MSNBC or CNN should launch a show about science policy
by Nathan Empsall, Thu Jul 29, 2010 at 09:02:39 PM EDT
The Project for Excellence in Journalism just released The State of the News Media 2008, its annual analysis of cable television news. The mediascape proved barren: On average, five hours of viewing would yield 71 minutes of politics, 26 minutes of crime, 12 minutes of disasters and 10 minutes of celebrities. Science, technology, health and the environment received just six minutes of coverage (with health and health care accounting for half of that.)
Think about that: for every five hours of cable news one watched in 2007, viewers say just three minutes of science, technology, and the environment, three things that underlie literally every single aspect of our lives. And what this report doesn't point out is that much of what we do hear about science comes from non-science reporters - why should I trust a reporter whose field of expertise is the national political process or the local school board to suddenly grasp the details of peer-reviewed data?
It seems that every time an MSNBC substitute host gains a slight following, they get their own show. Rachel Maddow, David Shuster, Dylan Ratigan, and now Lawrence O’Donnell. The next time MSNBC has a whole in its lineup, instead of turning to a personality, it should turn to a subject. Or maybe CNN could replace Larry King with an actual news show, not another celebrity-fest.
I’m not very good at science. Both my parents are geologists, and yet my lowest grade in college was in rocks for jocks. But I do know the scientific method when I see it, and I do understand the importance of science in my daily life. Just this week I’ve seen local news stories about toxic chemicals used in retail receipts and a debate over putting fluoride in municipal water. From the air we breathe to the way our children’s food is processed, there’s no escaping science. So before debating science policy, responsible journalists should make sure their viewers actually understand the science rather than the political talking points. Let’s move the science from destination websites only insiders visit to a venue people are already watching anyway – like cable news.
The new show should come from scientists and science journalists who reach conclusions after making their observations, not pundits who observe only what will affirm their existing beliefs. The host should refuse to ever interview politicians unless they a) are scientists themselves (there are four Congressmen with PhDs in physics or chemistry); b) are on for less than five minutes for the sole purpose of describing the contents of a bill they’ve introduced; or c) are being held accountable for attacking science, like when the Bush administration censored NASA and the EPA over climate change.
The whole point of such a show would be to communicate with voters and lay persons, so it shouldn’t be too wonky.
When he was host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, actor Alan Alda’s primary goal was to get his guests to talk in ways viewers would understand. When the scientists rambled on for too long, they would begin to get too technical, and Alda would interject with another question. Remembering that they were talking to Alda rather than lecturing students, their passion would reignite. In his book Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda recounts relating such advice in a commencement speech at CalTech.
I’m assuming you’re here at Caltech because you love science, and I’m assuming you’ve learned a great deal here about how to do science. I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us…
And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.
Tell us frankly how you get there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.
Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out… and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.
Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.
Scientists live in the world of truth, which doesn’t always coincide with the real world and very rarely coincides with the political world. They are all about observation and documentation, and aren’t always good at communication. Climategate was a good example of that – there were no problems with climate data, but personality issues allowed the right-wing and the mainstream media to undermine the facts.
Scientists need help getting their findings across to us, findings our policy debates prove we need to understand. So let’s have someone who understands colloquial language, someone like Alda or journalist Andrew Revkin, host, and interview everyone from peer-reviewed academics to science bloggers – just no politicians.
Would there be an audience for this kind of show? I think so. The intellectual journalism of NPR gets better and better ratings every year, and the science show NOVA has aired on PBS for 36 years now. So let’s take that attitude and put it where the eyeballs are, not where we wish they were. Let’s improve cable news without losing ratings, and let’s improve this country.