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216 Million Americans Are Scientifically Illiterate (Part II)

The media are partly to blame for Americans’ lack of scientific literacy.

See Part I of this miniseries on science literacy, posted on February 21, 2007.

Now it’s the media’s turn to star in my ongoing miniseries about why people in the United States and elsewhere seem to know so little about science.

As I reported in Part I, recent findings by Michigan State University’s Jon D. Miller suggest that 72 percent of Americans can’t read a newspaper article about science and understand it. This is far better than the findings in a similar study from 1988, which claimed that 90 percent of Americans were scientifically illiterate. We can be very pleased about this progress, although this still leaves some 216 million people who apparently struggle with concepts such as DNA and climate change–one can surmise from Miller’s findings. In a few days, Part III of this miniseries will address scientists’ role in this astonishing level of scientific illiteracy.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times for science journalism. Some of the finest science writing ever penned (or typed) is splashing across the pages of magazines, newspapers, and books. It’s written by outstanding writers such as Richard Preston, Carl Zimmer, Michael Specter, and John Horgan. Like Roger Angell and others who elevated sports writing to a high-art form, certain science writers are capturing the awe, the fears, and the possibilities of our era of near-revolutionary advances that are either here now or will be coming soon in science and technology.

But before I get accused of sucking up to my friends and colleagues, let’s talk in very general terms about how science journalism might be contributing to science ignorance. I can only scratch the surface here, but I’ll provide a couple of quick thoughts.

First, science writing has a steep learning curve. It takes time to understand the basics of this “beat,” and too often nonscientists making their way through the ranks at media outlets dip into science and science business reporting before moving on to some other topic. This is a nice way of saying that some science reporting is predictable, dry, and just plain bad.

Beyond this, the media too frequently report science in one of two ways: “Cancer cure around the corner” or “They’re killing our babies” stories. Both screaming headlines may attract readers and viewers, but I think that overall, they add to the eye-glazing effect: the public has heard these stories so many times that they lack credibility. There’s a “crying wolf” impact, and when real breakthroughs occur, they are drowned out by the hype. Industry and, increasingly, universities and medical centers out to sell intellectual property or their services also contribute to the crying-wolf phenomenon.

When a reporter is inundated daily with claims of fabulous products and discoveries that will revolutionize health care and make us skinny and beautiful and disease-free and give us great sex, it’s difficult for even writers trained as scientists to sort it all out. Worse, the ranks of skeptics and referees–my name for the hopefully objective experts who can comment on new discoveries in order to provide perspective–are increasingly involved in promoting their own businesses, universities, or other entities.

Another issue is the media’s own boredom with science stories–the “Africa effect” that I learned about as a correspondent in Africa. This is when publications say, “Hey, we already did a story on Africa this month.” The same thing happens with science: “Hey, we did a story on cloning last May. Why should we do one again?”

Most editors and writers are nonscientists and are themselves impacted by the media’s cycle of hype and fear mongering, which creates a situation in which editors think they have heard it all and that there is seldom anything really new or interesting to report. I have had several interesting discussions with my friend and editor Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, about this. He believes that many biotech and life-sciences stories are all variations on themes that we have heard again and again, and that life sciences in fact moves so slowly and incrementally that it defies the popular press’s need to have headlines that inform and attract readers.

I don’t entirely disagree with Chris, but I believe that he is missing something here: that life-sciences reporting should cover the incremental changes in areas such as longevity, stem cells, and the like, just as journalists cover the ongoing intricacies of Washington politics and foreign policy. The inner workings (the personalities, politics, mechanics of the science) beyond the golly-gee-whiz factor are fascinating if the writing is good for the 74 million Americans who can read and understand a science article. The idea that science writing should always be about breathless breakthroughs seems outdated and unhelpful.

Of course, education is the key here, and there are a number of schools that offer courses and programs in science journalism. Science journalism is suffering from the same crisis that the rest of journalism is: it spends too little money chasing complex stories, and there are too many cases of hype stories and passive recitations of industry and university press releases. But the effort must be made, in my view, to help as many citizens as possible understand science and technology that does or will deeply impact them and their children.

Call me hopelessly ideological, but the good news in Miller’s work is the increase in science literacy. Against all odds, perhaps the media can help reduce the illiteracy rate from 72 percent to 71 percent. (This is assuming that Miller’s work is valid–an assumption that perhaps should be scrutinized by a reporter.) Or maybe there is just a threshold of how many people want to know, and even if every article is a blend of William Shakespeare, H. L. Mencken, and Oliver Sacks, we still won’t break through.

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