes, (2) the scientists who were “bribed” to produce the findings in question, (3) a cover-up by the Heinz family, (4) the fact that nuclear power is safe/unsafe, (5) some reference to Obamacare, (6) and dozens of other random thoughts. So random, that even some SPAM fills in there (“Hey, great article. Do you want to meet women in your area?”). There is a stream of consciousness feeling to perusing online “news” in that readers can post their visceral responses and interpretations right on the same page (as I am doing here). Again, not only is it impossible, but it becomes immediately apparent that it is impossible to intelligently and meaningfully comb through all of that and draw well reasoned opinions. Or at least, I think people than fall back on other things to guide them to Truth. Of course, it is important to note who is left out of this cacophony – the digital divide that prevents those migrant farm workers from voicing their opinion on the matter.

    But all of this is not to pine for a “lost” scholarly authority, but just to acknowledge that there is such a polyphony of authorities now out there that the very meaning of “authority” has changed. This is an age of skepticism, where Wikipedia (created by users) is as accurate (and more widely perused) than Encyclopedia Britannica. What do the experts know?

    Cham’s cartoon does bring together (in a simple and hilarious way) what I think Latour might see as complex networks that stretch, compress and transform “knowledge” and “fact” as it is made meaningful to different individuals embedded at different points in that network. It captures the absurdity and arbitrariness of that movement (since how many research “facts” are never picked up by anyone?). As Aaron suggests, “what a glorious mess!”

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