You are on page 1of 192

Worlds Apart

Worlds Apart
H O W T H E D I S T A N C E B E T W E E N SCIENCE AND
J O U R N A L I S M T H R E A T E N S A M E R I C A’ S F U T U R E

JIM HARTZ AND RICK CHAPPELL, PH.D.
iv

Worlds Apart:
How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
By Jim Hartz and Rick Chappell, Ph.D.

©1997 First Amendment Center

1207 18th Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37212
(615) 321-9588
www.freedomforum.org

Editor: Natilee Duning
Designer: David Smith

Publication: #98-F02
To order: 1-800-830-3733
Contents
Foreword vii Scientists Needn’t Take Themselves
Seriously To Do Serious Science 39
Introduction ix Concise writing 40
Talk to the customers 41
Overview xi An end to infighting 42
The incremental nature of science 43
The Unscientific Americans 1 Scientific Publishing 44
Serious omissions 2 Science and the Fourth Estate 47
The U.S. science establishment 4
Public disillusionment 48
Looking ahead at falling behind 5
Out of sight, out of money 7 Spreading tabloidization 48
v
Is anybody there? 8 Unprepared but interested 50
The regional press 50
The 7 Percent Solution 10
The good science reporter 51
Common Denominators 13 Hooked on science 52
Gauging the Importance of Science 53
Unfriendly assessments 13
When tortoise meets hare 14
Media Gatekeepers 55
Language barriers 15
Margin of error 16 The current agenda 55
Objective vs. subjective 17 Not enough interest 57
Gatekeepers as obstacles 58
Changing times, concurrent threats 17
What does the public want? 19 Nothing Succeeds Like Substance 60
A new interest in interaction 20
Running Scared 61
Dams, Diversions & Bottlenecks 21 Meanwhile, Back in Astronomy 101 … 62
Scientists who don’t speak English 21 Scientific devolution 63
Reporters who don’t speak science 22 Rampant illiteracy 64
Gatekeepers who are uncertain 23 Better than Lithuania 65
National Science Foundation ‘Mile wide, inch deep’ 66
Science Survey 24 Thirst for scientific knowledge 67
An ill-equipped public 24 More bad news 68
A Conversation with Bill Nye,
Analyzing Current Attitudes 27 the Science Guy 70
How scientists view journalists 27
Negative perceptions 29 A Case-by-Case Analysis 73
Scientists look at themselves 29 Colliding stars 74
How journalists view scientists 31 Exploding star 75
Journalists look at themselves 32 Europa’s ocean 76
Assessing the public 34 Asteroids 77
Common ground 35 Hale-Bopp Comet 78
Thyroid cancer 80
Scientists as Communicators 37 Estrogen therapy 81
Isolated in the lab 38 Breast cancer 83
Not smart enough? 38 New View Sees Breast Cancer
as 3 Diseases 84
Mass media 87

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Recommendations for Scientists 91 Conclusion 113
Apply the scientific method 92 A web-based clearinghouse 114
Media training 93 Master Science/Technology Web Site 115
Journalism education for scientists 93 The consequences of inattention 115
Long-term relationships 94 Why Everyone Needs To
High-profile web sites 95 Understand Science 116
Flagging the findings 96 Losing America’s future 117
Goldin’s Rule 97 The human cost 118
Warning 98 Little love for the media 119

Recommendations for Journalists 101 Survey Data 123
Stupid questions 102
Peer review 102 Sputnik: 40 Years Later 135
Journalists’ Guide to Gauging
Reliability of Scientific Data 103
Science as detective story 104 Bibliography 169
Seeking out sources 105
The indispensable Internet 106 Acknowledgments 171
The training question 107
Freelancers and retrofitting 108 About the Authors 173
vi Science training for journalists 108
Journalism training for scientists 109 Photo Credits 174
‘Late Night Thoughts’ from the Late
Dean of American Science Writers 110 Index 175
Foreword
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know
everything—except what is worth knowing .…”
—OSCAR WILDE, 1854-1900

A
mong multiple public complaints Jim Hartz, former host of NBC’s Today show,
about newspaper and television news and Dr. Rick Chappell, trained as a space-
content in this tabloid-tainted, me- shuttle payload specialist, would argue that this
dia-saturated society is an odd criti- competition is fair. With straight faces, they
cism, laced with irony and loaded with contra- would assert that science should win.
diction: Readers and viewers of mainstream Their study makes a compelling case that
media assert that they are overfed with an in- they are right and Wilde was wrong.
formation diet they don’t want and starved for If you are a taxpayer, you should know and
news they need. care that $73 billion of your money last year
vii
Still, responsible editors and news directors went to scientific and technological research
note with natural interest and professional re- and development. If you are a stockholder in
gret the great gobs of tabloid news about O.J., any of a number of major corporations, you
Princess Di, Marv and Jon-Benet that have should know that another $100 billion-plus
been consumed and digested by many millions was spent by the private sector.
of their customers. If the nation’s health fight—whether the
They know, of course, that intellectual junk enemy is cancer or heart disease or AIDS—is
food sells. And they are entitled to wonder your fight, it’s a human-interest story, a
once in a while, despite the public’s complaint multibillion-dollar economic story and a sci-
about its diet, whether Wilde was right. Look- ence story.
ing back on the news coverage of recent years, If crime concerns you, you should know
it’s obvious many editors and news directors that DNA testing has made police investigative
believe he was. procedures more effective by proving—in ways
When celebrity fills every inch and second that lie detectors and fingerprints never
of news space and air time, something else could—whether a suspect is likely to be impli-
must be omitted, perhaps something more im- cated in certain major crimes.
portant, something the public needs, perhaps Genetic engineering, cloning and fertiliza-
something even as entertaining—if not as titil- tion techniques: all of these are science stories.
lating. So is global warming. So are all the new
This yearlong study, by a veteran science technologies that drive our computers and cell
journalist and a physicist who has spent years phones.
in NASA’s space-science program, considers Science is literally a life-and-death news
something that has been left out of most main- story that threads its way through every aspect
stream news coverage in recent years. Worlds of American culture—and the media leave the
Apart analyzes media coverage and media atti- public mostly ill-informed about it, contend
tudes as they relate to science and technology. Hartz and Chappell.
Science and technology? With extensive interviews, detailed research,
Can these topics really compete with celeb- a public-opinion survey and anecdotal report-
rities for news space? age, the authors make the case that too many

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
news organizations give science short shrift, There is a cruel irony in the fact that jour-
thereby depriving their readers and viewers of nalists, whose own profession has been so radi-
information they both need and want. cally altered by the technology of the Informa-
To read Worlds Apart is to understand that tion Age, are neglecting to explain the
some news decision-makers sincerely believe transformation affecting their industry and so
that their readers reject science out of hand as many others. There is concern on the part of
a deadly dull subject. Others are intimidated in many reporters that even greater changes will
the face of a subject they themselves know so shake their news organizations as millions of
little about. Still others insist—and perhaps Americans move to the new media for their in-
believe—they are adequately covering science formation.
under other names: health, space, technology, In a time of such great transition, the
the environment. American people need a better understanding
The evidence the authors present leaves no of how science is daily altering lifestyles and
doubt that adequate coverage of science stories culture.
is rare, found in only a handful of news outlets. In the nation’s earliest days, the founding
It has not been forever thus. Sputnik fathers knew that the free flow of information
launched the space race more than 40 years was vital to the sustenance of our democracy.
ago, thrusting this nation into a panicked com- That is why they gave the free press constitu-
viii
petition with the Soviet Union, our dread en- tional protection. They anticipated that jour-
emy. We answered the challenge. When Neil nalists would use that liberty to create what
Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” Thomas Jefferson envisioned as “an enlight-
onto the surface of the moon, we knew the ened society.”
race was won. Today, Hartz and Chappell insist, society is
As democratic impulses began to take root hardly enlightened when it comes to science—
and the Soviets’ “evil empire” crumbled away, at the very time when there are dramatic and
Americans began to relax. The spin-off ben- disturbing legal, moral and constitutional de-
efits from the space race flowed into consumer bates surrounding so many scientific break-
products such as fiber optics, cellular phones, throughs.
fax machines and home computers, but we be- They call for journalistic leaders to take a
gan to take our scientific advances for granted. new look at science so that the public might be
The news media’s interest in matters scientific better equipped to understand and participate
rapidly waned. in the growing debates. They ask it in the spirit
Scientists have come to see the loss of media of values embodied in the free-press clause of
interest in their field as dangerous to the future the First Amendment.
of the nation. Nobel Prize winners have de- The First Amendment Center is indebted to
clared that we are eating our seed corn by fail- Jim Hartz and Rick Chappell for their dedica-
ing to understand, promote and support new tion and professionalism in researching and
scientific initiatives. writing Worlds Apart.
—JOHN SEIGENTHALER
Introduction

W
e started and finished this study with a you don’t need to know how a car’s transmis-
definite bias that we feel is necessary sion works to make it go. True, of course, but
to confess at the outset: Both of us this kind of limited thinking, when magnified
have had a lifelong fascination with and keen to encompass larger issues, leaves individuals
interest in science and high technology. more bewildered and less powerful in shaping
Dr. Chappell comes by his legitimately; he’s the course of their own lives. If, by habit, we
a space physicist who studies sun-earth inter- come to prefer—and demand—simple con-
actions above the atmosphere. Hartz is a mere structions to complex questions, eventually we
observer who, over a 39-year career as a jour- are bound to get incomplete and ultimately in-
ix
nalist, has frequently chronicled science mat- correct answers.
ters for NBC News and PBS. As a society, we are, in fact, grappling with
While confessing this bias, we also realize such a choice right now. At the heart of the
not everyone shares our view of the seductive- matter is the value we place on science itself.
ness of nature’s tantalizing complexities. In Since World War II, most scientific research
fact, we know we are in a minority, as painful in the United States has been funded by the fed-
as that is. For while a majority of Americans eral government. And it’s a mighty undertak-
profess a great curiosity about matters scien- ing—$73 billion this year (1997). In the short
tific, they also confess that they really don’t space of 50 years, such federal support, plus
comprehend a lot of what they see and hear. funding from industry, foundations and indi-
That is understandable. There has been an viduals, has created a scientific enterprise that is
outright explosion of new scientific knowledge the envy of the world. In many ways, it defines
just in our lifetimes. No one person can know America. But the scientific establishment says
it all. Many scientists themselves say they are that, through complacency, budget cuts and
hard put to stay up with cutting-edge research plain misunderstanding, it is all in jeopardy.
in their own specialties. At the risk of seeming unduly alarmist, we
The elusiveness of perfection, however, must agree. No, the great citadel will not disap-
should not discourage a workaday familiarity pear tomorrow. It’s the kind of edifice that will
with and appreciation of the scientific basis of crumble slowly from neglect. Hardly anyone
contemporary life. One has only to glance at will miss it until it’s gone.
today’s factories, farms, hospitals, stores, of- Nor will the process of discovery stop. It
fices, homes, cars and even entertainment to won’t. In a fundamental way, science is a zero-
see the immense changes modern science has sum game; if U.S. researchers don’t make the
brought to our lives. Yet most of us throw up discoveries, someone else will. Whoever as-
our hands in mock horror when it comes to sumes leadership in the scientific and techno-
programming a VCR. logical realms will eventually assume world
We’ve become a point-and-click society, economic and political leadership. Throughout
rarely considering what goes on behind the history, innovators have dominated their
screen. One school of thought says you don’t times. The United States is just the latest in a
need to know what happens back there, just as long line of innovators.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
The modern roots of America’s great scien- It is at precisely this confluence of events
tific establishment go back no further than a that we began to examine how the news media
half century. Science in this country really has interact with and report on the scientific com-
no organized constituency except itself. In a munity. This document is the result of a year-
curious way, it created itself; there were no long study that included a major survey of the
huge lobbies, no street demonstrations, no sit- attitudes held by scientists, engineers and jour-
ins, no strikes, no political blackmail. No small nalists, several roundtable discussions, conver-
part of the scientific establishment’s growth sations with knowledgeable individuals, and
has been in super-secret weapons and related analysis of numerous news stories concerning
research. In short, the public knows little about scientific discoveries.
its size, operating methods or even its direct As it turned out, our time frame coincided
benefits, except in the case of a few highly vis- with the period during which journalists also
ible aspects such as the space program, medical were re-examining many of their own prin-
research and programs that capture the ciples and methods in reaction to pressures for
public’s fancy—astronomy and dinosaur re- change in their domain. And it soon became
search, for instance. Big science has thrived in obvious that we could not discuss the cultural
America largely through the enlightenment of and professional tensions between journalists
a few policy-makers. and scientists without touching on some as-
x
With a small natural constituency, no spare pects of society at large—specifically, how we
cash, feeble organization and little experience prepare the populace to deal with the com-
in the rough-and-tumble of Washington poli- plexities of modern life.
tics, science is justifiably worried that it is now What has emerged is a document we hope
playing a losing game. At the same time, it is will be helpful to both groups—to the journal-
beginning to understand that a big part of the ists, who might be persuaded to follow the
problem is an inability to get its message across work of this major establishment more care-
to the public. fully, and to the scientists, who want the public
to achieve a more profound understanding of
their work.

—Rick Chappell and Jim Hartz
January 1998
Overview

A
lmost everything we in the United the slack; the private sector focuses almost ex-
States consider a scientific or techno- clusively on applied research, the kind that has
logical advancement has come from creation or improvement of commercial prod-
curiosity-driven research. This is ba- ucts as its primary goal. This situation is un-
sic research, the kind that explores until it sets likely to change, since private research-and-de-
upon something magnificent, whether micro- velopment funding historically tends to follow
computers or the mapping of DNA. It has the priorities set by public funding, rather than
served this nation well, contributing immea- counterbalancing them.
surably to the U.S. role as world leader. At the root of the problem—and the heart
xi
But support for science and technology in of the solution—are those who control the
this country has dwindled—in part, it appears, flow of crucial information about the value of
because of media inattention. The American basic scientific and technological research: the
public says it doesn’t understand many matters scientists themselves and the journalists who
scientific. The proportion of public money al- communicate their triumphs and failures to
located for research and development is the American public.
smaller than at any time since the Soviets’ More than 1,400 scientists and journalists
Sputnik launched the space race in 1957. were surveyed for Worlds Apart. The journal-
While the first casualty of this scientific ists said scientists’ jargon and the endless
belt-tightening is basic research, there is much qualifications by which they circumscribe their
more at stake. findings make communicating their work to
Shortly before he died, the great scientist the public an all but impossible task. But 81
and communicator Carl Sagan warned: “If we percent of scientists said they were willing to
were to back off from science and technology, take a course to help them learn to communi-
we would in fact be condemning most of the cate better with journalists. Although the over-
human population of the Earth to death.” whelming majority of scientists said that few
Such a retreat is under way. in the media understand the nature of science
On Oct. 17, 1996, five American Nobel and technology, 72 percent said that journalists
Prize-winning scientists lamented to a group do not “face a hopeless task in explaining the
of journalists gathered at the National Press complexities of science.” Knowing the ob-
Club in Washington that public support and stacles that have stood in the way of interac-
understanding of science and technology was tion between journalists and scientists, the
in a serious state of decay. groups can now work together to communi-
This $180 billion-a-year enterprise is cate science to the public.
threatened by the declining quality of the Because science in America came of age
people who enter it and by the drop in support during the Cold War in a climate of urgent
for basic research. Less than 9 percent of all ba- support and ardent secrecy, scientists have
sic research is federally funded. Most is fi- grown used to funding that comes without
nanced by universities, whose funding also is question. They are unaccustomed to explain-
declining. Private industry has not picked up ing the intricacies of their work to the public.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
At the same time, the public—including the ing more critical that the public learns what is
media—has grown less and less familiar with going on behind the laboratory doors.
the basic tenets of science and technology, even Both scientists and journalists have been
as achievement in both areas has become more jolted from complacency by threats to their
and more essential to modern life. professional existence. Scientists, whose caste
“What I’m concerned about,” Sagan said system of language and vocabulary isolates
shortly before his death, “is that the conse- them from the public at large, fear failure in
quences of these attitudes are much more dan- the politically charged funding arena. Journal-
gerous today than in the past.” ists, whose increasing tendency to sensational-
Almost every American newspaper has an ism has weakened their credibility, fear obso-
astrology column. Very few have a weekly sci- lescence in the fast-changing world of
ence column. Today, half the American public communications technology.
doesn’t know that it takes a year for the Earth Meanwhile, the public push for science and
to rotate around the sun. Meanwhile, within math education that began when Earth’s in-
two short generations, 50 percent of U.S. citi- habitants first saw pictures of their planet from
zens will depend on science and technology for space has waned. Today, 40 percent of U.S.
their living. eighth-graders lack even basic math skills.
Something must change, and soon. American math and science students who
xii
Both science and journalism tend to attract score better than 95 percent of their peers in
practitioners who are above average in intelli- this country would be only average students in
gence and education. Both groups are highly Singapore. Leading scientists are increasingly
motivated and free-thinking. So why the gulf vocal about their fear that the United States
in their communication? will lose its place as the world leader in cut-
Besides scientists who don’t speak English ting-edge research.
and journalists who don’t speak science, there That was the central issue when nearly
are uncertain gatekeepers—editors who decide three dozen scientists convened for a
which stories will be published or produced— roundtable discussion at Vanderbilt University
and a public ill-equipped to grasp the nuance in the fall of 1996. The consensus: The United
and significance of scientific developments. States risks losing its position of leadership, in
Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising part because the American taxpayers really
that the popular support that science once en- don’t understand what they’re getting when
joyed is now eroding. they pay for research and development. Scien-
Another reason for the impasse may be tists themselves share a large part of the blame
that both scientists and journalists are likely because they aren’t explaining the ramifica-
to be egotistical and skeptical by nature. In tions of their work. The inability of researchers
the past five years, First Amendment Center to move from the jargon-filled laboratory into
surveys of clergy, corporations, military, even the “real” world means most Americans don’t
politicians have shown that none were as dis- understand what’s happening in the lab.
trustful of the news media as the scientists Americans want to understand.
surveyed for Worlds Apart. Only 11 percent of A 1997 study by the Pew Research Center
the scientists said they had a great deal of for the People and the Press showed a fifth of
confidence in the press. Twice that many said Americans polled said they enjoyed stories
they had hardly any confidence at all. Al- about science and technology. That topic beat
though two in five scientists said they were out religion, politics, international affairs, en-
afraid of being embarrassed before their peers tertainment, consumer news, business and fi-
by news stories about their work, nearly nance, famous people, and culture and the
three-quarters said they wanted the public to arts. About the same time, a survey by the
know about their research. And it is becom- nation’s largest newspaper chain, the Gannett
Co., showed that 75 percent of readers were • Journalists should pay close attention to
somewhat to very interested in science and the peer-review process to avoid overplaying
technology. potentially questionable work.
Such figures suggest that editors and pro- • All scientific disciplines should develop
ducers are underestimating public desire for web sites operated by the principal scientific
science news and may be losing readers and associations for the posting of papers, e-mail
viewers by not providing it. and phone numbers of scientists and
What can be done? Here are some recom- spokespeople, as well as other information
mendations: geared to the public and—particularly—to the
• Scientists and journalists should begin a media.
dialogue to educate each other about the ways • The American Association for the Ad-
in which their needs and the needs of the pub- vancement of Science or the National Academy
lic can be met. of Sciences should maintain a master web site
• The scientific community should train linking these individual sites.
communicators to speak for different scientific • The media should use the web sites, where
disciplines. major findings would be flagged, as a guide for
• Journalists should increase their under- improving their coverage of scientific and
standing of and training in the sciences. technological topics.
xiii
• Publishers of scientific papers should re- The current First Amendment Center sur-
quire authors to include summaries of their vey reveals that scientists and journalists rec-
findings—written in plain English—that put ognize the widening gap between them and
the work in perspective and explain its rel- want to bridge it. The time is ripe for action.
evance and importance.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
xiv
C H A P T E R O N E

The Unscientific
Americans
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of
civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
—Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826

O n Oct. 17, 1996, five American
scientists appeared before journalists
at the National Press Club in Wash-
ington, D.C. They had just won
Nobel Prizes. By all rights they should have
been jubilant. Instead, they were apprehensive,
vestment. “[T]he government has a very large
program to fund interstate highways systems,
and this is a facility which is used by everyone,”
he said. “The basic research enterprise can be
thought of in the same way: It provides a facil-
ity for new discovering, and those discoveries
dour and sounded just a little angry. These sci- are accessible to all industry.”
entists, who were soon to pocket prize money Three disgruntled
of several hundred thousand dollars apiece, and ungrateful physi-
1
were worried about the means to carry on— cists? Listen to Dr. Ri-
worried not for themselves, but for the U.S. sci- chard E. Smalley, a
entific enterprise as a whole. chemist from Rice
Dr. Douglas D. Osheroff of Stanford Uni- University, speaking at
versity began to speak of a time not long ago, the same news confer-
during the space race with the Russians that ence: “I decided to go
followed World War II, when “… the U.S. sup- into science one year
ported science almost as a religion.” after Sputnik
“That seems to be over now,” he said. “And, [launched in October
unfortunately, I think that the U.S. public and, 1957]. At that time, …
in particular, the U.S. Congress, seem to know science and technol-
and appreciate very little about basic science. ogy was the most ro- Smalley
And I really think that’s a problem .…” mantic area you could possibly enter. … And
Dr. Robert C. Richardson of Cornell Uni- during my career, I have watched as the support
versity picked up the theme: “[A]s far as I can for this enterprise—science-and-technology de-
see, the issues that concern us about science velopment with a long time horizon—has gradu-
have been completely invisible in this political ally gotten harder and harder to [obtain], for
season … And this, for me, seems remarkable many reasons. The process is in actually some-
in the context of the desire to reach the bal- what of a state of decay right now—in a rather
anced budget by the year 2002. The reason we insidious way that I think we won’t know clearly
want to do that as a country is to make life bet- about for another 10 years or so.”
ter for our grandchildren. I do not understand Research and development, a vast enterprise
how we can make life better for our grandchil- that in the United States gathers up $180 bil-
dren if we don’t provide the environment lion in public and private funds, in a “state of
where new things can be invented, new prod- decay?” How could that be?
ucts made, and the quality of life generally im- While this massive establishment at the mo-
proved .…” ment is working tolerably well, it’s the “long
Dr. David M. Lee, also from Cornell, time-scale, the true basic research, the frontier
seemed genuinely perplexed that anyone could work” that is threatened by budget reductions,
doubt the need for science and technology in- Smalley said. Even worse is “the quality of the

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
people coming through the system,” he lamented. On the other hand, perhaps there was
“That’s where I think the insidious decay occurs.” something missing from the scientists’ lament.
Lee agreed, calling American education in If a crisis is indeed looming over America, and
science “abysmal.” if, for example, the Congress knows little about
Threatened cutbacks, the strategic national importance of basic sci-
public ignorance, in- ence, the question begs to be asked: Had the
adequate education, a new Nobelists ever attempted to rectify the
failure of vision—all situation by educating their legislators?
add up to “trouble in “Well, for me, that’s a terribly embarrassing
this country,” said the question,” Curl admitted. “It’s terribly embar-
fifth Nobelist, Dr. rassing because I’ve actually made no effort to
Robert F. Curl Jr. of influence my legislators or try to get them to
Rice. “… I think that do what I want them to do.”
we really need to do Smalley admitted he had had “only brief ex-
something to make periences” with lawmakers. Osheroff said he
sure that basic re- had to “confess that I’ve actually never talked
search continues, be- to a congressperson in person.”
cause otherwise we’ll Curl Only one of the five scientists, Richardson,
2
be in the position of eating our seed corn.” claimed ever to have spoken to an elected offi-
It was a familiar two-part harmony—a dire cial. He had lobbied some in the past, he said.
national problem looming on the horizon, fol- While he found most members of Congress
lowed by a weighty call to “do something.” Did who were directly concerned with science bud-
these celebrated scientists represent just an- gets “quite knowledgeable,” others were
other special-interest group “crying wolf ”? Or “know-nothings.”
was there something more substantive in what “They don’t want to know anything about
they were saying? it, because it’s too complicated and they’re very
Most media organizations evidently likely not going to vote for the increases, or
thought that even the newest American Nobel even for stabilization, of the science budget,”
Prize winners were not worth listening to. he declared.
None of the major networks carried the scien- Their answers indicated these prominent
tists’ remarks. But then, no major network had researchers had stretched their famous scien-
carried the announcement a week earlier that tific detachment to the illogical point of aban-
the men had won Nobel Prizes.1 doning political reality. In a time of reduction-
ism and retrenchment, it’s not likely that
Serious anyone will go to bat for scientists if they aren’t
willing to step up themselves. And while the
omissions phrase may indeed characterize many mem-
Granted, this particular press conference was bers, calling a member of Congress a “know-
not in itself an earth-shattering news event. nothing” is hardly the way to initiate the en-
But the episode does illustrate an increasingly lightenment process. As Will Rogers once said,
troubling point: It’s becoming more and more “Everybody is ignorant, only on different sub-
difficult for serious matters, especially those in- jects.”
volving complex issues, to catch and hold the The laureates were hardly more inspira-
attention of the American news media. And if tional in their personal responses to what they
the subject concerns a trend or a lapse unlikely perceived as the second greatest threat to
to inconvenience the public until some distant maintaining the U.S. lead in R&D: the state of
and ill-defined future time, forget it. American science education. They cited anec-
dotal evidence of declining educational quality.

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
“… It is my experience,” said Osheroff, propriate illustrations and well-thought-out
“having been around to many, many countries, arguments. Most of all, they must improve
that in fact this country understands less and their persuasive skills.
cares less about what’s happening in basic sci- Mercifully, there was precious little jargon
ence.” in the Nobelists’ news conference. And there
Smalley said he perceived cracks in the sci- was one nearly priceless example of how best
ence establishment itself. “[W]e do not have to communicate with an alienated public.
the large number of graduate students entering Osheroff responded to a question about the di-
science and engineering,” he said. “We can al- rect benefits of science and technology with a
ways keep the numbers up, but the quality— universally understood metaphor.
that most insidious aspect—I do not believe is “Let me just answer
what it used to be.” your question by ask-
Asked for specific indicators of the decay he ing one of my own,”
saw in the quality of “people coming through he replied. “Would
the system,” Smalley stumbled over the prob- you ever consider that,
lem of proving a negative. “No. That’s the in order to put bread
point. Because the question is, what break- on your table, you
throughs should we have had by this time that would take your chil-
3
we don’t have because we don’t have that qual- dren out of school? Or
ity? That’s why it’s insidious.” let’s make it a broader
Finally, the Nobel Prize winners were criti- question and less per-
cal of American private enterprise. Osheroff sonal: Should we
noted that “… almost all American industry maybe do without
has gotten out of the business of basic re- schools because, in Osheroff
search, with, perhaps, the exception of the bio- fact, they cost a lot of money?
logical sciences and biotechnology areas.” If the “The answer is clearly ‘No,’ because the chil-
nation is counting on the marketplace to pro- dren of today that are being educated are the
vide funding in today’s world, Osheroff said, workforce of the next generation. They’re es-
there will be very little because “… the lead sential, I think, in the same way that the re-
time [on results] is simply too long.” search that we do today will be essential for
But, as with their criticisms of the educa- whatever technologies are developed in the
tional establishment, the scientists could offer next generation.”
no concrete solutions to the problems created Despite the low turnout at this particular
by projected industry reductions. “I don’t news conference and the subsequent paucity of
know what the right answer is going to be,” written and broadcast reports, this nation does
said Smalley. “I’m not yet an expert in this care about science and high technology. Nu-
area. But I think that the garden right now is merous independent polls indicate this to be
not being tended correctly.” so. At this moment in our history, however,
Scientists cannot and should not expect the there is a profound disjunction between what
media, the Congress, industry and the public scientists do in the laboratory and the field and
to automatically side with them or to under- what the public understands. There’s a grow-
stand their most heartfelt, even demonstrable, ing gap between two separate and unequal so-
concerns for the future without help. There is cieties—between those who are scientifically
no such thing as extrasensory perception, as literate (and reasonably well-informed) and
scientists themselves are quick to point out. those who are not.
When scientists and engineers come to the col- It’s true that, with each advance, science
lective arena—in this case, the news confer- marches deeper into esotericism. But that fact
ence—they must be armed with numbers, ap- only makes it more imperative for scientists to

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
think of new ways to explain their work. It also Science & Government Report, a Washington
challenges the mainstream media to become newsletter. “[This] means that in civilian re-
and to remain proficient at reporting science. search, industry outspends government by
more than three to one,” he observes.2
The U.S. science Unfortunately, industry increases don’t fully
compensate for government cuts. In fact, at
establishment least one study indicates that, in the long run,
Where do scientists work? And who pays private funding follows the lead of public
them? funding. According to Christopher T. Hill, pro-
The annual research-and-development fessor of public policy and technology at
budget in the United States is approximately George Mason University, a review of the pat-
$180 billion per year. Of that, in 1997, the fed- terns of U.S. R&D funding over the past three
eral government provided $73 billion. Of the decades suggests that, on average, decreases (or
federal money spent, $40 billion went to de- increases) in federal funding for R&D are fol-
fense, the rest to various civilian programs. lowed by proportionate decreases (or in-
The trend in recent years has been for gov- creases) in private funding, one year later.
ernment funding to remain stagnant, or de- “Thus, if this historical pattern is followed
crease, while industry spending has gone up. over the next several years, we should expect to
4
Government support is receding to “a junior see sharp reductions in private R&D spending
role in the overall enterprise,” according to following on, and likely stimulated by, the an-
Daniel S. Greenberg, editor and publisher of ticipated reductions in federal funding,” wrote
Hill in the summary of his
1995 study. “The most
Dollars spent on Research and Development
Private Funding Federal Funding likely outcome, then, is
as a percent of Gross Domestic Product that industry actions will
2.0% add to the cuts in federal
support for science and
technology, not offset
1.8%
them.”3
The vast bulk of indus-
1.6%
trial research is “applied
science” as opposed to the
“basic science” largely car-
1.4% ried out in the nation’s
major universities. Some-
1.2%
times called “industrial sci-
ence,” applied research is
almost exclusively aimed at
1.0% creating or bettering com-
mercial products.
0.8%
“Nylon came out of
this system,” wrote Louis
Uchitelle in The New York
0.6% Times. “So did the silicon
chip, … cellular phones,
color television, modern
gene technology, fiber op-
1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
tics and other breakthroughs that eventually burses most non-medical basic research
created new industries, which in turn helped money, received a small increase of about 1.5
to expand the national economy at a rapid percent in 1997—up from $3.22 billion to
pace. Much of the effort was concentrated in $3.27 billion—an increase that just about kept
world-famous laboratories at AT&T, IBM, up with inflation.
Eastman Kodak, Xerox, General Electric, What if spending
DuPont and other giants that dominated their stays flat or cuts of
markets and could afford the costly, drawn-out this magnitude go
research.”4 through? “We are eat-
Even though private enterprise outspends ing our seed corn,”
the government 3-2 in civilian research, there says Stanford Univer-
is no way it will ever take on many vital is- sity economist Paul
sues—global warming or ozone depletion, for Romer in the phrase
example. Nor is private enterprise likely to echoed by Nobelist
tackle less quantifiable matters such as space Robert Curl. Romer
exploration, astronomy, archaeology, paleon- contends that Ameri-
tology and—that favorite with kids of all can private business is
ages—dinosaur research. still cloning products
“If we look today at things we regard as im- from the novel discov- Romer 5

portant, whether we are thinking about recombi- eries and inventions that came during and after
nant DNA or microprocessors or any of the im- World War II. “If this continues, we will no longer
portant areas of advanced technology, these areas be the nation that is on the cutting edge of new
grew out of what was very, very speculative re- technologies, new products and new markets. For
search conducted 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Sir the moment, we still are, but that can’t last.”6
Derek Roberts, former business executive and
now provost of University College London.5
This is not to say that industry performs no
Looking ahead
basic research. However, private investment’s at falling behind
share is small and declining. “The shift in em- If the United States drops back, others will step
phasis to near-term development is paying off forward. Such is the lesson of history.
today as American companies excel at turning As has often been the case in recent years,
a generation of good ideas into profitable America’s stiffest competition may come from
products,” reports Uchitelle. “Yet many corpo- Asia. According to Walter Mondale, former
rate executives have decided that basic research vice president and former U.S. ambassador to
for tomorrow is simply too speculative. It Japan: “For several years, Japan has invested a
should be done, they argue, by university sci- larger percentage of its gross domestic product
entists, paid mainly by government.” in R&D than has the United States. In July
The problem is that government R&D 1996, the Japanese cabinet approved a proposal
spending has decreased in real terms by 3.3 to spend $155 billion on government science
percent since 1994. The American Association and technology programs over the next five
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) esti- years, of which 95 percent is targeted at civilian
mates that a further 14 percent cut is in store technologies. As a result, Japanese government
over the next five years if the Clinton adminis- expenditures on civilian R&D have caught up
tration continues on its present course. Other with and will soon exceed U.S. funding in ab-
budget analysts say the cut could be as large as solute terms.” 7
20 percent if Republican plans for a balanced Closer to home, total Western European
budget by 2002 are enacted. The National Sci- spending on research and development is ap-
ence Foundation, the federal agency that dis- proaching the U.S. total. For example, the

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
amount of money spent on academic research first Nobel prize in almost a decade for his dis-
in Western Europe—about $20 billion in 1992 covery, U.S. and Japanese companies contin-
(the latest figure available)—now equals that ued to investigate nanotubes with not a single
spent on U.S. campuses, according to a recent British competitor to worry about.” 9
report by the National Science Foundation. How ironic if the United States—which
In 1992, Europe graduated almost 300,000 stands to profit by transforming the Curl/
science and engineering (S&E) students, com- Kroto/Smalley discovery into new consumer
pared to only 173,000 in the U.S. (This com- products—should overlook the real moral of
pares to 523,000 S&E degrees awarded in Asia this story.
in 1992.) Doctoral degrees awarded in S&E The future of research in America now de-
fields in Europe totaled 25,310 in 1992, com- pends on a complex mixture of opposing
pared to only 18,251 in the United States. forces at work in a society very different from
Civilian R&D growth in Europe now exceeds that which put a man on the moon. Some crit-
the equivalent United States growth rate by ics say science has had a free ride, especially
about half a percentage point annually. The to- during the years of the Cold War when almost
tal combined R&D investment of Western Eu- any project, no matter how far-fetched or un-
ropean countries in 1993 was nearly $104 bil- promising, could get funded. Now that the su-
lion, compared to the $137 billion spent in the perpowers are no longer poised on the brink of
6
United States. This represents about 2.1 percent mutual annihilation, pressures are mounting
of Western Europe’s combined GDP, compared to make science more applicable, more perti-
to the U.S. investment of 2.7 percent.8 nent, and yes, more profitable.
Performance in individual European na- “If only one of the
tions is admittedly mixed. “Scientists [in Great funding variables were
Britain] are increasingly being forced to get changing, it would be
into bed with big business,” writes Stephanie difficult—but all are
Pain in the UK Guardian. “The change is partly changing at once,” says
out of necessity: over the past decade, the Gov- Rep. George Brown
ernment has cut more than £1 billion from re- (D-Calif.), longtime
search funding.” chairman of the
The story of Sir Harry Kroto, professor of House Science and
chemistry at Sussex University and co-winner Technology commit-
of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with tee and now ranking
Americans Curl and Smalley, illustrates one of minority member.
the dangers of starving basic research. “We are now strug-
“In 1985, Kroto discovered a new form of gling to re-identify Brown
carbon, the football-shaped ‘buckyballs,’” Pain something that can replace the security reason-
recounts. “Elongated buckyballs, called ing that guided science and technology over
nanotubes, have remarkable properties that the past 40 years.”
could make the lightest and strongest materi- Even funding for medical research—which,
als, and spawn whole new industries—even a for the time being, continues to enjoy modest
revolution in electronics. Britain, however, will increases—may face closer scrutiny as budget
not share the winnings from this particular pressures increase. Thirty percent of the
jackpot. nation’s civilian research and development
“After the breakthrough, Kroto applied for budget currently goes toward medical research,
grant after grant, but got nowhere. In the U.S., as compared to about 5 percent in other indus-
meanwhile, researchers had no problem find- trial countries. And yet the United States has
ing backing to delve into this promising new far higher health-care costs and lags behind
field. Last year, as Kroto picked up Britain’s the other developed nations in infant mortality

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
and life expectancy at birth.10 suggest to you that the declines we are seeing
Nor is the sacred cow of medical R&D— are in part a reflection of what’s been happen-
cancer research—exempted from accountabil- ing in the media. And that is, in many parts of
ity. For over a quarter of a century, cancer the country, there has been a declining interest
spending (currently $2 billion per year) has far in science in the traditional media.”
outstripped spending on all other diseases. Shortly before he died, Carl Sagan com-
And some experts are starting to raise ques- plained that “almost every newspaper in
tions. America has a daily astrology column. Most do
“[I]t is reasonable to ask why cancer has not even have a weekly science column.”
been the major exception to our nation’s over- “When was the last time a scientific topic
all progress in improving the nation’s health,” was discussed on a Sunday morning TV talk
says Thomas J. Moore, a senior fellow in health show?” Sagan asked. “When was the last time
policy at the George Washington University you heard an intelligent remark on science by a
Medical Center. “And before we commit still president of the United States? You might have
more money to the war on cancer, it is time to to go back to Thomas Jefferson to find one.
ask some searching questions about why we “What I’m concerned about is that the con-
have spent so much on research, screened so sequences of these attitudes are much more
many millions of people and invested so dangerous today than in the past,” he said. “We
7
heavily in cancer treatment without budging have a civilization with immense technological
the number that really counts—the overall powers. The lives of most of us on Earth are de-
cancer death rate.”11 pendent on agricultural technology. The lives of
Questions such as these require informed many of us are dependent on medical technol-
answers and explanations in this new eco- ogy, certainly including me. Science has saved
nomic climate. Scientists who remain silent do my life; not just that, scientific methods and dis-
so at their peril. Those who can best explain coveries of the last five years have saved my life.
why their work is important to the nation are If we were to back off from science and technol-
those most likely to be funded ogy, we would in fact be condemning most of
“The science and engineering communities the human population of the Earth to death.”13
will be drawn into this debate or suffer the With a few notable exceptions—most re-
consequences of its outcome,” Brown says. “Re- cently, the triumphant Mars Pathfinder expedi-
searchers must now be able to relate their work tion and the ongoing Mir “deathwatch”—most
to the list of social problems, because these American newspapers and television news op-
have replaced the threat of communism as a erations basically ignore the accomplishments
reason for funding.”12 and failures of science, overlook the nation’s in-
vestment in science and take for granted the
Out of sight, tangible benefits science provides. As Sagan
noted, newspapers find space for the daily as-
out of money trology column and for regular sections devoted
Media inattention is being cited by proponents to sports, weather, business, entertainment,
of increased science spending—both inside travel, home decor and any number of other
and outside the science community itself—as a special interests. But only a handful of Ameri-
key factor in the reduced outlays that are erod- can newspapers have a regular science section.
ing the nation’s scientific stature. Television is a wasteland. While the major
“The Clinton administration,” according to networks have science and medical reporters,
David Gergen, “unfortunately, has put a bud- their allotted air time is measured in minutes
get forward to the Congress that actually de- per week or less. Of the networks, CNN clearly
creases for the fifth year in a row the federal in- is superior and devotes the most time to science
vestment in research and education. I would and technology. Only one cable outlet, the Dis-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
covery Channel, is heavy with science. (Inciden- “[W]e are in a period of decline,” said the
tally, in national surveys, the Discovery Channel leaders of the science community. “This is eas-
far outpaces the big networks in perceived qual- ily measured by science budgets, which have
ity.14) Local television coverage of science and steadily decreased relative to inflation. We
technology is almost nonexistent. agree with the importance of balancing the na-
tional budget. However, to balance the budget,
Is anybody one must ensure future economic growth. The
balanced budget and growth are interdepen-
there? dent, just as the sciences are interdependent.
Less than five months after the Nobelists urged On the other hand, the implementation of
the nation to review its spending on science, President Clinton’s 1998 budget proposal for
their warning was reiterated at an unprec- science will continue the erosion. It does not
edented gathering of the leaders of 23 of the even keep pace with inflation, and it is incon-
country’s most respected professional organiza- sistent with the president’s stated national
tions, including the American Chemical Society, goals.”
the American Physical Society, the American As- Those who learned of this unprecedented
tronomical Society and the American Math- news conference—media silence notwith-
ematical Society. The message: Unless reduced standing—were hard pressed to find more in-
8
spending on research and development is re- formation on it. They were not much helped
versed, the nation faces a slow decay. by the professional organizations that had is-
“When you are on top, the only way to stay sued the joint statement. In a clear demon-
there comes through constant effort and dili- stration of the scientific community’s hapless
gence,” their joint statement said. waste of its own resources, the sponsoring so-
The president of the cieties themselves failed to post the informa-
American Chemical tion on their own web sites. Anyone searching
Society, Paul S. Ander- for a transcript of the news conference, for
son, put it more background papers or for thoughtful analysis
bluntly: “We cannot was out of luck. Scientists, quite adept at
abdicate world leader- communicating among themselves on the
ship on the road to a Internet (it was practically invented for their
balanced budget.” use), obviously are not yet attuned to using
The news confer- this exquisite tool to reach the public.
ence received a small The unhappy fact is,
story on page 19 of very few scientists are
The Washington Post. any good at talking to
It was not mentioned the public and/or the
in many other Anderson news media. “I think
newspapers, and the networks completely ig- we do a miserable job
nored the scientific establishment’s worried plea of communicating
for increased attention to the nation’s future. with the press,” says
And what did the news media fail to tell the Dr. Samuel Silverstein,
American people? chairman of the De-
They neglected to report that, according to partment of Physiol-
representatives of more than one million U.S. ogy at Columbia Uni-
scientists, the nation’s economic competitive- versity. “And I’m not
ness, health, national security and quality of sure why Silverstein
life are at risk. that is.”

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
Until recently, most scientists thought it Lane is a leader in the scientific establish-
was superfluous at best and a waste of time at ment who has taken it as his mission to com-
worst to talk to a newspaper or television re- municate more effectively with the public. He
porter. In fact, if a scientist talked to the public nudges, cajoles and sweet-talks his colleagues
too much, or too glibly, he would more than to speak more effectively about the importance
likely be despised, even ostracized, by other of their work.
scientists. Carl Sagan was blackballed at the “I think there is good will there,” he said of
National Academy of Sciences, almost certainly his fellows during a roundtable discussion
because of professional jealousy among his about the communications abyss between sci-
peers. There has always been a certain stuffi- entists and the public. “I think there is an un-
ness in the scientific community with regard to derstanding that [scientists are now] called
media interaction. upon to do things that they have not been
To be evenhanded, there is an historical asked to do before. Many of them don’t know
factor at work here. Many of the nation’s how to do that, and that’s where you who do
most brilliant theorists and experimenters understand communication can be very help-
have been engaged in top-secret government ful.”
work for the majority of their careers. Under Lane was directing his remarks to the news-
such circumstances, talking about their re- media representatives on the panel: Kathy Saw-
9
search is a criminal offense. But even outside yer of The Washington Post, Ira Flatow of Na-
the cloisters of defense work, scientists have tional Public Radio and John Seigenthaler,
seldom been encouraged to share their dis- founder of the First Amendment Center.
coveries with the general public. The Cold “You who do understand communication
War climate of secrecy still envelops nearly can be very helpful,” he told them.
every discipline engaged in the drive toward If that was not a plea, then journalists don’t
discovery and creation. understand communication. Here was the
“For 45 years or so, we didn’t suggest that it head of the National Science Foundation con-
was very important for all these scientists we’re fronting a national problem and saying to the
talking about to invest much of their time [ex- national media: “Help us.”
plaining their work to the public],” says Dr.
Neal Lane, head of the National Science Foun-
dation. “In fact, we said quite the other thing.
We said: what’s critically important, since we
chapter endnotes
1 CNN did mention the prize announcement. Reuters covered
are investing taxpayer money for discovery of
the Washington news conference, and a few newspapers
new ideas about nature and new ways of doing carried the story, including The New York Times.
business and new kinds of devices to help hu- 2 Daniel S. Greenberg, “Shortchanging Science,” The Wash-

mankind, we want you to be in the laboratory, ington Post, Feb. 19, 1997.
3 Christopher T. Hill, “Private Funds Are Unlikely to Replace
in the classroom—that’s what you’re capable Cuts in Federal Funds for R&D in the U.S.,” George Mason
of doing and that’s really where you ought to University, June 19, 1995 (non-published).
4 Louis Uchitelle, “Corporate Outlays for Basic Research Cut
spend your time.”
Back Significantly,” The New York Times, Oct. 8, 1996.
Now that the Cold War is over, many of the 5 Stephanie Pain, “Did Science Lose its Virtue When it Got

people who built nuclear weapons, rockets, lasers into Bed with Big Business?” UK Guardian, Feb. 26, 1997.
6 Ibid.
and smart bombs must find their voices. Society 7 Walter Mondale, “America’s Challenge,” Science, Nov. 8,
has changed, Lane says, and largely for the better. 1996.
Scientists must change too. Increasingly, they will 8 Laura Vandendorpe, ed., “Research Faces a New Battle,”

be required to explain the importance of their R&D Magazine, April 22, 1997.
9 Pain, op.cit.
work, not only to peers inside and outside their 10 Tim Beardsley, “Eliciting Science’s Best,” Scientific Ameri-

cloisters but to the public as well. can, June 1997.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
11 Thomas J. Moore, “Look at the Mortality Rates; The War on 14 Inthe 1997 EquiTrend Study conducted among 4,000 U.S.
Cancer Has Been a Bust,” The Washington Post, July 23, consumers by Total Research Corp., the Discovery Channel
1997. ranked first among TV brand names. The Learning Channel
12 “Research Faces a New Battle,” op. cit. was second, followed by The Disney Channel (No. 3), CNN
13 Carl Sagan, quoted in “A Conversation with Stephen (No. 4), PBS (No. 5) and ESPN (No. 6). NBC was ranked No.
Budiansky,” U.S. News & World Report, March 18, 1996. 9, ABC No. 21 and CBS No. 23.

The 7 Percent Solution
Funding Basic Scientific Research Is Vital To America’s Future
By David Gergen
© May 19, 1997, U.S. News & World Report

10

A
s many of us gazed up at the Hale-Bopp cades, expenditures increased. In each of the past
comet this spring, wondrous and serene four years, however, federal investment in research
in the heavens, an angry E-mail ripped has declined, and President Clinton’s budget calls for
through the scientific community below. It was yet another drop next year.
written by Alan Hale, one of the men who discov- Since March, in an unprecedented show of
ered the comet two years ago. unity, the heads of over 40 organizations repre-
Hale, it turns out, earned a Ph.D. in astronomy senting more than 1.5 million scientists, engineers,
from New Mexico State University in 1992 and has and mathematicians have endorsed a joint state-
since had terrible trouble finding decent-paying ment expressing alarm that research investments
work. His wife, a nurse, is the family’s main source as a percentage of GDP are approaching a 40-year
of income. So disillusioned is he with America’s low. They urge that federal spending on research
“scientific illiteracy” and the drying up of research and development be increased by 7 percent next
jobs that he would not encourage today’s students year—enough to make up for past inflation and
to pursue scientific careers. to reverse the trend. A growing number of Repub-
For many in the field, there is poignant irony licans, led by Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (a deficit
in Hale’s story. He is one of many younger Ph.D.s hawk), and some Democrats are joining the fight.
who could put their names on new discoveries in Gramm wants a doubling of science spending over
science and technology in the years ahead. A re- the next decade.
cent visit to the California Institute of Technology The arguments for substantial increases are
and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory nearby found compelling. Some believe the end of the Cold War
scientists bubbling with excitement about prospec- means we no longer need scientific research to
tive breakthroughs. Yet there is a legitimate and protect our security. What they ignore is that the
growing fear among these same people that the lag time between basic research and military ap-
nation really doesn’t understand or support their plication is often 20 to 30 years; weapons used
endeavors. Few are as gloomy as Hale, but nearly in the Persian Gulf war, for example, emerged from
all share his concerns. research in the 1960s. Who can say with certainty
Down, down, down. The clearest form of national today that we will not need advanced military tech-
support for science is the federal budget, which funds nology a quarter century from now?
60 percent of the country’s basic research. For de-

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
Economists believe research is also essential to the human brain and central nervous system than
growth and keeping our competitive edge. in all prior history,” thanks to imaging and chemical
Stanford’s Michael Boskin estimates that half of tests developed by engineers from basic physics,
all long-term economic growth since World War chemistry and mathematics. Since brain-related
II in industrialized nations is due to technological disorders send more Americans to the hospital than
progress—which, in turn, is rooted in basic re- any other disease group, this progress is very good
search. At the University of Pennsylvania, Edwin news indeed.
Mansfield has found that academic research in sci- At a time of scarce resources in Washington,
ence has a “social rate of return” in the form of it is tempting to see the scientific community as
lower prices, better products, and higher produc- just one more hungry claimant. That’s shortsighted.
tivity that exceeds 20 percent. Like public education, serious funding for science
Finally, we should understand how science ad- is a vital national investment. The men and women
vances our quality of life. Allan Bromley, science in our laboratories stand at the threshold of daz-
adviser to President Bush and now dean of engi- zling new breakthroughs, and the nation should
neering at Yale, points out, for example, that in be standing there with them, supporting their
the past five years “we have learned more about work and sharing in their joy of discovery.

11

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
12

Chapter 1 The Unscientific Americans
C H A P T E R T W O

Common
Denominators
Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain
characteristics of a vigorous mind.
—Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

I
f you listen carefully to how they describe looking at its own navel than we do,” says
themselves, scientists and journalists are Walter Cronkite of reporters.
alike in many ways. Both groups are highly Both journalists and scientists tend to be
motivated. Both are above average in intel- skeptics who border on the cynical. Both ex-
ligence, above average in education, and above hibit strong egos. They are generally gregarious
all, freethinking. among their peers, although some in each
Both professions view themselves as exam- camp are better characterized as idiosyncratic
iners, analysts and purveyors of reality, in fact loners.
willing prisoners of it: to ignore or to compro- Both must settle for partial truth. The sci-
13
mise any part of the truth is unacceptable. Not entist works within parameters set by hypoth-
only the world but the whole universe—all eses, incrementally adding experimental results
things visible and invisible—are the proper to an ever-expanding knowledge base. The
domain of both scientists and journalists. At- journalist works within limitations imposed by
tempts to channel the flow of their work into a daily deadline, revising each story as addi-
pre-arranged, marketable directions are gener- tional information is available. Members of
ally perceived by both as an unwarranted and both groups are occasionally guilty of selec-
perilous intrusion into the integrity of legiti- tively interpreting their data.
mate inquiry. Any infringement on the process
of pure inquiry, no matter how minor, is re-
garded ultimately as a denial, or at least a disal-
Unfriendly
lowance, of truth. assessments
Competitiveness races in the veins of both. How do these not-so-dissimilar groups per-
As keen observers of inconsistency, journalists ceive each other? The scientist sees the journal-
and scientists are equally good players at the ist as imprecise, mercurial and possibly dan-
game of “gotcha.” Most act in accord with gerous—“a man who knows the price of
George Bernard Shaw’s dictum, “You don’t everything, and the value of nothing,” to bor-
learn to hold your own in the world by stand- row Oscar Wilde’s phrase.3 The journalist sees
ing on guard, but by attacking, and getting well the scientist as narrowly focused, self-ab-
hammered yourself.”1 sorbed, cold-eyed and arrogant. Or as Ted
“You sit in at contentious scientific meet- O’Brien, news director for Boston’s WABU-TV,
ings,” Carl Sagan wrote, “You find university noted on the survey form he returned to the
colloquia in which the speaker has hardly got- First Amendment Center: “They are somewhat
ten 30 seconds into the talk before there are superior in their attitude to those not of their
devastating questions and comments from the world.”
audience.”2 In fact, most experienced reporters today
Stern self-criticism and constant re-exami- are well-educated and broad-based in their
nation are also characteristic of both profes- outlook. Very often they are voracious readers
sions. “I don’t think there’s any profession to- and widely traveled. The best of them keep
day or occupation that spends more time large personal files, phone books and diaries

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
and, if they work for the When tortoise
LARSON © 1993. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE.

larger, better-funded me-
dia organizations, they
meets hare
also have access to enor- It is hard to overestimate the value of scientific
mous databases and ex- contributions—most of them now taken for
cellent research staffs. granted—to modern life. Indeed, a new com-
Most are excellent lis- plaint from scientists is that the public no
teners and sharp interro- longer appreciates their work, their long years
gators. If there is a sliver of training and the many blind alleys they
of doubt in a proposi- must traverse—what Oppenheimer described
tion, they will find it; if as a “long tunnel, at the end of which is the
an argument is possible, light of discovery.” The nuclear scientist freely
they will develop it. They admitted, however, that the complexities of
are by nature curious, modern science do make this tunnel “discour-
and by habit good story- aging for the layman to enter, be he an artist,
tellers. If forced to take scholar, or man of affairs.”6
sides, they will probably Or be he/she a journalist, we might add.
go with the underdog. “When we talk about the marriage of sci-
14
Many consider their ence and journalism, our dilemma is clear,”
work a high calling, a says science writer Kathy Sawyer of The Wash-
form of quasi-public ser- ington Post. “Science is slow, patient, precise,
vice. careful, conservative and complicated. Journal-
Reporters come in two ism is hungry for headlines and drama, fast,
basic types: general as- short, very imprecise at times.”
signment (who cover any Many of the misunderstandings between
breaking news item) and scientists and journalists proceed from the fact
specialists. In some newsrooms, these roles that the disciplines demand two completely
overlap. Specialists—or beat reporters—are of- different standards of evidence. To use a legal
ten found covering politics, business, sports, analogy: scientists work to meet the standards
consumer issues, fashion, food, entertainment set for criminal cases (which must be proven
and science. “beyond a reasonable doubt”); journalists, be-
Scientists come in as many, if not more, cause of deadline pressures, more often work
types and temperaments. Theirs too is a world at the level of civil cases (where preponderance
of generalists and specialists, the latter increas- of evidence is the standard of proof).
ingly sub-specialized in modern times. In years Matched against the minute-by-minute de-
past, inspiration alone could propel an experi- mands of journalism, science would seem to be
menter to lofty discoveries, but today a science a leisurely calling. But remove the time ele-
career doesn’t really begin until the Ph.D. is ment, and you find two professions that are
earned. This means “that science is cumulative quite similar. Both journalists and scientists are
in a quite special sense,” according to J. Robert data collectors who utilize their experience and
Oppenheimer, the American physicist who di- insight to bring understanding and order out
rected development of the atomic bomb.4 In of uncertainty. The pressures for accuracy, sig-
the minds of many, scientists’ scholarly nificance and timeliness are roughly equal.
achievements elevate them to a special plane in It’s the dissimilarity in output that can create
American society, but this intellectual status is tension and anxiety when the two cultures in-
also why “the growing edge of science seems so teract. As survey respondent Jim Loy of
inaccessible to common experience.”5 WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., put it:
“Scientists and journalists have a lot in common

Chapter 2 Common Denominators
in the search for knowledge and nothing in identical words may

ATLANTIC FEATURE © 1995 Mark Parisi. Used with permission.
common when it comes to reporting results.” assume different
Scientists are notoriously reluctant to state meanings within the
unequivocally that their most recent discovery differing contexts of
is a “newsworthy” event, a “breakthrough,” science and news.
which of course is what the journalist needs/ “Often the very
wants. By its nature, the work of most scientists fact that the words of
proceeds by degrees, step-by-step, not with a science are the same
“Good-Lord-Mabel-listen-to-this” leap forward. as those of our com-
In many cases, the importance of scientific work mon life and tongue
is not immediately obvious, sometimes even to can be more mislead-
the scientist. In almost all cases, discoveries are ing than enlighten-
only an incremental part of a larger undertak- ing, more frustrating
ing. Working within the bounds of the accepted to understanding
“scientific method”—observe, hypothesize, test, than recognizable
replicate—only the most foolhardy experiment- technical jargon,”
ers would make the kind of sweeping claims for wrote Oppenheimer.
their results that headline writers live for. “For the words of sci-
15
Journalists, for their part, contend that if ence— ‘relativity,’ if
they wait for every conceivable issue to be you will, or ‘atom,’ or
settled and every controversy to be resolved, ‘mutation,’ or ‘ac-
the story will never be told. Not that reporters tion’—have been
and editors don’t respect the integrity of facts given a refinement, a
and interpretation. Like scientists, they must precision, and in the
make the best judgment possible based on the end a wholly altered meaning.”7
information at hand. But journalists are com- Take the term “theory,” for example. Theory
pelled to make such calls on a day-to-day, is one of those words that scientists define dif-
sometimes minute-to-minute basis, whereas ferently from everyone else. To a scientist, a
scientists often have months or years to com- theory is not, in the vernacular of the street, a
plete and publish their research. tossed-off idea or opinion (as in, “Oh, that’s
just some theory”). A scientific theory is a
Language well-developed assemblage of ideas confirmed
by abundant research that has been conducted
barriers over a long period of time. In terms of the de-
Language use is another key source of the ten- gree to which it is accepted as fact, a theory is
sion between scientists and journalists. The just short of a law. And scientific “laws” are not
fact that journalists frequently overlook or subject to interpretation.
minimize the precise, qualified language that On the other hand, the single complaint
communicates the tentative nature of research most often expressed by journalists surveyed
findings angers and dismays many scientists. for this report had to do with scientists’ depen-
Scientists in the survey conducted for this re- dence on scientific jargon. It sometimes seems
port indicated they are often reluctant to talk as if the whole scientific establishment has ab-
to the media for fear of having their research sent-mindedly misplaced English somewhere
mischaracterized and distorted. between high school graduation and the
The irony is that both journalists and scien- awarding of the Ph.D.
tists consider themselves fastidious users of Because the speed at which information
language. The problem may lie in the ends to moves is now increasing exponentially around
which each uses words and in the fact that the globe, it’s important that the language bar-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
rier be bridged soon. It’s a crucial time for the Journalists hardly ever have measurements
relationship between scientists and journalists. of such precision; almost always they are
As Kathy Sawyer notes: “The new technologies forced to depend on notoriously inaccurate
are increasing, not reducing, the gap in our eyewitness descriptions, imperfect recollec-
perspectives and culture.” tions, and interpretations provided by a second
The current accelera- or third party—someone who may have a fal-
tion of information lible memory at best and a hidden agenda at
imposes increasing worst. By training and temperament, however,
pressure on journalists reporters and editors are prepared to hone in
to make ever quicker on what they can confirm and qualify what
judgments about what they cannot. A well-written news story, like a
the public sees and scientific paper, will feature facts and caveats
hears. The rate at and offer more than one interpretation if the
which this is occur- data warrant.
ring is something new. In science, on the other hand, it is a cardinal
Within the lifetimes of rule that any experiment must be constructed
journalists not yet in such a way that the data can show not only
middle-aged, there that the hypothesis is true but also that it
16
was a period when Sawyer might be false. In the parlance of science, the
deadlines came hypothesis must be “falsifiable.”
only twice a day, determined by the morning Here’s an example: In the early part of this
and evening newspapers and telecasts. In the century, Albert Einstein postulated the revolu-
newsrooms of today’s all-news channels, dead- tionary idea that light rays could be bent by
lines are virtually continuous. And as more and gravity. Smart guy, Einstein, but the demands
more newspapers develop web sites, their of the scientific method wouldn’t let him just
deadlines also are shifting to meet the demands leave it at that. He had to propose a way to test
of Internet surfers as well as the requirements this hypothesis, one way or the other. And he
of the nightly press run. It’s a truism in news as did.
well as science that, as speed increases, so does He proposed that, during the next solar
the opportunity for error. eclipse, when the moon would be blocking
nearly all the light from the sun (the largest
Margin gravitational object in the neighborhood), sci-
entists should look carefully at the stars that
of error passed behind the sun, stars whose locations
This point brings us to yet another difference were precisely known. If these stars should ap-
between science and journalism: the margin of pear displaced or altered slightly, this would
error. indicate that their light rays had bent slightly
Scientists have an extraordinary advantage as they barreled toward Earth-based observers.
over journalists: they usually can (and, indeed, If the light rays were bent—and the stars
they must) devise valid tests for their hypoth- therefore appeared to shift location—the
eses. Journalists are frequently thrust into ex- theory would be proved. If the stars appeared
ceptionally ambiguous environments in which in the spots where they were expected, the
the outcome is completely unpredictable. theory would be falsified. Needless to say, the
“Knowledge is what we get when an ob- rays were bent by the gravitational pull of the
server, preferably a scientifically trained ob- sun, and Einstein was proved right.
server, provides us with a copy of reality that
we can all recognize,” wrote historian Christo-
pher Lasch a few years ago.8

Chapter 2 Common Denominators
Objective government performance, quality of life, busi-
vs. subjective ness and cultural trends. It is in this arena of in-
ternally generated enterprise stories that most
A fourth major difference between scientists Pulitzer Prizes and other prestigious awards are
and journalists involves the concept of objec- won.
tivity. By its very nature, science takes objectiv- One final divergence between journalism
ity as its central premise. Research results must and science concerns the capability scientists
be, as noted above, falsifiable, and are, by defi- have for accurately measuring the effects of
nition, replicable. Therefore, the vast majority their work: Successful vaccines cure diseases.
of lab-based and field researchers make every The Hubble telescope photographs a comet
effort to be unbiased, lest they be unmasked crashing into Jupiter. A spectroscope identifies
and ridiculed by their peers. the classic signature of each natural chemical
This is not to say that every scientist is honest element. Scientific laws are reduced to math-
and above temptation. The very fact that the ematical expressions that permit results of fu-
term “junk science” has come into the vernacular ture experiments to be predicted with various
indicates that the public knows not all “science” levels of confidence.
results are objective or legitimate. It’s also easy to On the other hand, journalists can seldom
read many different meanings into the same set know anything with certitude. The practice of
17
of data. But these are exceptions to the rule. journalism depends on adapting to the vagar-
Journalism, on the other hand, is a largely ies of human unpredictability. Accurate assess-
subjective enterprise. In fact, some journalists ments of eventual outcomes are impossible for
have given up on the notion of objectivity alto- reporters covering the Middle East peace pro-
gether and adopted instead the concept of cess, the most recent tax legislation, suburban
journalistic “fairness,” which has stirred yet an- zoning, official malfeasance, the race for city
other debate within the profession. council, abortion, gay rights or the environ-
The scientific method—which includes ob- ment.
servation, hypothesis, testing, theory, testing, Added to this is the multiplier effect of the
proof, peer-review and, finally, publication— publicity itself. Does a politician act out of
may require months or years to follow its concern for public welfare or because of an
course. It bears little resemblance to the jour- embarrassing story? Are the air and water
nalistic process practiced at many newspapers cleaner because a bureaucrat noticed that riv-
and television stations. A comparable journal- ers were catching on fire and children were
istic cascade for breaking news would be: iden- choking or because the media put and kept
tify event or tip (from daybook, briefing or these issues relentlessly on the public’s agenda?
leak), check with sources and files, obtain There’s no way to know.
comment and additional details, check facts,
publish or transmit—a process routinely con-
cluded in less than a working day. Indeed,
Changing times,
that’s why the end product is called “news”— concurrent threats
something that is new or different from what With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fed-
was reported in the last edition or on the latest eral R&D funding has begun to dry up. The
broadcast. days of throwing money at problems—no
It should be noted that commingled with questions asked—in the name of national de-
this sometimes frantic effort to chronicle the fense are long gone now, as the nation struggles
immediate is the longer-term commitment of to bring the budget deficit under control. Sci-
responsible journalists to document fundamen- ence funding is dependent on proof of favor-
tal societal movements—health and safety, na- able cost/benefit ratios as never before. Scien-
tional defense, education, welfare, economics, tists whose research doesn’t immediately

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
translate into new or improved consumer “It’s like hunting. Hunters used to bag deer
products are at a disadvantage in the current for a purpose—feeding their families. Now we
environment. The scientific community is bag deer—or public figures—for the sheer
worried that the nation is preparing to cut sport of it. I don’t count it an improvement.”9
back on the total dollars spent on pure sci- In many newspapers and television stations
ence—that is, on federal support of research today, reporters and editors are fighting against
and development—with no prospect that pri- their own management, who are in turn
vate industry will pick up the slack. squeezed by stockholders. Journalists are in-
Concurrently, journalists are wrestling with creasingly asked to select and construct not
the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with their just intrinsically interesting or important sto-
basic product. For years, the public has given ries, but those that are somehow helpful to the
the news media very low marks in opinion sur- audience—“news you can use,” in the current
veys. As a group, the women and men who re- parlance.
port the news are not very highly regarded by The news outlets from which most Ameri-
most Americans. No one really knows why. One cans get their impression of the day’s events
popular “theory” (in the journalistic, not the are largely owned and operated by business
scientific, sense) is that journalists have become conglomerates that put a premium on ratings
too detached from their audience; they dig up, and circulation with a direct impact on the
18
plow around in and sift through matters most bottom line. The more people who watch or
people couldn’t care less about. read, the higher the profits. And profits in the
“In many ways, journalism has become news business these days are very, very good.
more interesting and more expert than ever,” All the major networks and most of the ma-
observes columnist William Raspberry of The jor-market TV stations they own are parts of
Washington Post. “The people attracted to the gigantic business enterprises—NBC (General
business are far smarter on average than they Electric), CBS (Westinghouse), ABC (Disney),
used to be, and from more diverse back- CNN (Time-Warner), Fox (Rupert Murdoch’s
grounds besides. Journalism is as important infotainment empire, NewsCorp). Local televi-
as it’s ever been. sion stations, especially those in major cities,
“But at the same time it has become less are often owned by the same companies. Oth-
civic: that is, less concerned about using its ers are parts of smaller, but still influential,
power and influence for citizen education and chains.
public improvement. A majority of U.S. newspapers and maga-
zines, with a few notable exceptions, belong to
large companies that often have overlapping
television interests. How large? In the spring of
1997, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, sec-
ond largest in the country, bought The Kansas
City Star, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and two
smaller newspapers owned by Walt Disney Co.
for $1.65 billion. In 1993, The New York Times
Reprinted with permission of Copley News Service.

bought The Boston Globe for $1.1 billion.
Noting this modern consolidation, Rich-
ard Harwood wrote in The Washington Post,
“Wall Street underwrites the mergers and
technology of the industry and exerts great
influence dictated by the interests of investors
and shareholders in maximizing profits and
efficiencies.” Further, “it has become neces-

Chapter 2 Common Denominators
sary in this more placid era to create new way of standing out in this crowd, offering
agendas and missions that the press is still something viewers can’t get elsewhere. Yet if
struggling to define. News priorities are less that were really the goal, the nightly news
obvious. Our audiences have new and more would be steering away from O.J. and JonBenet
personal agendas and many alternative Ramsey (the very stories that are covered ad
sources of information and entertainment.”10 nauseam on every local newscast and maga-
NBC News revamped its news agenda by zine show in creation) .…”11
de-emphasizing Washington, foreign and po-
litical coverage in favor of stories that, accord-
ing to Time magazine “… are more likely to go
What does the
for the gut and the pop-cultural hot button.” public want?
Time, which has itself undergone numerous But if journalists are alienated from the pub-
style changes in recent years, noted that “…the lic—not reporting what most people want to
NBC Nightly News has had a remarkable read and see—what should they be covering?
makeover: fewer stories per night, moving the Surveys are continually being taken to deter-
broadcast closer to a magazine-show approach; mine the public’s appetites. Consultants, with
less traditional news from Washington and their charts and graphs, abound in the indus-
more on user-friendly topics like health, the try. Yet the answers remain elusive.
19
family and consumer issues; and a jazzier for- Moreover, a corollary argument continues
mat, with lots of catchy labels for continuing among editors and news directors: Do you sim-
segments. ply give readers and viewers what they “want,” as
“The success of NBC’s new approach,” Time determined by surveys and focus groups, or do
continued, “has pointed up the problem facing you tell them what they “need” to know, based on
every news organization: how to attract an au- the news director’s or editor’s best judgment?
dience that seems less and less interested in The range of potential answers is as broad
news and yet, at the same time, is bombarded as American society is diverse. A focus group
with it from a multitude of reputable and dis- dominated by macho males might want foot-
reputable sources. The mantra among network ball on the front page each day; a group com-
executives is that the evening news must find a posed of working mothers might want school
Reprinted with special permission of North America Syndicate.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
and day-care stories; a group of retirees might means the primary danger ahead is plain old
want mutual-fund news. An editor imposing inertia.
his/her “instincts” might opt for congressional At a forum on “Enhancing the Dialogue
inaction stories, or a wine column or “tits, tots Between the Scientific Community and the
and tears,” as one former New York Daily News News Media,” held several years ago under the
editor put it. auspices of the American Association for the
Patently, reporters and news managers are Advancement of Science and the University
enmeshed in, and often bewildered by, the same of Puerto Rico, science writer Boyce
uncertainties and contradictions that character- Rensberger of The Washington Post said,
ize the larger society. Many, in their most pri- “There are conferences like this that have
vate moments, will say they vastly prefer stories been going on for a number of years, but it
of significance and import—stories in which does not seem to solve the problem.”
the public seems to have little interest right now. Finally the time is ripe for solution, in large
If that’s the case—and we have no reason to part because both professions perceive their
doubt it—a heavy responsibility rests on the existence at risk, and also because there are ob-
shoulders of both journalists and scientists. vious ways in which the communication of
Their obligation is to make strong and compel- science to the public can be systematically im-
ling arguments for continued support of the proved.
20
benefits science and high technology have The great detective-story writer Raymond
brought and promise to bring to society at large. Chandler got it about right. “There are two
The scientific community as a whole needs kinds of truth,” he wrote, “the truth that lights
to help the public understand complicated is- the way and the truth that warms the heart. The
sues by providing a context for the sometimes first of these is science, and the second is art …
contradictory work of individual investigators. Without art, science would be as useless as a
Journalists and the public are disconcerted by pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber.
conflicting scientific claims played up by advo- Without science, art would become a crude
cacy groups. Global warming, the value of mess of folklore and emotional quackery.”12
mammograms, second-hand smoke, toxic sub- Substitute “journalism” for “art.”
stances, breast implants, environmental mat-
ters—there is a whole range of issues on which
scientists seem sharply divided. Journalists
whose job it is to explain various scientific
chapter endnotes
1 George Bernard Shaw, Getting Married, 1908.
claims to their viewers and readers seldom 2 Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Ran-
have time to determine credibility by judging dom House, 1996).
the proof on their own. As a result, they can 3 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891.
4 J. Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Under-
find themselves “whipsawed by advocates,” as
standing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953).
journalist Chris Warden of Los Angeles termed 5 Ibid.

it on his survey form. 6 Ibid.
7 Oppenheimer, op. cit.
8 Christopher Lasch, “Journalism, Publicity, and the Lost Art

A new interest of Political Argument,” Gannett Center Journal (New York:
Gannett Foundation, Spring 1990).
in interaction 9 William Raspberry, “Good News That Works,” Washington

Post, April 21, 1997.
There is one intriguing new finding in the sur- 10 Richard Harwood, “So Much for the Scoop,” The Washing-

vey conducted for this report: an apparent will- ton Post, April 7, 1997.
11 Richard Zoglin, “Newscast in Overdrive,” Time (Feb. 17,
ingness among both scientists and journalists
1997).
to bridge the disquieting gap that separates 12 Raymond Chandler, Notebooks of Raymond Chandler (New

them. Neither side thinks the issues are too York: Ecco, 1976).
complex to be understood and reported. This

Chapter 2 Common Denominators
C H A P T E R T H R E E

Dams, Diversions
& Bottlenecks
… The scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding
or a single conjecture from publicity.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832

I
t would be inappropriate to say that the na- cate that knowledge to the general public. They
tion is wholly deprived of science news. In tend to be wordy, unnecessarily detailed and
fact, there is a great deal available to those overly technical. They fall into jargon that is
who know where to find it. incomprehensible to anyone outside their dis-
Several major newspapers, most promi- ciplines.
nently among them The New York Times, Los “Traditional scientific training,” says Dr.
Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Neal Lane, “does not prepare its graduates very
Wall Street Journal, seldom miss or fail to de- well … to talk plain English!”
velop an important science story. Likewise, the NASA top executive
21
national magazines stay on top of major dis- Daniel J. Goldin is
coveries. In addition, specialized publications waging a campaign in
such as Scientific American, The Sciences, Sci- his own agency to cut
ence magazine and several score trade publica- down on science and
tions and other peer-reviewed journals offer tech-speak. “I am a
the latest in research news. rocket scientist,” he
The question is: Why, except for these pub- says. “I go into our
lications, which reach only a fraction of the NASA laboratories
American populace, do most of the American and I talk to our
news media largely ignore science? What pre- people. … I say, ‘Stop,
vents the television networks, the local televi- I don’t understand
sion news operations, the radio news services what you’re talking
(National Public Radio notwithstanding) and about.’ Now, I have the Goldin
other newspapers—the sources from which luxury of doing it as the boss. But could you
most Americans get their news—from cover- imagine: I don’t understand because they make
ing this key aspect of American life? up words. They literally invent words.”
There seem to be four major barriers to the The ability to focus narrowly on the scien-
effective communication of new scientific tific work at hand is an admirable quality
knowledge, each of which will be treated at when a Cold War threatens to heat up or when
length in later chapters. The first impediment human survival is at stake in the race to con-
is imposed by scientists themselves. quer a dangerous disease. At such times, soci-
ety forgoes explanations concerning its invest-
Scientists who don’t ment in science in exchange for quick results.
But challenges to survival having been met, so-
speak English ciety once again focuses on issues like tax cuts,
To begin with, scientists as a group are not effi- downsizing and devolution—and expects
cient or effective in explaining their work to a simple answers from scientists about the basic
lay audience, primarily because they are ori- value of the work it is asked to support.
ented and focused on the research itself, and These expectations are further complicated
are not trained particularly well to communi- by the public’s tendency to expect scientists—

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
because they are held in such high esteem—to ducted for this report. Twenty-six percent of
be all things to all people, to snap Walter the scientists who responded said they had
Mitty-like from their burners, beakers and never been interviewed by a reporter; 45 per-
computers and transform themselves into flu- cent said they are interviewed only “every few
ent guides who can explain the mysteries of years.” Just 4 percent said they talk to journal-
the universe. ists once a month or more often.
Reality, of course, is quite different. While The inability of scientists and engineers to
some scientists and engineers are extremely communicate clearly and regularly with those
gifted in their fields, the vast majority are no outside their disciplines all but dams the mas-
more skilled at communicating with the sive cascade of new knowledge at its source, re-
masses than anyone else. ducing the flood to a lesser flow that is fun-
“Of course scientists are people,” said Carl neled toward reporters.
Sagan. “Who ever imagined anything different?
And of course scientists are subject to all of the
failings and the vulnerabilities and weaknesses
Reporters who don’t
that politicians and theologians and everybody speak science
else among us are.” 1 Many otherwise well-educated writers and re-
Not only are many scientists and engineers porters have never taken the time to become
22
isolated, unskilled communicators, they also familiar with the culture of science, its lan-
tend increasingly to specialize in fields that are guage and its methods.
simultaneously growing narrower in scope and According to Reese
greater in number. Cleghorn, president of
“We are, of course, an ignorant lot,” ob- the American Journal-
served physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer at ism Review and dean
mid-century. “Even the best of us knows how of the College of Jour-
to do only a very few things well; and of what nalism, University of
is available in knowledge of fact, whether of Maryland: “Reporters
science or of history, only the smallest part is and editors may still
in any one man’s knowing.”2 have the hang of poli-
There is something else as well. Scientists tics and government
are often punished by their colleagues if they and certainly the yen
go public. According to Ira Flatow, host of Sci- for covering the tex-
ence Friday on National Public Radio, many tures of lifestyles, but
scientists “… are fearful of speaking out be- they remain largely ig- Cleghorn
cause of the [threat of] ruination from their norant when it comes to the sciences, for in-
colleagues. There are a lot of scientists who stance, where many of the new frontiers are to
would like to talk to you, and would like very be found.”
much to talk about their work, but they will Certainly, reporters aren’t expected to have
become anathema in their laboratory. I’ve a handle on all the esoterica associated with re-
found this in 25 years that I’ve been covering search and engineering. But journalists tend
scientists. Over and over and over again it’s not to have even a liberal-arts background in
been told to me, ‘I can’t speak to you because I the sciences. Few understand the scientific
won’t be able to walk down the hallway the method, the dictates of peer review, the rea-
next day without people coming up to me and sons for the caveats and linguistic precision
saying, “How dare you talk to the press?” ’ ” scientists employ when speaking of their work.
Whatever the reason, the vast majority of No less a journalistic luminary than Walter
scientists rarely ever talk to journalists. This is Cronkite discussed his own insecurities as a
one of the key findings from the survey con- science reporter in his book A Reporter’s Life.

Chapter 3 Dams, Diversions & Bottlenecks
To report accurately on the U.S. space program by and large, rose in the organization through
required many long hours of study and re- covering politics or business or, in a few cases,
search into such arcane topics as “the idiosyn- sports—the triumvirate of journalism, as it has
crasies of the physics of moving bodies in the been practiced over the years—plus a good
weightlessness and atmosphere-free environ- crime story every so often.”
ment of space,” Cronkite wrote. He tried his One of the most experienced science jour-
best to experience the training of the astro- nalists in the nation, Wilford urges editors to
nauts. He rode centrifuges and a converted expand their thinking. “Science is really a lat-
Boeing 707 that could simulate weightlessness, ter-day part of the journalistic menu. It really
the latter known as the “Vomit Comet.” began as a regular thing with World War II,
“I have often won- particularly in the aftermath of World War II.”
dered,” Cronkite wrote Editors, however, resent being told what to
in retrospect, “if my put in their papers, even by respected big-city
late University of writers.
Texas physics profes- “Maybe those sto-
sor, wherever he re- ries are of tremendous
sides in his immortal interest and impor-
reward, was aware of tance to the readers of
23
my CBS space broad- The New York Times,”
casts. It was that same says Michael Gartner,
Professor Boner who Pulitzer Prize-winning
failed me in first-year editor (and owner) of
physics because, the Ames [Iowa] Tri-
among other things, Cronkite bune, “but maybe
I couldn’t understand why a pulley works. If he [they’re] not of such
heard me explaining orbital mechanics to an importance to the
audience of trusting millions, I’m afraid the readers of the Omaha
good professor would spin in his grave.”3 [Neb.] World Herald. Gartner
Maybe [those readers] have interests that are
Gatekeepers who more important.”
Gartner, the former president of NBC
are uncertain News, says, “I live in Iowa now, and the biggest
Information funneled through journalists soon story in Iowa is hog lots. That is a science story.
meets a third obstacle: the editors and produc- It is not basic scientific research, maybe, but it
ers who decide which stories will be printed or sure is a science story.”
aired. These gatekeepers determine the amount Gartner feels science is adequately covered
and type of science and technology news that and that those who lobby for increased cover-
will ultimately reach the public. They must de- age “sound like the chamber of commerce or
cide the relative importance of each new scien- the PTA”—just another special-interest group
tific discovery or technological development. complaining of neglect.
Few editors feel qualified to make sound Columnist and commentator David Gergen
judgments about the merit of science stories. profoundly disagrees. He sees a new division
And others, according to John Noble Wilford developing in American society, one based not
of The New York Times, underestimate the abil- on money or ethnicity, but on where one lives
ity of their readers to understand well-written and which paper he or she subscribes to—or
science stories. can afford to subscribe to. The issue is access to
“I think a lot of editors do that all over the knowledge.
country,” Wilford says, “partly because editors,

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“The top newspapers are very good [at re- increasingly separated out by information and
porting science and technology],” he says, “but understanding. And our growing issue is:
there’s a very definite class bias in the way that whether the people who are not in that top
information is shared in society. Just as we are segment [that is getting] a chance to read The
separated out in our society by income, we are New York Times or [subscribing] to the Los An-
geles Times or The Wall Street Journal … can
share and participate in their own futures.”
National Science Foundation
Science Survey An ill-equipped
The quiz given by researchers for the National Science Foundation as part of a larger
public
When the once-mighty cascade of scientific
survey to determine how much American adults know about basic science issues, as
and technological information finally reaches
well as what their attitudes are towards science and technology. The survey was con-
ducted for the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 1996. An-
the American public, it’s not much more than
swers are below, along with the percentage in the survey who answered correctly. a trickle. Sadder still, many Americans don’t
know what to make of the information that
1 The center of the Earth is very hot. true or false gets through. They’re ill-prepared to receive it.
2 The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. true or false Still, in survey after survey the American
24
3 Electrons are smaller than atoms. true or false public says it wants to know more about sci-
4 The continents on which we live have been ence and technology.
moving their location for millions of years and Inspirational, yes. But it’s also quite possible
will continue to move in the future. true or false
that people respond to pollsters’ questions with
5 Humans beings, as we know them today,
developed from earlier species of animals. true or false what they think are the “correct” answers. Editors
6 The earliest human beings lived at the same time bring this up, because there is evidence that few
as the dinosaurs. true or false newspaper readers (outside of those who take The
7 Which travels faster: light or sound? New York Times and a few other publications) are
8 How long does it take for the avid and faithful readers of science stories.
Earth to go around the sun: 1 day, 1 month or 1 year (Whether the science stories ignored by such read-
9 Tell me, in your own words, what is DNA? ers are poorly chosen and/or written is another is-
10 Tell me, in your own words, what is a molecule? sue.)
Still, there is little question that the Ameri-
Answers, along with the percentage who had correct responses:
can educational system has failed to produce a
1 True. 78%
reading and viewing public prepared to grasp
2 True. 85%
the nuance and significance of scientific devel-
3 True. 44%
opments. In one survey, only about a quarter
4 True. 79%
of Americans considered themselves well-
5 True. 44%
enough informed about the “nature of scien-
6 False. 48%
tific inquiry” to make adequate judgments
7 Light. 75%
about reports they might read or see in the
8 One year. 47%
media.4 Such a statement reinforces the views
9 DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a large molecule in the
of some editors that the public is not really
chromosomes that contains the genetic information for each cell. 21%
hungry for science stories, because it won’t un-
10 Molecule is the smallest unit of a chemical compound capable of existing
independently while retaining properties of the original substance. 9% derstand them.
Note: The survey was conducted by researchers at the International Center for the Advancement of Sci-
entific Literacy at the Chicago Academy of Sciences for the National Science Foundation. The sample size
of the survey quiz was 2,006. The people were selected by random digital dialing from among American
adults who have telephones. The survey was conducted by telephone in October 1995. The margin of er-
ror was plus or minus 3 percent.

Chapter 3 Dams, Diversions & Bottlenecks
Dr. Gerald Wheeler, Public insecurity, gatekeeper bias, reportorial
executive director of uncertainty and scientific insularity have com-
the National Science bined to produce a swaggering national popula-
Teachers Association, tion proud to lead the world in science and
agrees that “the issue technology but woefully unable to understand
with the general pub- or appreciate much more than flash and gad-
lic is an indifference or gets.
an insecurity.” A “Our willingness to be ignorant seems to
nuclear physicist who know no bounds,” says Cronkite.5
also has been involved
in producing educa-
tional science televi-
chapter endnotes
1 Carl Sagan quoted in “A Conversation with Stephen
sion programs,
Budiansky,” U.S. News & World Report, March 18, 1996.
Wheeler says the pub- 2 Oppenheimer, op. cit.
lic loves the Wheeler 3 Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life (New York: Knopf, 1997),
sound of science-related words. p. 280.
4 Dennis Normile, “Global Interest High, Knowledge Low,”
“They love ‘Einstein,’ ‘superconductor’, ‘su- Science Magazine (15 Nov. 1996).
per’ this, ‘super’ that. But there is something of 5 Cronkite, op.cit., p. 284.
25
a reluctance to stay with a particular article”
long enough to understand it, he observes.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
26

Chapter 3 Dams, Diversions & Bottlenecks
C H A P T E R F O U R

Analyzing
Current Attitudes
“Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones.
But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap
of stones is a house.”
—Jules Henri Poincaré, 1854-1912

T
he yearlong study leading to publica- technical and reparable rather than institu-
tion of Worlds Apart began with a survey tional and irreconcilable.
of scientists and journalists to probe
their attitudes toward each other and
their views on transmitting and translating new
How scientists
scientific information through the media to the view journalists
public.1 Among the survey findings: Only 11 percent of the scientists surveyed ex-
• Scientists complained that reporters don’t pressed a great deal of confidence in the press,
understand many of the basics of their meth- while 22 percent said they have hardly any.
27
ods, including the proper interpretation of sta- Two-thirds said “only some.” As for TV, 48 per-
tistics, probabilities and risk. cent of the scientists said they have hardly any
• Journalists complained that scientists are confidence in it.
much too wrapped up in esoteric jargon and Scientists were asked to rate the news
fail to explain their work simply and cogently. sources they watch, read or listen to most of-
• Scientists said the news media oversim- ten. Most rated national television newscasts as
plify complex issues. only good or fair; less than 10 percent said ex-
• Reporters said scientists don’t understand cellent. When it comes to reporting science
that “news” is a perishable commodity that must stories, 30 percent said national TV does a
be made relevant to the reader and viewer. poor job, and nearly half said the quality is fair.
• Both groups said the American public is Scientists gave their favorite national news-
often confused and gullible, due largely to the papers much better marks for general cover-
low level of scientific literacy in the population age—nearly one-third ranked the national pa-
at large. pers as excellent and another 49 percent as
In its broadest terms, the survey indicated good. Nearly half the scientists said the na-
that both groups recognize serious shortcom- tional newspapers they read do a good to ex-
ings in the reporting of science stories, and it cellent job of covering science and technology.
highlighted what were viewed as the impedi- “The coverage of science and technology in
ments. Many of the views were strongly held. the printed press varies tremendously,” noted
In fact, in First Amendment Center studies of Dr. Peter Rosen, a physicist at the University of
other institutional entities covered by the Texas at Arlington, on his survey form. “Isolated
news media—the clergy, corporations, the newspapers like The Dallas Morning News and
military, even politicians—nowhere has the The New York Times have really good science
distrust toward journalists been so pro- sections and publish them on a regular weekly
nounced or so pervasive as in the science/ basis. Most other newspapers have little or no
technology community. coverage, and what they do have does not reach
The good news: a large majority of both sci- a high, professional level. News magazines are a
entists and journalists feel there is no funda- bit better. Regular network television gives sig-
mental reason why the process cannot be sig- nificant attention to medicine and health, but
nificantly improved. The flaws are viewed as not to other scientific issues on a regular basis.”

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Scientific esteem for local TV newscasts was 11 percent said good, and 1 percent excellent.
dramatically lower. More than one-quarter of Dr. B.K. Dicter of Acton, Mass., termed ra-
the scientists and engineers (28 percent) dio and television coverage of science “abomi-
termed local TV news poor, and another 42 nable,” complaining that reports are dumbed
percent said it is only fair. When it comes to down to “try to make [the information] per-
covering science, 51 percent said local TV news sonally ‘relevant’ to the viewer or listener.”
does a poor job, and 37 percent said fair; only

Scientists’ confidence Scientists’ ratings of
in various institutions science & technology coverage
(Fig. 1) by various news media
(Fig. 2)
SCIENTISTS who have A GREAT DEAL OF CONFIDENCE

75%
SCIENTISTS who rate the medium EXCELLENT

19%

14%
28
7%
55% 5%
54% 4%
3%
1%

National National National Local Local National Local
paper radio magazine Radio paper TV news TV news

14%
11%

4%
2%

Television Press Scientific Medicine Supreme Major Organized
Community Court Companies Labor
48%
1%
3% 53%
5%

61%

19%
22%

77% 76%
78%

89%
SCIENTISTS who rate the medium POOR or FAIR
45%
48%

SCIENTISTS who have HARDLY ANY CONFIDENCE

Chapter 4 Analyzing Current Attitudes
Nor were local newspapers highly regarded. other sore spot with scientists: 61 percent said
Twenty-one percent of the scientists termed the media have overblown the risks associated
their general coverage poor, 39 percent said with various substances and activities.
fair, 33 percent said good and only 7 percent When asked whether the news media un-
said excellent. Science reporting in local papers derestimate the public by assuming that read-
was termed poor by 37 percent, fair by 40 per- ers, listeners and viewers want stories about
cent, good by 19 percent, and excellent by 4 scandals instead of stories about major chal-
percent. lenges to science and technology, 71 percent of
More than 50 percent of the scientists sur- the scientists said yes.
veyed disagreed with the statement: “There is a Are the news media just as important as sci-
professional code among the news media that entists in maintaining U.S. technological supe-
ensures high standards of journalism.” riority? Half the scientists said no. Perhaps part
of the reason for this view is that more than
Negative half the scientists polled felt the news media
have “no appreciation of the need for funding
perceptions of basic scientific research and development.”
Asked whether they agreed strongly or some-
what—or disagreed strongly or somewhat—with
a series of negative statements about the news
Scientists look 29

media, scientists indicated their complete lack of at themselves
confidence in the competence of journalists. Self-doubt is not an issue for most scientists
By an overwhelming margin (91 percent), sci- and engineers; 77 percent of those surveyed
entists agreed that few members of the news me- have a great deal of confidence in themselves
dia understand the nature of science and tech- and their colleagues. An overwhelming 80 per-
nology, such as the “tentativeness of most cent of them disagreed with the statement that
scientific discovery and the complexities of the they waste taxpayers’ money.
results.” Most scientists (72 percent) said they do
Eighty-eight percent of the scientists said want the public to know about their work, but
the news media’s top managers are more inter- nearly 40 percent said they are afraid of being
ested in sales than in telling the public what it embarrassed before their peers by news stories
needs to know. According to 79 percent of the about their work.
science respondents, the media are more inter- Most scientists and engineers are willing to
ested in trendy discoveries than in basic re- talk with the media, but many said they sel-
search. And 76 percent felt sensationalism is of dom do. Only 4 percent said they talk to the
more interest to the media than scientific media as often as once a month. Forty-five
truth. Many of the scientists who wrote com- percent said they talk to reporters every few
ments on their survey forms used words such years. One respondent said the last time he
as “sensational,” “flashy,” “quirky” and “spec- talked to a reporter was in 1959. About one-
tacular” to describe media coverage. And 42 fourth (26 percent) said they have never been
percent of our science respondents said they interviewed or written about in a science story
prefer to avoid the news media altogether be- during their entire career!
cause they are “suspicious of their motives.” Scientists were also asked if they would be
Most scientists (75 percent) said the media willing to take a course that would help them
do not cover science better because they are in- communicate better with journalists. The scien-
terested in instant answers and short-term re- tists reported that they are “very willing”(31 per-
sults. A large number (69 percent) said most cent) and “somewhat willing”(50 percent).
members of the media have no understanding For those scientists whose work had been
of the process of scientific investigation. An- written about, a plurality (42 percent) said that

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
they had never been allowed to read a story for science as “somewhat knowledgeable,” but 39
which they had been interviewed before publi- percent scored them “not very” or “not at all”
cation. Nearly one-third (31 percent) however, knowledgeable.
said they were allowed to do so “always” or Even so, 49 percent of those who had been the
“sometimes.” A plurality (43 percent) of scien- source or subject of a news story found themselves
tists rated the journalists involved in reporting at least somewhat satisfied with the coverage.

Scientists’ agreement with various
negative statements about the news media
(Fig. 3)

5%
5% 4%
4% 7%
7%
Disagree 13%
13%
Disagree Disagree
Disagree Disagree
Disagree Disagree
Disagree

91%
91% 88%
88% 79%
79% 76%
76%
Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree

30

Lack Understanding Are More Interested in Sales Focus on the Trendy Seek the Sensational
Few members of the news media The top managers of the news media are Members of the news media who cover Most members of the news media
understand the nature of science and more interested in selling newspapers or science and technology concentrate far are more interested in sensationalism
technology, such as the tentativeness of increasing viewership than in telling the too much on trendy discoveries rather than in scientific truth.
most scientific discovery and the public what it needs to know. than on basic research and development.
complexities of results.

10%
10% 18% 18%
18%
Disagree 18% 20%
Disagree Disagree
Disagree Disagree
Disagree 20%
Disagree
Disagree
75%
75% 69%
69% 66%
66% 61%
61%
Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree

Want Instant Answers Are Ignorant of Process Can’t Interpret Results Overblow Risks
The news media do not cover science Most members of the news media have Most reporters have no idea how to The news media have overblown
better because they are interested in no understanding of the process of interpret scientific results. the risks of consuming many substances
instant answers and short-term results scientific investigation. or partaking in many activities,
unduly alarming the public.

19%
19%
Disagree 24%
24% 26%
26% 28%
28%
Disagree Disagree Disagree Disagree
Disagree Disagree Disagree
58%
58% 56%
56% 54%
54% 49%
49%
Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree

Lack Education Rarely Get Details Right Don’t Grasp Funding Need Focus on Personalities
Most reporters who cover science are not Most members of the news media rarely Most members of the news media Science reporting centers
well enough educated to cover news get the technical details about science have no appreciation of the need too much on personalities and
about scientific and technological affairs. and technology correct. for funding for basic scientific not enough on actual findings.
research and development.

Chapter 4 Analyzing Current Attitudes
“In general, I have been very pleased with Journalist Al Volker of Birmingham, Ala.,
my interactions with the press, TV and radio,” echoed the sentiment. “Generally, I find little
wrote Dr. Roscoe O. Brady of Maryland. “The interest in science and technology issues unless
interviewers have been courteous, quite well- we can tell our audience how the story affects
informed and appreciative of my work.” them,” he wrote.
“I have always made myself available to the
media and have found it useful and worth-
while for the most part,” reported Dr. John
States of Rochester, N.Y. “We need more jour- Journalists’ confidence
nalists with technical backgrounds, but the in various institutions
media probably can’t afford them.”
(Fig. 4)

How journalists
view scientists JOURNALISTS who have A GREAT DEAL OF CONFIDENCE

Journalists have a great deal of confidence in
scientists (51 percent). In fact, their survey re-
sponses indicated a higher level of confidence
31
overall in the scientific community than in
their own professional community. 51%
50%
Journalists strongly disagreed (80 percent) 48%

that scientists who allow themselves to be inter-
viewed are publicity-seekers. A majority of jour-
nalists (63 percent) said they feel scientists want 35%
the public to know about their work. Eighty per-
cent of the journalists surveyed found scientists
“somewhat accessible,” but only 15 percent found
them “very accessible.” Seven percent reported
them “not at all” accessible. 15%
13%
The one complaint heard most from journal-
ists was that scientists are “so intellectual and im-
mersed in their own jargon that they can’t com- 2%
municate with journalists or the public.”
Television Press Scientific Medicine Supreme Major Organized
Sixty-two percent of journalists agreed with that Community Court Companies Labor
statement—as did about half the scientists. 2%
2% 3%
4%
Journalists also frequently mentioned in their
comments that science stories need to address the 10%
issue of relevance to the reader or viewer, often
because the very nature of science research is
“complex.” (Scientists cited this as an unfair re-
quirement that, in their view, doesn’t apply to 27%
other subject areas—crime and celebrity, for in-
stance—covered extensively by the media.)
According to Jim Keelor, president of Cos-
mos Broadcasting in Greenville, S.C.: “Most lo-
cal news research says science is important to
viewers only if you explain benefits/problems 50%

they can expect.” JOURNALISTS who have HARDLY ANY CONFIDENCE

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Journalists look science that scientists had addressed, journal-
at themselves ists expressed reservations about their own
abilities and performance. Although their re-
Asked to respond to the same negative state- sponses were not nearly so negative as those of
ments concerning the news media’s coverage of the scientists and engineers, many members of

Journalists’ agreement with various
negative statements about the news media
(Fig. 5)

19%
19% 19%
19% 22%
Disagree 22%
Disagree Disagree
Disagree Disagree
Disagree
37%
37%
77%
77% 56%
56% Disagree
Disagree 67%
67% 69%
69%
Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree

32

Lack Understanding Are More Interested in Sales Focus on the Trendy Seek the Sensational
Few members of the news media The top managers of the news media are Members of the news media who cover Most members of the news media
understand the nature of science and more interested in selling newspapers or science and technology concentrate far are more interested in sensationalism
technology, such as the tentativeness of increasing viewership than in telling the too much on trendy discoveries rather than in scientific truth.
most scientific discovery and the public what it needs to know. than on basic research and development.
complexities of results.

36%
36% 42% 35%
35%
Disagree 42% Disagree 45% 43%
52% Disagree 46% Disagree
Disagree 48% Disagree 45% 43%
52%
Agree 46% 48% Agree
Agree
Disagree
Disagree
Agree Agree
Agree Agree
Agree

Want Instant Answers Are Ignorant of Process Can’t Interpret Results Overblow Risks
The news media do not cover science Most members of the news media have Most reporters have no idea how to The news media have overblown
better because they are interested in no understanding of the process of interpret scientific results. the risks of consuming many substances
instant answers and short-term results scientific investigation. or partaking in many activities,
unduly alarming the public.

13%
13%
20%
20% Disagree
Disagree 28% Disagree
Disagree 28%
40% 43% Disagree
Disagree
40%
Agree
43%
Disagree 62%
62% 53%
53% 70%
Agree Disagree Agree
Agree Agree 70%
Agree
Agree Agree

Lack Education Rarely Get Details Right Don’t Grasp Funding Need Focus on Personalities
Most reporters who cover science are not Most members of the news media rarely Most members of the news media Science reporting centers
well enough educated to cover news get the technical details about science have no appreciation of the need too much on personalities and
about scientific and technological affairs. and technology correct. for funding for basic scientific not enough on actual findings.
research and development.

Chapter 4 Analyzing Current Attitudes
the news media obviously recognized their entific research and the economy. Some, like
shortcomings in dealing with scientific and Ward of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, were
technological issues. disturbed that their media employers do not
On the other hand, a significant number of assign more importance to covering science
the survey respondents disagreed with state- and technology. (The average number of jour-
ments concerning reporters’ educational defi- nalists assigned to science news—including
ciencies (43 percent disagreed with the health—within the news organizations repre-
premise), the media’s tendency to overblow sented by the survey respondents was 1.6.)
risks (43 percent disagreed), sales as the pri-
mary media motivation (37 percent disagreed)
and journalists’ inability to interpret scientific Journalists’ ratings of
results (35 percent disagreed). science & technology coverage
Although half disagreed, at least 40 percent by various news media
of the journalists surveyed did agree that the
(Fig. 6)
news media underestimate the public by as-
suming it prefers stories about scandals to sto-
ries about major challenges confronting sci- JOURNALISTS who rate the medium EXCELLENT
ence and technology. The biggest obstacle to
22% 33
good science reporting, wrote Mark Ward of
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is the “myopia
14% 14%
of newspaper management who underestimate
the public’s interest in science news, and de- 7% 6%
vote insufficient resources to cover this area.” 4%
3%
When asked to focus on the quality of sci-
ence reporting by various news media, jour- National National National National Local Local Local
paper radio magazine TV news paper TV news radio
nalists—not surprisingly—handed out higher
ratings than the scientists did. The one notable
exception was local radio, which scientists
rated higher.
Asked if they agree that there is a “profes-
sional code among the news media that en-
sures high standards in journalism,” 13 percent
of the journalists agreed strongly, 41 percent 30%
agreed somewhat, 21 percent disagreed some- 32%

what and 11 percent disagreed strongly.
Eighty-nine percent of journalists disputed
the idea that science reporting is biased. A ma-
jority (62 percent) also disagreed with the 50% 50%
statement that they rarely get the technical de-
tails of science stories correct. However, a sub-
60%
stantial majority (62 percent) acknowledged
that “the biggest problem with science report-
ing is that it only tells a small part of the whole
story.” Eighty-two percent said they rarely or
never allow sources for science/technology sto-
81%
ries to read them prior to publication. 83%

Almost half the journalists (49 percent) said
they understand the connection between sci- JOURNALISTS who rate the medium POOR or FAIR

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“It is mind-boggling to me,” wrote Ward, nalists (67 percent) agreed. Moreover, scien-
“that at a time when science is exploding with tists (80 percent) and journalists (60 percent)
new discoveries and the gap between the scien- indicated they feel the public doesn’t under-
tist and the public is growing, newspapers stand the need for government funding of sci-
across the country are shrinking the resources entific research.
devoted to science, even though revenues are Are members of the public so ill-informed
up and public interest is growing.” that their opinions about science and technol-
When asked the sources they depend on for ogy don’t mean anything? Almost half the sci-
“scientific” information, more than two-thirds entists agreed with a statement to that effect,
of the journalists (70 percent) said they “often” but 34 percent disagreed. Journalists disagreed
or “sometimes” look to the New England Jour- by a margin of 60 percent to 24 percent; the
nal of Medicine for stories. Just under two- rest were unsure.
thirds (62 percent) cited the Journal of the Over 78 percent of the scientists surveyed
American Medical Association. Other journals acknowledged that “research often produces
used “often” or “sometimes” included: National contradictory findings, thus confusing the
Geographic (43 percent), Discovery (35 per- public.” An identical number of journalists
cent), Nature (32 percent), Scientific American agreed.
(33 percent), Lancet (29 percent) and Popular Steve Snyder of Springfield, Mo., is one. He
34
Science (22 percent). wrote that his “biggest problem is everyone
Obviously, health is the area of science on jumps on some alleged ‘major’ scientific break-
which most reporters focus, and it is interesting to through or new health information—only to
note that they are going directly to the medical find out later than the information is inconclu-
journals of record. Their use of journals in the sive at best or completely wrong.”
other sciences—physics, chemistry, geophysics and Another respondent, who requested ano-
space—is much less. Rarely do they look to the nymity, wrote, “Much of the problem, as I see
more scientific journals, such as Physical Review it, in reporting on scientific discoveries is the
Letters or the Journal of Geophysical Research. discrepancies among researchers themselves. A
These latter might consider taking steps to substance which can kill you one day is good
make themselves more “journalist-friendly.” for you the next. Who is the public to believe?”
This need is underscored by the fact that only Scientists split on the question of whether
6 percent of the survey’s media respondents the country is cynical about the benefits of sci-
hold a college degree in science, even though ence and technology. About 40 percent said it
50 percent of them have covered science. is, and 41 percent said it isn’t. A majority of re-
porters said the country is not cynical.
Assessing Respondents were asked: “If America’s lead-
ers and people do not understand science, who
the public is most to blame?” Many of the scientists (43
When confronted by the statement that “most percent) blamed themselves. Journalists (39
members of the public do not really care about percent) tended to agree that scientists are to
science and technology,” scientists sharply dis- blame. Only 18 percent of the scientists said it
agreed —60 percent said it is not true, the pub- was the journalists’ fault, and an even smaller
lic does care. Journalists were more em- number of journalists (16 percent) agreed.
phatic—74 percent said the public cares. Nearly half the journalists (46 percent) said the
Caring does not equal understanding, how- public is at fault, and 39 percent of scientists
ever. Scientists by a huge majority (80 percent) agreed with that assessment.
said they believe the public is “gullible about Despite the numbers indicating the media
much science news, easily believing in miracle largely reject responsibility for the public failing to
cures or solutions to difficult problems.” Jour- understand science, journalists attached a number

Chapter 4 Analyzing Current Attitudes
of strong comments to their survey forms. Common
Carl Baker, Easton, Pa., lamented that “ra-
dio is nothing more than a money machine
ground
operating for the owners, thus very little news Are the media capable of doing a good job of
coverage. TV stations are only worried about science reporting?
ratings. … The TV networks have science cor- Yes, according to an overwhelming majority
respondents but only scratch the surface.” of scientists (72 percent), who said journalists
David Scholes of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., wrote: do not “face a hopeless task in explaining the
“My biggest problem is with ‘scientific’ interest complexities of science.” They strongly dis-
groups that play the media like a fiddle with agreed (64 percent) that the media are biased
scare stories about toxic apples and fatty pop- against science. In fact, most scientists (69 per-
corn. [The] media [are] fully to blame for us- cent) said stories written by reporters who are
ing these stories to attract [an] audience. regularly assigned to cover science are gener-
“Deadline pressures make it difficult [for ally positive.
the] media to fully explore scientific topics,” Both scientists and journalists were asked if
Scholes acknowledged. “But we must make the 1) the news media should “usually attempt to
time to bring these stories to viewers. There is independently verify” science stories “because
an interest in [the] subject, but we shortchange the news media must make judgments about
35
the viewers.” the truths of news,” or 2) the media should

Statements eliciting compatible responses
from journalists and scientists (Fig. 7) Journalists Scientists

Most scientists who allow Most science reporters The news media who cover Most reporters who cover Scientists waste taxpayer Most journalists only
themselves to be give a positive view of science and technology science are not well money on unnecessary want to report the
interviewed for stories are scientists, engineers and concentrate too much on enough educated to cover research. positive results of stories
just seeking publicity. those in related fields. trendy discoveries rather news about scientific and about science and
than on basic research and technological affairs. technology.
development.
81% 80%
79%

67% 69%
67%

58% 58% 58%
57%

40%

43%
31%
27%

22%
19% 19%

13% 12% 11%
7% 6% 7%
5%

Agree Disagree Agree Disagree Agree Disagree Agree Disagree Agree Disagree Agree Disagree

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“rarely attempt to independently verify” such
stories because they “often lack knowledge and
are likely to make mistakes.” Both the media
(81 percent) and scientists (80 percent) over-
whelmingly opted for journalistic verification.

chapter endnotes
1 For a full report on survey methodology and responses, see
Appendix A.

36

Chapter 4 Analyzing Current Attitudes
C H A P T E R F I V E

Scientists as
Communicators
“We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our
exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the
place for the first time.”
—T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965

H
ere is how an American scientist of Journalists, above all others, should under-
the ’90s might try to explain to a stand how most scientists view themselves, be-
journalist why his compatriots are cause most journalists have the same self-im-
not very good communicators: age: idealists in pursuit of the truth. But to
“Scientists and engineers—those who are describe scientists simply as Ivory Tower deni-
creating the new knowledge and the new tech- zens is an insufficient depiction; they come in
nologies—are notably focused on their re- all sizes and shapes.
search, and their initial thought is that the Some still have the enthusiasm that pro-
maximum value that they give to society pelled them into the field in the first place. The
37
comes from their research itself. Their dedica- young scientists and engineers who success-
tion to their research, however, tends to cause fully landed the Pathfinder spacecraft on Mars
them not to assign a high enough priority to in the summer of 1997 gave the nation a
the issue of communicating what they have glimpse of this enthusiasm. Their delight was
learned to the public.” palpable and contagious.
That’s true, of course. But it can be better On the other hand,
expressed this way: “Scientists and engineers “those things that pro-
are notoriously focused on the project imme- duce excellent scien-
diately before them. They think only of the tists very often also
outcome of their research and its value to soci- produce very arrogant
ety. This dedication blinds them to the need SOBs,” candidly ac-
for telling the public what it all means.” knowledges David
The point of the example is that the initial Ernst, chairman of the
link in the communications chain connecting physics and astronomy
new knowledge to the public must be forged department at
by scientists and engineers themselves. Vanderbilt University.
In their defense, it should be noted that sci- Among some scien-
entists tend toward wordiness because they’ve tists there is, if not ar-
been taught to write and speak in the cali- rogance, barely con- Ernst
brated manner befitting their profession. They cealed conceit.
bristle when a novelist such as Ken Follett says, As anthropologist Margaret Mead, one of
“[S]cientists … should learn better English; the country’s most beloved scientists, ex-
most of them are lazy, slipshod writers.”1 plained: “I was brought up to believe that the
They are not lazy, slipshod writers. But nei- only thing worth doing was to add to the sum
ther are they novelists or newswriters (with the of accurate information in the world.”
occasional rare exception). Their language is
intended to convey a special meaning: the rela-
tionship between the problem expressed, and
the results at hand, not a plot or storyline.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Isolated Boyce Rensberger, science writer for The
in the lab Washington Post, contends that it’s not just a mat-
ter of improving communications skills, that in
Scientists readily admit that they are an insular our social system scientists have a responsibility
lot. The heavy science hitters spend most of to share their discoveries with people curious
their time on narrowly defined research about the world around them, about their bod-
projects, and what little time is left is spent ies, about what is out there in the sky.
writing grant proposals. “Scientists, as agents of the public’s curiosity,
“Face it,” says Anneila I. Sargent, senior re- have an obligation to report back their findings
search associate in astronomy and executive about these things,” says Rensberger. “Our social
director of the Owens Valley Radio Observa- system that results in scientists being allowed to
tory in California, “scientists talk to people spend years studying all of these things, depends
mostly in their own little, narrow area. And on the largesse of the taxpayers.3
they can’t even talk to one another.” One of the chief dispensers of taxpayer dol-
It’s gotten so bad, she says, that “Caltech is lars for scientific research agrees. Dr. Neal Lane,
actually trying to make us speak to one an- head of the National Science Foundation, says,
other. We have seminar series to talk to people “One of our responsibilities is to get out with
in other divisions. You don’t realize how nar- the public every opportunity we can find.
38
row the whole thing is. We need to learn to talk “We don’t have any trouble explaining to
to other people.”2 one another what it is we’re doing, why we’re
In many of the round- excited about it, why it’s important. And we
tables convened for certainly recognize that the reason the federal
this project, in dozens government supports a good bit of that is be-
of conversations with cause we know, ultimately, science pays off for
other scientists and in the American public,” Lane says.
comments from the Why doesn’t the public seem to know that?
survey, there was near- It’s simple, he says. “With the exception of a
universal agreement few people … we don’t know how to commu-
that the profession nicate with the public. We don’t understand
must consider ways in our audience well enough—we have not taken
which it can bridge the time to put ourselves in the shoes of a
this gap—or chasm, as neighbor, the brother-in-law, the person who
it might better be handles our investments—to understand why
characterized. Many Sargent it’s difficult for them to hear us speak. We don’t
survey respondents (journalists) used the term know the language, and we haven’t practiced it
“techno-jargon” when complaining about enough.”
communication problems. Ernst agrees, and adds, “[T]he scientific side
“There is a cross-cultural problem,” admits has to realize that being an outstanding scien-
Molly Miller, geology professor at Vanderbilt. tist is not equivalent to communicating.”
“And we’re a major part of the problem, in that
we don’t know how or what the needs of the
media are or how to effectively convey what we
Not smart
know. I know that I have had a horrible time enough?
when suddenly asked by somebody in the me- NASA Administrator Dan Goldin is not nearly
dia about, say, evolutionism versus creation- so charitable or patient. “How could someone
ism. It is very, very difficult to suddenly come who goes through undergraduate school,
up with a compelling discussion of that. We graduate school, earns a Ph.D., has to commu-
need some help in learning how to do that.” nicate with their professors, say ‘I’m not smart

Chapter 5 Scientists as Communicators
enough to communicate with the American
public and journalists’? Scientists Needn’t Take Themselves Seriously
“I don’t want to sound like I’m coming on
too hard, or harsh, but my God! If they can do
To Do Serious Science
the wonderful things they do in science, they

S
cientists might communicate better with the public at large if they could
can step back and take the time to speak plain learn to lighten up.
English, to understand that the American pub- As Albert Einstein observed in his memoirs, “We should take care not
lic finances a major portion of this work, and to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no per-
[the American public is] the customer—not sonality.”1
their scientific peers. One scientist who has taken that advice to heart is Dr. William Keel, an as-
“Once that mindset [prevails], I think there tronomer at the University of Alabama. He’s always on the lookout for the com-
will be significant change. So I say that we, the bination of precision and peculiarity that sometimes slithers into scholarly writ- Keel
ing, such as the following:
scientific community, have a lot of work to do
to gain credibility with the American public.” No data were taken at station D during the period 0830 to 1630 due to
Jon Franklin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author the presence of a red racer snake (Coluber constrictor) draped across the
and former science reporter for The Baltimore high-tension wires (33,000 V) serving the station. However, even though
this snake, or rather a three-foot section of its remains, was caught in the
Sun, sees the curtain coming down on an age
act of causing an arc between the transmission lines, we do not consider it
of innocence and insulation within the Ameri-
responsible for the loss of data. Rather we blame the incompetence of a 39
can science community.
red-tailed hawk (Buteo borealis) who had apparently built a defective nest
“Scientists thought of themselves as apolitical,” that fell off the top of the nearby transmission tower, casting her nestlings
Franklin says. “That they had that luxury was a to the ground, along with their entire food reserve consisting of a pack
measure of the privilege they enjoyed. In our po- rat, a kangaroo rat, and several snakes, with the exception of the above-
litical system, nothing is apolitical. As soon as sci- mentioned snake who had a somewhat higher destiny. No comparable
ence started being financed by public dollars, it loss of data occurred at the other antenna site.2
was political. Science was the darling of both par-
Incidentally, Prof. Keel’s sense of proportion is evident in the neighborly, good-natured and
ties. Liberals had backed science from the very be- convivial web site he maintains. On it, he says of himself:
ginning of the Enlightenment, and conservatives
had come aboard because of the Cold War. Scien- Bill Keel makes a hobby of getting photons wherever he can, having made
tists, innocents that they were, confused being in appearances at Kitt Peak, Cerro Tololo, La Palma, La Silla, the MMT, the 6-
political favor with being apolitical.”4 meter Bolshoi Teleskop Azimutal’nyi, and the VLA. He is slowly becoming
The science community is beginning to real- multispectral, using data from IUE, IRAS, Einstein, ROSAT, and HST. These
data support studies of the effects of interactions on galaxies, the history
ize that it needs to get its house in order and
of galaxy merging, triggering of star formation and nuclear activity in gal-
learn how to influence the public and Congress
axies, and too many other projects that have struck his fancy. In the more
for its own good. This will not be easy. Some socially respectable part of his job, he teaches at the University of Ala-
critics argue that the media has judged the sci- bama; mostly introductory astronomy courses with occasional forays into
entific establishment largely by its public pro- extragalactic astronomy and observational techniques at the graduate
nouncements, “not looking too far behind the level.3
veil.”5 This should not be interpreted as promise
of an impending assault on the integrity of sci- 1 Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1950).
ence if it raises its profile. Rather, it means sci- 2 N. Bartel et. al. 1987, ApJ 323. 507.
3 Internet http://crux.astr.ua.edu/keel/billkeel.html
ence will probably have to take a number, get in
line and be prepared to talk fast when its turn
comes—just like all the other interest groups. the effort. So there is promise of a newly
In order to influence the public, scientists forged link in the communication chain.
today recognize that they need to learn to As NASA scientist Mark E. Williams suc-
communicate and, as noted in Chapter 4, a cinctly puts it: “Unless we learn to get our
very high percentage (81%) have indicated point across in an effective manner, we will be
that they are willing or very willing to make doomed to ignorance on the part of the gen-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
eral public and sensationalism or poor report- words rather than by correct arguments; to
ing on the part of the news media.” write impersonally, replacing the first person
Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for the Los (‘I did the experiment’) with the third person
Angeles Times, says improvement is not going (‘The author did the experiment’) or the pas-
to be an easy process, but he says, for starters: sive voice (‘The experiment was done’), be-
“I think it would be helpful for all concerned cause science is supposed to be about the truth
… if someone stopped training [scientists] not rather than about one’s ego; and to give ex-
to communicate.” haustive credit to colleagues, lest we seem to be
Hotz no doubt claiming undeserved credit.”7
speaks for a number As Kathy Sawyer of The Washington Post
of journalists, as well puts it, “…We have to be able to communicate
as scientists, when he with scientists, partly by getting on their level,
says, “I wade through learning a bit of their language, but also they
an enormous stack of need to learn to speak to us common folk ….”
technical journals ev- David Hercules, chairman of the chemistry
ery week, and it’s a department at Vanderbilt University, adds a
common observation cautionary note regarding word choices.
that in recent years it “You have to address [the scientific subject]
40
is increasingly difficult in the form which is relevant or understand-
to understand what able to the individual. I will give you a vignette
anyone is talking from my own experience:
about, even if you are Hotz “I had a very dear
a specialist. The purpose, clearly, of scientific aunt who was actually
communication is not to communicate re- the first person who
search results; it is to satisfy a kind of caste sys- bought me a chemis-
tem of language and vocabulary.”6 try set—over my par-
ents’ objections. And
Concise when I was a graduate
student, I was working
writing on optical spectros-
A significant part of the challenge will be copy, dealing with lu-
translating complex science and technology is- minescence. One day,
sues into language that the average person can Aunt Elsie said to me,
understand. Jared Diamond, a UCLA scientist ‘David, what is it that
who writes frequently for general-circulation you do?’ So I started Hercules
publications, says communicating with one’s explaining to her about singular and triplet
fellow scientists and with the public are two states, and … that didn’t get very far. [So I]
completely different matters. For other scien- started to explain about luminescence.
tists, the importance is in the details. “And she said, ‘Well, luminescence?’ I said,
A lay reader with little time and, perhaps, a ‘That is fluorescence. Fluorescence.’ I said, ‘You
short attention span needs writing that is concise. know, like in the light bulb up there. That’s a
“When we write research articles for our fluorescent light.’ And she said, ‘Oh, now I under-
colleagues,” Diamond says, “we are trained to stand what you do. You make better light bulbs.’
avoid simplification; to be precise, using tech- “Well, the point is, that is where I learned
nical terms, inserting all appropriate qualifiers that you really have to communicate in terms
(‘if,’ ‘but,’ ‘maybe’), and supplying all relevant of the understanding of the audience to whom
details; to avoid vivid, poetic language, which you are speaking, not the audience that you are
suggests that we seek to convince by slick coming from, because they are sometimes

Chapter 5 Scientists as Communicators
vastly different. series, for example, is the most successful por-
“And, obviously, I blew that one com- trayal of science ever produced for television.
pletely—although she was always convinced When Sagan did this work, he was criticized
that I was a great guy because I was making by some of his peers in the science community,
better light bulbs.” because they felt that he was spending too
Communicating effectively with one’s Aunt much time talking to the public and not
Elsie is one thing; slight misunderstandings, enough time on his research.
even large ones, matter little in such a context. “A scientist who de-
On the other hand, when scientists venture votes his life to study-
into the public arena, the audience is different. ing something arcane
It is far more critical. And the stakes are infi- like the hyperfine
nitely higher. structure of the mo-
lybdenum atom, and
Talk to the whose work is ignored
by everyone except the
customers world’s three other ex-
NASA Administrator Goldin is acutely aware perts on molybde-
of the special needs of multiple audiences. num, naturally is jeal-
41
“The media [are] in business to sell TV time; ous and outraged to
the media [are] in business to sell newspapers,” see reporters hanging
he says. “And while they’re doing it, they must on me for my latest Sagan
perform a service.” pronouncement about the possibility of extra-
Goldin’s point is that every complex enter- terrestrial life,” Sagan said.8
prise operates on at least two levels—internal But he seldom wavered in his determina-
and external. The media, in Goldin’s paradigm, tion to demystify science. Naturally, he was a
are profit-making enterprises. They must make favorite of reporters.
money to survive, and they have unique inter- Among scientists, there is a certain element
nal structures to do that. But also, “they have of competitiveness and self-esteem that moti-
to talk to their customers.” vates them to do their research but also causes
Science, he says, should be no different. “It is them to be, in some instances, uncomfortable
the job, especially of those scientists that are on with public interest in their peers. In recent
the government payroll, to speak in plain En- years, since the importance of communicating
glish and to devote their time to it,” Goldin says. to the public has been clearly recognized by the
“This is not something that they ought to do in science community, this tendency has some-
their spare time. This is a requirement. So I’ve what diminished. However, it has not entirely
been telling our scientists and engineers: You disappeared.
have an obligation to speak in plain English.” Andrew Szegedy-Maszak says that, in some
There is, however, a set of issues that scien- quarters, the business of engaging the public in
tists deal with in communicating to the public scientific matters is called “resp pop” for “re-
that makes them hesitate to deal with report- sponsible popularization.”
ers. One of those could be called the “Carl “I admit to having some qualms about resp
Sagan effect.” Sagan, an astronomer, was an pop,” he reports. “They stem not from the idea
immensely successful communicator of sci- itself … but rather from the resistance within
ence, particularly space science. He had an the academic world to any kind of populariza-
ability to describe very complex processes that tion, responsible or not. I worry about the dis-
happen, say, in the birth of a star or in the evo- approval of my academic colleagues. Some re-
lution of a planetary system in ways that the gard ‘responsible popularization’ as an
public could grasp and respond to. His Cosmos oxymoron, like ‘friendly fire.’ They cling to the

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
belief that full access to what we know should but at a higher level. “I think what they’re
be restricted to a select group of initiates. In its looking for is a comfort zone,” she says, “a way
most extreme form, this means that if you to tell their story so they will get the approval
aren’t able to read Sophocles in Greek or Virgil of fellow scientists but they’ll also be listened
in Latin, you don’t deserve to read them at all. to by journalists and by members of the pub-
Such territorial protectiveness strikes me as lic. I think it’s about more than … just telling
self-defeating, precisely because it drives the science story; it’s conveying an attitude of
people away from the field. It may even be one accountability, accessibility and pride in serv-
of the reasons for the dwindling public interest ing the public’s interest.”
in classical studies.”9 There is a second
reason a scientist may
An end to hesitate to go public
with research results:
infighting If his or her words are
“I would suggest, as a matter of scientific cul- inaccurately reported,
ture, scientists learn not to punish those among scientific colleagues
them who do speak well to the public,” says Lee will have no way of
Hotz of the Los Angeles Times. “And I cite the ex- knowing whether the
42
ample of the late Carl Sagan, who, as we all researcher or the re-
know, was actually denied membership in the porter was the source
National Academy of Sciences, in part because of the error. Scientists
many of the members there felt it was unseemly who have been un-
for him to be so popular, so well-spoken, to get justly ridiculed by Woolley
so many lucrative book contracts. their colleagues in such circumstances are un-
“We have a more local example of Jared likely to welcome future interactions with the
Diamond at UCLA, a gifted popularizer of sci- media.
ence [who] is continually encountering bitter This issue speaks directly to the mechanism
criticism from many of his scientific colleagues for verifying the accuracy of science stories.
about his willingness and his ability to speak to There is no hesitation by most scientists to
the general public.”10 have their stories verified. In fact, there is a
Phil Bredesen, a phy- great deal of interest on the part of scientists in
sicist who is currently being able to see a story before it runs, so as to
mayor of Nashville, assure that the information in the story is cor-
Tenn., says the inter- rect. There is, on the other hand, a traditional
nal criticism has to hesitation by reporters to allow their stories to
stop. “I think there is a be reviewed before publication or airing, not
sense that, if you try to because they do not care about accuracy, but
communicate in a because they think the source—the scientist, in
popular way what you this case—might try to adjust the spin, or bot-
do, that somehow di- tom line, of the story.
minishes the science In a discussion with the National Associa-
that you do. I genu- tion of Science Writers in Washington, D.C.,
inely think people Boyce Rensberger commented on the issue of
have to get over that Bredesen story verification. He said that he shows about
concept.” half his stories to his sources and always passes
Mary Woolley, president of Research!Am- his most complex stories by authorities in the
erica and a frequent writer on the subject, says field to ensure accuracy.
today’s scientists are seeking common ground,

Chapter 5 Scientists as Communicators
“I’ve been preaching for several years now a ence a difficult challenge. Incremental develop-
reinterpretation of this canon of journalistic ment is incompatible with journalists’ desire—
ethics that you’re not supposed to show your and need—for a story to make as large a splash
copy to your sources. Science [has] gotten a lot as possible. It is the case, however, that things
more complicated. To assume that we under- learned incrementally may be presented in a
stand all this stuff well enough to explain it to way that will satisfy many journalistic needs.
the public … I think it is arrogant and ignorant. For instance, a reporter can write about a
“You’re not telling the person you’re having set of small advancements in knowledge by us-
review your copy that they have the right to ing a profile approach to reveal the longtime
change anything. All you’re doing is asking devotion of a single scientist or a group of sci-
them to point out any mistakes. Wouldn’t you entists who have spent long years working to
rather not look stupid?” achieve understanding. The duration of the
The idea is not to give scientists the right to period of discovery does not diminish the sci-
change any part of the story, but to give them entific achievement or make the scientist’s ac-
an opportunity to assure that the story is cor- complishment any less significant.
rect. If verification of stories would become Such stories can engage the public’s interest,
routine, the science community’s fear and even though the scientific results are more cu-
hesitancy about being quoted would begin to mulative than dramatic.
43
alleviate.

The incremental chapter endnotes
nature of science 1 Ken Follett, “Why Should the Public Trust Science?” UK
Guardian, March 12, 1997.
Another impediment in science communica- 2 Margaret Mead, New York Times, 1964.
tion devolves from the nature of the scientific 3 Anneila I. Sargent, “The 21 st Century: The Multimedia

process itself. Science is constructed incremen- Age,” Fourth Annual Cal-Tech Symposium, May 1, 1997.
4 Boyce Rensberger, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium,
tally. Occasionally there are significant break- San Juan, P.R., March 12-13, 1993.
throughs that happen suddenly, providing ob- 5 Jon Franklin, Hill Lecture, University of Tennessee, March

vious opportunities for breaking-news stories. 17, 1997.
6 Maureen Dowd, “Liberties; Nabobs Lite,” The New York
But far and away the most common process in Times, June 18, 1997.
science is for researchers to learn progressively, 7 Robert Lee Hotz, “The 21st Century: The Multimedia Age,”

one small discovery at a time. Nobel Prizes, for Fourth Annual Cal-Tech Symposium, May 1, 1997.
8 Jared Diamond, “Kinship with the Stars,” Discover Maga-
instance, are typically given for work accom- zine, May 1997.
plished over many, many years—sometimes 9 Diamond, op. cit.
10 Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. “Classics for the Masses,” Ar-
over the course of a scientist’s entire career.
chaeology, Sept./Oct. 1996.
Reporters, who need an angle or hook for a 11 Hotz, ibid.

news story, find the incremental nature of sci-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Scientific Publishing
Cut the Communications Fog, Say Physicists and Editors
By James Glanz
Reprinted with permission from Science Magazine, Vol. 277, No. 5328, 15 Aug. 1997, pp. 895-896.
©1997 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I
t’s an opening sentence that seems designed to be accepted in the community”—a set of guide-
put off even a physicist: “The need to obtain lines for clearing the fog.
adequate ELMy H-mode energy confinement si- The written guidelines will be presented in
multaneous with operation near the neoclassical November to the publications board of the Ameri-
tearing mode beta-limit and at/above the can Institute of Physics (AIP), which publishes many
Greenwald density limit suggests that careful op- physics journals, in hopes that the AIP will con-
timization of plasma performance will be required sider officially adopting them. The guidelines sug-
to obtain the desired fusion power performance, gest that journal editors make clarity of presen-
and that ‘active means’ to control or inhibit the tation “an [explicit] condition of acceptance of an
44
onset of neoclassical tearing mode activity—a com- article,” that abstracts be made more generally in-
mon precursor of plasma energy collapse or dis- telligible and that the best-written articles receive
ruption in present experiments operating near the special recognition by the journals. In short, says
beta and/or density limits—will be required.” Steven Rothman, chief editor of the Journal of Ap-
Take a breath, and don’t worry if that quote plied Physics, he and others intend to tell authors:
from a recent physics journal seems as impen- “I can’t make you do anything, but I can sure make
etrable to you as ancient Mayan script. In the past, you wish you had.”
physicists have fretted over their inability to com- Along with cajoling authors, the largest phys-
municate with the lay public. Now, the flood of ics organizations are taking steps of their own to
unexplained acronyms, cryptic symbols, endless mend the communication lines in physics. Science
sentences, and nightmarish graphs has risen so has learned that AIP and the American Physical
high, say some leaders in the field, that physicists Society (APS) are quietly seeking an editor for a
can no longer understand each other. new electronic publication, tentatively called High-
No one is claiming the problem is unique to lights, which would aim to report on selected jour-
physics. “My impression is that the state of com- nal articles in a form comprehensible to physicists
munication is about the same in astronomy, chem- in any specialty. The publication, which has secured
istry, and biology,” says Mitio Inokuti, a physicist initial funding but has no firm publication date so
at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illi- far, would likely employ a staff of several science
nois. But it has become especially painful in physics, writers and be loosely patterned after the online
in part because of the humbling example of the Physics News Preview, now written by AIP’s Phillip
great writers and lecturers in physics of decades Schewe and Ben Stein. “The idea is to make a small
past, such as Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman. dent in this loss of general understanding,” says
And it’s gotten so bad that a band of reform- Martin Blume, editor-in-chief of the APS. “It is very
minded physicists and journal editors has decided much along the lines of the [Chicago] conference.”
to take action. Their first step was a meeting here How effective any specific measure will be is
last April, organized by Inokuti and Ugo Fano of a matter of open disagreement among editors,
the University of Chicago, to discuss what they see physicists, and science writers. Even the agreement
as a fog of poor writing and ideas about how to on the “gospel” of good writing didn’t come easily.
dispel it. Since then, meeting participants have But there’s little dispute about the severity of the
settled on what Fano hopes is “a gospel that can problem: The state of physics communication was

Chapter 5 Scientists as Communicators
universally deplored at the April conference, held ers are made to feel like they’re the idiots.”
on the campus of the University of Chicago. No one at the meeting saw a quick way out
“We had a disastrous colloquium here yester- of this communications miasma, but there was no
day,” grumbled Fano, a quantum physicist who shortage of ideas. Schewe suggested rethinking
has worked with Werner Heisenberg and Fermi. the role of journal abstracts. Instead of serving as
“[The speaker] lost me after three or four min- a telegraphic summary that only specialists can fol-
utes.” The sin was compounded, said Fano, be- low, he said, an abstract could act as a prose “in-
cause unlike departmental seminars, such collo- vitation,” or short introduction, to the subject of
quia are supposed to be tailored for a general the paper. Argonne’s Inokuti put forth the notion
audience of physicists. Ben Bederson, the previ- of formally recognizing well-written papers—ei-
ous editor-in-chief of the APS, added that the col- ther by publishing them in a special section of a
loquia in his own department at New York Uni- journal or by issuing periodic awards. “It becomes
versity are often so bad that he wonders whether a line in your curriculum vitae,” said Inokuti.
it is counterproductive to encourage young stu- Others focused on catching physicists-to-be
dents to attend. Instead of kindling their interest, as undergraduates, before poor writing habits
said Bederson, the ordeal “sometimes turns them have become irreversible. Christopher Fasano of
off from physics.” Francis Marion University, a liberal arts college in
45
As the discussion turned to journal papers, the Florence, South Carolina, described a recently
complaints multiplied quickly. “There are papers instituted requirement that all physics majors take
one-third of which are acronyms,” said John Light a minimum number of “writing-intensive”
of the University of Chicago and editor of the courses there. That category includes certain of-
Journal of Chemical Physics. Obscurity begets ferings in the physics department itself, such as
more obscurity, said Anthony Starace of the Uni- lab courses in which reports are stringently graded
versity of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an editor at not just on content, but also on clarity, organi-
Reviews of Modern Physics, since poor commu- zation, and style. “Students get better [at writ-
nication between subfields often leads research- ing],” said Fasano. “Practice helps dramatically.”
ers to invent new jargon for slight variations on If such programs ever find acceptance at the large
existing physics. The physics of many-body inter- research institutions that produce most future
actions is similar in chemical, atomic, nuclear, and physicists, Fasano thinks, the journals could see
condensed-matter physics, for example, but each that same dramatic improvement.
field has its own terminology, said Starace. And What’s needed most is “basic training,” agreed
since some of the most fertile areas of physics Argonne’s Nghi Q. Lam, editor of Applied Phys-
are interdisciplinary, those kinds of barriers may ics Letters. “We should have some kind of stan-
do disproportionate harm. dardized textbook so that every [physics] student—
Starace and others observed that the weaken- not only in the United States, but also in other
ing humanities background of many physicists may countries—receives the same fundamental train-
be contributing to the trend. Major universities in ing in this area.” The text would cover everything
the United States, for example, have eliminated from sentence structure and style to the proper
most literature and language requirements—even organization of a good paper, said Lam.
foreign languages—for the physics Ph.D. The pre- The group has now distilled these discussions
ponderance of foreign authors—many of whom into a set of written suggestions for reform—
don’t have a full command of English—in journal watering down their recommendations in some
submissions may also be a factor. Sometimes, areas of persistent disagreement, such as the
though, the reasons behind obscure, techie writ- proper role of journal abstracts. Although they
ing boil down to “basic psychology,” said AIP’s expect a sympathetic hearing from AIP’s publica-
Schewe: “You lose all your readers, but at least you tions board in November, any proposal that requires
can’t be accused of being an idiot. Instead, the read- new resources could face an uphill battle. For writ-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
ing awards, for example, “there’s simply not To skeptics who say that the reformers’ goal
enough staff, not enough people to be able to of markedly simplifying communication in an in-
judge,” says Peter D. Adams, editor of Physical Re- creasingly complicated field is unrealistic, Fano
view and the board’s chair. Meanwhile, Highlights responds: “People are very much looking for this
won’t be launched until the right editor turns up, kind of guidance.” A word from physicists who
says Blume. “The best we could do is get started have seen better days, he says, could make all the
by the beginning of next year,” he says. difference.

46

Chapter 5 Scientists as Communicators
C H A P T E R S I X

Science and the
Fourth Estate
Of the Corporation of the Goosequill—of the Press …
of the fourth estate. … There she is—the great engine—
she never sleeps. She has her ambassadors in every
quarter of the world … They are ubiquitous.”

W
ho are these people, the “fourth William Makepeace Thackeray, 1811-1863
estate,” anyway? Where’d the name
come from? And what gives them The press, journalism, the media—the
the right to go everywhere? terms are all squashed up these days—the
The term “fourth estate” was first used as a people who report the news, as a group, come
backhanded acknowledgment of the growing about as close to achieving total independence
power of the public press in 18th-century En- as is possible in modern society. And that’s
gland —the other three estates being the what the framers of the Constitution intended.
clergy, the commons and the nobility—and it The idea is to have as many independent voices
47
has stuck until today. as possible.
A much more common term, of course, is In fact, the founders were so adamant about
the “media,” which, frankly, is about as useless the free flow of information, ideas and opin-
in describing the vast number and variety of ions, they went a step farther (probably recog-
newsgathering organizations and individuals as nizing that not everyone could afford a print-
is the “fourth estate.” In practice, “media” can ing press), and said there could be no
refer to anything from The New York Times to prohibition against any kind of peaceful gath-
the National Enquirer, from Time to Hustler, from ering to talk about anything—including, spe-
dial-o-porn to the Internet. The term encom- cifically, complaints about the government.
passes television, motion pictures, videos and This all-encompassing, sweeping ideal protects
books—just about any point-source method of
By permission of Doug Marlette and Creators Syndicate.

communication with a mass audience.
Those who comprise it range from desktop
publishers of small-circulation newsletters to
corporate giants that own networks and huge
newspaper chains. What gives them the right
to operate freely in this country is the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It says
they can go almost anywhere they like and
write almost anything they please.
They might be a thorn in the side sometimes.
They might get their stories wrong. They might
unduly harass the objects of their attention. They
might pursue the wrong leads. They might even
defame the subjects of their stories, in which case
to obtain redress it must be proved they acted
with a reckless disregard for the truth. As some
anonymous author has wryly noted: “Doctors
bury their mistakes. Lawyers hang them. But
journalists put theirs on the front page.”

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
everything from idle gossip, to the Encyclopedia long-term. And it seems to be fueled by more
Britannica, to inaccurate reporting. than a vague sense of disillusionment. A
There is nothing in the First Amendment Times Mirror Roper poll in 1994 found re-
about fairness or precision. There is nothing spondents believed the media now actually
about exaggeration or sensation. The language “get in the way of society solving its prob-
is deliberately vague. It neither prescribes or lems.”3 What’s wrong?
proscribes. It is neutral. “In holding up a mirror to America, journal-
ists too often have filtered out the good, embel-
Public lished the bad and produced a distorted image,”
says Kenneth Walsh, senior White House corre-
disillusionment spondent for U.S. News & World Report. “Ameri-
In this climate, consequently, all manner of cans have come to associate the media with ev-
“journalism” has appeared—from the idealistic erything that has gone wrong. We have become
to the exploitative. None of it has been im- chroniclers of the country’s failures.”
mune to the kinds of criticism traditionally at- In his 1996 book Feeding the Beast; The White
tached to the journalistic enterprise. House and the Press, Walsh diagnosed the
There is, however, something new in recent media’s problem succinctly. “Four major
years. Large numbers of people are no longer trends,” he wrote, “… are undermining the
48
just complaining about their unhappiness with credibility of journalism: (1) We have too
the mainstream media, they are tuning out. In much attitude. (2) We too often rush to judg-
fact, it might be said they are stomping out. ment about events, trends and people. (3) We
The trend probably began in the early ’70s are too negative. (4) We are losing contact with
with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on everyday America.”4
the press. Never mind that he resigned from
office in disgrace, the seed was planted. And it
grew, until today only 2 percent of Americans
Spreading
believe everything they read in the newspapers tabloidization
and 5 percent believe the network news, ac- This is happening not only to the Washington
cording to a recent Roper Poll.1 Another na- press corps but to local reporters as well. With
tional survey found only 11 percent had “a a heavy diet of crime, disaster, fluff and celeb-
great deal of confidence” in the media. Less rity, local television is presenting a picture that
than half of Americans say they have read a is not representative of American society.
newspaper or watched a newscast in the previ- Local station management sometimes tries
ous 24 hours. to present a picture not even representative of
Journalists have long said they are not in a its own news departments. Witness the depar-
popularity contest, that when they do their job ture of two highly respected anchor people
properly, readers and viewers often will not from station WMAQ in Chicago when man-
like what they say. They refer to the kill-the- agement hired Jerry Springer, a trash-talk-
messenger syndrome. This doesn’t particularly show host, to do commentaries. The audience
bother many journalists. went south, too, and Springer lasted two days.
“I don’t sit around sucking my thumb Writing in 1995, former Wall Street Journal
about why the public doesn’t like us more,” reporter Ellen Hume lamented that the main-
says Bob Rivard, managing editor of the San stream media are looking more and more like
Antonio Express-News. “We’re contrarians. supermarket tabloids. “Standards and defini-
That’s why we got into this business.”2 tions of news always have varied widely,” she
However, journalists do want at least grudg- wrote, “depending on the era and the news or-
ing respect. The evidence is, they are not get- ganization. But now even in the most re-
ting it. The trend in the polls is downward and spected newsrooms the traditional standards

Chapter 6 Science and the Fourth Estate
© Tribune Media Services. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
49

of verification, objectivity and relevance be- public’s response, she concluded: “Newspa-
come more elusive by the day.”5 per circulation continues to decline or stay
“Many if not most reporters fail to read— flat. Network news audiences are still plum-
to study background issues and facts,” says meting.”6
Carol Pozefsky of Northeast Broadcasting. This does not mean, however, that talented
“They run for the flashy headline, the sound men and women do not persevere and that
bite, the sexy angle.” quality publications and other outlets do not
As for science journalism, Charles exist. It does mean that attracting media atten-
Meyerson, news director at WNUA in Chicago, tion to serious science and technological issues
says there is a big difference between “full-time is and will continue to be difficult.
science journalists (for Time, Newsweek, the Some members of
major dailies)—generally a talented and in- the science commu-
sightful bunch—and bubble-headed (generally nity have given up try-
local broadcast and wire) general-interest re- ing to win media at-
porters stuck writing about science—people tention for the latest
who don’t know that ‘a million’ isn’t a big discovery, opting in-
number in space and couldn’t tell a polymer stead for the longer-
from a polymath. Unfortunately,” Meyerson haul strategy of build-
concludes, “it’s the latter who form much of ing a relationship with
the public’s opinion.” reporters who show
By any measure, all this is an impending an interest or inclina-
calamity for the news business. The reac- tion to dig deeper into
tion in many quarters has been “more grab- scientific and techno-
you-by-the-lapels, sensational coverage of logical issues. Travis Thompson
crime and malfeasance, delivered with just Thompson, director of Vanderbilt University’s
a hint of cynicism,” wrote Alexandra Marks John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Hu-
in The Christian Science Monitor. The man Development, reports that the scientists

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
he works with are now “…a little reluctant to In 1987, general assignment reporters all
go with their latest findings to the news media, over the nation got the chance to write about
when that’s not really an effective vehicle.” high-energy nuclear physics and, according to
Thompson says a “much wiser” course is to Dr. Leon Lederman, they did a pretty good job.
try to educate a reporter “over four, five or 10 It happened during the nationwide search for a
conversations” and strive for more “substan- site to build the huge superconducting
tial” articles. He said, “We were very successful supercollider. Lederman says the episode “il-
with this last year in getting, I think it was, lustrates the fact that … if you build it, they’ll
four different pieces sequentially on a particu- come. If you have the news, it’ll be shown.”
lar genetic syndrome. Incredible coverage in a Lederman said local
local newspaper. I mean it was amazing. Very newspapers all over
well done. But it took six months.” the country wrote
lengthy articles about
Unprepared the massive project,
which promised an
but interested economic boom for
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to scientists (who the state chosen as its
by all accounts are fascinated by their own site. But the writers,
50
work) that reporters can be intrigued as well, if a he said, were also
means can be found to stir their interest. Doreen “constrained to ex-
Hemlock, a writer for the San Juan Star, probably plain what the scien-
speaks for many of her contemporaries. tists were going to do
“I mostly write about business,” she says, there. And they didn’t Lederman
“but I just keep bumping into science every- get it right exactly, but it was
where I go, and I really do not know how to not bad, it was pretty good. I was amazed at
deal with it very well.” how good these articles were by, not science
Hemlock and the San Juan Star were handed writers, but people who took a little time to …
an entirely new beat to cover when, thanks to try to figure out what they want to do here
changes in the tax laws several years ago, drug with this superconducting supercollider. In ad-
companies shifted much of their manufactur- dition to us all getting rich, why did we want it?
ing to the island. And I was amazed at that.”
“I write about the pharmaceutical industry,
and I do not understand half of the products
that I write about, what they do, or how to ex-
The regional
press it. Lately, I have started covering science press
and technology policy, R&D, and I do not re- NASA Administrator Goldin professes faith in
ally understand how it works,” she says. reporters outside the large cities as well. “I
Hemlock is typical of many reporters and think it’s important to have The Washington
editors who have had high-tech industries de- Post and The New York Times and major papers
scend on their towns and states. and CNN,” he said at a roundtable held in con-
“I never even took high school biology. We junction with this study. But most Americans
had no requirements for science at the univer- read regional newspapers, he took pains to
sity. I don’t understand science, but I know point out.
that it is important.” “We have a tendency in the scientific com-
Is she discouraged? Hardly. munity to ignore the regional papers,” he said,
“The more I learn about it, the more I find “the ones that talked about the superconduct-
to like about it,” she says.”7 ing supercollider. I say: This is where the scien-
tists have to reach out.

Chapter 6 Science and the Fourth Estate
“I’ve been there, done that; it’s like water on NPR’s Science Friday, “except it takes someone
the parched desert. They may be writing the who really likes science and is willing to put in
society column for a small town, but they be- the hours and the time and have the talent to
lieve in the future of this country as much as make what most people would think is a dry
any one else does.… story into a story.”
“We also have got to talk to the regional Flatow says he always approaches science
newspapers, the local newspapers, the small news “as detective stories, because scientists are
cable TV stations that broadcast to people who really detectives … working on a larger piece
don’t have the benefit of going out Sunday of the puzzle.”
morning and getting The New York Times. They “I like to think that a smart journalist can
read their local paper, and we have a tendency cover science, just as he or she can cover poli-
to forget about them.… We must communi- tics, or any number of other fields, by asking
cate with all of America.” smart questions and not being embarrassed to
As it turned out, Texas was chosen as the ask any stupid-sounding question,” says Kathy
site for the supercollider. The project was be- Sawyer, science writer for the Washington Post.
gun, then abruptly terminated by Congress, But, she adds, “…we need a lot of help from
wasting several billion dollars. The lesson in scientists in that effort.”
this, if there is one, is that the reporting—and Sawyer is typical of many science reporters.
51
thus the support—for the supercollider tended She has no formal training in science. In the
to be parochial. As long as all 50 states were in 1980s, she was one of the Post’s top political re-
the running for a massive infusion of federal porters, long before her first “science” story—
dollars, there was widespread interest. How- the chance assignment of covering Christa
ever, as the list of states narrowed and Texas fi- McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, who had
nally was chosen, the enthusiasm in the rest of the misfortune of being aboard the Challenger
the nation vanished. The job of “selling” the when it exploded. The Post kept Sawyer on the
supercollider to the American people on its Challenger story as it developed throughout
scientific merits alone was a failure. The the investigation, and she has been on the sci-
supercollider saga epitomizes the science story ence beat ever since.
that develops sufficient “critical mass” to John Noble Wilford of The New York Times
morph into a political story. says he also “learned science on the job.”
This is just the kind of transformation that The opposite tack—science majors trained
worries science writer Jon Franklin. later as journalists—works just as well. Sharon
“Political coverage is much more in the Begley, senior science writer for Newsweek, ma-
journalistic tradition,” he says. “Journalism jored in science at Yale. She does not write off a
grew up with democratic politics, has even single reader.
been called the fourth estate of government. “I want everybody to read my stories,”
Many reporters have degrees in political sci- she says. “If they don’t, I might as well not
ence. So they do a better job of politics, or at have shown up that week. And I am, maybe,
least they used to. Today, with so much science too Pollyannish, but I am a firm believer
tangled up in politics, I’m not sure that is true that if you write it right, they will read it all
anymore.”8 the way through.”
How does she define ‘science’? “At Newsweek,
The good science is basic research,” Begley says.
What do you have to discover to get her at-
science reporter tention?
What makes a good science reporter? “I cover everything from archaeology to ge-
“Science journalism is no different than any netics, neuroscience, physics. I do not do
other journalism,” says Ira Flatow, host of medicine, which is defined as anything having

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
to do with sick people. And I don’t do technol- altruism. I didn’t do it for science, and I didn’t
ogy. I’ll do genetics. I’ll do neuroscience. But do it for mankind. I did it for me, and it was
once it gets into somebody sick, I give it to worth it.”9
‘medicine.’” Franklin acknowledges that science writers
Those who can walk both sides of the in the past, and some still today, have gotten
street—scientists trained as journalists or re- too close to their stories and their sources. The
porters steeped in science—who can tell sci- very enthusiasm that he describes has some-
ence stories that fascinate readers, are “just times produced gee-whiz coverage. Newsweek’s
very talented people,” according to Gerald Begley says that, in some cases, hard-news edi-
Wheeler, executive director of the National Sci- tors are leery “because the science journalists
ence Teachers Association. seem to have been co-opted by the people they
are covering, which is not what a journalist is
Hooked supposed to do.”
Now professor of creative writing at the
on science University of Oregon, Franklin says that 20
Many of the most talented science writers say years ago, “science, whatever its complaints
they entered the field and stay in it because of about journalism, almost always came out on
the undeniable thrill of discovery. “I’ll tell you the glorious end of the story. That’s why it
52
why I was a science writer,” says Jon Franklin, could stay above the fray.
“and there wasn’t a drop of altruism in it. I like “Our tendency, with certain exceptions, was
science. I like the game. I like the idea that to idolize science. The public bought this. Sci-
knowledge is a frontier, that inquisitiveness is a ence was Teflon, science spoke for Truth.
force. I was enthralled by the revolution in neu- “In my era, we didn’t do investigative re-
roscience, and I followed it like some people fol- porting on science, except maybe around the
low baseball. I got to dabble in everything.” edges. Newsrooms are intensely political
Franklin says it was places, and muckraking is a weapon wielded
the variety of stories by reporters against political hard targets. We
that hooked him. “I never, ever, went after science. Science was sac-
remember seeing my rosanct.”10
first autopsy, my first
brain operation. And
hey! Any of you guys
chapter endnotes
1 Marvin Kalb, “Practicing Deception in the Pursuit of Truth,”
ever seen a manned
The Washington Post, March 24, 1997.
flight lift off, down at 2 Ellen Hume, Tabloids, Talk Radio, and the Future of News:

the Cape? The sound Technology’s Impact on Journalism (Washington, D.C.: The
is what you remember. Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy
Studies of Northwestern University, 1995).
It doesn’t come 3 Pew Research Center People and the Press Survey con-

through the television ducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates among a
speakers, it’s too deep. Franklin nationwide sample of 1,211 adults, 18 years of age or
older, during the period Feb. 20-23, 1997.
You have to be there! 4 Kenneth Walsh, Feeding the Beast: The White House and

It makes your bones vibrate for hours afterwards. the Press (New York: Random House, 1996).
5 Hume, op. cit.
“Did you know, I had a shot at the short list 6 Alexandria Marks, “New Media Seek Credibility,” Christian
to ride that thing! And I’ll tell you something Science Monitor, August 27, 1997.
else: It was some of the best material a writer 7 Doreen Hemlock, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium,

could possibly ask for. It was like covering a San Juan, P.R.., March 12-13, 1993.
8 Jon Franklin, Hill Lecture, University of Tennessee, March
major war and the United Nations and the 17, 1997.
White House and a mass murder, all at once, 9 Franklin, ibid.
10 Franklin, ibid.
and with almost no competition. So much for

Chapter 6 Science and the Fourth Estate
Gauging the Importance of Science
One journalist’s candid confession
By Dave Barry

P
erhaps you wonder, how come we here in help from the Computer People, who are techni-
the news media always make such a big deal cally competent people, the kind of people who
about the stock market. The answer is always found the frog pancreas.
simple: We don’t understand it. We have an old They understand “modems,” and whatever
saying in journalism: “If you don’t understand they tell us to do to our computers, including wave
something, it must be important.” a Magic Bone over the keyboard, we do it.
This is also why we media people get so ex- We in the media are especially impressed with
cited about science. In our scientific educations, space. We cannot comprehend how anybody
we got as far as the part in biology class where could get a rocket to land on another planet. Many
they gave us a razor and a dead frog, and told of us cannot consistently parallel park. This is why
us to find the pancreas. Right then we started we got so excited about the recent Pathfinder
53
thinking two words, and those words were: mission, which day after day resulted in excited
“English major.” front-page headlines like:
So we quit studying science, which is why we
ROCK FOUND ON MARS!
do not begin to understand—to pick one of many
And:
examples—how electricity works. We believe that
ANOTHER ROCK FOUND ON MARS!
electricity EXISTS, because the electric company
And:
keeps sending us bills for it, but we cannot fig-
MARS APPARENTLY COVERED WITH ROCKS!
ure out how it travels inside wires. We have looked
long and hard at wires (some of us have tried blow- We in the media believe that the Mars rocks are
ing into them), and we cannot begin to figure out important because scientists tell us so. We will
how the electrons, or amperes, or whatever, man- cheerfully print, without question, pretty much
age to squeeze through there into the TV set, nor anything that scientists tell us about space
how, once inside, they manage to form themselves (“STANFORD—Scientists here announced today
into complex discernible images such as the that, using a powerful new type of telescope that
Pillsbury Doughboy. uses amperes connected to a ‘modem,’ they have
We in the media write our stories on comput- located six previously unknown galaxies shaped like
ers, but since computers contain both electricity all the major characters on Gilligan’s Island except
and “modems,” we have no idea how they work. Ginger”).
If you observe us professional journalists covering My point is that this same principle applies to
a news event, you’ll see that we divide our time media coverage of the stock market. We in the
as follows: media, as a rule, are not good with financial mat-
• 1 percent: Getting information. ters. Some veteran journalists have not yet turned
• 6 percent: Writing stories. in their expense accounts for the Civil War. So as
• 93 percent: Trying to get the computer to a group, we don’t really have a solid handle on
send the story back to the newspaper by press- (1) What the stock market is; (2) Why it goes up
ing keys pretty much at random with growing and down; (3) Which is good, “Bull” or “Bear”;
panic until we have sent our stories to some des- (4) Whether “points” means the same thing as
tination—possibility the Kremlin; possibly the ra- “dollars,” and if so, why the hell don’t they just
dio room of the Titanic—but not to our newspa- call them “dollars”; (5) Who “Alan Greenspan”
pers. Then we call our newspapers and beg for is; and (6) Whether he is the same as “Dow Jones.”

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Because we don’t understand these things, we I have read this sentence at least 35 times, and
have naturally concluded that the stock market is every time I have more questions, including:
extremely important, and whenever it does any- • What kind of job is “global equity strategist”?
thing, we write front-page stories filled with quotes • What kind of name is “Barton Biggs”?
from financial experts. But I suspect that these • Since when does Coke have feet?
experts sometimes like to yank the media’s chain. These are just some of the issues that lead me
Consider the following quotation, which actually to believe that if we were to call “Morgan Stanley,
appeared in a Washington Post story back in Au- Dean Witter, Discover & Co.,” we would find
gust explaining why the stock market went down: ourselves talking to the very same scientists who
“’For Coke, an icon of the market, to show feet are always “discovering” new galaxies and show-
of clay is upsetting,’ said Barton Biggs, global eq- ing us pictures of “Mars rocks.”
uity strategist at Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, That’s right: I think that science AND the stock
Discover & Co.” market could be part of some giant hoax, and I
intend to transmit this information to the news-
paper, just as soon as I can locate the Magic Bone.

54 Dave Barry is a syndicated humor columnist for The Miami Herald.
© 1997. Reprinted with author’s permission.

Chapter 6 Science and the Fourth Estate
C H A P T E R S E V E N

Media
Gatekeepers
“Obviously, a man’s judgment cannot be better than
the information on which he has based it.”
—Arthur Hays Sulzberger, 1891-1968

T
he reporters and field producers who Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this pe-
fashion the raw material that is “news” culiarly American characteristic as early as
take their direction from the editors, 1835: “They have all a lively faith in the per-
news directors, publishers and owners fectibility of man, they judge that the diffusion
of the American media—the gatekeepers. of knowledge must necessarily be advanta-
A curious dichotomy is at work in this geous and the consequences of ignorance fa-
group. They have enormous power, yet they tal,” he wrote. “[T]hey all consider society as a
often deny it. The prevailing spin is that they body in a state of improvement, humanity as a
are only giving the public what it wants. In- changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought
55
deed, much of American journalism these days to be, permanent; and they admit that what
is governed by what polls and focus groups tell appears to them today to be good, may be su-
editors and owners the public wants. The perseded by something better tomorrow.”
gatekeepers often say they are not in the busi- Thus, if “bad news”—crime, floods, politi-
ness of “education” or “uplift,” that they are cal corruption—can be translated into social
mere chroniclers of the days’ events. improvement—better policing, a new dam (or
To some extent, this is true. An unending maybe fewer dams, according to some studies),
stream of events—mostly wrack and ruin, cleaner elections—there is really nothing
fires, floods, disasters and the like—spills from wrong with bad news. It is, in effect, “good
the TV screens and the pages of the papers news.” It’s only when such matters become the
each day. These are part of the pageant of life, predominant news diet, without explanation,
the unfolding cares and human concerns of a clarification or possible solution, that the me-
community or nation. dia do a disservice.
In this respect, newscasts and newspapers A good example is the never-ending promi-
function much like the letters we wrote to one nence of crime news on local television—“if it
another a century ago, providing detailed de- bleeds, it leads,”—in the face of overwhelming
scriptions of life’s dimensions. Even today, evidence that crime is decreasing. This picture
most local newspapers carry many items that is not only incomplete, it is distorted. And it’s
once were of interest only to individual fami- self-reinforcing. William Raspberry of The
lies: who was born, who died, who married, Washington Post writes that: “[Readers] phone
who divorced, how much the neighbors paid us with tips on accidents and hostage-takings
for their house, which black sheep is in trouble and kids having sex in schoolrooms because
with the law. Invariably, the offbeat and un- they know, by reading us, that we like stories of
usual show up in the news, just as they ap- disasters.”1
peared in letters of old. No one is interested in
a letter that says, “Everything’s okay, Sincerely
yours.” We all know that hardly anything is
The current
ever okay, and it’s a mark of our society that agenda
we seem to want to fix things that are not. Their ability to set the agenda—and in so do-
ing to draw at least an outline of contemporary

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
culture—is the most important franchise me- number of newspaper pages is dictated not by
dia gatekeepers have. Thus the question: What the amount of news, but by the amount of ad-
kind of culture is evolving from the daily vertising. The same formula is true of televi-
agenda many gatekeepers are now setting out sion.)
for their readers and viewers? Is our table talk “Today’s news is created, packaged, and de-
to be of fear, helplessness and scandal, born of livered by a priesthood of journalists,” says
senseless crime sensations and disasters mixed Ellen Hume, “trained by editors who hired
with the sordid and banal private lives of celeb- them because they had the right ‘instincts’—
rities? that is, they had the same set of cultural expec-
“The media no longer ask those who know tations and values as the editors themselves.
something … to share that knowledge with the The news is delivered, take it or leave it, to a
public. Instead, they ask those who know passive audience.”
nothing to represent the ignorance of the pub- In Hume’s thesis, readers and viewers have
lic and, in so doing, to legitimate it,”2 observed no choice—either accept “news” as it’s defined
French film critic Serge Daney in1992. by the media, or cancel the subscription and
Or as American journalist Carl Bernstein flip off the switch.
laments: “The lowest form of popular cul- “The public has little
ture—lack of information, misinformation, ability to add anything
56
disinformation, and a contempt for the truth to the news agenda or
or the reality of most people’s lives—has over- to correct errors of in-
run real journalism. Today, ordinary Ameri- terpretation or omis-
cans are being stuffed with garbage.”3 s i o n ,” Hu m e s a y s .
This is the mix into which stories about sci- “Theoretically, both the
ence discoveries are thrown. Whether or not news production pro-
they surface, according to Ira Flatow, often de- cess and the product
pends on the writing ability and zeal of report- are protected from out-
ers who are able to grab the attention of the side influence in order
gatekeeper. to preserve journalists’
“I think to most TV producers—and I’ll ability to tell the truth,
speak about news producers—science is medi- without fear or favor.”4 Hume
cine,” says Flatow. “They know science is medi- Journalists responding to the survey con-
cine. It’s the disease of the week, it’s what’s nected with this study contradicted this view
happening in AIDS or cancer, and as soon as somewhat, suggesting several other reasons for
they see that tag there, they don’t have to be the dearth of quality science-and-technology
told anything more, they’ll go with the story. reporting in U.S. newspapers and television
“On the other hand, if you talk about other newscasts. Here are the reasons most often
aspects of science—physics, chemistry, even cited.
environmental stories—they have to be edu- First of all, newspaper editors and publish-
cated about why that is important. And usually ers say it is difficult to find advertisers for a sci-
the education occurs, in a large organization, ence section, especially in small- to mid-sized
[when] a science reporter [pitches] a story.” markets. This failure to lure advertisers is puz-
Of course, reporters from every beat— zling, especially in the face of evidence that sci-
crime, courts, government, schools—are com- ence is very successful in other venues.
peting for a piece of the daily “news hole.” (The Newsweek’s Begley says, “Our science covers
news hole is the amount of space in a newspa- are among the best-selling we ever produced.
per that is left for news stories after the space My mail outpaces that of any other section.”
for advertising and other “must” items is sub- Without advertising, however, it is hard to
tracted. Except on very rare occasions, the justify the additional expense a science section

Chapter 7 Media Gatekepers
would impose. According to Frank Sutherland, medicine. Science is pervasive in our civic life
vice president/news and editor of The Tennes- … in our lives, generally. But a smaller and
sean, the cost of printing only one extra page in smaller percentage of this science journalism is
the Sunday edition for one year is $130,000. being written by science writers, or even by sci-
“That’s just for newsprint,” he says, “before I ence reporters. Much of it, as a result, is grossly
starting hiring anyone to write.” inaccurate, if not in fact, then in tone, play and
On the other hand, The Tennessean prints a context.”5
daily, multi-page business section, complete Franklin is the author of four books and the
with stock tables, that carries little or no adver- winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism.
tising except the classifieds, which could be These days he is ambivalent about what sci-
printed in any section. ence reporting is and what to call it. “In the
Many papers have late 1970s I was forced to rethink my journalis-
tried putting out regu- tic strategy,” he says. “I had been reporting and
lar science sections explaining discoveries, but my stories were not
and failed—meaning being widely read. I generally used the word
the venture was not fi- ‘science’ early in the story, thinking it would
nancially successful, attract readers. The word generally ended up
i.e., advertisers were in the headline.
57
not attracted in suffi- “But I now realize that the effect was to tell
cient numbers to jus- general readers what to avoid. They might
tify the expense. In the trust science in theory, but in practice it had
near future, it is prob- bad personal associations. It confused them,
ably not realistic to made them feel negative about themselves.
hope that any but the Science pages ghettoized science news, gave
largest newspapers Wilford people a whole section they could throw away
will commit to regular, ongoing coverage. unread.”6
“I don’t expect all papers to cover the sci-
ence the way The New York Times does,” says
John Noble Wilford. “We have 15 people who
Not enough
put out a weekly section.” interest
Perhaps the solution to advertiser indiffer- Second, editors often contend that there is not
ence is a semantic one. Just don’t use the word enough reader or viewer interest in science
“science.” matters to justify additional coverage.
“Maybe when you use the word ‘science,’ “There’s an interesting paradox,” says NPR’s
people think, ‘Oh, Christ, I flunked physics,’” Flatow. “Every study has shown that people
says Michael Gartner. “Maybe you just have a who watch television want to see science on
problem with words. And maybe there is a the evening news. They rate it very highly
whole line of journalism going on that covers when they are asked: ‘What kinds of stories do
the environment, that covers medicine, that you want to see on your six-o’clock newscast?’
covers all these developments, whether it is “But you cannot get the gatekeepers—the
space or anything.” producers, the news directors—to put it on.
Gartner makes an interesting point. Many They abhor it. They think no one wants it, be-
routine news stories contain elements of sci- cause they [themselves] had a bad experience
ence; the subject pervades our lives. with it, perhaps in high school. They don’t
“A few days ago I read through my local pa- think anyone else can stomach it.”7
per as a reality check, and it was full of science The New York Times’ Wilford agrees. “I think,
news,” says Jon Franklin. “Social science, space to a large degree, editors underestimate the
science, a story on salmon ecology, another on public’s interest in science and underestimate

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
[readers’] ability to understand science when “I learned never to underestimate readers,”
it’s well written.” says Gene Roberts, former managing editor of
Wilford’s opinion is corroborated on the The New York Times, “… they expect depth
airwaves by ratings for the Discovery Channel, when stories arise that are important to
which consistently draws a larger audience them.”10
than CNN. And recent surveys do show a siz- Unfortunately, depth was what the public
able, if not monumental, desire by newspaper rarely got in coverage of the mammogram
readers for increased science coverage. 8 controversy. That story was largely garbled in
“By numerous acc- the media.
ounts, the American
public is enamored of
science and scientists,”
Gatekeepers
says Daniel Greenberg, as obstacles
editor and publisher Finally, perhaps the greatest impediment to in-
of Science & Govern- creased science reporting in the nation’s news
ment Report, a Wash- media might be editors’ own discomfort with
ington newsletter. The the subject. Of the hundreds of news managers
public, he says, “fol- around the nation who returned survey re-
58
lows their work with sponses for this project, only 6 percent had sci-
respect and interest ence degrees. Given that statistic, it’s not sur-
and thinks the govern- prising that many editors are irresolute when it
ment should spend Greenberg comes to making decisions about science sto-
more on many fields of research. These affec- ries. The same person who can make flawless
tionate attitudes are registered in 25 years of snap judgments about political stories may
public opinion surveys commissioned by a well founder in the ocean of science and tech-
bedrock of scientific respectability, the Na- nology.
tional Science Foundation, which bankrolls ba- One survey respondent, who requested
sic research in universities.”9 anonymity, wrote: “Editors are the biggest ob-
Third, some editors are convinced that not stacles to science coverage. They are not inter-
only do their readers not care much about sci- ested and/or are confused by science, from the
ence, but they won’t understand it either. In basics to advanced theories. Consequently,
some cases, this may be true. However, com- they allow little time for reporting and writing
plexity is no excuse for a failure to report. on science matters. That leads to quick inter-
Many local zoning questions are complex, the views with scientists, little reporter control
rules of baseball are tortuous, criminal law is over content and mistrust all around.”
enigmatic, but newspapers generally take the If editors struggle with content, they also
time and use the space necessary for public have problems with form. Consider Ira
understanding of such matters. Flatow’s experience at CBS.
A careful writer and a discerning editor can “I was a science reporter on CBS for CBS
make science intriguing, understandable and This Morning for about a year. And they were
absorbing. Moreover, very complex matters, very eager to do science stories, and they gave
often involving health and medicine, are el- me just about [everything] on science stories
bowing their way to center stage. The contro- that I could come up with. I was unique, in
versies over mammograms and possible ge- that I liked science. I was able to pitch it, and I
netic links to breast cancer, for instance, had a producer who liked to put on science.
involve issues of life and death. Common sense “On the other hand, he had his own con-
would lead one to suspect that most women straints. At one point, he called me into the of-
would be more than interested. fice after working for three months, and he

Chapter 7 Media Gatekepers
looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t know how to “When The New York Times quotes the tab-
tell you this.’ And he hemmed and hawed. loid National Enquirer as the basis for a news
“And I said, ‘Let me tell you what you want story,” says Ellen Hume, “when former 60 Min-
to say.’ utes veteran Diane Sawyer asks Donald Trump’s
“He said, ‘What?’ mistress, ‘Was it the best sex you ever had?,’
“I said, ‘I’m the science reporter, so you when Dateline NBC stages an explosion to
want me to wear a lab coat, don’t you? Because ‘prove’ that a certain truck is unsafe, and when,
that’s what the public thinks science reporters as CBS Evening News anchor, Connie Chung
do, right?’ goads the relatives of public officials into
“He said, ‘How did you know that?’ name-calling—separating news from entertain-
I said, ‘I’ve been in this business a little ment and propaganda is next to impossible.”11
while, I know a little about commercial televi- Is the trend toward the sensational and
sion.’ I said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If your busi- away from the substantive just a temporary ab-
ness reporter wears a green eye-shade, I’ll wear erration? Or are we at the beginning of a long-
a lab coat.’ term lowering of traditional journalistic stan-
“And he looks at me and says, ‘You know, dards? One way to measure that is to look at
what you have on now is just perfect.’” the next crop of reporters and editors.
Flatow says in his According to Jon Franklin, a “most fright-
59
years at CBS, and now ening poll was taken at the Columbia graduate
at National Public Ra- school of journalism, one of my profession’s
dio, the key to getting most elite institutions. Fifty-seven percent of
science stories on the the student journalists believed in ESP, 57 per-
air is finding “the cent believed in dousing, 47 percent in aura
gatekeeper—meaning reading, and 25 percent in the lost continent of
a producer or an edi- Atlantis.”12
tor—who is sympa-
thetic, who actually
liked science as a child
chapter endnotes
1 William Raspberry, “Good News For a Change,” The Wash-
or enjoyed studying
ington Post, April 21, 1997.
science.” Short of that, 2 Serge Daney, Sight and Sound (London, July 1992.)

he says, “pitch it as a Flatow 3 Carl Bernstein, UK Guardian, June 3,1992.
4 Hume, op. cit.
human-interest story … everything on televi- 5 Franklin, op. cit.
sion has to be seen as a human-interest story 6 Ibid.

and have a human-interest slant.” 7 Ira Flatow, Fourth Annual Cal-Tech Symposium: “The 21st

If all this makes the gatekeepers seem de- Century: The Multimedia Age,” May 1, 1997.
8 “1996 Media Effectiveness Study,” Corporate Research,
tached, or even capricious, and hard to reach Gannett Co., Inc.
with science news, blame it partly on the cur- 9 Daniel S. Greenberg, “Thumbs Up for Science,” The Wash-

rent newsroom climate of uncertainty and un- ington Post, July 8, 1996.
10 Eugene Roberts, “Nothing Succeeds Like Substance,”
ease about the future. But that said, there are American Journalism Review, December 1993.
inexplicable lapses in judgment, even in the 11 Hume, op. cit.
12 Franklin, op. cit.
largest and most secure news organizations.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Nothing Succeeds Like Substance
By Eugene L. Roberts, Jr.
The following is excerpted from a speech given by Eugene Roberts, former managing editor of The New York Times, af-
ter he received the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award. It subsequently appeared in the December 1993 issue of
American Journalism Review. It is reprinted here by permission of American Journalism Review and NewsLink Associates.

T
oday, as competition diminishes and disappears, many that we’re further along in concentration of newspaper
newspapers seem to be in a race to see which can ownership and corporatization.
be the most shortsighted and superficial. We are re- We’re now in the second and third generation of pro-
lying too much—far too much—on weather maps, charts, fessional corporate managers who are judged and compen-
graphs, briefs and color. sated on the profits they generate during their tenure, not
If we had looked upon these devices as nothing more, on what they do to guarantee the survival of newspapers.
or less, than desirable improvements, then our papers It should be noted that even in the worst of the recession,
would have been all the richer for the additions. But in far average operating profits, as a percentage of revenue, were
too many newspapers, we introduced these devices while in the 14 percent to 15 percent range for publicly held news-
slashing newsroom budgets and newsholes. The result, all papers. Many basic American industries never reach that level
60
too often, has been that instead of becoming additions of profit even in the best of times. And some newspaper
to news coverage, the devices have become substitutes companies reached those levels in recessionary times by
for news coverage. And this, in a word, is folly. mortgaging the future, by stripping away the glue that binds
We, of course, introduced many of the devices in or- our most loyal readers to our papers.
der to reach out to marginal readers and non-readers. This Just how bleak is the situation? Scary to be sure, but
was good. But when we started cutting back on substance, not hopeless if corporations become aware that there is
we put serious, devoted readers at risk by becoming less no security in superficiality and fadism. Here and there,
essential to them. And this was, and is, a very bad tradeoff. thankfully, are newspapers—a distinct minority—that
I think, quite simply, that we are imperiling newspapers understand this and are riding out the recession without
in the name of saving them. shortchanging their readers. And there are executives on
Not only is this trend weakening our hold on the most still other newspapers who are beginning to worry about
loyal readers, it is causing long-term confusion and insta- what they are doing to the future of their papers by fo-
bility on our staffs, which further threaten our readership. cusing on short-term, rather than long-term, profit goals.
Evidence of this abounds. It will be interesting and telling to see, as the economy
Recently, I talked to a newspaper consultant who es- improves, how much newshole and staff will be restored,
timated that he had given advice to more than 100 news- and whether management has learned that newspapers
rooms in the past two years. The consultant found a com- are not accordions, that their content cannot be pushed
mon problem at almost every paper. The mid-level tier of up and down at will without long-term damage.
editors seemed traumatized. Let us hope that there is enough understanding to
The problem? Lack of resources. The mid-level editors produce a strong counter movement for substance and
didn’t think it was possible to perform at an acceptable continuity. Let us hope that more executives learn what
standard given the resources at their disposal. some of us were taught in the streets and fields where the
You could go to any editors’ meeting in the past three readers are—that you might get a large audience by be-
or four years and encounter widespread angst. And not ing a quick, superficial read, but not an intense, dedicated
meetings of mid-level editors. Top editors. audience.
… Much of the newsroom cutting was done in the And journalistic history is, of course, littered with the
name of recession-related downsizing, although some corpses of large-circulation newspapers that failed to make
companies say that the downsizing is permanent. But the long-term and lasting reader relationships and, thus, were
recession is only part of the problem. The real problem is viewed as dispensable by their readers and, consequently,
by their advertisers.

Chapter 7 Media Gatekepers
C H A P T E R E I G H T

Running
Scared
Human history becomes more and more
a race between education and catastrophe.
—H.G. Wells, 1866-1946

H
.G. Wells made the above observa-
tion about the nature of human
history shortly after the close of
World War I, and for the next 70
years, the race he had identified was a near
thing, with World War II immediately followed
by the Cold War and nuclear brinkmanship.
But education finally pulled ahead. The So-
viet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a
61
crash program to improve U.S. education, es-
pecially in science and technology. The endur-
ing phrase from the era was “missile gap.” For
while Sputnik was launched as part of the In-
ternational Geophysical Year—an international captured by the Soviets, had already built the Sputnik
science program—the military implications of rocket that was eventually to launch the first
orbiting even peaceful payloads were clear. American satellite. For political reasons not
And that scared America to death. readily understood today, it lay unused in a
Real or not, there was a perceived science hangar at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville,
gap as well as a missile gap. The Soviets, with Ala. Only after the U.S. Navy had endured a
their success in space, rode to orbit as the mas- spectacular series of launch failures with its
ters of what seemed like an explosion of tech- Vanguard rocket in the wake of Sputnik was
nological breakthroughs. The threat seemed von Braun given the opportunity to launch his
clear. The United States was no longer a half a creation, the Redstone rocket, which orbited
world away from its enemy; potential devasta- the first Explorer satellite on its initial attempt,
tion was measured in minutes. Jan. 31, 1958.
As columnist Walter Shapiro explains: “Amid In typical American
the hysteria of the Cold War, Sputnik was por- fashion, the nation at
trayed in chilling death-rays-from-outer-space this time embarked
terms. … Our technological supremacy has its not only on the huge
roots in the panicked post-Sputnik emphasis on rocket-building pro-
teaching math and science.”1 gram, but also began a
It’s interesting to speculate whether the vast science-education
United States would have embarked on its campaign that would
high-tech crusade if we had reached outer produce many of
space first, a feat that was well within our capa- today’s scientists and
bilities. By the time the USSR had placed Sput- engineers, who in their
nik in orbit, Wernher von Braun and his team time not only would
of German scientists, who surrendered to the accomplish great feats
U.S. at the end of World War II rather than be in space flight but Shapiro

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Meanwhile, Back in Astronomy 101 …
Non-science majors in college are seldom taxed beyond learning a few generalities, and often gradu-
ate with little more than one or two, sometimes no, elective introductory science courses.
The following examples of student comprehension come from an introductory astronomy course
taught by Prof. William Keel at the University of Alabama. These are “genuine, unexpurgated snip-
pets,” says Dr. Keel.

• “Mesopotamia was an area in the valley of Euphrates and Tigris river, now the region
of Iraq. Much of the celestial bodies and their ways came from the people of this area.
The summarians, a pre-semantic population, occupied this ancient area of land.”
• “Most impacts on the Earth’s surface are impact craters.”
• “During the winter months, the Earth is higher away from the Sun so we have longer
days.”
• “The gravity of the earth while rotating receives a bulge on the sides due to the speed
of the earth and in what relation the moon is to the earth. When the ocean waters be-
come full to capacity it overflows upon the beaches. After the earth rotates the oceans
can hold that water again and the beaches become dry. The two bulges are directly
opposite each other on the earth due to the relation of gravity and mass of the two di-
62 rect points.”
• “Since the distance from the center of the earth to its outer edge is 4000 times farther
than from the earth to the moon, the gravitational pull from the moon pulls the liquid
part of our earth to a slight point.”
• “During a solar eclipse the sun tends to stay out longer and is much more damaging—
it takes longer for the earth to rotate. The lunar eclipse means less sunlight and the
earth rotates faster.”
• “During lunar eclipses, the moon travels around the sun preventing light to the earth.
During solar eclipses, the earth travels around the moon.”
• “The star starts out by being formed by gravity pushing being pushed back.”
• “A main sequence star transforms into a Red Giant—the Red Giant is very hot. The Red
Giant goes to the envelope magnitide and after gradual cooling, the end process is a
white dwarf. A white dwarf generates no energy inside its core. This whole process can
take months and sometimes years.”
• “This era has experienced a new aspect of science termed Radio Astronomy, a vile new
science which stemmed from radio engineering but finally became established as a
powerful complementary ally to the most ancient of the sciences.”
• “A radio telescope often sends messages to the astronomer by the use of frequencies.”
• “It is believed that neutron stars produce pulses of radio emission due to the stars ab-
sorption ability of rays in which produce this type of radio emission pulses.”
• “The Sun is one of the clearest stars to be seen on earth because it has the largest ani-
mosity.”
• “As all the stars in the universe the Sun might have resulted from the huge cloud
theory. But whatever the reason was, the Sun have been founded for at least 4.5 mil-
lion years.”
• “Most of this reasoning lies in the fact that the Milky Way is not alone. It is part of the
magnificent Milky Way Galaxy which is still being studied today.”
• “There is a bright side to being the first and only intelligent beings in our galaxy—we
will have the chance to found the Galactic Empire!”

Professor Keel says such college writing “certainly abolishes my illusions of teaching effectiveness.”
It is also a devastating comment on critical thinking and English language standards.

Chapter 8 Running Scared
would usher in much of today’s post-industrial teach our children science,” he said. “We teach it
world as well. Even the environmental move- very badly, if at all. And what happens all too of-
ment was “sparked in part by the first unfor- ten is, the teacher communicates his or her own
gettable photographs of a green-and-blue fear and uncertainty about science to the child.”
Earth as seen from space,” writes Shapiro. Boyce Rensberger, science writer for The
Washington Post, is even more blunt. “There
Scientific are two reasons why people do not continue to
be scientists. Parents and teachers.”5
devolution Though it is not the proximal cause of the
Unfortunately, the heady scientific and techno- gap between scientists and journalists, the de-
logical triumphs of the past four decades have pressed state of science education—and, there-
not been enough to support a universal and sus- fore, of general comprehension—in the United
tained push. It’s impossible to know exactly States is a contributing factor, if only a psycho-
when, but slowly the momentum subsided. A logical one. Only one in 10 Americans thinks he
particularly virulent strain of anti-intellectualism or she is very well informed about scientific
arose in America. By the early ’80s, Fran Lebowitz matters. With such low scientific self-esteem,
would be counseling teens to: “Stand firm in your the average person is not going to understand
refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In routine scientific matters without a great deal of
63
real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as al- help.
gebra.”2 The computer engineers who forever al- The scientists responding to the survey
tered the way the world makes and manages just done in conjunction with this study men-
about everything became “nerds.” By the mid- tioned the subject of science education more
’90s, eighth-graders in the United States had sunk often than any other single topic in their com-
below their peers in the Czech Republic, Hun- ments.
gary, Slovenia and Bulgaria in math scores. Alto- “The media can pass off poor reporting of
gether, students in 20 other nations could science because of the abysmal failure of most
outfigure American middle-schoolers on math of the American populace to understand even
tests given as part of the Third International the rudiments of the scientific method,” wrote
Math and Science Study.3 Dr. Greg Wright of Chicago.
These results contrast starkly with the A doctoral candidate at Georgia State Uni-
much higher scores U.S. fourth-graders versity, Rusty Harvin, who is chronologically
achieved in the same study. The younger closer to recent educational trends, noted that:
Americans rate near the top of the worldwide “The schools have done an incredibly poor job
heap. Something profoundly debilitating is of science education. In part this is because of
happening in four short years. a shortage of good science teachers. Most of
“My experience,” said Carl Sagan, “is that them can make more money elsewhere.”
young children are natural-born scientists, Dr. Joanna Muench of Falmouth, Mass.,
asking very deep questions. By high school, wrote: “Unfortunately, the dismantling of our
they’ve become leaden and incurious. Some- public education system has rendered the
thing terrible has happened between first and teaching of science to nothing, so the journal-
twelfth grade—and it’s not just puberty. I ists mostly know nothing of the subject and
think teachers and parents discourage young therefore cannot communicate with an equally
children from asking deep questions. The most ignorant public.”
important thing we can do is encourage their Lamented Dr. John Dockery of Reston, Va.:
curiosity and sense of wonder while we de- “It is chic to be ignorant of science.”
velop their critical sensibilities.”4
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon
Lederman blames it on teachers. “We don’t

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Rampant very little training in mathematics and science,
illiteracy particularly among elementary and middle-
grade teachers. As recently as 1993, less than 4
In 1996, the National Science Foundation percent of elementary mathematics and science
commissioned a survey to determine how teachers had majored in mathematics or math-
many Americans knew the answers to 10 ematics education, or science or science educa-
simple science questions. 6 Only 22 percent of tion. Only 11 percent of middle school math-
the 2,006 adults who participated in the survey ematics teachers and 21 percent of science
could correctly answer seven or more of them. teachers majored in their fields of teaching spe-
Astonishingly, less than half knew that the cialization.”7
earth’s orbit around the sun takes 12 months— The NSF findings were confirmed in a
one year. Rockefeller Foundation/Carnegie Corporation
As late as February 1997, the U.S. Education study in the same period that was summarized
Department reported that nearly 40 percent of in The Washington Post on Sept. 13, 1996:
eighth-graders still lack even basic number skills. “Commission members said that during two
According to NASA Administrator Dan years of research they found that about one
Goldin, understanding science and math is now fourth of high school teachers lack college
crucial to survival in our world. “If you are sick,” training in their primary classroom subject;
64
says Goldin, “the doctors don’t do all the work that nearly 40 percent of math teachers are not
on you. You have to understand fundamentals, fully qualified for their assignment; that 500 of
the science of medicine, to help diagnose your- the nation’s 1,200 education schools lack ac-
self. It’s a personal responsibility; you cannot creditation; and that three of every 10 teachers
leave it to the physician. When you go to the quit the job within five years.8
polls to vote, and you have to understand envi- The article by Post education writer Rene
ronmental policy, it is irresponsible not to un- Sanchez went on to quote one of the study’s
derstand it. But people can’t be held responsible most devastating observations: “Although no
if they don’t have the basic training.” state will permit a person to write wills, prac-
Why do Americans have such a dismal un- tice medicine, fix plumbing, or style hair with-
derstanding—even a fear—of science? out completing training and passing an exami-
There’s little question the problem starts in nation, more than 40 states allow districts to
school. At a

Reprinted with permission of Copley News Services.
time when
youngsters are
wide-eyed and
enthusiastic,
hungry for
new knowl-
edge, they are
often taught by
people who are
barely quali-
fied. According
to the National
Science Foun-
dation, “Many
mathematics
and science
teachers have

Chapter 8 Running Scared
hire teachers who have not met these basic re- largest and most comprehensive international
quirements.” comparison of education ever undertaken.
And finally, “Most states pay more attention The United States ranked 28th out of 41
to the qualifications of veterinarians treating countries in eighth-graders’ math performance
America’s cats and dogs than those of the and 17th in eighth-graders’ science achieve-
people educating the nation’s children and ment. Singapore claimed the top spot in sci-
youth.”9 ence and math at both the seventh- and
How much useful information are Ameri- eighth-grade levels. It was followed by South
cans getting from the media about the science Korea, Japan and Hong Kong in math. U.S.
and math turmoil in the U.S. educational sys- students also were outperformed by young-
tem? sters from the Czech Republic, Hungary, The
While national polls indicate that education Netherlands, Austria, Slovenia and Bulgaria.
is very near the top of American concerns, few The U.S. beat only four countries in both
newspapers and almost no local television sta- mathematics and science: Lithuania, Cyprus,
tions devote extensive time and space to it. Portugal and Iran.
Two independent analyses made in 1997 of lo- Another way to compare U.S. students with
cal television newscasts showed that educa- the high-scoring Singaporeans is through per-
tional issues made up 1.7 percent and 2.0 per- centiles. How did our best math and science
65
cent respectively of the content.10 students do against their best? The American
eighth-graders in the 95th percentile—the top
Better than five percent—were equal to those in the 50th
percentile—the average students—in
Lithuania Singapore. In Japan, our top students would be
It’s ironic that, just when Americans were in- at the 75th percentile.
creasingly searching for answers as to why their If a world-wide talent search were con-
children were falling behind in educational ducted for the top 10 percent of all students
skills (and the media were reporting less) the who participated in the TIMSS study, 5 per-
first detailed and meaningful answers were cent of Americans would make the cut in math
emerging from a massive, carefully constructed and 13 percent in science. By comparison,
survey of teaching methods worldwide. Parents Singapore would place 45 percent of all its stu-
and teachers were afforded the chance to see dents in the math sweepstakes and 31 percent
what works and what doesn’t, especially in in science. Among the top 10 percent world-
comparisons between U.S. schools and schools wide, 32 percent of all Japanese students would
in several Asian nations, particularly, Japan, make it in math and 18 percent in science.
that prepare their students far better in math Student achievement is a complex matter,
and science. but it’s largely dependent on three key factors:
In 1995, 4,000 seventh-grade and 7,000 curriculum, teaching skills and student recep-
eighth-grade American students from more tivity.
than 185 randomly selected public and private In the United States, we typically try to ad-
schools took part in a worldwide examination dress the quality problem with quantity.
of their mathematical and scientific knowl- American schools attempt to teach far more
edge. In all, 500,000 students from 45 nations math topics per semester than schools in other
took part. The tests were designed to eliminate parts of the world. Thus American students get
the effects of cultural differences, concentrat- a smattering of many subjects but little depth
ing instead on basic understanding of the sub- in any. Because subjects are not well-learned
ject and the effectiveness of teaching methods. the first time around, they are often taught
Known as TIMSS (The Third International over and over, so that by the time students
Mathematics and Science Study), it was the reach the eighth grade, they are generally still

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
taking subjects taught on average in the sev- “Our unfocused curricula and textbooks
enth grade in the better-performing countries. fail to define clearly what is intended to be
Another big difference: U.S. teachers typi- taught. They influence teachers to implement
cally teach far more classroom periods than, fragmented learning goals in their classrooms.
say, their Japanese counterparts. Also, the U.S. They emphasize familiarity with many topics
school year is shorter—typically 180 days ver- rather than concentrated attention to a few.
sus 220 in Japan. Our curricula, textbooks and teaching are all a
It’s common for Americans to believe that ‘mile wide and an inch deep.’”
homework improves learning, to feel that if It’s not how much we teach, rather it’s the
American kids just had more homework piled “quality of instruction,” he says.
on, they would achieve more. It is frequently as- The TIMSS study should be a wake-up call
sumed that teachers in high-achieving countries to America, Schmidt declares. “Our children,
assign more homework than U.S. teachers do. and our nation’s future, are in the balance.”11
However, Japanese teachers actually assign less. Walter Mondale, for-
The TIMSS results disappointed the U.S. mer vice president and
educational establishment, whose goal—set former U.S. ambassa-
during the Bush administration—of making dor to Japan, has had a
American school children No. 1 in math and chance to observe the
66
science by the year 2000 was largely dashed. educational differ-
ences first hand. He
‘Mile wide, noted in an article
written for Science
inch deep’ magazine that “science
More ominous was the verdict of American in- in America today faces
dustry. Norman Augustine, head of Martin decreased federal sup-
Marietta and chairman of the Business port, the declining
Roundtable, said, “Neither result is good quality of our K-12 Mondale
enough to compete in today’s high-perfor- educational system, the inability of our budget
mance, technology-driven workplace.” process to deal with long-range international
But the national coordinator for the U.S. com- research projects, and declining interest on the
ponent of the TIMSS project, Michigan State part of our brightest young people in pursuing
Professor William H. Schmidt, says the country scientific careers.”12
should forget about the rankings and concentrate While the science
instead on the deeper meaning of the data. community worries
“U.S. performance was disappointing in an about the decline in
international context,” he says. “As a nation, we U.S. recruits, the gen-
have a splintered vision of what mathematics eral level of science
and science education should be for our chil- education is just as
dren. In fact, our nation is atypical among troublesome. If the
countries surveyed in its lack of a nationally or overall quality contin-
regionally defined curriculum.” ues to decline, the
Such a national curriculum has been re- United States “won’t
sisted in many localities by parents and school have this position of
boards who distrust the federal government, leadership in the 21st
and jealously protect their own turf. Another century because we
problem, Schmidt says, is this country’s won’t have the work Lane
scattershot approach. force—not just in science and engineering, but
anyplace in a society, in a workplace, that’s in-

Chapter 8 Running Scared
creasingly technologically based,” says Neal giving any idea of the method by which that
Lane of the National Science Foundation. information was acquired,” Sagan said in an
interview with U.S. News & World Report. “So
Thirst for scientific when someone else comes along and hands
down, as if from Mount Sinai, a result from
knowledge pseudo-science, it sounds just the same.
Such a state of affairs would seem to make “Wouldn’t it be great if science textbooks
communication between scientists and the spent some time on erroneous past under-
public next to impossible. However, Americans standing that everybody believed, that the
say they want to know more about the world of church and the state and the scientists and the
science; despite their own deficiencies of un- philosophers and the schools all taught, and
derstanding, down deep there is a remarkable that turned out to be completely wrong? Isn’t
yearning for science information. Nearly 60 that a very useful lesson to teach our chil-
percent of Americans say they are very atten- dren?”15
tive or interested in science developments. Yet, Theodore Schick Jr., professor of philosophy
less than 10 percent consider themselves very at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., agrees
well informed, and another 15 percent say they in part but sees more urgency in the problem.
are only moderately well informed. Interest- He says “… unless our educational system fo-
67
ingly, this dichotomy is a phenomenon now cuses more on teaching students how to think
noted in all developed countries. than on what to think, our populace will be-
Is there other evidence of widespread inter- come increasingly credulous. Scientists and
est in matters scientific? Certainly. Two pio- educators alike need to realize that the educated
neers who brought science to the masses, both person is not the person who can answer the
of whom died during the period of this study, questions, but the person who can question the
captured the world’s attention and focused it answers. In our age of rapidly changing infor-
on complex issues. Jacques Cousteau took us mation, knowing how to distinguish truth from
to the bottom of the oceans; Carl Sagan took falsity is more important than knowing what
us to the farthest reaches of the universe. was once considered true and false. Only a per-
Cousteau’s first book, The Silent World, written son who knows the difference between a justi-
in 1953, sold more than five million copies and fied and an unjustified belief can truly appreci-
was translated into 22 languages.13 The success ate the value of scientific inquiry.”16
of Sagan’s first venture into television stag- Ira Flatow echoes Walter Lippmann, quoted
gered him. “I was completely unprepared for earlier in this study, saying: “Until we make sci-
the success of Cosmos, now seen by 500 million ence as much a topic of conversation around
people in over 60 countries. I think it clearly the dinner table as we do business and health,
indicates an enormous, unfulfilled hunger for and other things that people talk about all the
accessible and inspiring science in the general time, we’re not going to really create … the
public,” Sagan said.14 generation of kids who are interested in learn-
Sagan and many others have pounded ing about science.”
home the notion that we have to improve our “I think part of that problem is broader
standards for science education, that the sub- than just science,” says NASA Administrator
ject can no longer be viewed as a “specialty,” Daniel Goldin. “Young children are not read-
that it’s not just a part of life, but life itself. A ing. They’re watching lots of TV, and they’re
failure to understand science leaves the indi- playing video games. I probably go to 40, 50
vidual vulnerable. schools a year, and I ask the children this
“There are just too many cases where the question: ‘How many of you read a book a
science teacher merely hands down, as if from week or a book a month?’ Very few children
Mount Sinai, the findings of science without raise their hands.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“I sometimes do it with adults. Very few system will come up $38 billion short in the
adults raise their hands Now, when you read a year 2015. To make up for the shortfall, tuition
book, it’s a long time investment, and our cul- will have to double, pricing half the country’s
ture is going to shorter and shorter pieces of potential students out of the market. Tuition
information. … So, I say, it’s more than the is- has already doubled in the past 20 years, largely
sue between the media and the scientists, it is because public and private funding has not
our general population. If we want our popu- kept pace with university costs or student en-
lation to be educated, we’ve got to start train- rollment.
ing our children that they can’t watch three to Where has the money gone? At the state
five hours a day of video and still be able to level, at least, it’s going into construction of
dream and visualize things in their heads— prisons rather than universities. According to
and read more than press bites.” the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, state
Goldin visualizes his NASA scientists as governments increased their spending on pris-
leaders in the race between education and ca- ons 30 percent between 1987 and 1995, while
tastrophe. spending on higher education declined 18 per-
“I say an hour a week, out of a 50-hour cent. In 1995 alone, prison construction bud-
schedule, for a scientist to stand in front of an gets increased by $926 million, while university
eighth-grade class and learn how to communi- building went down by almost the same
68
cate with America is a necessity. It’s an obliga- amount.
tion. It is the future of our country. Two states, Florida and California, now
“I think this is the key issue: We must help spend more on corrections than on higher
the American public understand. Our young education. Since 1984, California has built 21
people, in another generation, are going to fall new prisons and only one university.
out of the labor force. We’ll have two catego- It’s beyond the scope of this report, but the
ries—those that understand science and tech- budget numbers for prison construction raise
nology and are part of the economy, and those an interesting corollary question: Has the de-
that don’t and aren’t. It’s a race.” cade-long diet of crime reporting the nation
More than that: It’s a race the news media has been fed by its news media led to an irra-
are largely missing. tional impulse to lock up wrong-doers of all
stripes—even when dozens of scientific studies
More show this is not always the best, or the most
cost-effective, means of curbing destructive
bad news behavior?
In June 1997, the Rand Corporation issued an As one English educator has noted: “Educa-
appalling warning that America’s colleges and tion costs money, but then so does igno-
universities are facing a severe budget crunch, rance.”17
that if present trends continue, the university

Chapter 8 Running Scared
chapter endnotes 10 a“Content Analysis of Local News Programs in Eight U.S.
Television Markets,” University of Miami Center for the Ad-
vancement of Modern Media: School of Communications,
1 Walter Shapiro, “A Sheep is Cloned, But Human Nature University of Miami. Survey dates: Nov. 1996, Jan., Feb.,
Stands Alone,” USA TODAY, Feb. 26, 1997. April 1997.
2 Fran Lebowitz, “Tips for Teens,” Social Studies (New York: b“Baaad News: Local TV News in American Society,” com-
Random House, 1981). piled by Dr. Paul Kite, Dr. Robert A. Bardwell, Jason
3 The Third International Mathematics and Science Study Salzman. Denver, Colo.: Rocky Mountain Media Watch,
(TIMSS) was sponsored by the International Association for Feb. 2, 1997.
the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an inde- 11 William H. Schmidt, Editorial, USA TODAY, Nov. 27, 1996.
pendent international cooperative of research centers. Full [The executive summary of A Splintered Vision: An Investi-
details of the study are available on the TIMSS Web site gation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education by
(http://wwwcsteep.bc.edu/TIMSS). Schmidt, Curtis C, McKnight and Senta A. Raizen is posted
4 Carl Sagan, New York Times auditorium event, Mon., Jan. on the Web (http://col-ed.org/smcnws/timss/splintrd.html).]
23, 1995. 12 Walter Mondale, “America’s Challenge,” Science, Nov. 8,
5 Boyce Rensberger, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium, 1996.
San Juan, P.R., March 12-13, 1993. 13 Jacques Cousteau, obituary, The New York Times, June 26,
6 National Science Foundation Survey questions and answers 1997.
may be found on p. 24. 14 Sagan, ibid.
7 National Science Foundation: “Science and Engineering In- 15 Carl Sagan, quoted in “A Conversation with Stephen
dicators 1996.” Budiansky,” U.S. News & World Report, March 18, 1996.
8 Rene Sanchez, “Teacher Standards Called ‘National 16 Theodore Schick, “The End of Science?” Skeptical Inquirer,
Shame’; Bipartisan Commission Cites Inadequate Training, March/April 1997.
Poor Treatment,” The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 1996. 17 Sir Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, Lon-
9 Ibid. don Daily Telegraph, Aug. 2, 1990. 69

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
A Conversation with Bill Nye,
the Science Guy
The following excerpts are from a segment of the radio interview program Fresh Air,
broadcast on Dec. 4, 1997, over National Public Radio member stations.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is Fresh Air. I’m of it, was Mr. Wizard—Don Herbert—who’s still
Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross. around and he comes to science-teacher conven-
Ever since the pocket protector was invented tions to reassure you out there. He’s 80. He’s kind
and probably long before then, people inter- of hard of hearing, but he’s a genius. You know,
ested in science have been considered nerds, I mean, he probably—or as I say, he sent this
dweebs, outcasts, geeks, losers. Now, it’s one country to the moon.
man’s quest to change all that. But after he retired, there was a void, and I
Bill Nye is the creator, host and head writer don’t know why that is exactly. And a big prob-
of the TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy, which lem that’s very well-documented in studies done
70
airs weekdays on public television and weekends in the education community is that people who
on commercial stations around the country. were raised in this void that you’re talking
Through a frenetic mix of video clips, scien- about—in this era, say, from the mid-’60s right
tific explanations, song and movie parodies, after the success of the Apollo missions, to the
cheap sound effects, bad puns, and do-it-your- early 1990s—you know, a period of almost 20
self experiments, Bill Nye the Science Guy proves years.
beyond a doubt that science is cool. People who were raised in that time and be-
With lab coat and bow-tie intact, he jumps came teachers do not have this firm science back-
out of airplanes to demonstrate gravity, or scuba ground that we would like them to have. And I
dives to get a first-hand look at undersea inver- say “we”—people in society would like them to
tebrates. Although the show is aimed at 9- to 11- have; you as a parent would like them to have.
year-olds, over half its viewers now in its fifth And so we’re—there’s a lot of evidence to sug-
year in syndication are adults—people like me gest that over half of what you learn about sci-
and possibly you who have only the shakiest ence—what you learn about anything—comes
grounding in basic science. … from sources outside of school; what’s called—
technically called “informal” education.
BOGAEV: It seems as if there was a kind of sci- So on my show, we’re doing our best to en-
ence black-out for years on children’s television. hance informal education and bring it up to as
I’m thinking, when I grew up, there wasn’t all high a level as we can. …
that much to watch. But now, there are lots of BOGAEV: There’s a famous documentary that
TV programs about science—there’s the Magic I’m pretty sure you might have seen. It’s a series
School Bus; there’s Newton’s Apple; Beakman’s of interviews with Harvard graduates ...
World; of course, Bill Nye the Science Guy. NYE: Oh, yeah.
Is this just a television fad: Or do you under- BOGAEV: ... right on—on graduation day,
stand it as science’s time has come? It’s now a hot right there. They’ve got their [mortar]-boards on
commodity in popular culture. ...
NYE: Well, both. By that I mean, its—its cycle NYE: ... with their (unintelligible)
has come around again and it is a hot topic right BOGAEV: ... right—they have their diplomas
now. And the guy that I had when I was very in hand, and they’re asked to explain why it’s
young, and I was so young that I didn’t get most warmer in the summer.

Chapter 8 Running Scared
NYE: That’s right. Yeah. handle on to get along in life?
BOGAEV: And virtually none of them can do NYE: I think everybody has to have a funda-
it. It’s just amazing. And they come up with the mental understanding of the seasons. Everybody
most hilariously scientifically illiterate answers. has to have a fundamental understanding of
NYE: Now, before we go too far, Barbara ... where the earth is in the solar system. For ex-
BOGAEV: Yeah. ample, do you know what keeps the air on the
NYE: ... can I ask you? earth’s surface? It’s a really interesting question.
BOGAEV: Oh, please. It’s gravity.
NYE: Why do we—why is it warmer in the BOGAEV: Gravity.
summer? NYE: Yeah. It’s the same thing that makes the
BOGAEV: Now, I know it’s about the axis, and Earth round. The Earth is rounder than the shini-
the Earth is tilted and ... est ball-bearing or BB you’ve ever seen. And
NYE: That’s it. That’s the key word. that’s because of gravity. And yet, interestingly
BOGAEV: ... it spins—yes, right. enough, Barbara, no one really knows exactly,
NYE: The Earth is tilted. exactly what causes gravity. I mean, we’re very
BOGAEV: Why is it that people can leave close to understanding, but we don’t really ac-
Harvard not having reached basic competency in tually know.
science? Anyway, so that would be very important, I
71
NYE: I’m not an expert on that, but I—I’m— think, to know what holds the air and ocean on
I’ll tell you right now I think it’s really bad. And the Earth. There’re a lot of things, Barbara, I’m
here’s why I think it’s bad: We have gotten to this sorry—there’re a lot of things everybody should
point in the world, in human history or in history know about science and I’m sure there are many
on the earth, where everybody buys a calendar; things that I should know that I don’t know. But
everybody wears a wrist watch; everybody has a that’s the charm of science, is that it’s a process.
computer that has a clock in it. You always learn—constantly picking up new
And the computer runs, by the way, with a stuff.
clock in its central processing unit—that’s what BOGAEV: Before you were the science guy,
“CPU” means for those of you who didn’t were you the science nerd?
know—and it uses the clock to access data and NYE: Yes, I was the science nerd. I was in high
to have these so-called “interrupt driven” pro- school as a member—a proud member—of the
grams and so on. Mad Scientists Club. There were four of five of
And it’s human’s understanding of the pas- us, depending on kind of—we actually ...
sage of time that has allowed us to have a soci- [LAUGHTER]
ety. It’s a way—understanding clocks is a way ... we wore ties to school, we were such—we
more significant thing than understanding the were so backward. We actually wore ties to
wheel. There was a time, an era, when people school as sort of a—you know, to show respect
would actually lose count of the number of days for our teachers. That was how nutty it was.
of the year—when the Nile was going to flood— BOGAEV: Do you remember the first time you
and they would not have crops. They would, like, were in a school science class and you thought:
starve. They would, like, mess up their agricul- “Wow, this is really cool. That is what I want to
ture, because they didn’t have this understand- do with my life.”
ing that we take so for granted. NYE: Yeah, I think so. Well, I remember a
And then to have people graduating from couple of times, but I was in second grade and
our universities without this fundamental under- we had made barometers out of bottles with
standing of what makes the earth’s seasons is eyedroppers in them, ’cause the eyedropper pro-
crushing. vides a tube from a liquid up to the—up above
BOGAEV: So how—so how do you define sci- the surface of the bottle. You know what I
entific literacy? What should we all have a mean?

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Anyway, and they overflowed when a thun- NYE: Well, turn on the news every night, and
derstorm came. The atmospheric pressure got so I’m not talking about the space program, but
low that the barometers were in a sense explod- everybody watches the satellite picture—the
ing all over the classroom—food coloring run- Doppler radar of the weather. Everyone accepts
ning all over the floor ... now that there’s a hole in the ozone. Everyone
BOGAEV: Now, that was cool. knows what satellite television is. Everyone
NYE: ... Yeah, it was cool. knows—everyone wants his or her phone call or
[LAUGHTER] radio broadcast to come to him or her via satel-
And then just a few moments later, it’s this as- lite. That’s all the space program.
tonishing downpour with lightning and thunder Let alone the astonishing things we’ve discov-
and all that fabulous staff. And I mean, you ered about the ocean and El Niño, and these
never forget that. That was spectacular. … things about ancient civilizations, when the ra-
BOGEAV: Now, you’ve applied to be an astro- dar was—when there was radar from space. It’s
naut. Are you in the running? What are your just amazing. I’m not talking about Velcro and
chances? all that other stuff that was brought up 20 years
NYE: Well, January of ’98; January ’98’s my ago. Those are cool things—the spin-offs, so-
next rejection postcard. called.
BOGAEV: How often have you been rejected? But just the fundamental knowledge and ex-
72
NYE: Three times. I’ve applied three times. Ac- pectation you have everyday about your envi-
tually, no. I’ve been rejected twice. Excuse me. ronment—we learn so much of those—so many
I’ve gotten three postcards acknowledging my— of those data from space exploration. And every
receipt of my application. I think I’d be—I mean, radio/television broadcast relies on satellites, for
first of all, first of all athletically, I could do it, crying out loud. Communication is the key to
and I still have better than 20/20 eyesight. I democracy, so you have to have a space program
mean, I feel good about that. nowadays to have democracy.
And I have a pretty good understanding of BOGAEV: Bill Nye is host and head writer of
aeronautics, astronautics, vacuums, and I’ve Bill Nye the Science Guy, seen weekdays on PBS
been around very complicated machines like jet and weekends on commercial stations.
aircraft and diving equipment and stuff—I’m
very comfortable in those environments—sub-
marines. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, CHILDREN DISCUSSING CA-
And I could—I could pull it off. And I think REER PLANS)
I’d—I think I could do a better job for NASA. I CHILD: “A movie star.”
would make people embrace the space program CHILD: “A pro quarterback.”
in a way they don’t right now. CHILD: “I want to be a computational fluid
BOGAEV: What do you say to those people dynamics engineer.”
who say: “Look, the space program is too expen-
sive; it’s not a priority.” What’s your rationale for © 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights re-
them? served.

Chapter 8 Running Scared
C H A P T E R N I N E

A Case-by-Case
Analysis
Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one
down without a feeling of disappointment.
—Charles Lamb, 1775-1834

W
e are living in the golden age of as- not the media, then who?
tronomy, and how frustrating it is,” The anguish Krauthammer expresses over
lamented syndicated columnist the fact that so much is known and so little is
Charles Krauthammer in the sum- mastered is central to the thesis of this report
mer of 1997. as well. Knowledge is piling up at an awesome
“We see pretty Pathfinder pictures of Mars, rate. In most cases, the progression is not ar-
and even more glorious Hubble pictures of ithmetical but geometric, the upward curve
distant galaxies. We know that scientists are ac- sometimes so steep that it tempts us to give up
quiring extraordinary new knowledge of the without even trying. The range of discovery is
73
universe—leaps into the cosmos more pro- so vast, it sometimes seems beyond compre-
found than any since the invention of the tele- hension.
scope itself—and yet the layman has no real But retreat is not the answer. One has only
idea what is going on. to consider, for instance, that in the current de-
“There is the occasional breathless story in bate over the U.S. educational system, no one
the newspapers reporting, say, that the universe is proposing that we teach our children less.
is 5 billion years younger than previously Why, then, should the U.S. news media not
thought, and we are supposed to make sense of also tackle the challenge?
this. But, in fact, those outside the scientific According to Krauthammer, the greater mys-
priesthood have as little real understanding of tery is why our vision is so narrow, why there is
the new discoveries about the state of the uni- even a question of limits. A new age is upon us,
verse as the average Florentine had about he says, “the cosmos—all those pulsing, chatter-
Galileo’s discoveries about the laws of motion.” 1 ing quasars and pulsars and neutron stars—is
Whether the 17th-century Florentines were speaking to us. And because we are living in a
worse off for this lack of knowledge, we’ll wondrous age in which we are finally beginning
never know. More to the point: Should the citi- to understand the words, how can one live in
zens of our own time be privy to the revolu- this age and not be curious?” 2
tionary discoveries of the late 20th century? Or The aim of Worlds Apart is to urge journal-
should enlightenment be left to some future ists to focus their curiosity on science and
generation? technology in much the same way they would
Editors and producers say they are not in on the more familiar topics of politics, eco-
the education business. Nothing could be fur- nomics, crime and sports—by searching out
ther from the truth. True, theirs is not the for- what’s novel, compelling, relevant.
mal sort of education characterized by com- Editors should be especially alert to trends,
pulsory attendance, grades, etc. But what is to the accumulation of detail and nuance. This
news except education? And because so much dictum applies equally to stories that chronicle
of what is discovered in the world transpires profound discovery and to those that center on
after most people leave school, someone has warning and risk.
to continually fill the gaps—not only in sci- Scientists, too, should pay attention to these
ence but in a hundred other areas as well. If same elements by learning what makes news

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
and how to present the details of their discov- writer Kathy Sawyer gave her readers a tanta-
eries with clarity and contextual perspective. lizing hint at how long astronomers had been
In an effort to present specific examples of trying to decipher the mystery and how they
well-done science reporting (and, for the sake of had stumbled onto it.
comparison, some not so well done) this chap- “A quarter century ago,” she wrote, “Cold
ter includes material gleaned from newspaper War spy satellites searching for nuclear bomb
and magazine stories published during the pe- detonations first detected monstrous explo-
riod of research leading to publication of this sions of energy known as gamma-ray bursts
report. far out in space. They have inspired hundreds
of theories, but they remain among the most
■ Colliding stars baffling events in the cosmos.”4
In the spring of 1997, utilizing new instru- The Globe’s David L. Chandler wrote, “Be-
ments and techniques, astronomers docu- cause the bursts are so short-lived and unpre-
mented what is probably the biggest recorded dictable, and because instruments used to de-
event in history. Typical of many science sto- tect gamma rays are imprecise in locating their
ries, it began as—and still is—a mystery. source in the sky, astronomers have never be-
Reuters and several newspapers recognized its fore managed to take a picture that showed the
magnitude immediately upon publication of a source of the radiation. But thanks to a new
74
scientific paper in Nature on April 16-17. Italian-Dutch satellite called BeppoSAX,
According to Reuters, “Astronomers said launched last year, they can get information
Wednesday they may have solved a mystery about a burst much more quickly and accu-
that has baffled them for more than 20 years— rately, then train some of the world’s most
Where do bursts of gamma rays come from? powerful telescopes on the same spot.
“Reporting in the science journal Nature, “That’s what happened when a bright
they said they had actually seen, for the first gamma-ray burst was detected Feb. 28, accord-
time, a flash of light to match the invisible ing to the group headed by Jan van Paradijs of
gamma radiation—which should help them the University of Amsterdam. They used tele-
nail down just where the intriguing outbursts scopes in the Isaac Newton Group on the is-
of shortwave radiation are coming from. land of La Palma, in the Canary Islands, to find
“Jan van Paradijs of the University of a faint galaxy at the exact spot where the burst
Amsterdam and a team of international col- had occurred. Follow-up observations were
leagues said it could have come from an explo- made with other telescopes, including the
sive collision between two neutron stars at the Hubble Space Telescope.”5
far end of the universe. If this is so, the explo- Within days of the first published reports of
sion would be the brightest in the universe.”3 the titanic detonation, another colossal
The Boston Globe reported that “Joshua gamma-ray burst was recorded. Astronomers
Bloom, of the Institute of Astronomy in Cam- around the world were poised at their tele-
bridge, England, and a member of the team scopes. What followed was historic.
that made the observations, said that if the The Los Angeles Times reported: “California
bursts do come from galaxies at the edges of Institute of Technology scientists have cap-
the universe, ‘they are the most energetic phe- tured images of the most powerful bursts of
nomena known to humanity, releasing as energy in the universe, solving perhaps the big-
much energy in a few seconds as the sun does gest mystery in modern astronomy.”6
in 10 billion years.’” The new blast had occurred on May 8th.
The Washington Post said it was possibly the Two days later “the Caltech team had focused
“most energetic phenomena ever witnessed— the Keck Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on
possibly the titanic collisions of collapsed stars the rapidly fading object. Only the Keck—the
inside remote primeval galaxies.” Post science largest telescope in the world—can spread out

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
© Tribune Media Services. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
the light from
such a faint object
and analyze its
spectrum. Telltale
dark lines in the
spectrum of the
light revealed the
clear fingerprints
of a large interga-
lactic cloud sitting
in the line of sight
between the en-
ergy source and
Earth.”7
The New York
Times explained
the meaning of
that bit of infor-
75
mation: “Further
analysis of the
spectrum revealed
that the cloud must be about seven billion light in the sky. It was the funeral pyre of a
light-years away. The source of the gamma-ray star—a star that had just blown itself up,”
burst must therefore be at least that far away, wrote Keay Davidson, in the San Francisco Ex-
and the light it emitted traveled for roughly aminer on February 21, 1997.
half the time the universe has existed before “Around the world, astronomers were ec-
reaching Earth.” The Times concluded that the static. No one had seen such a bright exploding
new observations “appeared to be confirming star since the early 17th century, when the
evidence that the bursts are caused by tremen- Catholic Church prosecuted Galileo Galilei for
dous detonations billions and billions of times teaching that Earth orbited the sun.
brighter than the Sun.”8 “This weekend, astronomers from around
(The twin Keck telescopes, by the way, are the globe have gathered in Chile to commemo-
only two of the new instruments scientists are rate the anniversary of the latest celestial blast,
now using. They have four times the light- which occurred 10 years ago this Sunday.”9
gathering power of the famed Mt. Palomar Davidson and a few other reporters that
telescope, and 17 times that of the Hubble week took the opportunity to write updates on
Space Telescope. The 10-meter main mirrors what had been learned in the decade that fol-
are the most precise optical instruments ever lowed the first event of its kind in nearly 400
made. Final polishing removed glass one mol- years.
ecule at a time.) Alexandra Witze of The Dallas Morning
News was enterprising enough to contact a lo-
■ Exploding star cal astronomer, J. Craig Wheeler, at the Univer-
The gamma ray bursts came hard on the heels sity of Texas in Austin, who said, “There just
of the 10th anniversary of what had previously has not been another thing like it in modern
been the biggest bang in modern astronomy— astronomy.”
a supernova known as SN1987A. Witze expertly explained to her readers how
“On Feb. 23, 1987, astronomers in the this particular supernova—a star with 20 times
Southern Hemisphere noticed a bright new the mass of our sun—astoundingly collapsed in

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“less than a second.” In that massive burst, the course through your bloodstream were born in
star gave off more exotic particles known as an exploding star.” 11
neutrinos than our sun will emit in its lifetime.
Even though the explosion happened ■ Europa’s ocean
166,000 years ago (that’s how long it took the If exploding and colliding stars weren’t
light and neutrinos to reach earth from the enough, scientists in the same spring of 1997
nearby Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion evidently found a new ocean and, by implica-
galaxy to the Milky Way), Witze noted that 20 tion, possibly a new nest for life.
of the neutrinos were captured on Earth, “12 “A vast ocean once flowed beneath the icy
in the newly completed Kamioka detector in surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and might
Japan, and eight in an American facility near still be flowing today as an incubator of extra-
Lake Erie.”10 terrestrial life, scientists reported yesterday,”
In the meantime, Examiner science writer wrote Kathy Sawyer in The Washington Post.
Davidson noted something more prosaic—and “New images from NASA’s spacecraft
more relevant to the average reader—about Galileo—the most detailed ever taken of
supernovae: they produce all of the heavier el- Europa—reveal 300-foot-high icebergs that have
ements of which all things, including ourselves, apparently drifted and turned in unseen currents,
are made. “Those elements are spewed into the providing what ecstatic scientists called nearly
76
galaxy; in time, some condense into new plan- conclusive evidence of a hidden sea.
etary systems,” he noted, and “Some of those “ ‘It’s looking as though we’ve found the
elements are essential building blocks of hu- smoking gun, and it’s pointing right at this
mans. For example, the oxygen and iron that ocean,’ Michael Carr of the U.S. Geological

The icy surface
of Europa

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
Survey said at a briefing yesterday at NASA’s beneath their Vostok base in Antarctica.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “Led by planetary scientist Joan Horvath,
where the images were released. the group foresees an ice-penetrating robotic
“Not since Balboa discovered the Pacific in probe less than 5 feet long and 6 inches wide
1513 has anyone claimed to have found an en- that would send a tiny craft called a “hydrobot”
tire new ocean.”12 to sense the lake’s water temperature and seek
Robert Cooke of Newsday, added details: signs of living organisms.”16
“Oceanographer John Delaney, from the Uni-
versity of Washington in Seattle, confessed en- ■ Asteroids
thusiastically that he is convinced life exists on In late November 1996, an odd-shaped object,
Europa. His studies of subsea life on Earth show known as the Toutatis Asteroid, came whizzing
that creatures can thrive even in the dark if by the Earth at a distance of only 3.3 million
there is warmth and water. And it has been sug- miles, a near miss in astronomical terms.
gested that life on Earth might even have origi- Toutatis is about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles
nated at sea-floor vent sites, where hot water wide. Its orbit brings it near the earth every
rich in chemicals spews out of the ground. four years. (The four pictures are radar images
“Throughout Europa’s 4.5-billion year his- made by NASA when it passed within 2 mil-
tory, Delaney said, ‘it is highly likely there was lion miles of the Earth in 1992.)
circulation of water through the rocky interior, Curt Suplee, writing about Toutatis in The Asteroid 77

driven by thermal processes. So the extraction Washington Post, noted that 391 such objects Toutatis
of chemicals [from the rocks] would have been
more than adequate to support the kind of life
we see on the Earth’s sea-floor.’”13
Faye Flam of The Philadelphia Inquirer ex-
plained, “Even a frigid body of water covered
in a mile of ice might be a friendly enough en-
vironment. In Antarctica, perennially frozen
lakes are slimy with living things, and ecosys-
tems flourish in the coldest, blackest parts of
the oceans.”14
David Chandler of The Boston Globe noted
that the new pictures showed a big “X” to mark
the spot where NASA scientists were looking.
“The X is the intersection of two huge cracks,
each hundreds of miles long, through the layer
of ice that floats on top of Europa’s ocean. In
the area between two of those cracks, the new
close-up pictures clearly show huge iceberg-
like chunks that have drifted apart and rotated
in different directions—movements almost
impossible to explain, [scientists] said, unless
the ice is floating on a liquid layer.”15
Recently, such a formation was found on
earth. David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle
science editor, reported that scientists are de-
signing “a mission that would look for primi-
tive life in the depths of a vast lake of relatively
warm water that Russian scientists have found

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
have now been spotted nearby, of which 205 noted that “Eros, which measures nine miles
cross Earth’s orbit. across and 25 miles long, was selected because
“In 1993,” he wrote, “a specially commis- its orbit around the sun takes it near that of
sioned NASA panel estimated that there is ap- Earth’s path, making it a ‘near-Earth asteroid.’
proximately a 1-in-10,000 chance that the “Eros and other asteroids like it someday
Earth will be whacked by something one- could collide with Earth.
third of a mile in diameter or greater within “At least 20,000 asteroids are known to exist in
100 years. Other experts put the probability the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But
closer to 1 in 1,000. only two have been photographed in any de-
“The issue is more than academic. Many tail.”18
scientists now believe that the extinction of the In June 1997, NASA got a bonus from the
dinosaurs and numerous other species some NEAR spacecraft. By making a slight alteration
65 million years ago was caused by cata- in its trajectory, the agency was able to get dra-
strophic climate change resulting from the im- matic photographs of another asteroid,
pact of an object at least 6 miles in diameter Mathilde, “a very puzzling relic of the solar
that struck what is now the Yucatan peninsula system’s birth,” according to David L. Chandler
in Mexico. By most projections, the splat re- of The Boston Globe.
leased energy equivalent to several times the “The pictures show that the 37-mile-wide
78
world’s collective nuclear arsenal. rock appears to have been almost unchanged
“Experts say it would take a ferocious im- in the 4.6 billion years since the sun and plan-
pact by a massive object at least 1 or 2 miles in ets were formed, and thus could provide a
diameter to prompt planet-wide climate valuable window into the earliest history of
changes and crop failures through a combina- our neighborhood in space,” he wrote. “On all
tion of dust spewed into the atmosphere and the planets, that ancient record has been al-
smoke from extensive fires. But smaller projec- tered by billions of years of geological up-
tiles could be locally lethal: In 1908, a comet- heaval.”19
like fragment exploded in the sky over the The Associated Press noted that “Asteroid
Tunguska River valley in Siberia. Although the Mathilde is so battered by collisions with other
object was only 300 feet across, the blast flat- space rocks that it is almost ‘all crater,’ with one
pit big enough to swallow the District of Co-
Asteroid lumbia and some of its suburbs.”
Mathilde
■ Hale-Bopp Comet
When an event attracts as much national me-
dia attention as Hale-Bopp, the sterling work
of smaller news organizations is frequently
overlooked. One such case involves coverage of
the comet in the under-100,000 circulation
Fayetteville, N.C., Observer-Times.
The newspaper’s chief photographer is
Johnny Horne, 43. He’s been filling the paper
with pictures since he was hired in 1973 at age
tened more than 100 square miles of forest.”17 18. Today, he is in charge of seven full-time
In 1999, NASA will get its first close-up pic- and two part-time photographers. He is also
tures of an asteroid. The Near Earth Asteroid the author of a monthly column, “Backyard
Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft will go into or- Universe,” which in 1997 put the Fayetteville
bit around Eros, then land on it. Paul Observer-Times on the map.
Hoversten, writing for Gannett News Service,

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
Comet
Hale-Bopp

Photo by Johnny Horne
79

Horne’s superb images of the Hale-Bopp Horne has enjoyed the confidence of the
comet were picked up by the Associated Press newspaper’s owner and management from the
and transmitted worldwide, and the prestigious very beginning of his efforts. His monthly
magazine of astronomy, Sky and Telescope, fea- “Backyard Universe” column, which runs with
tured his work extensively in its pages and on its color photos on the front page of the features
web site. section, began in January 1989. “The column al-
“I’ve been an amateur astronomer since age most always covers objects and events that can
10,” Horne says, and “have been shooting pic- be easily seen and appreciated by the average
tures of the night sky since age 14 ….” He’s person,” Horne said. “No discussion of black
also “accumulated a collection of equipment to holes, crop circles, UFOs or Big Bang here.”
allow me to do those types of photos rather re- It was a “labor of love for the first four years,”
liably.” Horne said, then he started getting paid for it.
Using everything from a standard 35-mm His early work, however, was not without
camera to an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt tele- its compensations—both to Horne and the pa-
scope, Horne produced magnificent photos of per. Even before the column began, the paper
the comet as it soared across the heavens in the recognized his unique abilities and contribu-
spring of 1997. Besides the AP and Sky and tions. The Observer-Times “completely funded
Telescope, the chief showplace for his work was a trip for me to Australia in 1986 to photo-
the Observer-Times’ web site, Fayetteville- graph Halley’s comet from the Outback. That
Online. was back before online images, but we ran a
During a single week in March, the web site Sunday feature front about the trip and the
recorded approximately 200,000 hits, as comet. I also gave talks to local civic groups so
Internet-users looked for Horne’s pictures of the effort resulted in lots of good community
Hale-Bopp. “Folks can’t get enough of Hale- feedback.”
Bopp,” Horne says. “Events like that really get Horne says “anytime there is a big astro-
them going.” nomical event, the phone in photo rings all day
long.”

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
3.9 cases per 100,000. Could that increase be
■ Thyroid cancer blamed on the nuclear tests?
The New York Times is for the most part an ex- “The leader of the cancer institute study, Dr.
emplar of science reporting. However, the Bruce Wachholz, said it was not clear that the
Times is not above lapses. exposures were high enough to increase the
In the summer of 1997, under the dramatic cancer risk. Studies of people in Utah immedi-
headline “U.S. Atomic Tests in ’50s Exposed ately downwind from the test site did not find a
Millions to Risk, Study Says,” the Times re- clear association with thyroid cancer, Wachholz
ported that: “Atmospheric nuclear bomb tests said.”
in Nevada from 1951 to 1962 exposed millions The Times quoted Dr. Wachholz as saying
of American children to large amounts of ra- “we really don’t understand the dose-effect re-
dioactive iodine …” a potential cause of thy- lationship” for radioactive iodine. And the pa-
roid cancer. per noted that “… doctors had been using ra-
Moreover, according to the Times, the expo- diation to treat everything from acne to
sures were “… at least 10 times larger than deafness from the 1920s on.”
those caused by the 1986 explosion at the Not only were there doubts about the levels
Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.”20 of radiation that cause thyroid cancer, the NCI
Citing a summary of a draft report by the also said “that its dose estimates were subject
80
National Cancer Institute, the Times said the to ‘a large degree of uncertainty’ because they
“average dose to the approximately 160 million were based on a small number of radiation
people living in the country in that period was measurements made at the time.” And those
2 rads,” but that people living in western states measurements (in 1959) showed exposures
near the tests “… received doses averaging 5 to “more than 100 times smaller than the average
16 rads. Children aged 3 months to 5 years had now cited for Western states.” The Times didn’t
doses 10 times higher .…” offer any explanation of how the exposures in-
Such exposures “… were large enough to creased 100 times in 40 years.
produce 25,000 to 50,000 cases of thyroid can- Nor did the Times raise any questions about
cer around the country, of which 2,500 would why it had taken 14 years and 100,000 pages,
be expected to be fatal.” plus three years of rewrite, to reach a conclu-
And the exposure wasn’t confined just to sion that was “not clear.” It did, however, find
areas near the tests. Over 130 “hot spots” were comments from E. Cooper Brown, chairman
found in “large areas of New Mexico, Okla- of the National Committee for Radiation Vic-
homa, Iowa, Wisconsin, New York and Massa- tims, who said, “I think it raises some serious
chusetts .…” questions,” and Arjun Makhijani, the president
This startling information came from an of the Institute for Energy and Environmental
NCS study that was breathtaking in magni- Research, who said, “This is especially tragic,
tude. because it could have been avoided.”
Authorized by Congress in 1983, the draft Did the cancer institute have anything to
report of the study was completed 11 years show for its 14-year effort? According to the
later in 1994. According to the Times, “It has Times, “The institute said it had accomplished
been undergoing revisions and rewriting since two of the goals that Congress set for it in 1982:
then.” The draft report was 100,000 pages long. developing a way to estimate the dose, and mak-
What, one might ask, did such a gargantuan ing the estimate. The third, assessing the risk of
report mean to Americans in 1997? Has there cancer from the exposures, is still to be finished
been an epidemic of thyroid cancer? …, which it plans to complete by October.”
Well, yes and no. It is an extremely rare In the end, the 25,000 to 50,000 cases of
form of cancer. In 1947, the rate was 2.4 cases thyroid cancer cited earlier in the article
per 100,000 population. In 1970, the rate was evaporated, and the bottom line was, “The

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
© 1997 Jim Borgman. Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate.

81

cancer institute could not say whether any “BOSTON (AP)—For older women, the
cases of thyroid cancer were caused by the fall- difficult question of whether to take estrogen
out.”21 for the rest of their lives has grown even more
The Times article raises two interesting complicated.”
questions: one about the media, the other A careful observer would note that the lead
about scientists. First, why did a responsible paragraph did not mention cancer, although
newspaper print the totally unsubstantiated subsequent paragraphs did, and of course that
claim that 25,000 to 50,000 cancers might have was the peg for the story. Any story about can-
been caused by fallout from a half-century be- cer makes news.
fore? Second, why didn’t some scientist dedi- However, the three major U.S. papers that
cated to the truth blow the whistle on the generally provide the best science coverage
study, say somewhere around seven years and went their separate ways.
50,000 pages into it? On the morning of June 19, The New York
Times’ front-page headline was: “Hormone
■ Estrogen therapy Therapy Found to Cut Women’s Death Risk.”
Here’s the kind of science coverage that must The first paragraph read: “Hormone replace-
drive women crazy. Based on some shaky data ment after menopause can significantly reduce
published in The New England Journal of Medi- a woman’s risk of death as long as she contin-
cine, these are examples of trying to read too ues it, a large study has found.”22
much into epidemiological studies. The Washington Post’s front-page headline
On Thursday evening, June 18, 1997, the was: “Women’s Use of Hormones Has Benefits,
Associated Press, under the headline: “Study Risks.” The lead paragraph read: “Taking hor-
Links Estrogen and Breast Cancer,” sent out on mone supplements after menopause reduces a
its wires the following lead: woman’s risk of death for about 10 years, at
which point its benefit is narrowed signifi-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
cantly because of the rising risk of breast can- ter 10 years of hormone use, a woman’s risk of
cer from the therapy, according to a new dying of breast cancer was 43 percent higher
study.”23 than that of a non-user.” That made it sound
The Los Angeles Times buried the story in its like women were starting to drop like flies
“Science in Brief ” section under the headline: from breast cancer.
“Estrogen Therapy Found to Cut Post-Meno- The real percentages were something else,
pausal Risk of Death.” The first of two para- however, as the Post reported in the very next
graphs read: paragraph: “For example, a 60-year-old
“Estrogen replacement therapy can reduce woman not on HRT has a 1.8 percent chance
the risk of death in post-menopausal women as of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the
much as 37 percent, especially among those next five years. A 60-year-old woman on HRT
with high risk factors for heart disease, but the has a 3 percent risk of developing breast cancer
benefits decline for some women with pro- in that period.” Indeed, that is approximately a
longed use, according to a report in the June 19 43 percent rise in the rate, but the real increase
New England Journal of Medicine. The results was only from 1.8 percent to 3 percent—an ac-
were obtained from the Nurses’ Health Study, tual elevation of only 1.2% in the number of
begun in 1976, of more than 121,000 women.”24 breast cancer diagnoses. Note too, these are di-
The New York Times’ story, incidentally, re- agnoses, not deaths. How diagnoses got mixed
82
ported there were 121,700 women in the study, up with death rates in the Post story is
of whom 60,000 were post-menopausal. The anybody’s guess.
Post said the study was based on 122,000 The Times gave no such figures, so women
women. The AP put the number at 121,700. in New York and other cities where the Times
Neither the AP nor the Washington Post men- was distributed were left with the idea that the
tioned post-menopausal women, even though death rate from breast cancer among those
they were the object of the study. who had been on HRT for a number of years
The real confusion, however, lay in the inter- was a horrendous 43 percent higher. However,
pretation of the data, the selective quotes used the Times’ story took an unexpected turn in
and the lack of raw data in any of the stories. the 13th paragraph:
The Times, for example, did not report the “In the first 10 years of hormone use, the
total number of deaths in the study. The Post women who developed breast cancer had
did—3,637—but it was unclear whether these lower death rates from their disease than did
were among the 121,000, 121,700, or 122,000 women who never took hormones.”
in the total study, or only among the 60,000 Whoa! Hormones protect you at first, then
post-menopausal women, so it was impossible suddenly make you vulnerable?
to figure out the actual death rate. A look at The New England Journal of Medi-
Boiled down, the crux of all the stories was cine, where the original research was published,
that post-menopausal women who are on hor- suggested the source of confusion. In an edito-
mone replacement therapy (HRT) seemed to rial, the journal indicated that the part of the
be dying of all causes at a lower rate (37 per- study about the effects of HRT on breast cancer
cent) than the women who were not taking the might be suspect, because “… the proportion of
hormones—at least for the first few years. deaths due to breast cancer was higher in the
Most of the initial difference was in the rate of study cohort than in the general population,
heart disease. After a few years, however, the possibly limiting the generalizability [sic] of the
difference narrowed, mostly because breast results.” The bottom line, according to the edi-
cancer was then on the rise. In other words, torial, was: “It is possible that the inconsistency
the women who lived longer because they were in the results for short- and long-term users re-
not getting heart disease were succumbing to flects the small number of deaths in each cat-
breast cancer. Indeed, as the Post noted, “… af- egory.”25

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
With that caveat, it’s understandable why than we thought? It certainly is possible, and
the Los Angeles Times buried the story. It’s also some such as myself think it is even likely. But
understandable why The New York Times we won’t know until we actually have some
quoted another researcher in the field of hor- hard scientific data.
mone therapy as saying it would be “incorrect “Women are perfectly capable of making
to interpret the new findings as saying all decisions based on inadequate information.
women should be on therapy,” adding, “but it We do it all day every day. But we need to
would be equally incorrect to interpret the know that that is what we are doing. Let’s stop
study as saying that all women should stop pretending we have definitive answers when
taking hormones after 10 years.” we don’t. Let’s tell women when our advice is
What’s not understandable is how this story based only on preliminary data so that when
got on the front page of any newspaper. The the studies come out they won’t feel betrayed
confusion created by these stories clearly indi- and confused. Let’s strive for honestly present-
cates the need for reporters to stay up to date ing what we know and don’t know. Enough
on current research. And to be aware of what wishful thinking. What we need is the truth.”26
various kinds of studies can actually show. And
the proper questions to ask about “scientific” ■ Breast cancer
studies. Medical writer Dr. Susan Love had ex- Women have had a hard time getting the truth
83
plained it clearly to readers of the Chicago Tri- about one of the most contentious and fright-
bune several months earlier: ening issues facing them: at what age and how
“Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in often they should get mammograms. They
post-menopausal women for prevention of have been badly served by the science commu-
heart disease is the latest of the ‘wishful think- nity, and it has taken some time for the media
ing’ based therapies. We have not as yet proven to sort the question out.
that HRT will prevent heart disease. The stud- Daniel S. Greenberg, writing in The Wash-
ies we have are observational. This means that ington Post was outraged:
they take women who are already on hor- “A committee of distinguished specialists,
mones for whatever reason and compare them summoned to a study a few months ago by the
to women who are not on them. federal government, reported that the best
“The women who are on hormones have available evidence does not support the claim
fewer deaths from heart disease. But they are that mammography for women 40-49 years of
of a higher socioeconomic level, more likely to age saves lives. Advocates of mammography,
go to the doctor (that’s how they got on them including the affluent providers of X-ray ser-
in the first place), more likely to exercise, eat a vices, erupted with angry reaction. The U.S.
good diet and treat their high blood pressure Senate went on record as opposed to the nega-
and high cholesterol than women who are not tive report on mammography.
on hormones. It is quite possible that it is not “The National Institutes of Health, which
that hormones make women healthy, but sponsored the initial study, quickly convened
rather that healthy women take hormones. another committee. It examined the same evi-
“Until we have a study with the same num- dence and meekly concluded that mammogra-
ber of couch potatoes in each group, we won’t phy for ages 40-49 does indeed save lives.
know. That study has been started and will not “In response to this political mugging,
be available until the year 2008. Is it possible what did we hear from the institutions that
that over the next 11 years we will put millions stand guard over scientific and intellectual in-
of women on HRT to prevent heart disease tegrity, from the statesmen of science who, at
and then the Women’s Health Initiative will the drop of an honorary degree, extol scientific
show that it doesn’t work or, even worse, that independence? Nothing.”27
the resulting increase in breast cancer is higher
continued on page 84

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
New View Sees Breast Cancer
as 3 Diseases
By Gina Kolata
The New York Times (April 1, 1997)

F
or years, cancer specialists repeated their hy- Dr. John Wasson of Dartmouth College, a mem-
pothesis as if it were a mantra: virtually all ber of the panel of experts at the recent meeting
breast cancer has spread by the time it is de- that was held at the health institutes to assess mam-
tected. But now, seemingly overnight, that pre- mography, explained the cancer types this way:
vailing view of breast cancer has changed. “There is the mean type that spreads so quickly that
At a recent meeting at the National Institutes current technology can’t detect it or treat it. Some-
of Health, speaker after speaker said, as though thing is wrong at the cellular level and the cells
it was indisputable, that breast cancer was really spread rapidly throughout the body. The second
three separate diseases whose boundaries were type is one that is growing at a rate where it will
84
indistinct. cause trouble and begin to spread within a relatively
The changed view of breast cancer has pro- short period of time: we’re talking 5 to 10 years.
found implications, not only for women with the Then there is a third type that may take even longer
disease but also for women worried about devel- to spread, if it spreads at all.”
oping the disorder. It helps explain a puzzling fact Even mammography does not offer much hope
about mammograms for women in their 40s: al- for women with the fast-growing cancers, he said.
though X-ray screening tests can find cancers in And many of the slow-growing ones are so lan-
these women’s breasts, regular mammograms guid that it may not matter if they are found now
have little or no effect in decreasing their death with mammograms or later, when they become
rate from breast cancer. palpable lumps. In either case, they are easily
The effect, if any, is so hard to determine that treated.
an advisory group to the National Cancer Institute, When breast cancer is viewed in this light,
recommending last week that women in their 40s adherents of the new view say, the disappointing
have regular mammograms, had to look at com- results of mammography make sense. It fails to
bined data from seven different studies to see even markedly prolong the lives of women in their 40s
a minimal benefit from mammograms for younger and offers only limited benefit to older women
women. because the medical prognosis for most cancers
The analysis of these studies showed a 17 per- that it finds is not altered by early detection.
cent reduction in the death rate, and the group Dr. Samuel Hellman, a radiologist at the Uni-
cautioned that “to many, but not all experts, this versity of Chicago, is a principal promoter of the
is statistically significant,” and added that “this new hypothesis. At age 62, he says, he has seen
level of mortality reduction appears impressive but breast cancer theories rise and fall. This one, he
is difficult to detect with a high level of certainty.” says, illustrates how and why notions of disease
The changed view also helps explain why the ben- gain adherents and how treatment strategies can
efits of mammograms for women 50 and older, be driven by ideologies.
while greater than those for younger women, are The first doctrine originated in 1895 when Dr.
still not overwhelming. And it helps explain why, William S. Halstead, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins
decades after mammograms were introduced, the University in Baltimore, argued that all breast can-
mammography debate continues. cer began as a small tumor in the breast and then
spread to the lymphatic system and from there to

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
the rest of the body. That indicated to Halstead of scientific hypotheses and learning.”
that the way to treat breast cancer was to remove Fisher, however, replied that if his hypothesis
the breast, the surrounding tissue and the lymph became dogma, it was because it had been
nodes nearby. Thousands of women underwent overinterpreted and oversimplified by the cancer
the mutilating surgery that bears his name, the establishment. While agreeing that he had said
Halstead radical mastectomy. that every cancer was systemic from the time of
“His approach was scorched earth,” said Dr. diagnosis, he asserted, “That does not mean that
David Plotkin, a breast cancer specialist who di- every patient is going to get a metastasis and die.”
rects the Memorial Cancer Research Foundation Instead, he said, “It means that the potential is
in Los Angeles. But many women who had the there.” If conditions are right, if certain hormones
surgery survived and those who did not survive and growth-stimulating chemicals—many of which
died of distant metastases—remnants of their are as yet unidentified—are present, every tumor
breast cancer that had spread to other organs, like can become deadly, Fisher said.
their bones or lungs or liver. According to the In fact, Fisher said, it is true that some tumors
Halstead hypothesis, they had seen the surgeon are metastatic from the time they are discovered,
too late. even though they are discovered when they are
“This hypothesis became fixed in medicine,” extraordinarily small and barely recognizable as tu-
85
Hellman wrote in the journal Cancer in 1993. “Its mors. “That occurs infrequently, but it can occur,”
acceptance was similar to that of the acceptance Fisher said. “It shows there is a potential for
of religious dogma.” spread.”
Around 1980, the hypothesis gave way to one But now it is Hellman’s hypothesis that is as-
propounded by Dr. Bernard Fisher, a surgeon at the cendant, promoted by radiologists like himself who
University of Pittsburgh, and a handful of others. ask how mammography results can be reconciled
They theorized that breast cancer had already spread with the notion that all cancer is metastatic from
by the time it was discovered, with errant cells the time it is discovered.
swarming through the bloodstream and taking root If cancer spreads systematically in a predict-
throughout the body. At the same time, research- able way, as Halstead proposed, mammography
ers had developed chemotherapy and hormonal could make a major difference. It could find tu-
treatments that could attack these metastatic cells, mors that had not spread and allow surgeons to
making the new hypothesis appealing. cut them out before it was too late. And the
As Hellman put it in his 1993 paper, “The better mammography got, the better it would be
medical oncologist now supplants the surgeon as in prolonging lives.
the central figure in cancer management.” But, in fact, mammography has not slashed
As evidence for the dogmatic nature of the new breast cancer death rates. For women in their 40s,
hypothesis, Hellman cited an incident in 1993 there is a tiny benefit, if any. For women over 50,
when the National Cancer Institute issued a clini- only a small proportion of those who have regu-
cal alert to the nation’s doctors, a notice it deemed lar mammograms live longer as a result. Dr. Russell
too important to wait for publication in a medi- Harris, a co-director of the program on health pro-
cal journal. The institute said that all breast can- motion and disease prevention at the University
cer should be treated with systemic therapies, like of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, estimates that if
chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, no matter 1,000 women from 50 to 75 had mammograms,
how small the cancer was and no matter whether breast cancer would be found in 21 to 34 of them,
it had spread to the lymph nodes. but only 2 to 6 of them would live longer because
“This truly is dogma, rather than hypothesis their cancers were found with this X-ray of the
generation and testing,” Hellman wrote in his 1993 breast. The numbers have not changed much since
paper. “Current practices seem more consistent with the first studies of mammography were conducted
religious excesses than with the conditional nature in the 1960s.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
The mammography data also do not support was an inch in diameter.
the hypothesis that virtually all breast cancer is a One implication of the new view of cancer, Dr.
systemic disease from the time it is discovered. If Jay Harris said, is that better and better mam-
that were true, virtually all tumors found years mograms cannot magically turn the breast cancer
before the stage at which they become palpable statistics around. Since the challenge now seems
lumps in the breast would have already spread. to be to discriminate between the different types
Early diagnosis would have no effect on mortal- of breast cancer, Harris said, “I’m not sure that mam-
ity, said Dr. Jay Harris, a radiologist at Harvard mography is going to be the tool to take us to the
Medical School. But it does. next stage” in the breast cancer battle.
Dr. John A. Spratt, a surgeon at the University Many, including Hellman, are now studying
of Louisville, found another discordant feature of molecular markers, like aberrant cancer genes, that
breast cancer. The cancers grow at widely varying might indicate a tumor’s potential to be lethal. So
rates and only a minority of them seem to be the far, however, no one has found a test that is ac-
type that mammograms are looking for. The av- curate enough for widespread use.
erage time it took a tumor to double in size was The hope, Hellman said, is to be able to dis-
260 days, but the doubling times for tumors cover which women need systemic therapy and
ranged from 10 days to 7,051 days. to be able to spare the vast majority of women,
86
At one extreme are cancers that grow so quickly who do not need this therapy, from having to
that they can spring up and become lethal in the endure it.
time between a woman’s annual mammograms. “Giving all those women adjuvant chemo-
Anywhere from 13 percent to 17 percent are of therapy when the majority don’t need it puts us
this type, Spratt has found. in an awkward circumstance,” Hellman said. Be-
At the other extreme are perhaps 10 percent cause doctors do not want to harm the many
to 15 percent of cancers that grow so slowly that women who do not need the treatment, they tend
any treatment beyond simply removing the tumor to “water it down,” he said. Yet that means that
may be superfluous. For example, a 55-year-old those who do need it may not be getting enough.
woman with a half-inch wide tumor growing at “We end up with a poor mix in the middle,”
the slowest rate would be 70 before her tumor Hellman said.

Copyright © 1997 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

The Post, to its credit, covered the contro- scientific inquiry. … Politicians are now
versy closely. It also provided a forum for two pressuring scientists to alter their advice to
scientists who did get into the fray. Dr. Steven doctors and patients.”
Woolf, a professor of family practice at the After recounting the acrimonious debate,
Medical College of Virginia, and Robert they asked, “Why is there any uncertainty
Lawrence, a professor of health policy at the about the benefits of mammography?,” then
Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public went on to give a lucid, non-jargon-filled ex-
Health, weighed in on the front page of the planation.
Sunday Outlook section. “The test can save lives, reducing breast
“The recent controversy over breast can- cancer death rates by 17 percent for women in
cer screening,” they wrote, “highlights a dis- their 40s and by over 30 percent for women
turbing trend: Medical policy is increasingly older than 50. But because the incidence of
being shaped by political pressure and spe- breast cancer is low for women in their 40s, the
cial-interest groups, rather than by objective actual benefit is very small, so small that ex-

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
perts debate whether the observed difference is trade-offs. And judgments of this sort are not
real or due to chance: A 40-year-old woman always best made by the government, but by
who undergoes annual screening for 10 years individual women in consultation with their
has one chance in 1,500 to 2,500 of preventing families and doctors, as was originally recom-
death from breast cancer. And although mod- mended by the NIH panel.”28
ern mammography is safe, the medical work- Thousands of words had been written
up triggered by a positive test result brings its about the breast cancer enigma by the time
own risks. In 10 years of screening, an esti- Gina Kolata of The New York Times set it down
mated 30 percent of screened women will re- in plain, understandable English on April 1,
quire repeat testing, and 8 percent will go on to 1997. Any editor who had access to this article
have a biopsy or surgery, often for lesions that from The New York Times News Service and
prove not to be cancerous. For the estimated didn’t print it may want to ask him/herself if it
three cases of cancer detected by screening would be profitable to spend a little more time
1,000 women, 997 women undergo screening carefully reading the items that come in la-
for what turns out to be little or no gain. If all beled “science.” Kolata’s article cleared the air
40- to 49-year-old women in the United States of a lot of jargon and was of enormous value
were screened, roughly 200,000 would need to every woman in America.
follow-up breast biopsies to distinguish true
positives from the much larger number of false ■ Mass media 87

positives. If there’s one thing that gets scientists fired up, it
“The decision to screen all women in this is the mass media. Most see the tabloids, movies
age group is therefore far from straightfor- and especially network television as leading the
ward. Whether a one in 1,500 to 2,500 chance anti-intellectual movement in America. Scien-
of benefit is worth the 8 percent risk of breast tists are most distressed by what they view as the
biopsy is a subjective judgment, a matter of uncritical manner in which pseudoscience is
personal priorities and not hard science. now presented on television. “One of the things
Women reach different conclusions about such we have these days, that’s viewed with growing
alarm,” says Dr. Leon Lederman, “is
this anti-science—all kinds of weird
things that are going on. Psychics, and
UFO witnesses who’ve been molested.
American citizens! By aliens!”
Lederman is part of a group of
distinguished scientists known as
the Committee for the Scientific In-
vestigation of Claims of the Paran-
ormal (CSICOP). Other organizing
members include: Stephen Jay
Reprinted with permission of RUBES and Creators Syndicate.

Gould and Gerald Holton of
Harvard University; Sir John
Maddox, editor emeritus, Nature
magazine; Eugenie Scott from Ber-
keley; Gerard Piel, former president,
American Association for the Ad-
vancement of Science and former
publisher of Scientific American; and
John Rennie, editor-in-chief, Scien-
tific American, among others.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
CSICOP members, many of them at least, are nate time to “the paranormal … but skeptical
almost messianic in their drive to bring some dissent is rarely heard.”
scientific common sense to television. Kurtz says he realizes the networks have to
Paul Kurtz, chairman of CSICOP, says, “The make a profit and that he is not in the business
media have now virtually replaced the schools, of censoring TV. “We only ask that they pro-
colleges and universities as the main source of vide some balance and provide some apprecia-
information for the general public.… The irre- tion of the scientific approach. If the United
sponsibility of the media in the area of science States is to continue to provide leadership and
and the paranormal is a worldwide problem. compete in the global economy, then we need
But it especially applies to the United States, to raise the level of scientific literacy and un-
where the media have been distorting science, derstanding of the general public.”
and in particular presenting pseudoscience as Ironically, not all of the programs men-
genuine science. Indeed, we are appalled by the tioned are always slanted toward
number of ‘documentaries,’ which are really pseudoscience or the sensational. Ira Flatow
entertainment programs, presenting fringe sci- recalls, “I was watching a wonderful piece on
ence as real science.” the Martian rock that landed in Antarctica. [I]t
The criticism is valid. Network documen- was a terrific piece and it was done in the best
tary standards have all but disappeared in re- style of journalism; all the right NASA scien-
88
cent years. Once, documentaries were the sole tists were interviewed. It was fantastic. They
province of the network news departments. got all the facts in there.
Today, that is no longer true. The new genre, “They took 15 minutes to do this, but it was
labeled “infotainment” or “docudrama,” is on Unsolved Mysteries. That’s where the piece
most often produced by independent compa- showed up. It was an excellent piece of jour-
nies based in Hollywood. Needless the say, nalism, … the kind of stuff you used to see on
their values are not in concert with the net- the best newscasts where they would take 10 or
work news departments. In fact, the news de- 15 minutes to do a really in-depth piece. And it
partments disavow these programs, which are shows up on Unsolved Mysteries.”
ostensibly entertainment, except they have a According to Vanderbilt University physicist
“news” veneer. Taylor Wang, “Actually, somebody made a
“The major networks have been running study [that showed] that scientists on televi-
two or three such specials almost every sion series [belong to] the most deadly profes-
month,” says Kurtz. “Recently there have been sion. Almost every scientist on the television
programs on prophecies, astrology, psychic either is a nerd or is a mad scientist who wants
powers, creationism, Noah’s Ark, angels, alien to conquer the world. So they usually get killed
abductions, etc. This is in addition to the at the end of the series.”
popular Unsolved Mysteries, X-Files and Jon Franklin says it’s no different in the
Sightings, as well as new programs such as movies. “Look, for instance, at ET. What did
Paranormal Borderlands, Poltergeist and Outer the scientists want to do to this friendly little
Limits.” feller from another world? Why ... they wanted
The committee took special issue with an to cut him up, of course! Vivisection, that was
NBC infotainment special, The Mysterious Ori- what was on their minds. They were little bet-
gins of Man, narrated by Charlton Heston. The ter than butchers.
scientists complained that “[t]he program pro- “The evil father in Star Wars—what had
moted pseudoscience and suggested that evo- happened to him? He had been touched by sci-
lution is questionable, that human civilization ence. Or take Jurassic Park: who was the villain
originated 100 million years ago, and that hu- there? These are all remakes of the Franken-
mans coexisted with dinosaurs.” CSICOP com- stein theme, and they play well in Peoria.”29
plained that television talk shows give inordi-

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
13 Robert Cooke, “What’s in Jovian Moon’s Soup?” Newsday,
Frankenstein, sensationalism, gee whiz—
April 10 1997.
these are themes that often run through sci- 14 Faye Flam, “NASA discovers ocean, pointing to life, on a

ence stories, fiction and nonfiction. Unfortu- Jupiter moon; Clear pictures from Galileo confirm the right
nately, such exaggeration is rarely necessary; ingredients are present,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10,
1997.
indeed, it usually clouds the genuine excite- 15 David Chandler, “Conditions for life seen on Jovian moon,”

ment and import inherent in much of science. The Boston Globe, April 10, 1997.
16 David Perlman, “Enthralling Images Of Jupiter Moon;
As in any complexity, richness and subtlety are
Spacecraft sends new evidence that life could exist on
found in the substance of the thing, not in the Europa,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 10, 1997.
adjectives summoned from an overwrought 17 Curt Suplee, “Asteroids Fly-By Sends ‘Heads-Up’ to Earth;

imagination. Toutatis Recycles Every Four Years, Reminding That Space
Debris Isn’t All That Far Away,” The Washington Post, Nov.
28, 1996.

chapter endnotes 18 Paul Hoverton, “Asteroid ‘appetizer’ should give NASA

something to digest,” Florida Today, June 24, 1997.
19 David L. Chandler, “Close view of asteroid helps add to
1 Charles Krauthammer, “Understand the Universe—As You
Lie on the Beach,” The Washington Post, July 25, 1997. mystery; Color, low weight are unexplained,” The Boston
2 Ibid. Globe, July 29, 1997
20 Matthew L. Wald “U.S. Atomic Testing in ’50s Exposed Mil-
3 “Scientists See Breakthrough in Gamma Ray,” Reuters

News Service, April 16, 1997. lions to Risk, Study Says,” The New York Times, July 29,
4 Kathy Sawyer, “Scientific Alliance’s Detective Work Yields 1997
21 Ibid.
Timely Clues on Gamma Rays; Sources of Bursts May Be
22 “Hormone Therapy Found to Cut Women’s Death Risk,” 89
Out Toward Horizon of Known Universe,” The Washington
Post, April 17, 1997. The New York Times, June 19, 1997.
23 “Women’s Use of Hormone Has Benefits, Risks,” The
5 David L. Chandler, “Distant clue to gamma-ray bursts: Far-

off galaxy seen at origin of mysterious radiation flash,” The Washington Post, June 19, 1997.
24 “Estrogen Therapy Found to Cut Post-Menopausal Risk of
Boston Globe, April 17, 1997.
6 K.C. Cole, “Astronomers locate bursts of ultra-distant Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1997.
25 “Post-menopausal Hormone-Replacement Therapy—Time
gamma rays; Only the cosmos’ most violent events could
produce such energy. They are at least 2 billion light-years for a Reappraisal,” New England Journal of Medicine, June
away,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1997. 19, 1997.
26 Dr. Susan Love, “Stop the Wishful Thinking on Women’s
7 Ibid.
8 John Noble Wilford, “Sudden Burst of Clues Shed Light on Health,” Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1997.
27 Daniel S. Greenberg, “Where are the Lions of Science?,”
Mystery of Gamma Rays,” The New York Times, May 20,
1997. The Washington Post, May 6, 1997.
28 Steven Woolf and Robert S. Lawrence, “When Politicians
9 Keay Davidson, “Astronomers partying decade after super-

nova,” San Francisco Examiner, February 21, 1997. Play Doctor; The Mammogram Debate Shows Why It’s Dan-
10 Alexandra Witze, “Scientists still learning from 1987 super- gerous,” The Washington Post, May 4, 1997.
29 Jon Franklin, Hill Lecture, University of Tennessee, March
nova,” The Dallas Morning News, February 17, 1997.
11 Davidson, op. cit. 17, 1997.
12 Kathy Sawyer, “Signs of Ocean Found on a Jupiter Moon;

Scientists Say Galileo’s Images Provide Glimpse of Incubator
of Extraterrestrial Life,” The Washington Post, April 10,
1997.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
90

Chapter 9 A Case-by-Case Analysis
C H A P T E R T E N

Recommendations
for Scientists
All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in
common; it was the willingness to confront unequivocally
the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and
not much else, is the essence of leadership.

C
arl Sagan’s final work before his —John Kenneth Galbraith, 1908-
death, The Demon-Haunted World,
was an eloquent condemnation of
the pseudo-scientific nonsense that’s of seven crew members (April 29 - May 5).
swept the nation in recent years. He said scien- Now an engineering professor at Vanderbilt
tists themselves must enter the fray, to defend University, he holds over 20 U.S. patents and is
both their institutions and themselves. the author of approximately 180 papers.
“The unprecedented powers that science “If we are going to be portrayed as other
now makes available,” he wrote, “must be ac- than just mad scientists on television,” Dr.
91
companied by unprecedented levels of ethical Wang warns, “we have got to show that what
focus and concern by the scientific commu- we do has some relevance to the people walk-
nity—as well as the most broadly based public ing the street.
education into the importance of science and Wang was one of nearly three dozen scien-
democracy.”1 tists who gathered at a First Amendment Cen-
That echoed a theme sounded over 40 years ter roundtable at Vanderbilt University in what
ago by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who felt the turned out to be a very frank discussion of the
great saga of science achievement in the nation anxieties and unease that have descended on
was no different from the war stories of heroic their world. The central question: Is the United
soldiers or the great tales of exploration. All of States about to surrender its long-held position
these, he said, are “the threads which bind us as the world leader in cutting-edge research? Is
in community and make us more than sepa- the country going to turn away from its great
rate men.” institutions of higher learning, its world-re-
Dr. Taylor Wang, 57, nowned laboratories and its elite cadre of re-
is a thoughtful scien- searchers—the very elements that brought
tist, serious about his Wang and thousands like him from Asia, Eu-
life’s work—physics. rope and every other part of the planet to
Born in Shanghai in America?
the midst of World The consensus around the table, borne out
War II, he came to in the survey conducted for this study, was that
America via Taiwan the nation is in danger of losing it all, in part
and earned his Ph.D. because the American taxpayers really don’t
from UCLA in 1971. understand what their investment in research
He immediately went and development is buying. And one of the
to work at the Jet Pro- primary reasons for this is that scientists them-
pulsion Laboratory in selves aren’t explaining it.
Pasadena, Calif., as a Wang The mayor of Nashville, Philip Bredesen—
32-year-old physicist. Three years later, at 35, himself a Harvard-trained physicist who left
he became a citizen of the United States. In the world of science for business and poli-
1985, Wang flew aboard the Challenger as one tics—told the assembled scientists: “… There

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
are a lot of people around this table who are ing. [I wonder] if that might guide us a little bit
supported by … two cents a week out of the more into formulating what we need to do.”
bricklayer’s check, and three cents a week out The roundtables, the survey and the one-
of the stockbroker’s check.” on-one interviews with scientists and journal-
It’s essential, he said, to explain to those ists conducted for this study have established a
people “not about triplet states, but about why beginning for that process. Now scientists
what it is we are doing at this university and must take the initiative to open a direct dia-
other places is meaningful to society as a logue with reporters and editors in their own
whole.” communities, trying to discover on a case-by-
Bredesen made clear that he is not just an- case basis why their story is not getting
other budget-slasher. High-level research “is a through.
very appropriate process for the public sector,” Journalists who responded to the survey
he said, and federal funding must be preserved have suggested some of the possible reasons:
because “the notion that the private sector is “Scientists are sometimes bad judges of
somehow going to be the primary funder of their best stories,” said Paul Conti of station
anything like the research that has gone on in WNYT-TV in Albany, N.Y.
our country … is just clearly wrong. That’s just “Scientists should be aggressive not only in
not going to happen.” their research but in publicizing their work,”
92
The importance of world-class science, said Susan Raff of Middletown, Conn. “Scien-
Bredesen said, “is not being communicated. tists in all communities should have a pro-ac-
This is a fundamental problem.” tive relationship with the media.”
The critical question is: How does the aver- Tom McNamee of the Chicago Sun-Times
age scientist make himself or herself under- noted that: “Good scientists are remarkably
stood and appreciated? How can the scientist’s competent in explaining technical matters in
work be made relevant to the average citizen? terms intelligent lay people can understand.
Reporters are less ignorant than they are
Apply the rushed.”
Scientists are used to criticism, obviously,
scientific method and welcome it when it’s warranted and bal-
Perhaps scientists should apply their own sci- anced. Nils Bruzelius of The Boston Globe of-
entific method to this problem. fered comments on the shortcomings of sci-
“As scientists, you like ence as well as of his own profession.
to look at data, inter- “Although our own paper is one of the ex-
pret data,” Dr. Harry ceptions,” he wrote, “most media organizations
Jacobson, Vanderbilt devote too few resources to covering science,
vice chancellor for medicine and the environment, and to devel-
health affairs, told the oping experienced and talented reporters com-
roundtable partici- mitted to those beats.”
pants. “And I wonder But scientists are at fault, too, he said, “be-
if, in looking at this is- cause of their acquiescence in a style of scien-
sue, we[might] go to tific communication that is unintelligible to
the people who are most peers in other disciplines, let alone the
supposed to be com- public. That is not necessary,” Bruzelius con-
municating to the cluded, “and needs to change.”
politicians—the lay Jacobson
public—and actually find out what message
they are getting now …, what they feel is miss-
ing, or how they interpret what they are hear-

Chapter 10 Recommendations for Scientists
Media most people don’t do when they get into this is
training to sit down and develop a strategy. They
should set it all down: Where do you want to
If the scientists and engineers are ready to ad- be, what is an endgame for you—and then fig-
dress this issue, one fairly simple approach ure out all the ways you can get there. Another
would be to tap the skills of media training ex- key is to make priorities with the amount of
perts. Widely available, such professionals are time you’ve got. Keep your message as simple
now commonly employed by businessmen, as possible and stick to your strategy. That
lawyers, the military, athletes, even astronauts. works whether you’re the president of the
Media training that addresses the special needs United States or whether you’re somebody
of scientists can be quite valuable. who’s out there worrying about alcohol-syn-
The good ones will tell the client up front drome problems for babies.”2
that effective communications skills are not in- As well as determining their own aims, sci-
born but acquired. The best communicators— entists need to think carefully about the needs
Broadway and motion-picture actors and ac- of the journalist. What does he/she want? Two
tresses—spend years learning their trade. This things that are vital and that are found in
is not to recommend acting either as a substi- nearly all good stories about science: relevance
tute for or even as a method of communicat- and context.
93
ing science, only to note that “professional Since so much of science is incremental, the
communicators” spend many hours in prepa- reporter and the public need special help in
ration before they ever appear before an audi- placing research in the context of the big pic-
ence. U.S. presidents, for instance, routinely re- ture. It’s worth the time to give reporters com-
hearse their answers before every news prehensive background on why the research
conference, calling for tough practice ques- was carried out, where it fits in the bigger
tions from their staffs. puzzle. If the puzzle isn’t solved yet, a reporter
Prior to any appearance before the media or might want to present the story as an unsolved
any interview with a print reporter, scientists mystery.
should carefully prepare their remarks, prefer- If the research is the final piece of a puzzle,
ably in the presence of non-scientists—per- the work’s relevance is usually much clearer
haps someone from the public-relations de- and easier to explain. The story is no longer a
partment of the university or research facility. mystery; the reporter will probably want to
“When I go to give talks about the civic sci- look to the future. In either case, the signifi-
entist, I get some skepticism,” Neal Lane says. cance of the work is more and more the key to
“I get people [scientists] who stand up and say, public understanding and support.
‘I don’t know how to do this; how do I do this?’ “Scientists need to realize that they are, in
And I say, ‘You know, on your campus, you fact, very good explainers and help journalists
have public information officers. You have go about the process of explaining science to
people who understand how to communicate news audiences,” says Katherine Rowan of the
with the public and who know the media. Department of Communications at Purdue
They can be helpful to you, and I bet they University.3
don’t get all that many telephone calls from
faculty members who want to do a better job
communicating with the public.’”
Journalism education
Michael Deaver, the man who was as re- for scientists
sponsible as anyone else for crafting former Noting the many calls for journalists to be better
President Ronald Reagan’s public image, says, educated in science, Bredesen says that maybe a
“Here’s what I’d give as the most basic com- course in journalism and communication for sci-
munications advice. One of the things that entists might be more productive than a course in

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
science for journalists. He told the Nashville terview — question/answer, question/answer,
roundtable that it is not really “reasonable to ex- question/answer.
pect that The Tennesseean is going to hire some- A more rewarding method is to draw the
one who is going to understand, in any reason- reporter into a genuine conversation, much as
able way, what the substantial fraction around one might a colleague. Find out how much
this table … are doing. I think it falls on the background he/she has in your area, how
people around this table to explain .…” much of the literature, if any, has been di-
In fact, it is a recommendation of this report gested, who else the reporter has spoken to,
that all future scientists be required to take un- opinions he or she might hold. Try to get as
dergraduate courses in communications. much information feedback as possible. It’s
A communications education program for better to correct a mistake in the office or lab
scientists known as the Media Fellowship than in the next edition.
Scheme has been underway in Great Britain Be clear about the tentative nature of the
since 1987. It was set up by COPUS—the findings (if they are tentative). Do not engage
Committee on the Public Understanding of in hype. Don’t exaggerate. Provide whatever
Science—sponsored by the Royal Society, the documents and background seem necessary.
British Association for the Advancement of Through the use of analogies and metaphors,
Science and the Royal Institution. The fellow- place the work in its proper context. (“Analo-
94
ships provide firsthand opportunities for sci- gies prove nothing,” Freud said, “but they can
entists to experience how the media work. Sci- make one feel more at home.”4)
entists spend four to eight weeks working with “ This is a vitally
a newspaper or magazine, or in radio or televi- important topic,” says
sion, observing and taking part in the news- Dr. Clifford S.
gathering process and learning how and why Mitchell of the Johns
stories make news. Hopkins School of
Some program participants have gone on to Public Health. “Al-
make journalism a career, or avocation. though both funding
“I have discovered that I enjoy journalism priorities and total
and write a regular column in the weekend Fi- dollars invested in re-
nancial Times,” says professor of psychology search are directly re-
Andrew Derrington, “This will, of course, pro- lated to public percep-
mote science in a small way, but I think that tion and attitudes,
the most important thing is to make scientists those priorities can be
more aware of the fact that the science journal- and are shaped by the Mitchell
ist is their ally, and of how they can help.” news media’s coverage of science and scientists.”
Dr. James Shippen, a mechanical engineer and Boyce Rensberger of The Washington Post
media fellow with BBC Radio, observes that: “At says simply, “If the scientist is not willing to
university, time scales are longer and more flex- take the time to work with the journalist, then
ible. At the BBC, work is highly volatile. The that scientist has no right to complain later
deadlines are absolute. The program will be about the content.”5
broadcast at a particular time. Excuses do not en-
ter into the equation; there are none. This has the
effect of focusing the mind wonderfully.”
Long-term
For those who haven’t the time or inclina- relationships
tion for a retrofit but who would still like to in- Not everyone, of course, is involved in
teract with the media, it’s useful to engage the newsmaking research. This problem was de-
journalist who is conducting an interview in scribed by Dr. Travis Thompson, director of
dialogue. Avoid if possible the “ping-pong” in- the Nashville’s Kennedy Center for Research on

Chapter 10 Recommendations for Scientists
Human Development. how a study was performed enhance clarity
“In the meantime,” he said, “we are going much more than in other types of news. People
down the tubes. And it seems like a lot of us need to be able to imagine themselves doing
around this table, and my friends out there in the scientific study or at least have a valid men-
the science business, are not very good com- tal image of some else doing it. They cannot
municators, and they are not going to be very get this from text alone. TV does better than
good communicators. the print media in its presentation of graphics,
“We are not good at writing bumper stick- but TV news stories about science are far too
ers,” Thompson said in frustration. “We are short.”
trained all our lives to not write bumper stick-
ers. And to all of a sudden tell us, ‘Now you
should stop what you’re doing and write
High-profile
bumper stickers’ isn’t going to work.” web sites
Thompson contends there is only a small Graphics work exceedingly well on the
percentage of scientists “who can do that with Internet, which leads to another point: this
a little more—I wouldn’t say grace—but at study recommends that the science commu-
least they can do it. It seems like developing nity expand its Internet resources significantly.
longer-term relationships with people in the While most of the major professional societies
95
media is a wiser strategy.” already maintain web sites, for the most part
Indeed, it is a recommendation of this re- these are designed for internal use rather than
port that scientists develop long-term, infor- as aids to public or journalistic understanding.
mal relationships with reporters to help the These sites should be
media understand big-picture issues and to remodeled as easy-to-
keep them abreast of current developments. access sources of new
One avenue along this line is being explored scientific findings. Pa-
by an increasing number of scientists, noted Dr. pers should be avail-
Douglas W. Johnson of Stow, Mass. “One role I able online on their
have found useful is as a ‘background’ source in publication date—or
which the reporter comes to you not for attri- better yet, beforehand,
bution, but rather for context and explanation,” with suitable under-
he wrote. “I think if more reporters had this sort standings about em-
of non-judging source of information the over- bargoes. Journalists
all quality of the stories would rise.” function far better
Science has tried with advance infor-
for centuries to reduce mation, especially Gray
all things to math- when they are covering major developments.
ematical equations. One of the leaders in the effort to get
The thrust now is to useable science information on the Internet is
make a graphic of it. Dr. Harry Gray, director of the Beckman Insti-
The mind grasps tute at Caltech. During a 1997 symposium on
nothing quicker than science and the media he said, “What I really
a clear picture. have in mind is, if we have these stories on the
“Graphics are crucial web, and we have them flagged in a certain
to clear presentation way—like ‘We think this story would be of re-
of scientific ideas,” ally great interest to the public’—and [report-
says Dr. Jay Brown of ers] can use a proper search engine to get away
the University of Vir- Brown from all the other hits, to get to the hits that
ginia. “Sketches of the experimental design or say ‘the laboratories at Caltech’ … that [would

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
make] the contact. Then they [could] commu- proved.
nicate electronically to work on the story.”6 While “going public” is still controversial in
Scientific and technological web sites some scientific circles, it also seems clear that
should provide plain-English summaries and Mary Woolley, the president of
translations. This, in fact, is being tried at some Research!America, is correct in her observa-
institutions, notably at Fermilab. tion that many scientists are not at all comfort-
The web sites also should provide the able with the current state of affairs.
names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers “Instead of looking to the future, they are
of scientists who are available for interviews. forced to look over their shoulders to see if
The various scientific disciplines should de- they will survive the next round of funding de-
velop and train scientists who can speak flu- cisions,” she observes.
ently not only about their own research but In late February 1997, Woolley wrote the
about the field in general. Dr. Jonathan lead editorial in Science magazine, noting that:
Richardson of Somerville, Mass., says “it is up “Members of the science community have
to present-day scientists to pool their resources come to realize that the continuation of even a
and choose leaders who can present a broad modest level of comfort in science is by no
view of their field to the public. Such people means guaranteed, and many scientists (if
have existed in the past (such as Bromley, somewhat begrudgingly) now understand that
96
Sagan, Happer, C. Everett Coop) and must be public advocacy is the route that must be taken
sought out in the future,” he says. “There are to ensure the continued conduct of world-class
plenty of good scientists with good communi- U.S. science. Recent guest editorials and letters
cations skills who are willing to speak out if to the editor in Science have revealed different
given the chance. This is not the time to give up, approaches to advocacy, reflecting some am-
but the time to try hard, reach out and succeed.” bivalence on this topic among the concerned
members of the science community. Such dis-
Flagging cussion and debate are timely, because collec-
tively we’re all seeking a comfort zone for ad-
the findings vocacy.”7
In conjunction with making new scientific in- The late Carl Sagan noted that large, sus-
formation more user-friendly, the publishing tained government support of basic research is
process itself should be overhauled. The “fairly new, dating back only to World War II.”
journalist’s job would be far easier if science He felt it was absolutely essential that scientists
journal editors would require researchers to make the case for continued generous funding,
submit a plain-English summary of their find- now that the Cold War is over.
ings, as well as an abstract. The summary “[I]t would be an odd flirtation with suicide
would place the research in context and pro- for scientists to oppose competent populariza-
vide some statement of its value or priority to tion,” he said. “What the public understands
its particuar scientific discipline. The summary and appreciates, it is more likely to support.”
and priority would be peer-reviewed along Sagan said this will not be achieved if scien-
with the paper and prominently published. tists confine their efforts to writing for presti-
As with web sites, journals should also de- gious magazines.
velop a way to flag the most important find- “I’m talking about efforts to communicate
ings, calling reporters’ attention to especially the substance and approach to science in
significant news. Science magazine is good newspapers, magazines, on radio and televi-
model for this, as it continues to publish excel- sion, in lectures for the general public, and in
lent summaries of the most important papers elementary, middle, and high school text-
presented each week. Its general coverage of books,” he wrote.8
science-related news has expanded and im-

Chapter 10 Recommendations for Scientists
Dr. Ross S. Basch of New York University talk to them about what we’re doing, and we
Medical Center agrees. “If scientists want public see a whole series of articles appear.
understanding they are going to ‘tell’ what they “So when I talk about [the fact that] it’s
do, how they do it and why they do it, and then necessary for scientists and engineers to reach
‘sell’ why the public should pay for it,” he says. out to Americans who are their customers, I
really do mean it. I think it’s a fundamental re-
Goldin’s sponsibility that we have to the future of this
country.”
Rule Carl Sagan’s formula was similar to
One of the strongest proponents of the ag- Goldin’s. “Above all, remember how it was be-
gressive dissemination of science information fore you yourself grasped whatever it is you’re
is NASA’s Daniel Goldin. What is Goldin’s explaining. Remember the misunderstandings
technique? that you almost fell into, and note them explic-
“When I first started working at NASA, I itly. Keep firmly in mind that there was a time
never did public speaking. And I thank God when you didn’t understand any of this either.
that I had a mentor, who every day made me Recapitulate the first steps that led you from
speak to the public. Fifteen, 20 minutes a day, ignorance to knowledge. Never forget that na-
school children would come through—this tive intelligence is widely distributed in our
97
was in the startup of the Apollo program— species. Indeed, it is the secret of our success.”9
and I was terrified standing, talking to school Should scientists be required, as part of the
children. grant process, to communicate their work to
“But [my mentor] said, ‘Dan, every day you the public that provides much of their fund-
get up, and you talk.’ And within a half-year to ing? Neal Lane is cautious about adding new
a year, I learned how to talk to people—but I requirements.
learned how to talk to young people that had a “What really has made this country a leader
sixth- to seventh-grade education. And every in science and technology in the world has
time I talk to the public, I always talk at that been freedom—not restriction, not deeper
level, because the average American has a sev- boxes, not narrower walls, not tighter con-
enth- to eighth-grade technical education.” straints—but freedom to explore, to share in-
“When I became administrator,” recalls formation, to travel, to express and hold what-
Goldin, “I held town hall meetings. I picked ever ideas are consistent with the ethic and the
places where NASA is not, because I didn’t rigor of science,” he says. “So you want to be
want to get the people who were on the NASA very careful when you start changing that sys-
payroll coming. And since that time, in the last tem in a way that is more confining.”
five years, I’ve gone to the high-plains states, Notes Leon Lederman: “[A]s a feeder at
I’ve gone to rural districts, I’ve gone to inner- [Lane’s National Science Foundation] trough, I
city areas. can tell you that his program offices, in fact,
“Each time, I go with a core group of gently encourage you do that. … I think it’s a
people, and we take time to go talk to the plus. When you write your grant proposal,
newspapers and the TV stations. All of us have there’s a place … to say what you’ve done in
spent time very carefully talking to each other, the way of communicating.”
trying to speak in plain English, eighth-grade Lane draws a distinction: “That we do, and
technical background. I’m not saying that to be increasingly we’re going to ask all of our scien-
demeaning, but that’s the average education tists … to let us know what societal value they
technologically for Americans. see ... for their work and how they communi-
“Invariably, we walk into newspapers and cate that. That’s different from making it a re-
they say, ‘You’re the first one from NASA ever quirement.”
to come to visit us.’ We sit down with them, we

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Warning thinking—more intensively?
“(iv) A great deal of the creative energy of
Writing in Science magazine in early 1997, faculty, young and old, is consumed by pro-
Penn State Professor Rustum Roy issued a posal management in the world’s most ineffi-
tough warning to his colleagues—a good news/ cient system for funding of research. Why not
bad news missive. The good news, he said, is try modest experiments or radically redesign
that the American people strongly support ba- the system?
sic scientific research—more so than the citi- “(v) We can argue a plausible case before
zens of any other western nation. In his view, the public for mission-oriented science for de-
the nation is not “in the grip of an antiscience fense, the environment, better transportation,
wave.” more and cheaper energy, and so on. But what
The bad news, he said, is two-fold: What- honest case can we make for funding totally
ever scientists do in the way of communication undirected research at a level of several billion
with the public will take years to show a ben- dollars per year? Why not privatize most sup-
efit, and there is no guarantee that educating port for research that is unconnected to useful
the public will have any effect on funding. products, through area-specific appeals such as
“Before scientists go the March of Dimes; or a check-off on an in-
before the public to come tax form; or philanthropy from, for in-
98
persuade them to con- stance, the 100 or so billionaires who made
tinue the lavish fund- their money from technology. I am certain
ing we have enjoyed that, freed from peer-group bureaucracy, such
for nearly five de- science would be much more creative.
cades,” he wrote, “they “When activist scientists have done their
should prepare them- homework on questions such as these, they
selves for questions will be ready to enter the fray of public debate.
such as the following, I hope many will be moved by conviction and
which they will have high moral purpose, not just by the desire for
to answer sooner or more research money, because the slings and
later. arrows of peer jealousy and honest disagree-
“(i) The corporate Roy ment will not be long in coming.”10
world (not just U.S. companies) has decided
that it gets little return from basic research that Finally, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon
is unrelated to products and has cut it back Franklin believes no matter what avenue scien-
drastically. Has academia faced up to a similar tists choose, change is at hand.
rebalancing? “I speak to you now not as a science writer
“(ii) There is widespread agreement that but as a writer. It is my artistic observation that
the entire academic culture has emphasized re- my civilization is on the brink of a great deci-
search at the expense of teaching, but what at- sion about itself, and that it is high time to dis-
tempts have been made to rectify this? pense with translators. It is time for scientists
“(iii) How many of the research universi- to come to terms with the fact that they’re eat-
ties’ instrumental “Taj Mahals” would stand up ing at the political trough and that they’d
to the scrutiny of the U.S. General Accounting damned well better make their political case,
Office in terms of cost-effectiveness or hours and make it in a way that real people can un-
per week of use? The track record of the “seal- derstand it. It is also time for people to come to
ing-wax-and-string” approach in really signifi- terms with the fact that the world as we know
cant research being so good, can scientists not it, as a haven for couch potatoes and New
design systems that share capital equipment Agers and critical humanists, exists only be-
and use communications technologies—and cause of science and technology, and was cre-

Chapter 10 Recommendations for Scientists
ated at great cost not only in money but in in- are, what kinds of monsters once roamed the
dividual effort, labor and, yes, faith.”11 earth, indeed, where the earth itself is hurtling:
Rustum Roy’s and Jon Franklin’s views those things beyond our meager vision.
should serve as warning signs to both scientists And finally, because so much of science has
and journalists, a reminder of the rough spots “happened” in the years since most of us were
in the road ahead. in school, the media must reappraise to what
Public indifference and, in some extreme extent it is an educational arm of society.
cases, hostility to science and its merits can
only be countered with an honest, energetic
and continuing stream of information from
chapter endnotes
1 Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Ran-
the scientific community that stresses not only
dom House, 1995).
the benefits of science but underscores the 2 Michael Deaver “How to Influence Press Coverage,” U.S.

dangers of abandoning the path of discovery News & World Report, Feb. 19, 1996.
3 Katherine Rowan, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium,
that has been spiraling upward for the past 50
San Juan, P.R., March 12-13, 1993.
years. 4 Sigmund Freud, 1932.

The ideas put forth here are by no means 5 Boyce Rensberger, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium,

the only methods by which scientists can reach San Juan, P.R., March 12-13.
6 Harry Gray, “The 21st Century: 4th Annual Cal-Tech Sympo-
the public through the media. Nor should sium, May 1, 1997.
99
communications efforts be couched primarily 7 Mary Woolley, Science, February 28, 1997.
8 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, (New York: Ran-
in defensive terms. Science has a great deal to
dom House, 1995).
tell the world that is not commercial or utili- 9 Ibid.

tarian, but that simply satisfies a deeply rooted 10 Dr. Rustum Roy, “Roads Not Taken, Yet,” Science (July 19,

and delightful desire to “know”—to know 1996), p. 291.
11 Jon Franklin, Hill Lecture, University of Tennessee, March
where we came from, how we became what we 17, 1997.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
100

Chapter 10 Recommendations for Scientists
C H A P T E R E L E V E N

Recommendations
for Journalists
The American public knows us. If we have lost some of
their trust (and we have), it’s not because we have
become too serious but because, at times, we’ve become
too frivolous.

O
ne of the saddest findings of this —Ted Koppel, 1940-
yearlong look at the way the media
covers science and technology is
that a good portion of the public is Looking at these numbers, one of the ques-
having trouble swallowing not science but the tions the news media might ask itself is: Are we
media. A Roper poll taken in 1996 showed that covering matters readers, viewers and listeners
80 percent of the American people believed a care about?
free press is essential to the functioning of our As noted earlier in this report, the local me-
society, but a majority of the respondents said dia tend to place heavy emphasis on crime and
101
the press today is too sensational, manipulated sensation. Yet only 41 percent of the respon-
by special interests and biased.1 dents in the ’96 Pew survey said they were in-
In the same year, a poll taken by the Pew terested in such stories.
Research Center for the People and the Press However, 20 percent of the Pew respon-
showed that Americans were continuing to dents said they enjoyed watching and reading
turn away from the news media. Viewership stories about science and technology, a cat-
for the network nightly newscasts was down to egory which beat out religion, political news,
42 percent, from 48 percent in 1995 and 60 international affairs, entertainment, consumer
percent in 1993. For television news overall, lo- news, business and finance, famous people and
cal and network, 59 percent said they had culture and the arts.
watched a newscast the previous day, down At about the same time, the Gannett news-
from 74 percent in 1994. paper chain surveyed reader interest, using
About 50 percent of those polled said they slightly different category classifications.
had read a newspaper on the previous day. Things people most wanted to read about were
When the people who said they were “the good things happening in your area,”
watching less TV news were asked why, nearly “news from your own town or city” and
half said they didn’t have the time anymore. “world and national news.” When asked if they
But 26 percent said they were critical of the were “very interested” in science and technol-
coverage or had no interest in it. ogy” news, 29 percent said yes. When that
When asked whether they could believe “all number was combined with those who said
or most” of what appeared in their local news- they were “somewhat interested” in science
papers, only 24 percent said they could.2 and technology, the number jumped to 75 per-
A similar Pew survey in 1997 asked respon- cent. That beat out other categories such as
dents if they “enjoyed watching TV news a personal finance, outdoor recreation, pro and
great deal,” and only 26 percent replied yes, college sports and listings of stocks, bonds and
down from 42 percent in 1985. The same mutual funds. Eighty-six percent of the survey
numbers applied to people who “look forward respondents said they wanted news about the
to reading the paper very much”—27 percent environment.4
in 1997, 42 percent in 1985.3 Numbers like these indicate that editors and
producers are underestimating the public’s de-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
sire for more news about science and technol- nothing more than a refinement of everyday
ogy and may be losing audience by spending thinking.”
so much time on frivolous matters. What a concept! Except it’s the reporter’s
job to stand that idea on its head. It’s the re-
Stupid porter who is often called on to deconstruct
the scientist’s refinement—sometimes the
questions work of an entire career—and express it in ev-
By failing to assign a high priority to science, eryday thoughts and words. Some reporters
gatekeepers also may unwittingly be contribut- surveyed for this study feel the lack of a scien-
ing to the overall communications problem tific background may be an asset in this en-
between scientists and journalists. Several jour- deavor.
nalist respondents to the survey wrote varia- “Do not assume a reporter must be highly
tions on the following: “Unsophisticated publi- schooled in science and technology in order to
cations assign unqualified reporters to cover cover the subject effectively,” wrote Scott Ma-
science and technology stories. They ask stupid son of WCVE-TV in Richmond, Va. “A re-
questions, and write superficial stories. The scien- porter with almost no scientific background
tists involved conclude all reporters are idiots.” can, in fact, cover the subject sometimes more
Former astronaut effectively. After all, it’s the reporter’s job to
102
Charles Conrad Jr., ‘step outside’ the subject to explain compli-
told fellow roundtable cated technical jargon in laymen’s terms. Good
participants that it reporters filter out the complexities while leav-
drives him crazy “… ing the key ‘ingredients’ intact. This ‘filtering’
to have a reporter ask effect is sometimes necessary with a subject
me a question when like science and technology; otherwise, the
he obviously hasn’t general public may find it too much to swal-
done any homework low.”
at all. Someone says, While most science journalism traces incre-
‘Go out and talk to mental stories, once in awhile a surprise comes
Conrad about when along, catching everyone off guard. The clon-
he went to the moon.’ ing of Dolly and the discovery of possible fossil
And the guy will sort Conrad life in the Mars rock are two recent examples.
of show up and he’ll say, ‘Well, how did you get In such cases, journalists find themselves fran-
there?’ (laughter) Seriously.” tically searching for sources and background.
Situations such as this may have inspired One question that should always be asked at
one Florida journalist to comment on his sur- the very beginning of any science story—espe-
vey form that “most daily newspaper and cially one about a remarkable breakthrough—
broadcast reports on science and technology is whether the material has been peer-re-
are laughable at best.” viewed.
Are science stories harder to report? Un-
questionably. It does take work on both
sides—journalists and scientists—to “package
Peer
these stories,” says Kathy Sawyer of the Post, Review
but “there’s a lot of interesting stuff.” Instead of Although it’s no guarantee of total accuracy,
digging into it, says Sawyer, journalists often proper peer review produces the best current
are “just intimidated and think it has nothing thinking of the science community on a given
to do with their lives.” body of research data. Absent peer review, sci-
One place to start might be with Einstein, entists can be just as fallible as anyone else. As
who 60 years ago said, “The whole of science is one journalist noted on the survey form: “With

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
Journalists’ Guide to Gauging Reliability of Scientific Data

Stage of scientific Peer review Second source
process status required?
Work in progress; journalist vis- Not peer reviewed. Yes.
its lab for tour and interview
concerning research underway.

Paper presented at a science Not formally peer reviewed; Yes; would help to set context
conference. the presentation is actually the and gauge reaction of the sci-
first stage of the peer-review ence community to the research
process. data.

Paper published in a peer-re- Peer review complete. No; but a second source might
viewed scientific journal that is be helpful to establish context
recognized as credible by the and relative importance of new
103
discipline. data.

enough money, any group or organization can search—a rather remarkable thing happens.
find a scientist/expert to verify and back its Long before publication, the proposed article
findings/beliefs.” is sent to other scientists who are experts in the
“Yes, scientists might be motivated by ego same field of research. They may be friends of
or greed or the unwillingness to surrender the author, but just as likely they will be the
their favorite ideas,” admitted Carl Sagan. “But writing scientist’s bitterest critics or intense ri-
there are other scientists, maybe even similarly vals. The article is judged on several points. Is
motivated, who have a reason to try to dis- the discovery really new? Is it significant? Was
prove the first guy’s ideas. If you look at the col- proper care taken to ensure the integrity of the
lective enterprise of science, you see that it has experiment and analysis of the data? If the re-
elegant, self-correcting machinery built into it views that come back are positive, the article
in a fundamental way, which makes it different generally proceeds to publication. If the reviews
from everything else. And it works,” he said.”5 are negative, the article is returned for further
But it’s interesting how reporters can some- work. If the reviews are mixed, a third referee is
times bollix up peer review. brought in. Finally, if the editors decide to call it
The scientific method directs that a scientist a draw, the article may be printed with the ob-
be as certain as possible about research find- jections of the reviewers included as letters.
ings—even though, in the real world, the cut- And the letters can be scalding. The whole
ting edge of science sometimes is speculative. point of the exercise is accuracy. As Rousseau
Research results are then written up and may said, near the beginning of the modern scien-
initially be passed around to colleagues, if tific revolution: “Nature never deceives us; it is
there is time. They may also be orally pre- always we who deceive ourselves.”
sented at one or more of the hundreds of sci- “The process of science may sound messy
ence conferences held every year. But once and disorderly. In a way, it is,” says Sagan. “If
submitted for publication in respectable jour- you examine science in its everyday aspect, of
nals—typically after months or years of re- course, you find that scientists run the gamut

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
of human emotion, personality, and character. AIDS or cancer research—comes in dribs and
But there’s one facet that is really striking to drabs, and usually not from just one labora-
the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criti- tory. The big picture has to be pieced together.
cism considered acceptable or even desirable.”6 “Scientists routinely publish preliminary
Almost every scientific discipline has a pub- evidence, not waiting until they have absolute
lication for its research papers. None of them proof,” says Rensberger of The Washington Post.
has a circulation base much larger than the “It’s their way of sharing findings and inviting
number of members belonging to their soci- criticism from colleagues. But it also gives the
ety—a few hundred to several thousand. The rest of us, like readers of a detective mystery, a
subscription price for many of these journals is chance to tag along with the investigators as
several hundred dollars per year. Depending they seek to unravel clues.”8
on the publication, the articles range from While good science
mundane to revolutionary. The challenge for reporting might read
reporters is to ferret out the interesting re- like a mystery, “… sci-
search that can produce good stories. As ence journalism has to
Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teach- adhere to the same
ers Association observes: “It works extremely criteria as other sto-
well within the institute of science. It just ries,” says Newsweek’s
104
doesn’t work [well for] communicating with Sharon Begley. “Con-
the general public.” flict is good, having
Peer review and formal publication do, two sides is good. It’s
however, give journalists a comfort zone by got to be new; it’s got
guaranteeing that the work presented is ac- to be interesting. It is
curate to the best of the experts’ knowledge. not public service.”
Of course, some reporters will want a second Jon Franklin says Begley
source. But often there is no second source the trick for him was to stop calling it “science
at the cutting edge of science; the new find- journalism.”
ings are unique. In this case, other research- “Once I started down the road of leaving
ers familiar with the new findings can pro- the word ‘science’ out of my stories, I wrote
vide useful background and perspective. about science as though it were a normal hu-
Most science reporters maintain up-to-date man activity,” he says. “That sold surprisingly
contact lists within the many disciplines for well. Pretty soon I was concentrating on essays
just this purpose. and narrated stories and getting a nice slice of
Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, readership. I won some prizes, which makes
also sponsors a service called The Media Re- newsroom life easier, and I started thinking
source Center. It has an 800 number for jour- about books.”
nalists seeking comment or background.7 David Perlman, science editor of the San
More than 30,000 scientists who are willing to Francisco Chronicle says there is “excitement,
provide information to print and broadcast elegance, intrigue” in science, “and a way of
journalists on short notice are in its database. looking at the world in terms far more filled
with wonder than the verbiage expended dur-
Science as ing the jousting of politicians.” Perlman was a
political reporter before taking up science
detective story journalism 30 years ago.
Many good science reporters say they approach He wrote the introduction to an excellent
their subjects as they would a mystery story. new book, A Field Guide for Science Writers,
The science process is incremental. Most new published by the National Association of Sci-
knowledge—especially in major fields such as ence Writers. It lays out in 287 pages the “tech-

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
niques of the trade.” A comparable effort is be- Second, viewing the flights as routine leads
yond the scope of this work, but here are a few to the perception that nothing new is happen-
suggestions. ing in this area of space exploration, which
A good metaphor then means that only problems are newswor-
for almost any science thy. While the difficulties encountered by the
story is exploration shuttle missions should be reported, they
and discovery. There should be balanced with information about
are almost always ele- why the flights are made in the first place. It is
ments of surprise and very rare that NASA, or any other agency in-
uncertainty, setbacks volved in cutting-edge endeavors, has an un-
as well as successes. qualified success. The Mars Pathfinder mis-
Science always learns sion, with every objective accomplished, is very
something from every unusual.
experiment, even Science stories may be complicated; they
those that are total may require more time and effort than run-of-
failures. AIDS research the-mill stories, but science reporting can be
is a good example. Perlman the most satisfying of all beats. Keep in mind
No one has yet found a cure for AIDS, but E.L. Doctorow’s advice for difficult situations:
105
the many failed experiments have vastly im- “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see
proved scientists’ understanding of how the vi- further than your headlights, but you can
rus lives, how the body responds to it and, of make the whole trip that way.”9
course, a whole range of things that don’t work
to control it. At each step, the information base is
expanded. New insights on how other viruses
Seeking out
behave promise a better understanding of less sources
threatening, but more widespread diseases, such Many survey respondents who would like to do
as flu and the common cold. The lack of success more science stories complained about the acces-
in any one experiment does not argue for an end sibility of scientists. Some complained that re-
to research. In the case of AIDS, experience searchers are arrogant. “Too often they are pro-
teaches that the mechanics of “life,” even at its tected by a wall of PR officials …,”wrote Jerry
simplest level, are enormously complex. Bohner of KTOK radio, Oklahoma City. Another
The “science” in many stories is often less journalist said they only want to talk about their
obvious and harder to tease out than the su- “successes.” Much of this is changing.
perficial excitement associated with an unusual The Post’s Sawyer notes that “the end of the
event. Much of the reporting on NASA’s space Cold War has been a great boon to us science
shuttle flights illustrates this fact. The media writers, because scientists are getting the mes-
seldom cover more than the launches and sage slowly but surely that they have to talk to
landings, even though most flights now are the public. The public has to be able to under-
loaded with scientific experiments. stand what they’re doing or they won’t get fund-
Such limited coverage leads to two misap- ing. Now, without the Evil Empire over there,
prehensions: First, that shuttle flights are now they have to have some other rationale for ask-
routine, which they most certainly are not. Ev- ing for tax dollars. So they’re loosening up.”
ery one is fraught with uncertainty and great In fact, the survey results indicate over-
risk; the checklist before each launch runs to a whelming agreement by scientists that com-
million items. The shuttles are still very much munications with the media and the public
experimental vehicles, and space is still an ex- should be improved. This fact, coupled with
tremely hostile environment. the large number of scientists who say they
have rarely or never talked with a journalist,

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
indicates a lot of fertile territory for reporters. FACS, or The Foundation for American
Dr. Harry Jacobson of the Vanderbilt Uni- Communications, was established by The De-
versity Medical Center suggests a way to start: troit News and the San Diego Supercomputer
Organize informal, informational meetings be- Center. It not only conducts media seminars
tween the scientific community and journalists but maintains an excellent web site designed to
who might never have covered a science or help journalists cover science and technology,
medical story. “The university,” he says, “as a as well as a host of other complex issues.10 It
community resource, can provide the forum provides access to background papers and
for continuing education of people from me- links to other useful Internet sites. The person
dia, in terms of science and emerging issues— or organization responsible for maintaining
like new infections and so on.” each Internet resource is identified, and FACS
Robert Giles, former provides names, e-mail addresses and phone
publisher of The De- numbers for sources, including scholars, gov-
troit News and now ernment official, and people from the private
head of the Media sector.
Studies Center in New
York City, says noth-
ing is more important
The indispensable
106
today than educating Internet
journalists about ma- In fact, the Internet is one of the most useful
jor R&D issues. tools for both experienced as well as new sci-
“A critical element” ence writers. Robert Lee Hotz of the Los Ange-
in the lack of good les Times says the Net has now become almost
communications, he indispensable.
says “is the failure of Giles “There is nothing that I do as a reporter
many journalists, and their editors or news di- that is not directly affected by the new technol-
rectors, to have a fuller understanding of the ogy,” he says. “There are 31 different web sites I
complex nature of science and technology. To a routinely tap into as a part of keeping track of
considerable extent, this parallels the inad- what’s going on [with earthquakes]. I also
equate preparation for coverage of another dif- cover research on the human brain. There are
ficult topic: economics. The intellectual short- 28 web sites—including an interactive whole
comings of journalists and their news atlas of the human brain maintained by the
organizations in these specialties have signifi- Harvard Medical School—that I routinely use.
cant consequences, both in public mistrust of And I don’t think anyone who covers as-
the press as an institution and in public misun- tronomy or space flight today would willingly
derstanding of important issues involving sci- do it without taking advantage of the graphics
ence, technology and the economy. One way to capabilities offered by the web to tap directly
address the problem is to educate journalists into the images from the orbiting Hubble
who are covering and making news-play deci- Space Telescope or from one of the several
sions about these specialties. Only two institu- planetary probes being maintained by the Jet
tions currently provide significant mid-career Propulsion Laboratory.”11
educational opportunities in science and tech- A very helpful web site is EurekAlert, main-
nology: The Knight Foundation program for tained by the American Association for the Ad-
science reporting at the University of Mary- vancement of Science (AAAS). It provides
land and FACS, which offers extensive educa- searchable press releases from universities,
tional programs in science, technology and companies and labs either announcing the re-
economics.” sults or progress of research efforts. Some of
the work available here is work in progress and

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
not peer-reviewed, but the site is a good place erwise testing the veracity of all they report.
to begin researching up-to-the-minute devel- That responsibility has grown in a world of
opments. Often it will contain press releases global computer networks.”12
from institutions throughout the country.
Usual contact numbers are provided.
EurekAlert also features calendars and loca-
The training
tions of scientific meetings and conferences question
and a huge database of links to most major sci- The one topic eliciting numerous comments
entific research organizations, including uni- from survey respondents is the amount and
versities, hospitals, think tanks, societies, pub- nature of scientific training reporters ought to
lications and associations. Links to have. Many writers, editors and producers said
peer-reviewed journals, science media and no special training at all is needed if the jour-
journalism groups are on the site, as are links nalists are competent; covering science stories
to other sites offering graphic images to is no different than covering politics, crime or
complement science stories. sports, they said. A general-assignment re-
A caveat is in order here: Experienced sci- porter is trained to be objective, to ask the
ence writers warn newcomers to the field that right questions, to sift through complexity and
the Internet also is full of bad and/or mislead- to write or produce an understandable, inter-
107
ing information. Science Friday’s Flatow says, esting and informative story.
“You have to be an informed consumer of “I can competently cover science/technology
news and know your sources … probably stories if I start out by admitting my ignorance
more so than in the past, so that you know and not being scared to ask ‘dumb’ questions,”
what to listen to and what not to listen to.” wrote Chuck Crouse of Pennsylvania radio sta-
The FACS web site offers good advice: “For tion WLMI. The scientists on the receiving end
newsgroups, forums, and e-mail discussion of this openness, Crouse said, have been “gener-
lists, start by treating all information and ally helpful once they perceived that I wasn’t a
quotes much the same as you would random know-it-all or shoddy craftsman.”
interviews on the street or as a conversation The truth is “that some of the best writing of
overheard on the subway. First of all, you have our day focuses on the subject of science,” even
no way of knowing who the person ‘speaking’ though it’s not called science writing, says Jon
is, what credentials he or she has, or even if the Franklin. “I might mention, sort of offhand,
person posting the message is really who he or Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and any number of
she says she is. These places are starting points pieces by John McPhee. But we don’t call them
only. They may provide leads to more substan- science writers, do we? No, we don’t, any more
tive source material. In some cases, you may than we would call Hemingway a war writer, or
want to telephone the person, exchange per- Steinbeck a poverty writer, or Mark Twain a
sonal e-mail messages, and take other steps to children’s writer.”13
verify the source.” It is true that many fine “science” report-
The same caution also should be exercised ers—John Noble Wilford and Kathy Sawyer
with documents and graphics. Anyone with a are two—have never had any formal science
computer can set up an authentic-looking web training. And in the case of the general as-
site loaded with bogus information. Anything signment reporter covering an occasional sci-
downloaded should be verified. FACS says, ence and technology story, such extra training
“Treat it as you would any other elementary may not be worth the effort and cost. How-
school project, fraternity prank, or scam—all ever, if a news organization intends to estab-
of which are on the Internet. Journalists have lish a science beat or to move into serious and
always had the ultimate responsibility for veri- sustained coverage, it will enter the arena
fying sources, validating documents, and oth- crippled unless its reporters have adequate

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
training and/or experience. Freelancers and
Scientists will not forswear their jargon or
other forms of linguistic shorthand overnight.
retrofitting
It will probably never disappear completely. There are some experienced science reporters
(Two phrases destined, no doubt, to remain available. Many good ones are freelancers.
forever are “order of magnitude” and “by a fac- They write many of the best stories in major
tor of 10” or some other number.) Moreover, magazines like Scientific American and Dis-
science relies heavily on math, statistics, prob- cover. Some want to remain freelancers, but
ability and other related disciplines. Without many others are looking for full-time work.
proficiency in these and other related fields as The National Association of Science Writers
well as the sciences, journalists will waste enor- (NASW) is a good place to start.
mous amounts of time just getting up to speed For staff journalists who want to move to
on every story they write or produce. the science beat, continuing education pro-
Where do media organizations find experi- grams for journalists are valuable, if designed
enced science reporters? And how can general- correctly.
assignment reporters be trained? The primary problem here is that many
Dorothy Brown, health and science editor media owners, managing editors and news di-
of The Philadelphia Inquirer, says that her pa- rectors fear that a reporter sent off to a fellow-
108
per, “has an extraordinary commitment to sci- ship program may return to the middle-mar-
ence and technology. ket newspaper or TV station not better
“Aside from daily educated and ready to wow the local audience,
and Sunday coverage, but armed and prepared to move up to a big-
we have a Health & ger market.
Science section on The fact is, journalists have been moving up
Mondays and a Tech and down in markets forever. The good ones
Life section on Thurs- will rise to the top no matter what. In the
days. We have earned meantime, it’s important to seek out the best
the respect of our training for those who are filling the local
medical and science pages and airwaves now.
communities by hir- Editors, publishers, news directors—the me-
ing some of the best dia gatekeepers—should attend scientific semi-
reporters, who have nars themselves in order to become acquainted
depth in their fields with researchers, to become familiar with the is-
and who can translate Brown sues, and to put the competence issue to rest.
complex science into very readable stories. We Scientists see the benefit of this interaction.
do not have a communications problem with Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s
scientists. Clearly the bigger problem is when Jacobson notes the irony of the situation. “We
the media ‘doesn’t get it.’” [scientists] want to convey a message to this
In smaller markets, hiring and training will society, using messengers who we distrust …”
be more difficult. “At a medium-sized newspa- That distrust, he said, “is based on the percep-
per,” says Saul Shapiro of the Waterloo [Iowa] tion that their competence is insufficient to
Courier, “it is hard to develop a science beat, at- match our competence. And this leads, obvi-
tract a good candidate and retain him or her. ously, to a very inappropriate interpretation of
We’ve had two good ones and several suspects,” the very important issues.”
Shapiro noted on his survey form.

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
Science training The combination of science and journalism
for journalists backgrounds has produced many of the
country’s best science writers. Rensberger of
Since science and technology have become The Washington Post is a good example.
such all-pervasive elements of modern life, no “As I often tell people, I started out in college
future journalist should ever graduate from wanting to be a scientist but chickened out after
journalism school, or from any other school in discovering that researchers must specialize in
preparation for a reporting career, without a some very tiny sliver of a field. I was much too
grounding in these subjects. interested in all of science to settle for a small
Dr. Paul Agris, a biochemist at North Caro- piece of the whole,” he says. “So I switched ma-
lina State University, says he “spent 13 years on jors to journalism to become a science writer.
a campus with a world-renowned school of “I’ve never regretted it. For me, science
journalism and was never asked to participate writing is a lifelong, self-directed process of
in the education of the school’s students. continuing education. I can call up top experts
“Little time was given to encouraging these in any field of knowledge that intrigues me
students to take science courses. and ask for private tutorials. And, I am amazed
“None were required for the degree. How to find, the scientists almost always oblige.
can these students keep up with the fast pace They do so not for my personal amusement, of
109
of science and technology when they have nei- course, but because, like the others who stuff
ther knowledge of the fundamentals nor expe- our mailboxes, they want the public to know,
rience of the process?” to understand, and to be on their side in a
Professor Robert Bandurski of Michigan world too often given to ignorance, fear and
State goes even further in his recommenda- superstition.”14
tions. “Science news reporters should have at
least a B.S. degree is some aspect of hard sci-
ence,” he said on his survey form.
Journalism training
There is a middle ground: a college training for scientists
program that would essentially be an interdis- Several universities have developed programs
ciplinary major—half science, half communi- for training scientists as journalists, among
cations. them Boston University, New York University,
To be effective, a science journalist should be Johns Hopkins and the University of California
comfortable with a variety of scientific disci- at Santa Cruz. The
plines, as well as with engineering. His or her UCSC graduate
education should include experience in the course is directed by
laboratory, where the ambiance of the scientific John Wilkes, an En-
research process can be felt and learned. The glish literature profes-
curriculum should combine training in science sor. Each year he ac-
and engineering with courses in mathematics, cepts 10 Ph.D.
including probability and statistics, balanced by scientists from varied
coursework in communications, writing, his- backgrounds. They go
tory, economics and political science. through three 10-
Vanderbilt University has initiated such a week semesters, learn-
course of study expected to begin in the fall of ing the basics of news
1998. It will initially offer undergraduates the reporting—from
opportunity to design specific curricula and crime and the court- Wilkes
will include internships to expose students to house, through feature writing for newspapers
both research and media organizations. and magazines, then finishing with opinion
pieces and essays.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
‘Late Night Thoughts’ from the
Late Dean of American Science Writers

A
lton Blakeslee, the dean of American science writers, died of cancer at age 83 in May 1997.
From 1952 until 1978, Blakeslee covered science for the Associated Press. During his career, he
won the George Polk Award, the Deadline and Distinguished Service Awards of Sigma Delta Chi,
the Lasker Medical Journalism Award (three times), and the American Heart Association’s Howard
Blakeslee award (twice). (The latter is named for his father.)
Alton Blakeslee’s death was marked by elaborate obituaries, including one in The New York Times
written by John Noble Wilford, who noted that “Blakeslee was the middle generation in a family line
of science reporters. His Pulitzer Prize-winning father, Howard, was the AP’s first science editor; his daugh-
ter, Sandra Blakeslee, is a regular contributor to The New York Times.”
Wilford chronicled the reporter’s sometimes whimsical detachment: “Besides being a former presi-
dent of the National Association of Science Writers, Blakeslee was a co-founder and the president of the
American Tentative Society, an organization conceived over late-night drinks with two science-writing
colleagues. They mused that all knowledge, especially in science, is tentative and subject to revision as
research uncovers new facts.”
Blakeslee, Wilford wrote, spoke often of the obtuseness of scientists.
110 “The first error is failing to talk in simple, common language,” he said. “Our knowledge does not
become a communicated idea if it must push through a briar patch of sticky words.”
Not long before his death, Blakeslee wrote a primer for budding science writers, titled “Late Night
Thoughts about Science Writing (With Guidelines That Will Also Be Helpful to People Who Write About
Other Things).” Following is an excerpt.
(The entire article is available on the World Wide Web at www.facsnet.org, the web site maintained
by the Foundation for American Communications (FACS).

The following so-called guidelines are designed to help woo readers. (The numbering is not necessarily
in order of importance. We just need numbers sometimes. )

1. Push your enthusiasm button when you which is hollow. All the water in all the
begin a story. If you are not interested, or oceans would go slurping down the hole,
interesting, can you interest anyone else? and then where would we be?”)
“Chore” shows through stories written as 4. Explain technical terms immediately if you
a chore. Is there some lilt in your story? must use them, and you often must. Then
2. Think what your story means and how you can use them again in the same story.
best to say it. Thinking is the hard part. But not in subsequent ones with probably
Distill your facts and purpose to the core a different audience, until the term comes
of meaning. As Clare Chung, a young stu- into common ken. It took weeks after
dent in a journalism class, rephrased it: Sputnik before we could stop defining
“Get all your facts together, and then “orbit” each time.
squeeze all your brain cells to come up 5. Explain the unfamiliar by comparison with
with a lead.” something familiar. Make numbers mean-
3. Regard readers not as being ignorant but, ingful. The King Ranch in Texas embraces
more likely, innocent of your topic and its 1,500 square miles. The size of Rhode Is-
jargon. Write for them, not at them. land? Who knows that? Better, a strip of
(Some will always misinterpret, like the land half a mile wide stretching 3,000
lady who wrote, “Dear Dr. Blakeslee: I miles from Maine to Los Angeles.
read your ad in the paper. Please send me 6. Put yourself on the other side of your
some of your drug.” Another reader ob- computer or word processor and ask your-
jected to deep-sea drilling programs “be- self—and then answer—all the questions
cause a hole might punch through the that might occur if you’d never heard of
earth’s crust to the center of the Earth, the topic before.

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
7. Do not put all the “logs” of attribution they always carry the injured, not the hale
and identification in the same sentence and hearty, and they rarely search for re-
just to get rid of them. Be more solicitous moter hospitals. Four words were all that
of your reader and the people who de- were needed—twelve ambulances stood
serve credit, by sprinkling them through by.” (And that gives more space to explain
your story. You don’t want to be known as the science story. ) A detective could have
the author of something like this: saved nine of 14 words when he said, “We
“Two scientists from the University of Cali- are questioning several witnesses who
fornia in Los Angeles made an unsched- were present at the time of the incident.”
uled appearance today before the Ameri- 14. What you leave out of a story can be as
can Society of Bacteriologists, convened in important as what you keep in. Otherwise
Atlanta in its annual meeting, to an- the reader may drown in minor detail.
nounce that an extremely virulent virus of “Erasure is as important as writing,”
plague-like power had escaped from their Quintillian observed in the first century
laboratory, and could kill up to two mil- A.D.
lion people within a few days. “ 15. Never let a story go without taking a sec-
8. Look for gems of detail or expressions that ond look. Is there some stronger verb, bet-
can make a story sparkle. Dr. Helen Taussig ter comparison, livelier expression?
of The Johns Hopkins Hospital told of a Quintillian (again) advised putting one’s
few people who got “rare two-way tickets writing aside for a time, coming back to
to Heaven” when killed by lightning but look upon it as “another man’s work,” 111
revived by quick CPR. And a Swedish phy- and not regarding it “with the affection
sician campaigning against tobacco said, we may lavish upon a newborn child.”
“Smoking creates an itch in your lungs, Even if you have only seconds, the Second
and you want a cigarette to scratch it. “ Look can improve copy.
9. In developing a story, there is no such 16. Avoid starting a story with a question, ex-
thing as a dumb question. If in doubt, ask. cept in unusual circumstances. Is it just a
Don’t be embarrassed. Who knows every- lazy approach? Instead, answer the ques-
thing? A Washington reporter assigned to tion.
cover a hearing about “orphan” drugs— 17. You needn’t worry about your second
those that would benefit only a few but graf, unless your first graf grabs readers
cost the usual $50 to $100 million to de- and makes them want a second one. Your
velop—didn’t ask. He said the hearing was lead sentence, whether between-the-eyes,
“about diseases orphans get.” His copy or soft and seductive, counts hugely. “‘Oh,
desk passed it. Hell’, said the Queen,” is my favorite,
10. Don’t be afraid to use periods liberally. rarely if ever useable. But enticing. Broken
And avoid putting two unfamiliar techni- fingernail? The King misbehaving again?
cal points in the same sentence. Spanish armada approaching? Or: “I never
11. Look for different-from-ordinary ways of understood nuclear physics.”
expression. But don’t be silly about it, like 18. Seeking how to begin a puzzler, it helps to
an author who, apparently weary of clap- tell someone verbally what the story is
ping foreheads, said a man “socked his about, what you want to say. The verbaliz-
eyebrows.” ing may put you on the track.
12. Give your story a focus, a place to go, then 19. Your first draft is not written in concrete.
quit. It should be the first draft of all you want
13. Wring out the “water” of excess verbiage. to say, in one place, so you can examine
A story about a big brush fire said “Twelve and rearrange, to suit better. So let that
rescue ambulances stood by to rush in- first draft flow. Don’t interrupt for some
jured persons to the nearest hospitals. detail or name that can be inserted later.
“Jack Cappon, an AP editor, did the sur- You are engaged in telling a flowing ac-
gery on this in his book, The Word: “Eight count.
of those 12 words are drones. Ambulances 20. Digest your material. Relax, and write.
are rescue vehicles; they don’t dawdle;

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Wilkes says the three most important quali- chapter endnotes
fications for a science journalist are (1) a sci-
1 Poll taken for Minnesota News Council in 1996.
ence background; (2) a gift for writing; (3) a 2 Pew Research Center People and the Press Survey con-
fire in the belly to write. ducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 1996.
Wilkes’ specialized course began in 1975 af- 3 Pew Research Center People and the Press Survey con-

ter he noticed that some of the best writers in ducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates among a
nationwide sample of 1,211 adults, 18 years of age or
his literature courses were scientists. “If they older, during the period Feb. 20-23, 1997.
can write this well about literature they can 4 “1996 Media Effectiveness Study,” Corporate Research,

certainly write about science,” he concluded. Gannett Co., Inc.
5 Carl Sagan, “Science vs. Pseudoscience,” U.S. News &
About half his graduates freelance, says Wilkes. World Report, March 18, 1996.
Most end up in public information offices, 6 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Ran-

about 10 times the number that find jobs in dom House, 1995).
7 1-800-223-1730.
journalism. 8 Boyce Rensberger, “Science and Certainty,” Washington

Post, September 11, 1996.
9 E.L. Doctorow quoted in Writers at Work, George Plimpton,

ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1988).
10 http://www. facsnet. org
11 Robert Lee Hotz, “The 21 st Century: The Multimedia Age:

4th Annual Cal-Tech Symposium, May 1, 1997.
12 Randy Reddick, Promises and Pitfalls for Journalists on the
112
Information Highway (Foundation for American Communi-
cations).
13 Jon Franklin, March 17, 1997.
14 Boyce Rensberger, “Covering Science for Newspapers,” A

Field Guide for Science Writers, eds. Deborah Blum and
Mary Knudson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997),
p. 9.

Chapter 11 Recommendations for Journalists
C H A P T E R T W E LV E

Conclusion
When people generally are aware of a problem, it can
be said to have entered the public consciousness.
When people get on their hind legs and holler, the
problem has not only entered the public consciousness—
it has also become a part of the public conscience.
At that point, things in our democracy begin to hum.

M
any people have asked us—and —Hubert Humphrey, 1911-1978
we have often asked ourselves:
What would we like to see at the magazine more important than a vigorous
end of our work, when the study round of golf. Is discussing the latest DNA re-
is complete and the results published? It’s a search or quasars around the dinner table
simple question with a complicated answer. We more important than the sex life of a Holly-
both consider ourselves good citizens and want wood star or the peccadilloes of a politician?
what is best for the nation, as well as for our It’s quite obvious that some scientific mat-
professions. But we also know that both scien- ters are more important than others; not every
113
tists and journalists probably will look on us as discovery will make the front page of The New
being a little suspect, perhaps each co-opted by York Times, or even the college newspaper. And
the other side. We’ll risk that, because we both we believe that “science” as a profession should
believe that everyone can work harder, our- make every effort to help the rest of the world,
selves included, to improve things. through the media, understand what the really
What’s improvement? Well, to begin with important discoveries are. If scientists really
there’s a huge part of the American scene that believe (as many have told us in the survey)
is not being covered adequately by the news that journalism is not covering their work
media: those incomprehensible scientists who wisely or well, then it is incumbent on them to
are doing all those theoretical things. Everyone reach out to improve matters. Journalists may
seems to know that what they are doing is be many things but they are not mind readers.
somehow important to society, to the Science should not simply proffer the “peer-
economy—making us richer, healthier, longer- review” process, expecting journalists and ev-
lived—but precious little of it is becoming a eryone else to understand that there is good
part of our culture in a meaningful way. It’s science, as well as rubbish masquerading as
just something “out there” that somehow gets good science. Just as scientists expect journal-
incorporated into our lives without noticeably ists to improve the quality of their reporting
passing through our brains. and to root out charlatans, so should scientists
We’d like to think that with proper news name their own who are frauds for hire—or to
media attention, a lot of what’s “out there” can be more charitable—those who can find “sig-
be explained and shared with everyone. We’d nificance” where none really exists. It’s called
like to think that, as a profession, journalistic “junk science,” and every good scientist knows
organizations still see their jobs as a “higher about it.
calling,” not just as profit-making ventures. We all think everyone will be much better
Improvement, we think, also is a scientist’s off in the long run if we are better-educated,
duty, if he/she really believes that “the scientific more conversant with new science discoveries,
method” and the “truth” are paramount. Is and better able to incorporate them into our
there evidence that a scientifically literate soci- everyday lives. But we also want a discriminat-
ety is better off than one that plods on willy- ing public. We are worried about a lot of
nilly? Is an afternoon curled up with Science pseudo-scientific nonsense that is around to-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
day. There’s quite enough relevant material to If these sites could be expanded and written
be absorbed without having to filter out the te- largely in English, then integrated with proper
dious and ultimately immaterial. links, an extremely useful network for the
One thing we’ve discovered is there is a lot rapid dissemination of science information
of good science that is both fascinating and could be created.
relevant. Also, there is an abundance of infor- For this to work, the science community—
mation about new discoveries available to re- each discipline—must create its own public
porters and editors. The big problem is, it’s communications arm, responsible not only for
scattered and disorganized. Moreover, much of the web site but for all initial media communi-
the newest, cutting-edge research is indeci- cations, including liaison between journalists
pherable. A way needs to be developed to bring and the principal investigators. Beyond that,
it all together in a coherent, timely and de- scientists in each discipline should choose
pendable fashion. spokespeople who can and will speak for the
In the previous chapters we have spoken of group as a whole.
the need for scientists to increase their com- The disciplines should identify the peer-re-
munications skills and activities and for jour- viewed journals which they use to publish
nalists to increase their understanding and their work with an indication of the relative
training in science. One basic challenge is to rank order of use by the members. As part of
114
link the science community more efficiently to the publication process, the scientists should
the media—to both writers and gatekeepers. furnish additional information regarding the
One major obstacle to comprehensive sci- relative importance of the work. This should
ence reporting is the near impossibility of be plain-English text aimed at journalists and
tracking ongoing developments. Even the best the public. The plain-English discovery/impor-
and most diligent science writers have a hard tance statement should be peer reviewed along
time keeping up with what’s new—and maybe with the paper.
more to the point, with what’s significant. All of this information, original paper, ref-
erences and plain-English text should then be
A web-based placed on the discipline web site immediately.
The overall science web site would be oper-
clearinghouse ated by either the American Association for the
The science community could do itself a big fa- Advancement of Science, the National Science
vor by helping journalists sort through the Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences,
maze of research projects, papers, presenta- the National Academy of Engineering, or per-
tions, conventions and publications. A frame- haps a consortium. This master page should
work for this already exists. carry a continuously refreshed list of major sci-
Nearly every science discipline has an orga- entific discoveries from throughout the nation
nization of some kind that publishes its papers or the world. The umbrella web site should
and organizes its meetings. Most have web oversee the different discipline web sites to as-
sites. If only one layer could be added to the sure uniformity and continuity/linkage.
existing structure—a journalist-friendly com- Any journalist could then access the master
ponent—the job of bridging the gap between science site to initiate, aid or assist the report-
science and the public would be greatly simpli- ing process. This one-stop-shopping approach
fied and expedited. would provide a regularly updated service that
Journalists, especially those tracking a wide would include full-text articles, plain-English
range of topics, could use better, clearer summaries, context, and contacts.
marked, and more convenient roadmaps. The A network-wide system of e-mail notifica-
existing web sites maintained by the individual tion should be available for any news organiza-
disciplines are ideally suited to provide them. tion that desires it. By using this model, or

Chapter 12 Conclusion
Research Scientists and researchers communicate the
Institution
latest research findings to their respective
Individual Individual professional associations, which in turn serve as
Researcher Researcher sources for the Master Science/Technology Site.

The Discpline Professional Association Site
Discipline functions as a repository for the latest scientific
Research Professional discoveries, “press-friendly” news releases,
Discipline
Institution and contact information on spokespeople and
Association individual researchers.
Professional
E.g.: American Medical Association
Association

Discipline
Professional
Discipline Association
Professional
Association

115
Master Science/Technology Web Site
Could be maintained by NAS, AAAS or a professional consortium

The Master Science/
Technology Site serves
as a directory to other
specific professional
Wire National Newspapers Other Large Dailies &
association sites.
& Networks Major Market Stations
Services New York Times, USA Dallas Morning News
AP, UPI, Reuters, etc. TODAY, CNN, NPR, etc. KCBS, WNBC, etc.

Story
Alert
Smaller papers and stations, alerted Additionally, local media may
by the wire services to stories with choose to contact local research
local significance, can find further professionals directly for
Smaller Local detail, contact information and comments or interviews.
Papers & Stations other resources on the Master
Science/Technology Site.

some variant of it, the science community The consequences
could keep the news media current on devel-
oping research it considers important. And the
of inattention
writers and editors could be assured that the James Bryant Conant, a renowned chemist, a pio-
product they receive is not junk science, advo- neer researcher whose work led to an understand-
cacy science or pseudoscience, but the best ob- ing of how both chlorophyll and hemoglobin
jective information available. worked, and who was later president of Harvard
A key role for the National Academies of University, said 50 years ago at the beginning of the
Science and Engineering should be the identi- explosion of science and technology in America,
fication and honoring of those scientists and “There is only one proved method of assisting the
engineers who distinguish themselves as com- advancement of pure science—that of picking
municators of science and technology to the men of genius, backing them heavily, and leaving
public. them to direct themselves.”

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
what happens in their domain and the rest of
Why Everyone Needs To Understand Science society.
Dr. Harry Gray is a is an avuncular, slightly
By Jared Diamond overweight, fidgety Caltech chemist on a cru-
sade. His mission has two parts—first to prove
First, science isn’t something arcane, intended only for the few. Every one of us— that not all chemists are “boring,” then to dem-
whether a poet, janitor, or nuclear physicist—has to be able to think scientifically, onstrate that he and his colleagues in all
and to understand some science, to get through our lives. Every day we face deci- branches of science have something important
sions that hinge on science, such as whether to smoke, what to eat, with whom to
to say to the larger society. And he is not
have sex, and what protection to use (if any). Even for decisions that don’t depend
above a bit of blatant flattery to make his
on specific scientific facts, science remains the proven set of best methods for acquir-
point, which is that it is absolutely essential
ing accurate information about the world.
Second, some of us end up as policy-makers in government or business. These in-
that the gulf that separates America’s premier
dividuals make decisions that fundamentally affect the well-being of everyone, and science establishment from the public that
most of them know no more about science than does the rest of the general pub- supports it be closed.
lic. Yet they are called upon to decide what to do about (and how much money to During a Caltech symposium in the spring
spend on) nuclear reactors, global warming, environmental toxins, expensive space of 1997, Gray poured on the flattery. He said
programs, biomedical research, and applications of biotechnology. It’s nonscientists, there are many “brilliant” science writers on
not scientists, who have the last word on whether the milk we drink can safely come the scene today, and “this is an enormous op-
116 from cows treated with growth hormones. To make such decisions wisely, the deci- portunity for scientists and great journalists to
sion makers have to be drawn from a scientifically educated public.
get together.” He is especially worried that the
Third, as voters, we all bear the ultimate responsibility for those decisions, because
gulf-sized disconnect between science and the
we are the ones who decide which candidates and which ballot measures will pre-
taxpayer will halt basic research. Gray believes
vail. We need enough sense about science to select the decision makers who will
make good choices when faced with scientific questions.
that science for science’s sake, and the nation’s,
Fourth, even if science were irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans, a strong must be properly funded.
scientific enterprise is essential to our economy, educational system, and society. That “Almost everything that we have come to
requires lots of young people to become excited enough by science that they resolve know as scientific advancement has come
to become professional scientists. Good communication by scientists to the public is about because of real, curiosity-driven re-
essential to spark that excitement. search,” said Gray, “people just exploring, just
Finally, scientists themselves should be interested in promoting public understand- following their noses, not trying to do some-
ing of science for a selfish reason: their salaries and research grants depend on the thing, not trying to work a specific problem.
nonscientists who hold the purse strings in Congress, state legislatures, and private
That’s the part of the funding of our govern-
foundations. Those money givers reach their decisions based on how important they
ment that worries me the most. Not the overall
think science is.
number, but the number that’s allocated to sci-
Excerpted from “Kinship with the Stars,” Discover Magazine, May 1997. entists who are just going to follow their nose.”
Jared Diamond © 1997. Reprinted with permission of Discover Magazine.
And, that kind of research, he confidently pre-
dicted, “that’s for sure going to lead to the new
discoveries.”
For the most part that is what we have done Gray added that the United States, “has
for a half century. Has that worked? In many been the only country in the world that has
cases, certainly. Has every researcher made sig- ever really consistently supported curiosity-
nificant contributions? Certainly not. But the driven research.”
larger, grander effort has contributed to the What are the consequences if we don’t lis-
creation of the wealthiest, most technologically ten to the likes of Dr. Gray? There is a threefold
advanced society in the history of the earth. danger, we think—made up of philosophic,
However, many in the science community are material and spiritual considerations.
now seriously concerned that the nation is First, philosophically (and by this we refer
turning its back on that, in part through its to the political aspects of a democracy), the
failure to understand the connections between populus needs as much information as pos-

Chapter 12 Conclusion
sible to act wisely and vote intelligently— “International, global competition is driven
whether it’s about high technology or garbage by science,” says Dan Goldin. “Today one in 20
collection. The world is getting more complex, people earn their living in information inten-
not less. The future will usher in a whole new sive technologies and it’s projected in two gen-
set of unknown complications, perplexities erations, one in two Americans will. So we’re
and uncertainties. about to lose a whole class.”
Life today is markedly different from even “It’s nice that we’re transitioning out of the
25 years ago when J. Robert Oppenheimer Cold War,” Goldin says, but we now find our-
said, “We think that the future will be only selves in a Catch-22—Americans are isolated
more radical and not less, only more strange from science, yet it’s so important to their lives.
and not more familiar, and that it will have its Most people “don’t understand about long-
own new insights for the inquiring human term investment in America’s future. And this
spirit.”1 It is a media cop-out to say that read- is why I speak with such a passion.”
ers and viewers don’t know or don’t care about Daniel S. Greenberg, editor and publisher
things that might be a little hard to grasp. Like of Science & Government Report, a Washington
it or not, science and high-technology are part newsletter, and a frequent contributor to the
of the fabric of modern life, and will become op-ed pages of The Washington Post, says “The
more so along a predictable curve. risk now is that in the headlong political stam-
117
“Keeping our laypersons ignorant of scien- pede to balance the federal budget, a great
tific concepts and of the nature and implica- wealth-producing national resource will be al-
tions of technology transformations will result lowed to wilt just to save a few bucks.”3
in a dysfunctional society,” says Dr. Manuel It’s also more than just the economic future.
Gómez, director of the Resource Center for It’s where we live now. According to NSF head
Science and Engineering in Puerto Rico. “We Dr. Neal Lane, “We have long since passed the
can ill afford to sustain this state of affairs [the point where we could say—if we could ever ac-
fissure between scientists and the public], es- tually agree to such a thing—all right, let’s go
pecially in view of the fact that science, both in back to the farm and live at a peaceful, pastoral
its intellectual as well as technological implica- level. You can only sustain something like a
tions, has become a dominant element of half a billion people on the planet with that
modern cultures.”2 sort of technology. And the only way to do that
We think such knowledge is not the sole do- would be to go to the other 5.5 billion on the
main of an elite or that it should be withheld planet and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re just aw-
solely because it is sometimes arduous. Nearly fully inconvenient. You’re just going to have to
200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson said, “I know go away right now.’”4
of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of Third, there is an undeniably inspirational,
the society but the people themselves; and if almost spiritual aspect to the ongoing march
we think them not enlightened enough to ex- of science and technology.
ercise their control with a wholesome discre- “If you go back in America 50, 60 years ago,
tion, the remedy is not to take it from them, before the Cold War,” says Goldin, “Americans
but to inform their discretion.” were much closer to science, because they were
much closer to the land, because many of them
Losing America’s lived in areas where you had no background
light and you could see the heavens—where
future many people grew food, where most of the
Second, if not informed, the nation stands to young men, not the young women, unfortu-
lose its material preeminence created in large nately, but most of the young men, understood
part by the great scientific and technological how to take cars apart [and] put them to-
achievements of the past. gether. … Science and technology were basic

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
elements in their life, and they weren’t isolated from the federal budget to frontier research,”
from nature.” says Dr. Lane, “the total amount of money
Isolated though we may now be, science we’re talking about is actually really quite tiny.
and technology are still viewed almost as un- It’s only something like $10 billion out of a
stoppable forces, forces with the power to current federal budget of $1.6 trillion. That’s
make over entire societies, “just about the only way less than one percent.”7
aspect of contemporary life in which the no- There was an especially poignant reminder
tion of old-fashioned, earthshaking progress in the spring of 1997 of what tiny, flat or de-
still thrives,” says Edward Rothstein.5 clining expenditures for R&D mean in human
Must every person become an expert in sci- loss. It first came to our attention in an article
ence to partake of this wonderment? No, far expertly written by Bruce Finley of The Denver
from it. Scientists themselves can barely keep Post. It was about astronomer Alan Hale, co-
up with developments in their own fields. discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Frank Close, vice president of the British Asso- “Monday night,” Finley wrote, “he pre-
ciation for the Advancement of Science, takes sented a third slide show to a sellout crowd at
issue with the notion that the average citizen the Denver Museum of Natural History, where
even needs to “understand” science. he signed autographs for awestruck young
“Understanding is like a game of Dungeons boys with telescopes who want to be astrono-
118
and Dragons,” he said, “where there are many mers, too.
doors and windows opening onto greater vis- “What most fans don’t know is that Hale’s
tas, deeper levels of truth. Pass through to the friendly, unassuming smile masks major frus-
next level and you discover that there are still tration and sadness about a career that has
deeper levels to which you may progress.” never paid the bills.”
Close, a Fellow in Public Understanding at Hale told the reporter, “I’m a scientist who,
the British Institute of Physics, says, “Rather like a lot of scientists, couldn’t get a job in my
than understanding, it is public ‘awareness’ of field.”8
science that we are dealing with.” Hale, 39, graduated from the U.S. Naval
Awareness is a much simpler concept than Academy with a degree in physics, and earned
understanding. a Ph.D. in astronomy from New Mexico State
“Show the unaware that behind the high in 1992. Since then, he has not been able to
wall there is a beautiful garden that can be en- find a good-paying job. In early April he went
tered through a gate with a guide. Once inside, public with his lament. He posted an elec-
and with the right map, they can then begin tronic letter on the Internet.
the journey on the eightfold way to enlighten- “Due to my current 15 minutes of fame re-
ment along with the rest of us. But do not at- sulting from the discovery of Comet Hale-
tempt to claim that one will find understand- Bopp,” he wrote, “I believe I have an opportu-
ing. Understanding is where the rainbow ends, nity to raise some awareness of this issue, and
where parallel lines meet, always in sight but possibly to get things turned around a little bit.”
receding as fast as you travel towards it.”6 Hale said he “was inspired by the scientific
discoveries and events taking place during my
The human childhood to pursue a career in science, only to
find, after completing the rigors of under-
cost graduate and graduate school, that the oppor-
In a period of retrenchment, budget cutbacks, tunities are limited at best and are what I usu-
and tax reductions, what is the real cost of ally describe as abysmal.”
maintaining the U.S. lead in basic research? Hale blamed the situation on “scientific il-
“Actually, if you talk about the amount of literacy” in our society and said that “unless
funds that are devoted in the United States there are some pretty drastic changes in the

Chapter 12 Conclusion
way our society approaches science and treats trust us. They think we are sensationalist, po-
those of us who have devoted our lives to mak- litically and socially biased, self-serving, elitist,
ing some of our own contributions, there is no swift of feet but slow of brain. And, at least for
way that I can, with a clear conscience, encour- the TV folks, obscenely overpaid …” A little
age present-day students to pursue a career in hyperbolic, perhaps. But perceptions count in
science.” the perception business, and it ought to be
Hale might also have been inspired by the enough, as Mathis wrote, “to give our business
news only a week earlier that 39 cult members the shakes.” 10
had committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, The idea of examining the way the media
Calif., thinking they were going to meet an covers science and technology originated with
alien spaceship that was tagging along behind the idea that public support for research would
the comet. Hale had publicly scoffed at such a dwindle because of media inattention. As our
notion weeks earlier. As a result, he told The study progressed, however, we became just as
New York Times that he had received hundreds concerned about the media itself—why public
of “vicious hate letters.”9 Needless to say, the support and confidence in journalism was
comet came and went, but no alien ship ap- dwindling. And it was hard to escape the con-
peared. clusion that the trend toward tabloidization,
We think Hale is right about the scientific trivialization, sensationalism and dumbing-
119
illiteracy of the American public, but there is a down was not only producing a less-informed
paradox. While many wanted to believe in the populace but driving away readers and view-
alien ship, Hale was lecturing to sellout crowds ers.
and signing autographs for people who were It’s more than just science news. Mathema-
much more fascinated by the real thing—real tician John Allen Paulos notes that more than
science. And, again, it raises the question of the 50,000 books are published every year, yet pre-
media’s role. cious few of them are ever mentioned in the
Three months after the suicides, and after a nation’s newspapers.
lot of handwringing about where the cultists “Every baseball, basketball, and football
got such a dismaying idea, reporters and cam- game, whether at the professional, college, or
era crews were in Roswell, N.M, chronicling high school level, is lavishly reported with sta-
the gathering of UFO devotees. Some of the tistics of every imaginable sort. Every gritty de-
reporting, without a shred of evidence, lent tail of murders, drug deals, and other abuses
credence to people who, also without a drop of makes the paper. Every TV program on every
extraterrestrial protoplasm in hand, believe the cable channel has a brief synopsis in a weekly
earth has been, or is being, visited by or maybe or monthly guide. Every minuscule variation
is even under the control of aliens from an- in the stock price of hundreds of penny-ante
other galaxy. Mercifully, real science came companies is right there in the papers every
along just in time—the Mars Pathfinder land- day. I can’t believe the readership for a daily
ing on Independence Day—and drove editors stream of nationally syndicated, very brief re-
back to their senses and the alien hunters off views of new books would attract fewer read-
the screen. ers than these features do. Besides, newspapers
have a vested interest in a more literate reading
Little love public,” Paulos wrote.11
As for television news, Ellen Hume believes
for the media the trite and the trivial will ultimately fail.
“How many polls does it take to get the mes- “[Q]uality news cannot be designed to win the
sage across?” asked syndicated columnist channel-surfing contest. It must expect instead
Deborah Mathis in the spring of 1997. “Ameri- to be selected, as a special niche that loyal
cans don’t like the news media. They don’t viewers visit for good reason. Some channels

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
choose all-news formats so that they become the American public basically is smart and un-
the logical place to go for news. As the surf gets derstands, and we’ll provide materials to them”
crowded, consumers will want to know where We think Dr. Gray, the Caltech chemist, is a
they can go for real news. They won’t want to model for the whole science community.
waste time getting there.”12 “It’s true that support is going down,” he
Physicist Leon Lederman, who is tireless in told the Caltech media/science symposium,
his campaign to expand and improve science “but you cannot stop the tremendous excite-
reporting, believes firmly that public scientific ment of discovery that scientists all feel, all of
illiteracy is part of a cycle—a news establish- us—chemists, physicists, biologists, astrono-
ment that believes the public is disinterested, a mers—you can’t stop us. You can’t beat us
public that is unaccustomed to critical think- down, there’s no way.
ing, both perpetuated by an educational sys- “And so we’re going to keep going. We’re
tem that treats science as something apart going to keep inventing things—more and
from the fabric of life. more that are going to improve the quality of
In one of our roundtables, he said: “In a life. And what we want is some kind of interac-
history class, you learn about the history of tion through modern technology with the bril-
England, and you learn about all the kings and liant people in science journalism so that we
what they did to their wives and all that stuff, can get these stories out right, [so] that we can
120
and you never learn about [Michael] Faraday. help write these stories, [so] that we’re part of
Faraday did more to change the lives of people these stories, not just detached. We have enor-
on this planet than all the kings of England mous opportunities and we’re looking forward
rolled up into one—and throw in Genghis to working with great journalists in the next
Khan and Napoleon. century.”
“He discovered electricity, but you don’t An educated public, well-schooled in sci-
learn that in a history class. I think until we ence, Carl Sagan maintained, “is an absolutely
can change our education and break the barri- essential tool for any society with a hope of
ers between the two cultures and get science in surviving well into the next century with its
history and history in science, and merge them fundamental values intact—not just science as
in some way, we’re not going to get the engaged in by its practitioners, but science un-
gatekeepers to be interested. [They’ll] say, ‘This derstood and embraced by the entire human
isn’t news.’ I mean, suppose there is a news bul- community. And if the scientists will not bring
letin: ‘Napoleon Escapes From Elba,’ (I don’t this about, who will?”14
know if these times are right), or ‘Faraday Dis- Goldin says he has told NASA scientists that
covers Electricity.’ Which one makes the six- the American public is paying for what they do
o’clock news? You know, it’ll be Napoleon ev- and they “have a contract” to take the time and
ery time.” 13 to speak clearly. Science Foundation head Neal
NASA Administrator Goldin told the same Lane said other institutions and universities
roundtable audience that education reform must be supportive of scientists going public.
was paramount. He described changes he’s “There’s a certain reward system that will
making in the space agency. “First, we said, need to respond, will need to change in order
we’re no longer going to have public relations, to make this happen,” he said. “It doesn’t mean
we’re going to have public education. That’s a every single scientist has to do this, but as
very significant change, because it is not the many as possible should, and if you can’t,
job of a government agency to try and tell the please support the person who can.”
public why what we’re doing is good so they It is our feeling that the message has gone
should fund us. That’s almost like a self-licking out to the science community, and that it has
ice-cream cone. What we need to do is say that been sensibly received. The old adage in the
academic world—“publish or perish”—might

Chapter 12 Conclusion
soon be replaced with a new one: “Explain or leadership, which the gatekeepers should pro-
expire.” We urge the news media to reach vide, they can. They must.
across the gulf in a similar effort. Earlier in this century, G.K. Chesterton, the
Much earlier, we made the point that jour- English essayist, biographer and poet,
nalists, like scientists, consider the whole uni- grumbled about people who could not muster
verse their “beat.” Yet at the same time, it seems the courage to do what they knew was right
to us that that view is narrowing in many and proper. “I do not believe in a fate that falls
quarters, that the once expansive and all-inclu- on men however they act; but I do believe in a
sive dogma of what is “news” is contracting— fate that falls on them unless they act,” he
that sensation is replacing substance and enter- wrote.
tainment is crowding out enlightenment. It is We would add that professionals, whether
the primary mission of daily newspapers, local scientists or journalists, who fail to deliver and
television and radio news to keep their audi- interpret the news of their age, fail as well. And
ences informed about things that directly and their fate is ultimately ours.
immediately sway their lives. But we have
come to believe that that shouldn’t mean the
news media should ignore less-direct and chapter endnotes
longer-term issues.
1 J. Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Under- 121
“We cannot cheat on DNA. We cannot get
standing (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.)
around photosynthesis,” wrote Barbara Ward 2 Dr. Manuel Gómez, “Enhancing the Dialogue,” symposium,

nearly a quarter century ago in her book Only San Juan, P.R., March 12-13, 1993.
3 Daniel Greenberg, “False Economies in Science Spending,”
One Earth. “We cannot say,” she said, “I am not
The Washington Post, October 23, 1996.
going to give a damn about phytoplankton. All 4 Dr. Neal Lane, Talk of the Nation, NPR, Nov. 1, 1996.

these tiny mechanisms provide the precondi- 5 Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1997.
6 UK Guardian, March 21, 1997.
tions of our planetary life. To say we do not 7 Dr. Neal Lane, Talk of the Nation, NPR , November 1, 1996.
care is to say in the most literal sense that ‘we 8 Bruce Finley, “Comet Discovery Bittersweet,” The Denver

choose death.’”15 Post, March 18, 1997.
9 Malcolm Browne, “Comet’s Discoverer Laments Status of
Hubert Humphrey said it about as well 30
Careers in Science,” The New York Times, April 9, 1997.
years ago: “As we begin to comprehend that the 10 Deborah Mathis, “Molanari’s Decision Won’t Help Journal-

earth itself is a kind of manned spaceship hur- ism,” The Idaho Statesman, June 2, 1997.
11 Paulos, John Allen. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
tling through the infinity of space—it will
(New York: HarperCollins, 1995.)
seem increasingly absurd that we have not bet- 12 Ellen Hume, Tabloids, Talk Radio and the Future of News:

ter organized the life of the human family.” Technology’s Impact on Journalism (Washington, D.C.: The
Bottom line: What would we really like to Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy
Studies of Northwestern University, 1995).
see? We would recommend a rational, reason- 13 Dr. Lederman, speaking extemporaneously at a Freedom

able, and balanced enlightenment of the Forum Roundtable, was only off slightly. Napoleon escaped
people about matters of seemingly unequal from Elba in 1815. Michael Faraday demonstrated the first
crude electric motor in 1821.
weight—phytoplankton and city hall, DNA 14 Carl Sagan The Demon Haunted World (New York: Random

and dogcatchers. Do they mesh? Why not? We House, 1995).
15 Barbara Ward, Only One Earth, (New York: W.W. Norton,
think that under enlightened and aggressive
1972).

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
122

Chapter 12 Conclusion
A P P E N D I X A

Survey Data

123

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
124

Appendix A Survey Data
125

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
126

Appendix A Survey Data
127

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
128

Appendix A Survey Data
129

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
130

Appendix A Survey Data
131

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
132

Appendix A Survey Data
133

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
134

Appendix A Survey Data
A P P E N D I X B

Sputnik:40 Years Later
Science, the News Media and the Future
The following transcription is from a panel discussion on
the topic of the relationship between science and the news
media, held at The Freedom Forum World Center in
Arlington, Va., on Oct. 3, 1997. This session, which was
ALAN McGOWAN Good morning, ladies and broadcast over C-SPAN, was part of a two-day event held
gentlemen. in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the launch of
Welcome. My name is Alan McGowan, and the Sputnik satellite.
I’m the director of public understanding of sci-
ence programs at the American Association for
the Advance in Science, one of the organizations pending upon your point of view.
which is co-sponsoring this conference. But it’s a pleasure to welcome you here and
There are too many to thank the co-sponsoring organizations for
people to thank to do helping us at the A.A.A.S. carry out our mis-
135
it in public, particularly sion—or one of our missions—which is to de-
on air, but just let me velop programs to inform the public about the
say that the staffs of scientific enterprise, to celebrate the scientific en-
the First Amendment terprise—not uncritically, because we do have to
Center and the Acad- look at aspects of the scientific enterprise that
emy of … National are having an impact on society.
Academy of Sciences I think most of the impact on society is posi-
and the Freedom Fo- tive, but there have been some negative impacts,
rum World Center which we have to recognize. But in any event we
here have been mag- need in the next 40 years a better-informed
nificent in helping us public on science, a more attentive public to sci-
pull this together. McGowan entific developments. As you’ll hear later on in
We’re addressing a topic which is both new the morning, there are going to be many devel-
and old. It has been with us even before Sputnik opments which affect a great many people that
was launched. … have already started and will continue.
You know, whenever you have the decimal So thanks, and on behalf of Rich Nicholson,
anniversary, one is supposed to celebrate it. We executive officer of the A.A.A.S., who could not
are celebrating and investigating what has hap- be here, and Shirley Malcolm, head of the Edu-
pened since the launch of Sputnik 40 years ago, cation and Human Resource Directorate, who
and what we’re going to find—and you’ll hear will be here tomorrow, I welcome you and
some interesting presentations—is some things thank you for coming. And it’s a pleasure now
have changed and some things have not to turn the podium over to Bill Colglazier, who
changed. is the executive officer of the National Academy
We are faced with some of the same problems of Sciences and the National Research Council.
with lots of different attributes to those prob-
lems, lots of different aspects of those problems. BILL COLGLAZIER Let me also welcome you
We have a whole electronic revolution that has on behalf of the Academy Complex, which in-
taken place since the launching of Sputnik, which cludes the National Academy of Sciences, the In-
either makes it harder or easier to do science re- stitute of Medicine, the National Academy of
porting and talk about science to the public, de- Engineering and the National Research Council.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
We’re pleased to be joining The Freedom Fo- So, many good things actually came out of
rum, the First Amendment Center and the the fear and paranoia that existed when the
American Association for the Advancement of American public was faced with the launching of
Science in sponsoring this anniversary celebra- Sputnik in 1957. I think today we’re seeing some
tion. of the same renaissance that occurred then: the
I think it’s fitting that, in this anniversary of emphasis on educational reform, a greater in-
40 years after Sputnik, we highlight the issue of terest by the American public and the media in
science in the media. The Academy Complex science and technology.
has put this as one of our top-priority issues. So I think it’s fitting at this time that we em-
We have a great deal of respect and admiration phasize in this forum the issue of science and
for science journalists. We feel that the media is journalism, and I might also mention that the
the main communication channel between the Academy Complex tomorrow is sponsoring
scientific community and the American public. another event which is focusing on the issue of
The American public now, we think, has an educational reform.
appetite for even greater amounts of science So we’re very proud to be here.
journalism, and we feel the science media is the The president of the Institute of Medicine,
community that can do that well. Ken Shine, will be speaking in the next session,
… Thinking back on the anniversary of and Bruce Alberts, the president of the Academy
136
Sputnik: I was about 12 years old at the time, of Sciences will be in one of the afternoon ses-
and in my generation there were three events, sions.
most of them tragedies, which you sort of re- Let me introduce next Kenneth Paulson with
member exactly where you were when they hap- the First Amendment Center, and he will extend
pened. Of course, the assassination of President his welcome.
Kennedy, the Challenger accident. The same is
also true in the 1950s with the launching of KEN PAULSON Good morning. I’d like to
Sputnik. welcome you on behalf of the First Amendment
I looked this morning in the Encyclopedia Center at Vanderbilt University and The Free-
Britannica, and it described the atmosphere in dom Forum.
the U.S. at the time of the launching of Sputnik It’s a special pleasure for us to be able to par-
as “an orgy of self doubt.” It was at the height of ticipate in today’s conference.
the Cold War, as you all remember, that the So- Each year at the First Amendment Center, we
viet Union demonstrated this remarkable scien- bring together two distinguished scholars who
tific and technological prowess. And for once, come from different disciplines, and we ask them
the American public and American leadership to explore a particular facet of American society
felt that they might be second best. and its relationship to the media.
And the fear, of course, led to a rapid out- We are privileged this year to have Jim Hartz
pouring of American investment and military and Rick Chappell join us for an extensive study
might, but it also led to a number of other of the relationship between scientists and jour-
things, very positive outcomes, one of which nalists and the implications for coverage of sci-
was, of course, the American public’s interest in ence news.
science and technology. Jim is a veteran television and print journal-
It led to the launching of the Space Age. ist, the host of Innovation on PBS and formerly
NASA was created in 1958. It also led to a mas- the co-host of the Today show, and a respected
sive rethinking of the American educational sys- military and aerospace reporter for NBC News.
tem. In fact, the renaissance in terms of educa- Rick Chappell is the associate director for sci-
tional reform occurred in the 1960s, precipitated ence at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in
by emphasis on education following the launch Huntsville. He’s a scientist and an astronaut
of Sputnik. who joined NASA in 1972, and he was mission

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
scientist for Space Lab I and has had extensive for a year instead of one or two a day for what’s
experience talking to the press and public about been much of my career.
the space program. We are releasing this morning an interim re-
In a moment you’ll hear from both gentle- port. It is the results of a survey that we com-
men about an interim report they’ve prepared, missioned not quite a year ago at the beginning
assessing the relationship between journalists of our study. We asked approximately 2,000 sci-
and scientists. entists and approximately 2,000 journalists to
I know firsthand the assess the issues that oftentimes divide them but
benefits of those two oftentimes bring them together. We asked them
groups working to- to look at certain aspects of the society at large.
gether in a constructive We asked them to look at each other, and we
and positive way. Be- asked them to look at themselves.
fore joining The Free- Out of the 4,000 or so surveys that we sent
dom Forum, I’d spent out, we had a return of approximately 30 to 40
four years as the ex- percent on both sides, which we are told is typi-
ecutive editor of cal of a national survey. The only people among
Florida Today, which is scientists who are not represented … I think we
the newspaper closest asked the American Chemical Society for their
137
to Kennedy Space Cen- mailing list, and they, for one reason or another,
ter, and it was the one didn’t want to give us that. So for those of you
newspaper where po- Paulson who know chemists, you can allow for any dis-
lice reporters would have to check the shuttle crepancies that might appear in the results
schedule before they were allowed to take a va- brought out by the scientists.
cation. We had a chance to
It was the one newspaper where a city coun- analyze the results very
cil story was a local story but so was a space carefully and I think
walk. And it was in that environment that I de- …The title we picked
veloped even greater respect for the scientists of for the report is Worlds
this country and the public’s appetite for science Apart: Gauging the Dis-
journalism. tance Between Science
I discovered there that when a community and Journalism. That
cares about science, and the press is ambitious title—and we’ve tried to
about science, and the scientists take the time to be topical with a picture
clearly communicate with the press and public, of Mars and Earth
there are winners all around. there—came when we
Here to examine that potential: Jim Hartz looked at the results
and Rick Chappell. that we obtained Hartz
from this survey and compared them to sur-
JIM HARTZ Thank you, Ken, and let me add veys that the First Amendment Center had done
my welcome to all of you for being here with us in prior years in previous reports, which cov-
in this two-day conference and express my ered such things as the media and the military,
thanks also to The Freedom Forum and to Ken the media and religion, the media and medicine,
and especially to John Seigenthaler, my old the media and politics, and so on.
friend, for inviting me a year ago to become a This survey showed the widest divergence be-
part of this study. tween the media and the portion of society that that
And it’s been a wonderful time for me and a media covered in terms of the way they looked at
chance to get to know a new friend, Dr. each other, the way they did their jobs, and sort of
Chappell from NASA, and to have one deadline delineating the gulf that exists between them.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
Now, on top of that was a very interesting lot of the journalists in the comments said, “Yes,
second layer, and that was that the gulf that we need to do a lot better job of reporting on
seemed to exist there was not born of hostility. this vital area to America. A lot of it is our fault,
In other words, in some of the previous surveys and we need better training. We need to spend
the people who were covered by the press more time with it” and so on.
seemed to feel that there was a hostile relation- The final [point], I guess, is that, while the
ship between them. ways in which scientists and the media view
In this one what we found was kind of more themselves, each other and many things are
sadness rather than hostility. A lot of the scien- worlds apart, there is an agreement that they
tists, and I’ll let Rick talk about this in a minute, can do a better job, that it is not an insur-
were complaining oftentimes about the job that mountable problem, and that we should be do-
the—let me be careful here to say, the major- ing a better job because it really is vital and it re-
ity—of the press did in terms of getting the ally is important to this country’s economic
story right in terms of the details and several well-being.
other facets that we delved into that you’ll be So we see a great deal of optimism, finally, at
able to see in the survey. the end of this survey, as well as recognizing that
This is … we don’t want to get into the de- there are some significant differences in the way
tails of it at the moment. You’ll have a chance to that we view things.
138
look at it yourself, but what we found was that Rick, you want to talk about some specifics
while there was an unhappiness amongst scien- from the scientist’s point of view?
tists, there was also an agreement by both sides
that a much better job could be done and ought RICK CHAPPELL Thanks, Jim. I’ll just make a
to be done. Both sides recognize the importance couple of comments.
of science and high technology to this country I do want to very strongly thank the First
and both sides felt that they each could do a lot Amendment Center and Vanderbilt for bringing
better job in improving this communications us together.
gulf that exists now between the two sides. I think in some of these previous studies a
It was interesting, and one question we hostility has surfaced not only between the jour-
asked: Who’s really to blame for the public’s in- nalists—the journalism side—and that segment
ability to understand a lot of the science and of society being looked at, hostility has even de-
technology? And the scientists, by a rather large veloped between the two people who were doing
majority, said, “It’s really our fault. You know, the study. Such has not been the case with Jim
we don’t do a very good job oftentimes of com- and me.
municating.” And the scientists in the second And we have from the beginning had the
place said, “It’s really the public’s fault.” same goal in mind, which was to figure out a
And this was another underlying theme in way to help adjust the process to identify the
the survey: that both groups felt that science things that make communication of science
education in this country and scientific literacy through the media to the public more diffi-
overall was not really very good, and the scien- cult—to find the ways to make that better.
tists at the end blame, by not a very large num- And the report that we are developing will
ber, the media itself. have those recommendations in it. He and I
When we asked the media the same ques- have been very much on the same wavelength
tions, the answers were almost the same. They all the way through, and, in fact, from my view-
said, “It’s the scientist’s fault” first, and “It’s the point it has been tremendously valuable to have
public’s fault” second, and “Not us.” his insight into how the media works, so that I
But then a very interesting thing happened. can sort of pour out my heart with respect to
I was the one assigned to read all of the com- how scientists try to do their work and how
ments that came along with the surveys. … A they want the public to understand. And then

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
we can match that against the reality of how the upon—that can bridge between the science
media … the deadlines, the things that the me- community and the public through the media.
dia has to deal with. And I think the forcing function is going to
And the survey is a very good basis for that. be this increasing need to know on the part of
I would just comment that the survey brings the public. In order to be informed citizens in
out from the scientists the hesitation about talking this country, we need to understand science.
to journalists based on a concern about: “Will they [Moreover,] science is not only extremely im-
get it right?” and “What happens to me as a scien- portant to the public but is thrilling to the pub-
tist in my career if they don’t get it right?” lic, if it’s written in the right way.
There’s a concern So we have a lot of optimism about the fu-
that it reflects on me as ture possibilities, and the survey helps us under-
a scientist. My col- stand where the common ground is and helps
leagues don’t know—if us show the areas that need work.
they read something in Jim, do you want to close with any com-
the paper that I said— ments?
they don’t know
whether I said it wrong HARTZ Well, one kind of larger part of the
or whether the jour- umbrella that we were operating under that we
139
nalist just didn’t get it felt was important in this issue … was that
quite right. And it’s a oftentimes scientists were covered as a specialty
concern for me that it by the media in this country.
may reflect on my ca- In contrast, one of the ways that we looked
reer; it causes me to Chappell at it was that it was such an integral part of our
hesitate to talk. And so there are a number of is- society. We spend $70 billion a year in govern-
sues related to journalists getting it right that are ment funds on basic research and development
of a concern to the scientists. and another $100 billion or so in private and
The positive point is that both sides feel that university funds.
the complexity of science really can be dealt with It is a huge segment of our society that is
by journalists, and there’s not an intractable dif- covered by specialists in a fairly small number
ficulty here. of publications, and so a question has sort of
The other thing that is very heartening to me floated in our mind as to whether we should
is that … and this represents, I think, a tremen- urge newspapers around the country to devote
dous change in the scientific culture: More than space to science by developing science sections—
80 percent of the scientists who were surveyed in some cases, that’s been tried and was not suc-
said that they are willing to take time to be cessful; other places it’s done very well—or
trained on how to communicate better with the whether [science] should be treated as general
public. This is a tremendous shift away from an news.
attitude which, for many, many years, said: “We I’m kind of inclined toward the latter and
really don’t have time to do this. We’re trying to kind of inclined to urge my colleagues to treat it
do our research. We want to do what we’re get- that way.
ting paid to do and not take time away to try to Oftentimes we’ve been very good in our his-
communicate things that are very difficult.” tory at covering politics and that sort of thing,
There’s a significant shift in that that also and have developed many very good sources
bodes very well for our future in being able to over the years in certain areas. Not many of us
build this bridge. have taken the time to spend a lot of time with
So there is a common ground. Even though science and scientists and developed that as a
there are differences, and they are worlds apart, source of continuing fascinating and interesting
there is a common ground that can be built news.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
One of the questions that we asked—and I’ll this discussion is a gentleman who is the
close with this—the scientists was: “How often founder of the First Amendment Center. He’s a
have you talked or do you talk with reporters?” highly respected editor, publisher and chairman
And we found a very small number—3 or 4 emeritus of The Tennessean in Nashville, the
percent—who said, “I talk with a reporter founding editorial director of USA TODAY, and
maybe as often as once a month.” Then we also past president of the American Society of
found a huge number—Rick, you might help Newspaper Editors.
me on this—60, 70, 80 percent, something like In founding the First Amendment Center
that, who said they had talked to a reporter five years ago, John Seigenthaler held strongly
maybe once every few years. And then we found that there needed to be a place where different
something like 25 percent of the scientists we aspects of society get together to talk about the
surveyed said they had never talked to a re- press and the public and their collective role in
porter. So there is a wide gulf here. society.
And my favorite was, in one of the com- The study you just heard about from Dr.
ments in going through this, one of the scien- Chappell and Jim Hartz was developed at the
tists in answer to that question said that the last First Amendment Center. The concept of team-
time he had talked to a reporter was in 1959. ing scholars was John’s.
And then we had right below that, “Can we use You can read a John Seigenthaler’s own take
140
your name and quote you in our report?” and on the subject in the beginning of the project
he wrote emphatically, “No!” here in the foreword of today’s publication.
To my mind, that was a guy who really got There are additional copies for everyone who
burned a long time ago and had never forgotten wants these.
it. So I would like to, at least from the journalist So to begin today’s session: John
side, hold out an olive branch to those scientists Seigenthaler.
who in the past have had a bad experience and
urge the scientists on their side to come and ac- JOHN SEIGENTHALER Thank you very
cept that, and try to at least emulate what we’ve much, Ken. I’m delighted to have an opportu-
been able to do electronically and technically nity to be here with all of you today and to wel-
and mechanically and reach out across the vast come this distinguished panel to talk about, in
space to Mars. And what we’re seeing is a won- general and specific terms, the relationship that
derful relationship and material and data and exists between science and journalism, on the
so on that’s coming back from there. Maybe we one hand, and science—in the larger sense—
can do the same thing metaphorically between and the public, and the need that society has to
the journalists and the scientific community. understand more about an area of life that af-
And I agree with Alan McGowan . It’s an issue fects all of us and that also, both in the public
that’s been around for a long time, and I think sector and the private sector, is the focal point of
right now it’s time that we really knuckle down and billions of dollars in expenditures each year.
try to solve some of these difficult issues. We have a distinguished panel, and I am
Thank you. honored to introduce, first of all, Shannon
Brownlee, [who] for most of the last decade,
ANNOUNCER Our panel is just about seated has been with U.S. News & World Report, where
now and we’ll be turning things back over to she is a senior editor. She is acknowledged as
Ken Paulson, the vice president of the First one of the most knowledgeable and distin-
Amendment Center in Nashville at Vanderbilt guished journalists whose work in science has
University. won notable national awards.
Her work on Alzheimer’s disease won the
PAULSON Thank you. Our first panel of the Sigma Tau Foundation Prize. She has been a
morning is about to convene and moderating Knight Fellow in journalism. She won the

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
American Institute of Physics Award. Gentry Lee is chief designer of RAMA, the
She has, in her educational background, a award winning CD-ROM adventure game. As
bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in some of you will remember, he was the sole
marine sciences from the University of Califor- partner of Carl Sagan on the Cosmos TV series
nia at Santa Cruz. Prior to coming to U.S. News, from 1976 to 1980. He is a distinguished novelist
she was a journalist with Discover and with as well as a scientist. From 1968 to 1976, he was
Sports Illustrated, and it’s a great pleasure for me director of science analysis and mission plan-
to see her and welcome her here. ning on the Viking mission, and from 1981 to
Robert Fri is direc- 1986—after those years with Carl Sagan—he
tor of the National was engineer for Galileo’s mission to Jupiter.
Museum of Natural And finally, Kenneth Shine.
History at the Smith- Kenneth R. Shine is clinical professor of
sonian. He’s a senior medicine at Georgetown. Prior to that he served
follow emeritus at the as dean and provost at UCLA in the field of
Resources for the Fu- medical sciences. He also has a background as a
ture. He’s the director cardiologist at UCLA, was chair at the Depart-
of the American Elec- ment of Medicine, director of coronary care,
tric Power Company and from 1985 to 1986 he was the president of
141
and Haggler Bailey, In- the American Heart Association.
corporated, and holds All of the detailed biographies of our panel-
a number of other di- ists are in your folders.
rectorships with cor- Seigenthaler I’d like to begin this discussion by recalling
porations and institutions around the country. with all of you that 40 years ago this week, the
He has been an adviser to the Aspen Institute, to nation’s interest and conscience and concern
the Gas Research Institute. were focused not on space but on Little Rock,
He became the first deputy administrator of where the screams of angry white mobs and the
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in footfall of marching federal troops accompa-
1971, was appointed by President Ford as nied the entry of African-American students
deputy administrator of the Energy and Re- into Central High School.
search and Development Administration in In the Defense Department, Secretary
1978, and ’82 through ’86, he headed the Energy Charles Wilson had announced that he would
Transitions Corporation. retire, and Neil McElroy was due within the
He is one whose interest in science and ability coming week to succeed him.
to communicate that interest are widely recog- As was stated earlier by Alan, we were in
nized, and it’s a pleasure to have Robert Fri here. midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and
Dr. John H. Gibbons serves as assistant to suddenly the national attention, because of
the president of the United States for space and something called a Sputnik, was indeed focused
technology. He is also director of the Office of on space. And we were frightened; we were
Science and Technology Policy. shocked; we were concerned; we were behind in
From 1979 to 1993, he directed the Congres- the race in this Cold War; we were behind in a
sional Office of Technology Assessment and space race that we did not even realize existed.
was, before that, appointed first director of the Even though he was going out of office, Sec-
Federal Office of Energy Conservation. He spent retary Wilson rushed to Huntsville, Ala., and
a decade and a half at the Oak Ridge National met with Wernher von Braun, the German
Laboratories, where he studied atomic nuclear space scientist who had been instrumental in
structure and pioneered the use of technology creating those buzz bombs that shook London
for energy conservation. during World War II. And von Braun was
rather relaxed about the whole thing. He said,

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
“We have the firepower to do this. Nobody has against it. It takes that kind of shock therapy,
paid much attention to us. Nobody has indi- and I think Sputnik was the kind of shock
cated that there was much of a push on it to get therapy that gave us a signal that we at least had
this done.” a virtual wall, and our back seemed to be up
And within a short time, we proved that we against it.
could compete, and gradually the nation came And, of course, that called forth a very pro-
together, and there was a commitment of talent ductive response—some people think maybe an
and funding to enter the race, to catch up in the over-response to that event—but it is one of
race to dominate the race for space. those attention-getting mechanisms that does
And how ironic it is today that our Cold shock us.
War enemies now are with us on a project in Our lives are like evolution. We go along at a
space, and there are doubts and questions in steady rate but every now and then, it’s punctu-
Congress about the advisability of that current ated by an event that is as important as the un-
enterprise. But that encapsulates in very brief derlying wave itself.
terms how we were then and raises questions And in the years
about how we are today. since that time, I think
I think that some of the answers that are we have seen an enor-
posed in the Hartz-Chappell report Worlds mous number of
142
Apart will be touched on as we approach this things happening, but I
subject today. wouldn’t want to put
And I’d like to begin this panel discussion by the Sputnik event in
first of all asking Jack Gibbons: How much did greater proportion to
it matter, one, that Sputnik was up there? How other things that were
much does it matter today that we were threat- happening at that time.
ened and challenged enough by it to enter into We were in the midst
this massive commitment of money and talent of a Cold War. Our
and energy? whole defense and no-
tion of the public sup- Gibbons
JACK GIBBONS John—First of all, I hope port of science was engendered largely because it
everyone’s noticed John’s tie. It’s been hiding be- was seen as the mechanism that would enable
hind your sign, but it’s a loud, extraordinary tie. us to avoid being overwhelmed by the forces of
darkness.
SEIGENTHALER I’ll just step out. [Steps out And we were also at a time in which, as you
from behind podium.] recall, the great wondrous achievements of sci-
ence that had helped us win World War II had
GIBBONS I don’t know if the television can led us to a notion of science as a great cornuco-
get that in the picture or not. And I’m delighted pia for our future. And then we had a disillu-
… sioning time that preceded Sputnik—but about
SEIGENTHALER It’s a message tie, Jack. the same time as Rachel Carson’s Silent
Spring—of atmospheric testing of nuclear
GIBBONS It’s wonderful. I’d love to steal it weapons and other things that put a tarnish on
from you. this notion of how generally science contributes
Your question is cogent, as usual. to our lives.
It seems to me that the shock wave of Sput- So I think there were a number of things that
nik was a classic example of what Adlai were happening then, and Sputnik was one of
Stevenson III once said. He said that one charac- the more gripping events that laid the way for
teristic of Americans is that we never see the the future.
handwriting on the wall until our back is up

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
And since that time, we’ve come from the was saying.
notion of the support of science for national de- But I’ve thought about it since. It occurs to
fense reasons to the support of science to enable me that what happened was almost a shotgun
a great array of capabilities for our future secu- marriage of convenience. Journalists who knew
rity and that of our children and our grandchil- nothing were thrown together with scientists
dren. who knew everything, and the public interest
At the same time, if you think about that dy- was only going to be served through a mutual
namic in science, there was a big dynamic in relationship.
journalism. That is, the reporting—We’ve gone And that honeymoon that grew out of that
from typewriters to laptops. We’ve gone from shotgun marriage went on, I think, for a couple
radios to real-time, live, worldwide news net- of decades. As long as our dominance was not
works, and the world has just shrunk to fit our assured, it seems to me, Susan, that we were
living room in very, very real terms. concerned and journalists made a commitment
So it’s been an extraordinary time, and Sput- to science.
nik, I think, is a good choice as one of those Many organizations have given up that com-
kinds of events that bring us up sharp and help mitment. U.S. News has not, and you are there.
us focus our mind on the future. What’s your take on the relationship as it has
I’d say the bottom line is that—It’s a little bit evolved?
143
like Ben Franklin said. He said that we must
hang together or we’ll surely hang separately. I SHANNON BROWNLEE I think that one of
think science and journalism have that same the things that Sputnik did is that it provided
kind of relationship—an enormous interdepen- journalists with a really great story.
dence and an enormous charge, as it were, to There’s a reason that
use both of these extraordinary institutions to the things that we pro-
help the American people fulfill what James duce and put on pages
Madison said to us. are called stories—not
He said, if we want to be our own governors, because they’re fiction,
we must equip ourselves with the power that because they’re filled
knowledge gives us. And if we intend to remain with a lot of facts. But
a democracy, science—which is so increasingly they’re packaged in the
pervasive now—and journalism—which is the form of stories, and
translator, the teacher of science—must act to- stories thrive on con-
gether to help people retain access to power, flict. They like horse
which in turn will give access to knowledge, races, and what Sput-
which in turn gives them the power to be their nik did was, it pro-
own governors. vided this wonderful Brownlee
sort of conflict and it was larger than a conflict
SEIGENTHALER You know, I remember the between two countries. It was the conflict be-
trip that outgoing Secretary Wilson made to tween good and evil.
Huntsville. At that time Huntsville, Ala., was in So for journalists, I think, to sort of be
the circulation area where I was a working as a aligned or to write about the people that were
reporter in Nashville, and I was sent down to on the side of good in America was probably
cover that meeting as an experienced general as- very exciting. I think, as you say, there was an al-
signment reporter who had absolutely no back- liance. There was a very strong relationship, but
ground in science. to my mind to a certain degree it was a bit of an
Because von Braun was an excellent commu- unholy alliance, because I think science journal-
nicator, it was very easy for those of us who ists forgot their other job.
were there to get the drift and sense of what he

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
One of their jobs is conveying information scribed the defense environment, the national-
and their other job is to shine light into dark security environment. I just want to remind you
corners. And in this 40 years since Sputnik, sci- that when Sputnik went up, hundreds of thou-
ence has gone from a cottage industry to a big sands of people were either dying or being
bureaucracy, a $70 billion bureaucracy, with lots scarred by smallpox, that three years before,
of really great work and a certain amount of Salk had introduced the vaccine, but elimination
corruption, a lot of waste. I mean, it’s just like of polio really didn’t become feasible until
any other large unwieldy industry. Sabin’s vaccine, which was three years later.
And what science journalists forgot in that I was a college un-
time was that they should be scrutinizing the en- dergraduate at
tire endeavor, as well as conveying the informa- Harvard the year be-
tion. fore and took a semi-
I think some of that has changed. The first nar from a tall, gangly
sign was a story that, whether or not you agree fellow named Jim
with it, was an important sort of landmark, was Watson, who was tell-
an investigative piece by a man named John ing us about this
Crewdson of the Chicago Tribune, and he inves- double-helix stuff. And
tigated Robert Galileo. Now, it turned out that a he told us—and we all
144
great deal of what he said was wrong-headed agreed—that probably
but it was a flag for a lot of journalists that they by the end of the de-
needed to look at scientists just the way they cade, we’d begin to un-
looked at politicians, just the way they looked at derstand, and by the Shine
the Department of Agriculture, in the way that end of the century, we’d fully understand the ge-
they looked at lots of different kinds of public netic code.
servants. And the notion that we would have at that
So I think the relationship has changed, but I time predicted the human genome project or
think to a large degree science journalists are still the biotechnology industry, and so forth, I
doing an awful lot of cheerleading and that is think, was out of our mind at that time.
not necessarily the only role that we should be So I think it’s important to recognize that
playing. Sputnik occurred just at the very beginning of
an extraordinary explosion of knowledge and
SEIGENTHALER Let me ask Dr. Shine—It understanding in the biological sciences that has
seems to me that a case can be made today that been going on ever since.
the health of the nation is as important to the The interesting thing is, the public interest in
people of the country because it’s a life-or-death all of this remains very high. I mean, after all,
question, first of all, and beyond that, because it the $70 billion federal R&D budget is $30 billion
touches very deeply on funding and much of it of D and only about $40-$42 billion of re-
tax funding. search—of real research. … The rest of it’s de-
I don’t have a sense—and I’d like your reac- velopment, and of that $43 billion, a third is
tion to this—I don’t have a sense that health-science research: $15 billion.
journalism’s commitment to medical research, So this country does make an enormous in-
health research, or coverage of trends in health, vestment in public awareness, and I think the
comes close to the commitment that we had for journalists’ commitment to health has been very
two decades, and in some ways still have, in the high.
area of space exploration. I think the defect, the problem, is that the
connection between health and science has not
KENNETH SHINE Well, it’s interesting that been so well done. That is, ER can attract an
most of the conversation up to now has de- enormous audience with regard to the emer-

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
gency room and the problems of health, but I’ve some ways, in many ways, maybe in most
often thought wouldn’t it be fantastic if science ways, since the media is responsible for com-
teachers that week had an opportunity to talk municating what has happened, the media has
about electrical conductivity, the movement of some responsibility for that.
ions in the heart, and why defibrillators work? I wonder … I know that the Museum of
That is, we’ve missed, in my view, enormous Natural History must get a high degree of inter-
opportunities outside of perhaps the genetic est … the people who flow through there com-
revolution to connect the advances and the op- municate with you. It occurs to me, that very
portunities in health to the understanding of probably reflects a higher level of interest than
science, and many people equate those two. journalists and the media are willing to ac-
Let me make one final point. With all due re- knowledge or address. What would you say to
spect to Sputnik, Wernher von Braun was abso- that?
lutely right, because most of the science required
to put a man on the moon we knew. It was ROBERT FRI It’s true, John, we struggle with
technology that was important. It was how to that issue, and …. I’m involved with an organi-
use that science. One could write the equations. zation called Science Service, which publishes sci-
A schoolboy could write the equations as to ence news, and we struggle with the issue of how
what you’d have to do in order to get something to relate science.
145
into orbit. And we blurred this margin between But let me intro-
science and technology in an extraordinary way. duce a slightly different
And the reason that this is an important ob- ... slant on this, be-
servation, in my opinion, is that from time to cause being the only
time we’ve tended to try to look at biology in the non-scientist and non-
same way. Whether you talk about war on can- journalist on the panel,
cer or war on AIDS or whatever, there’s a ten- I was desperately try-
dency to believe that there are actually equations ing to think what in the
for that, and there aren’t. We don’t have equa- world could I say to be
tions for life. We don’t have equations for how useful. And I thought,
cells actually work. you know, what is a
And although we’re coming closer, and al- great science story that
though for the first time real opportunities in people are going to be
mathematics and physics are presenting them- spending time with Fri
selves, I think that when we get into this busi- over the next month or two?
ness of Manhattan Projects and health, or And it’s going to occur on Monday. The
moon projects and health, we forget that we still president is going to hold a teach-in about the
don’t understand a lot of the science and that climate change. That’s the biggest science story
many of the advances— including the ones that that’s going to take place anytime soon.
I’ve made reference to—were results of good, And going to your point, John, he says in his
basic science research not predicated on any letter of invitation: “The goal of this conference is
preconceived understanding of what the science to help improve understanding of climate change
was that was going to be necessary to improve among all aspects of American society.”
health. So here you have a case where understanding
of science is not so much understanding of the
SEIGENTHALER Let me ask Bob: Much of content or the substance of science and its role
what Rick Chappell and Jim Hartz have found in economic competitiveness or in international
suggests that there is a void of knowledge bragging rights, but rather science as a basis for
among the citizenry of the country, the voters personal decision: “Now, should I pay more for
and taxpayers, a void of knowledge, and in gasoline so that we have less carbon dioxide

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
spewed into the atmosphere so that the tem- Hartz and Chappell find, on one hand, sci-
perature won’t go up?” entists really are nervous about communicating
Now, communicating that story creates a with the media. Nervous, I take it, about com-
kind of a problem, it seems to me, for journal- municating with the public. On the other hand,
ism, because it’s a story about the process of sci- they find the journalists have a lot to learn
ence, not about the content of science. about how to communicate these complex
And I just had a chance to look very quickly at questions in a way that makes news and is un-
some of the polling results in the study, but I no- derstandable.
ticed most places journalists and scientists tended How do you react to that?
to agree, given a certain set of statements about
things. But one they disagreed pretty substantially LEE Well, I have a lot of reactions to it. I think
on was: “Do journalists understand the process of that one basic trap we all fall into is, we feel like
science?” And the journalists said, “Of course, we we’re all limited in what we’re capable of doing.
do,” or at least half of them did, and the scientists I have seven sons, for those of you who are
said, “Of course, they don’t.” interested, and I sometimes conduct a mini-fo-
But it is really important because, for ex- rum in my house before I come to one of these
ample, [Shannon], it’s not a question of conflict. things. And my 11-year-old said to me as I was
I mean, truth does not lie someplace between heading out the door, “Why is it important that
146
what two scientists say. There are not two sides science and the media be in tune with one an-
to the scientific story, so you can’t approach it in other?”
just exactly the same way.
So let me just throw out the notion that, in SEIGENTHALER He should be the modera-
addition to these other subjects, which are terri- tor here today.
bly important, there’s a kind of new dimension
to what public needs to understand about sci- LEE And no one’s even addressed that ques-
ence and the challenge for journalism that we tion yet, and I think the one-line answer is: Be-
might want to spend some time with. cause lacking understanding of science in the
21st century in a democratic nation is a pre-
SEIGENTHALER It strikes me, as I prepare to scription for disaster. And it’s that blunt, and we
ask Gentry Lee a question, that members of the have to do something about it.
panel probably—since I have noted them nod- So if you don’t mind, what I’m going to do
ding and shaking their heads yes and no and is, I’m going to deal with what I think are the
taking notes—that there might be something three biggest problems and give you three quick
you’d like to say to interact, and the more con- solutions …
versational this discussion is, the better the
moderator will like it. But before I ask you all to SEIGENTHALER Have at it.
answer …
LEE … and then we’ll go from there.
GENTRY LEE Wait ’til I get done. There’ll be a The three biggest problems in understanding
few questions. science and technology … And I want to make
sure that difference is made: Science, to me, is
SEIGENTHALER I don’t know anybody alive the process of gathering the knowledge, and
who has done more to popularize science and technology is the process of taking that knowl-
to make it understandable to and through the edge and diffusing it into the society.
mass media than you have, to make it under- So here are the three biggest problems:
standable to the public, to make it fun for
young people and old people.

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
No. 1 — With all due deference to David who graduates from high school on what is sci-
Perlman and other people whom I know, most ence all about, and what are the major planks in
reporters don’t know beans about science, OK? what science is contributing to society.
No. 2 — Most scientists are terrible commu-
nicators. SEIGENTHALER Is that … Susan.
No. 3 — There’s a high degree of scientific il- BROWNLEE Could I comment?
literacy, ranging from 80 to 90 percent, depend- SEIGENTHALER Shannon. Sorry.
ing on your point of view, in the general public.
If you don’t solve BROWNLEE It’s true that scientists can’t com-
all three of those prob- municate, and an awful lot of reporters don’t
lems, you won’t solve know science, but I think really the biggest point
the issue that this con- is that the public doesn’t understand science,
ference is set up to deal doesn’t like science. Kids don’t like science, and
with. Solving the first this is really a tragedy because every child comes
two is a little bit like into the world a natural scientist.
patting each other on
the back. If you leave LEE Absolutely.
the public scientifically
147
illiterate, you won’t BROWNLEE And so it can’t start at high
have made any school. It’s got to be in elementary school, and
progress whatsoever. we’ve got to make efforts to get teachers who
So what do you do Lee are really turned on by the process of learning
to deal with these how the world works.
things? No. 1, you make the educational process It’s really got to start early. It’s not my job to
of scientists have a stiff board in it that requires be the only teacher of science. I think this is
that they learn to communicate. something that science assumes: that I am the
I told a leading Southwestern institution that conduit to the public. I’m supposed to be the
all defenses of masters and doctorate degrees in purveyor of their fascinating information.
science and engineering should be conducted in Well, I love science. I have been asked to be a
front of a lay audience, and they should decide reporter in any number of areas and I always
whether or not the person gets the degree. How refuse. Because I don’t want to report about
do you how think that those people responded? politics. I don’t want to report about anything
No. 2, you make sure that communications but science, because it’s exciting to me. But it’s
departments around the country and the uni- not my job to be the only teacher of science.
versities have a decent science minor or an So we’ve got to do something.
equivalent science major. Not just something
that’s puffy, but something that is really where LEE I completely agree with you. I should have
the scientists themselves interact with the com- said something about the elementary schools,
munication schools, so that we don’t have 10 or but see that requires an overhaul of the way
12 or 16 people who understand science jour- teaching is done, because the people who can
nalism, but a whole lot more. teach science and, you know, give it the sense of
And No. 3, and most importantly, we have excitement and wonder that those of us who do
got to make sure the educational system is over- it feel, are not working in education.
hauled. Not slightly changed, but overhauled to And the educational system has a barrier
make literacy include knowledge not necessarily that excludes people like you and me from going
of the “hows” of science but of the “whats” of sci- into the classroom and teaching the kids about
ence. And that should be done in terms of at least science.
a one-year course taken by every single person

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
SEIGENTHALER Shannon, would you ac- go, is very exciting. The movement in high
knowledge that you are rare among journalists school is not, and I think that’s where a good
you know? That your commitment to science deal of the attention has to go.
coverage is not shared by many working re- The other point I want to make is that …
porters and editors? this goes back to the comments about the White
House conference on climate change.
BROWNLEE Editors, for the most part, and One of the … some of the fundamental is-
political reporters and the majority of journal- sues that the public clearly doesn’t understand
ists see science as a backwater. They see it as an which are critical to both policy and science are,
amusement and not as an integral part of one, the concept of risk and secondly, the notion
what’s going on in our society. that scientists, particularly as individuals, rarely
know the truth: that science is, in fact, about dif-
SEIGENTHALER And, of course, if they were ferent results and different studies creating a
educated from elementary school through high body of knowledge over time.
school through college—not necessarily to have And the press tends to pick up a particular
a bachelor of science, as you do, or a masters in report as if it’s the answer to cholesterol in the
marine sciences, as you do—it would go a long diet or some other activity, and then when an-
way, I suppose. other report comes out that’s slightly different,
148
I saw …Doctor. the public seems to be very confused.
So I would suggest that among the themes in
SHINE I wanted to comment about this public terms of your science literacy is the whole no-
understanding for a moment. tion that any given report is only part of the de-
Bruce Alberts, who’s the president of the Na- velopment of science and how the public per-
tional Academy of Sciences, will probably say ceives that and the way the press treats it.
more about this this afternoon, because the Na- I mean, right now we’ve got the gene of the
tional Research Council and the academies and week. Every time you pick up the paper another
the institutes are very interested in this whole gene’s been … Sooner or later the public’s going
area. to say, well, what is … how come nothing’s hap-
But I will just make two points: One: in fact, I pened?
think, Gentry, the problem is not in the elemen- We’ve got innumerable genes identified.
tary schools. The elementary schools are mov- We’re 10 or 15 years away from any really sig-
ing, in many parts of the country, effectively to nificant gene therapy, but in fact what’s going to
help kids with inquiry-based learning. happen is the public is going to eventually say,
I think the problem is in high school, and I “Why are you doing this? Why do you come up
think it’s based on the notion that individuals with another gene?”
have to prepare for college and SATs and similar So I think these are issues that the press in
kinds of exams on the basis of an approach to collaboration with science can do a hell of a lot
science which is not how science is done, and is to put into perspective so the expectations are
not discovery, but it’s just memorizing a bunch not unrealistic, and so people can understand,
of facts. when issues like mammography come along,
And the American public has a big responsi- why there’s a controversy about age 40 to 50 as
bility—as well as higher education—because opposed to believing there’s a simple answer or
most parents want their kids to score high on that we know the truth and all we’ve got to do is
those tests. As long as universities have tests apply it.
which test that way, that’s the way the high
school’s going to function. SEIGENTHALER Twice now the White House
And I submit to you that the movement in K conference has come up and Dr. Gibbons
through 8, although there’s still a long way to needed time to … you mentioned … I just

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
wanted to give you an opportunity to say early enough to forestall it in a very positive and
something about it now, since you probably productive way?
know more about it than any of us here. That’s the reason for the Monday confer-
ence. That’s the reason for a White House con-
GIBBONS John, the president since he came ference two days ago with meteorologists and
to office was bound and determined to try to weather forecasters.
get our deficit down as a legacy for our next It’s to try to get the facts as we know them
generation instead of borrowing from them. out on the table, so that the American people
And the other thing he’s been trying to do is to have a better chance to understand what we do
think about the challenges of the next century know and what the implications are.
and what we ought to be doing again to invest
so that we have the option to live our full lives in FRI Let me just pick up on one of Jack’s points.
a free society. He said, “Get the facts as we know them out on
Now, if you think about the challenges in the the table.”
21st century, again more and more of the chal- Now, the question is: How do scientists
lenges and the opportunities come back to sci- know what facts are?
ence and technology. And one of the greatest And, I would submit, that’s a hard question.
challenges is the now very—to me—very clear
149
and rapidly clarifying issue of what people are GIBBONS That’s just the very process of sci-
doing in their daily lives, in their personal, their ence.
industrial lives, in affecting the composition of
our atmosphere around the entire planet, and FRI Yeah. I mean, to sort of over …
what the indications are of that activity—mostly
the burning of fossil fuels. SEIGENTHALER Many people, Bob, put the
And the president has looked hard at this. same question to journalists: How do journal-
This vice president looked even harder, because ists know what facts are?
he took a course under Roger Revelle many
years ago that got him really interested in sci- FRI This is true. But consider that science is a
ence, and the numbers are there. process, a phenomenon vastly oversimplified. A
And I think as Bob Fri maybe pointed out, phenomenon is observed, hypotheses are cre-
it’s a real challenge to us all—to the science com- ated about what causes that phenomenon, and
munity, to the journalism community and, in scientists go to work to try and disprove enough
fact, to our whole society—to think about what of them so that they have a pretty good idea
this evidence says for us in terms of our choices. what the correct answer is. Well, at that point in
And what the evidence says is that we are time, there are lots of very reputable scientists
now able to discern a course of events that is around with completely different ideas about
not so much clear in our daily lives, but right what’s going on.
out there or right in front of us. It’s sort of like And so here comes the press. You can pick
the lights of a car where the car is yet to come any story you want from a perfectly reputable
over the top of the hill. scientist, because that’s the way the process of
And are we ready to accept this information science works. And unless we all understand
and look carefully at what it says about our fu- that and interpret it correctly, you know, people
ture and then take actions based on that? are going to have a hard time figuring what the
Albert Schweitzer, before he died, said that he facts are, as scientists know them.
felt that mankind had lost its—our—ability to
foresee and therefore to forestall. I’m afraid GIBBONS And to separate facts from opin-
that’s the situation we’re in now. Are we able to ions. I think Sen. Pat Moynihan once said that
foresee what’s happening to us and take action we can each have our own opinions, but we

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
can’t each have our own facts. I think it’s sorting think about what their research really means and
out that business that is before us. where it is in the context of the larger question.
The whole process of science is that of
propositioning, measuring, weighing the evi- GIBBONS And scientists naturally will put a
dence, asking questions, challenging the re- caveat on almost everything they say.
sults—trying it a different way. BROWNLEE Yeah. So we never listen
It’s inherently one in which you have people to it, so …
almost trying to disprove … trying to test these
ideas. And ultimately out of that is winnowed a GIBBONS So when the results of a broad
consensus like, let’s say, Newton’s laws for non- consensus come out with a range of numbers,
quantum mechanical systems. let’s say it’s on when we’re going to have a rise of
No one challenged—well, not very many sea level—that range of uncertainty is taken as a
people challenged—that. I’m sure there are weakness rather than as …
some flat-earth people around somewhere. But
I think it’s important for us in the science com- BROWNLEE That’s right.
munity and in the journalism community to in-
deed understand the process of science and GIBBONS … a concession …
make sure that all of us understand that it in-
150
herently contains conflict of the most produc- BROWNLEE That’s right.
tive sort.
The concern you have is when that conflict is GIBBONS … of the area of consensus.
misinterpreted or misused as it is more and
more frequently these days. And that’s our BROWNLEE And this is how different groups
problem. then are able to use that, those caveats, to make
a wedge in the validity of the information so a
SEIGENTHALER Shannon. particular industry may come along and say,
“Well, these guys can’t agree, therefore it’s not
BROWNLEE I’d like to respond to that. really necessarily going to happen. Why should
One of the problems with the reporting on we jeopardize American industry and American
global warming has been that journalists have wealth for something that’s such a great uncer-
sort of reported one side and then the other tainty?”
side. This is a very typical sort of journalistic
tool to get a story across where there’s a lot of GIBBONS But let me also follow up just for a
conflict of opinion. second on that.
And one of the failures has been that scien- I was appalled when the Mir Space Station
tists have tended to report their findings and was having problems, when its central com-
their position, but they haven’t put it into the puter went out and it was no longer able to lock
larger context of what the conflict really means. onto the sun. It was described in much of the
And so one of the messages that has been press as—and responsible press, I hate to say, if
missed in global warming, for example, is that I remember right—as an instrument that was
there is fairly broad consensus that something is spinning wildly out of control.
happening; it is probably global warming, but Now, what does that …what kind of image
the magnitude and the timing of it are what is does that give you?
largely in question if I’m interpreting things cor-
rectly. BROWNLEE It’s on its way to Mars.
And scientists very rarely step outside their
own laboratory and their own way of thinking GIBBONS When the facts were that its maxi-
about a particular problem to rise above it and mum rotation rate during this time was a revo-

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
lution every six minutes. police reporter, I should have dug that out, had
Now, a revolution every six minutes, to me, is it occurred on my beat.
not spinning wildly out of control. It’s this kind It’s that sort of thing. I mean, if you read
of sensationalism that can be extremely counter- Hartz and Chappell, they find that many, many
productive in getting the real messages across. scientists trust journalists. They have great
doubts about what they’re doing, and they lack
SEIGENTHALER Well, you know … confidence in many ways in what they’re doing,
but it’s not their ability to get onto the story and
GIBBONS It’s a story, but it’s not representing to dig out the story that they doubt. Large
the truth. numbers of them say they’re [journalists are]
qualified.
SEIGENTHALER So often it is the sensa- But my question is: Isn’t there almost an ob-
tional, as we all know, that attracts the media’s ligation for us to look more closely, because
attention. who knows how many other errors there have
Before I left the hotel this morning, I saw been in how many other journals?
Matt Lauer on the Today show, talking about
the so-called SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syn- BROWNLEE Sure. But you’d need a lot more
drome] story which now is in the news. It’s a science journalists to be able to cover the water-
151
very hot topic. front.
I guess 20 years ago, Pediatrics Journal pub- I mean, I am overwhelmed with the amount
lished an article that identified SIDS. And now, of information that I have to cover, and I’m one
after all this time, the editor of that journal says, of about eight or nine science journalists at U.S.
“We made a tragic mistake and some of these News, which is a very large proportion of the
cases—perhaps not many of them, but some of staff. It’s almost equal to the political reporters,
them—clearly were murder.” and I’m still absolutely overwhelmed with in-
He acknowledges this on the part of science. formation.
But my question as a journalist is: Where were If we were really going to, you know, catch ev-
we during these 20 years that we’ve been telling ery little flaw there would have to be a lot more of
people what those scientists told us was correct? us. So I don’t think we can really expect that, but
Shannon, if we were more involved—I say we certainly can try harder to be the skeptical in-
“we,” generically speaking of journalists every- quirers that we’re supposed to be.
where—if we were more involved in meticulous
coverage of science—I mean, if you read jour- SEIGENTHALER Gentry.
nals, you really can’t understand much of what’s
in them—but would society be better off if we LEE That goes back to one of the planks I was
were onto that story more in terms of investi- talking about earlier: about having a broader
gating, challenging, questioning? sense that the journalism curriculum or the
communications curriculum should contain a
BROWNLEE Yes, I think we would be. In that major portion of science and develop people
particular case, it would have been a very diffi- who are going to be science reporters.
cult one to really track down. It took a lot of I want to jump in on a couple of phrases
people a long time to come to that conclusion. here. One is this “global warming” thing.
I also suspect that, because of the ignorance
SEIGENTHALER Let me give you a set of cir- about science, there’s a major management of
cumstances and ask the panel to react to it, too. the facts, knowing that both the reporters and
One woman, according to the report I heard the public will not know the right questions to
this morning, had multiple deaths of children in ask. Let me just pick one that has irritated me
the family identified as SIDS. I think, as a good about global warming, since it comes up.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
The maximum deviations in the climate due It seems to me that in science there is a pro-
to the changes that human beings are putting in cess by which scientists are supposed to be look-
are small compared to the regular, secular varia- ing for those kinds of anomalies. I mean, there
tions over a long period of time, and no one are supposed to be scientists out there who
understands those, and so no one knows how don’t agree that everybody else has it right.
they interact. If you understand that process, you might
And I don’t see this in any of the stories that be able to find a lot of helpers. But—and this
come up. I don’t see it coming out of the White may go back to Gentry’s point—it kind of de-
House. I don’t see anybody acknowledging this pends on how perhaps the journalism
very simple fact, which is something that dis- schools—and I don’t know how they do it, be-
turbs me. cause I’ve never been in one—teach the coverage
When information starts being managed … of science.
I’m a systems engineer. I will tell you that Mir But there are probably some differences be-
is dying, OK? It’s not going to survive a whole tween how you cover science or the process of
lot longer, no matter what anybody does to it. science and how you might cover something
I’ve designed spacecraft all my life. I know the else. Certainly, in terms of breaking news, it’s
signs of something in deep trouble. not just what do two scientists with opposing
Now you can patch it for political reasons. views think. The truth is probably something
152
You can say you need to keep going up there for that brackets the truth. I mean, they’re probably
one reason or another, but sooner or later both wrong.
somebody’s going to have to pull the plug, and But if you can approach it as putting scien-
no one wants to stand up and say that sort of tists to work to help you find these anomalies,
thing because it’s not “politically acceptable.” maybe you can make some serious progress.

GIBBONS Well, that’s wrong because it’s al- SEIGENTHALER Let me just follow up on
ready …You know that the entire plan on that is that by reading an excerpt from a recent column
that [Mir is] to be walked away from in less by Dave Barry, who is a syndicated columnist
than a year. for The Miami Herald.
And I don’t know how many of you …
LEE OK. I myself would not want to go up
and be on something that was going to be LEE And a well-known science journalist.
walked away from in less than a year.
Now, if I’m allowed to say that, fine. If I’m SEIGENTHALER Yes. He says … and I’m not
not, too bad. That’s the way I feel about it. going to read the whole column, but there are
several paragraphs that seem to me pertinent.
SEIGENTHALER I think, according to the Although Barry is well-known to be a journalist
First Amendment Center, you’d be allowed to in this country whose tongue is constantly in his
say it, Gentry. unscientific cheek, he says:
Bob, can you as a lay observer react to the “We have an old saying in journalism: If you
proposition I put to Shannon a moment ago: don’t understand something, it must be impor-
that there may be more out there that we need tant. This is why we media people get so excited
to know about, that society needs to know about science in our scientific education.
about, indeed that science may need to know “We got as far as the part in biology class
about, that journalism—if it put it under the where they gave us a razor and a dead frog and
microscope—could find out and communicate? they told us to find the pancreas. Right then we
started thinking about two words, and those
FRI Well, I suppose the answer is yes. Let me words were ‘English major.’
respond to the question this way, John.

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
“So we quit studying science, which is why they’re problem-solving and it’s OK to make a
we do not begin to understand—to pick one of hypothesis and to make a mistake, that’s excit-
many examples—how electricity works. ing. And there’s a lot of that going on that
“We believe that electricity exists because the nobody’s paying any attention to. And I think if
electric company keeps sending us bills for it, Dave Barry went to one of those courses, he
but we cannot figure how it travels inside wires. might even find out something about how elec-
“We have looked long and hard at wires. tricity works.
Some of us have tried blowing into them, and I would also want to emphasize that scien-
we cannot begin to figure out how the electrons tists themselves clearly have been very reluctant
or amperes or whatever managed to squeeze to accept the notion about scientific misconduct,
through there to get into the TV set or how, about the notion that things can be done
once inside, they managed to form themselves wrong, and so forth.
into complex, discernible images such as the Many of us have been very clear that exam-
Pillsbury Doughboy.” ining aberrations, examining misconduct, find-
He says, “We in the media are especially im- ing … being responsive to critiques about stud-
pressed with space. We cannot comprehend ies which don’t seem to hang together, is an
how anybody could get a rocket to land on an- important thing for science to do. I believe that
other planet. Many of us cannot consistently in the last five to eight years the training pro-
153
parallel park. grams for scientists, the attitudes of institutions
“This is why we get so excited about the re- toward looking at potential problems, have im-
cent Pathfinder mission, which day after day re- proved dramatically.
sulted in exciting front-page headlines like: ‘Rock And I submit that in the situation in which
Found on Mars’ and ‘Another Rock Found on there was a strong potential genetic predisposi-
Mars’ and ‘Mars Apparently Covered with tion to SIDS, it would have been a hell of a diffi-
Rocks.’ cult problem for a science writer to necessarily
“We in the media believe that Mars rocks are find out what was going on in those SIDS cases.
important because scientists tell us so. We will But that’s the nature of progress in science as
cheerfully print without question pretty much well as in society. You keep your eyes and ears
anything scientists tell us.” open. And I would just want to emphasize to
Well, that sort of makes the point, I think, you—you said it in passing— I’ve dealt with
that Hartz and Chappell spent a year making. SIDS families, and I’m quite convinced that al-
Maybe we should have called Dave Barry be- though there may have been some individual
fore we began. examples of murder, if you will, that those are
But you know, we laugh about it, but in fact very uncommon. I think that the publicity
it’s not really funny. about all of this stuff is going to cause another
Doctor. whole ripple effect.
I’ve seen what a SIDS death does to a family,
SHINE It would be very interesting if, at the and it’s a devastating event. And I just hope that
same time [they] were featuring some of the this hoopla about what is almost certainly a
rocks on Mars, the media [were] spending very small proportion of those cases does not
some time on the way elementary-school teach- continue to wreck more and more families
ers are teaching electricity using mystery boxes, where SIDS death occurs.
where they give kids in groups a box which has
some combination of batteries, bulbs and wires SEIGENTHALER Well, I should say, having
in it and have them figure out what’s in the box. raised the question of what was on that pro-
And when you watch how kids can learn, gram this morning, that the Today show did put
how they can teach each other, how the back- on a very eloquent and articulate spokesperson
ground that they bring disappears because for the SIDS Foundation …

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
SHINE Good. the, say, USA TODAY format. It’s getting down
to smaller and smaller bites. I think seven sec-
SEIGENTHALER … who spelled it out, in onds on television is a significant …
terms not quite as forceful but very understand-
ably, for those who are interested. Anyone who SEIGENTHALER Sound bite.
saw that program couldn’t come away without
two conclusions: One, there is a problem GIBBONS And to put thoughtful information
among a small number of cases, and the police into that kind of compressed condition is an ex-
need to investigate these. traordinary challenge and rife, therefore, with
And she said, “What we need is more investi- chances not to make it or to mislead. But I
gation on multiple deaths, but look very closely wonder if the. …What is driving us toward this
at every death.” extraordinary foreshortening of time to be able
And I take it that the media, now being onto to tell a story?
this, will be questioning—would you not say,
Shannon?—more and more cases that are iden- BROWNLEE Markets. This is a business.
tified as SIDS. Journalism is not just about purveying infor-
mation. It’s about selling newspapers; it’s about
BROWNLEE I think there will be a small selling advertising time on television; it’s about
154
flurry. I think there’ll be a time when people selling magazines. And the market is telling us
start making a big deal out of SIDS and then that people don’t have very long attention
we’ll move on to something else. spans.
You know, our world changes so fast that we
don’t have time to stick to one thing for very GIBBONS Like five seconds?
long. And, you know, maybe that’s part of the
problem: that you don’t stick with a story very BROWNLEE Well, I …You know, I can’t say
long and so when stories are very complex you why television has done this. You should prob-
don’t really get the full flavor of it. ably talk to some TV journalists and to TV
The thing to come away with, I think, from marketers and executives. They’re the ones who
this whole SIDS flap is that science is a human make those kinds of decisions.
endeavor, and part of the problem with this But in a sense we are assuming that our au-
particular case was that it was taking the word dience has a very short attention span and isn’t
of individual scientists—it was actually indi- very bright. And I think it’s a real disservice to
vidual doctors—as gospel. the public, but maybe it’s correct. I don’t know.
We do this. We set people up in hierarchies,
and we think that people who are at the top of SEIGENTHALER I should say that were Tom
the hierarchies—who are the Harvard doctors Curley here—and he was here last week. He’s
or the very high-prestige people—must know the publisher of USA TODAY.
the truth. And that’s the thing that all scientists He said last week that USA TODAY acknowl-
have to question and all journalists have to edges that there are stories that need depth and
question. that he is making every effort to provide more
It doesn’t matter if you’re the big cheese. You depth to some stories.
might be wrong. On the other hand, I think he would be
first—the second—to say what Shannon said,
SEIGENTHALER Jack. and that is that 15 years ago when USA TODAY
was created, we were beginning to get onto the
GIBBONS I’m just reflecting, Shannon, on the idea many daily newspaper readers of a decade
fact that the time to present an idea, especially in before—indeed many women newspaper read-
television, now has gotten so short even with ers who spent their time in the home—were

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
forced into the marketplace, or wanted to go We need people to be skeptical, to do the
into the marketplace, and that everybody had work like scientists do and think like scientists
less time to read or to watch. And certainly do.
that’s another way of saying market-driven.
I want to invite our audience to enter into SEIGENTHALER Jack, do you want to react
this with their questions and comments. to that?
If you raise your hand I’ll identify you and
there is a hand mike. GIBBONS Yeah. I’d like to respond, and
If you would identify yourself and then ad- maybe Steve Schneider, who’s a global expert in
dress your question or comment to the panel. this business.
This is a good example, I think, of a problem
BOB HERSHEY OK. My name is Bob Hershey. we have together: namely, apparently the people
I’m a consulting engineer. I also do an occasional in the global climate-change science community
column in The Washington Post in the Horizon and you have not gotten together. Because what
Section, which is called “How to Think,” so I am you have just reported on is just plain wrong,
on both sides of the fence on this. and you need to get together. I would hope that
I would note that the main job of journalists you and Steve could talk before we get out of
conveying science is to instill this skeptical in- this room.
155
quiry that Shannon had mentioned: getting
people so that they question things, so that they HERSHEY The data I’m talking about is
want to establish the cause and effect in their NASA data.
own minds by their own logic and so that they
want to do the math themselves and find what GIBBONS NASA data is upper-atmosphere
the numbers are. data. It is not Earth’s data. I’m sorry.
And I particularly like Gentry Lee’s comment
that the numbers on the global climate-change HERSHEY It was presented at the Science
controversy do not support the conclusion that Committee hearings, and there is considerable
there’s a manmade phenomenon, especially controversy within the scientific community of
looking at the space data showing slight de- whether there is a manmade effect, and if there
crease in temperature. is one, how big it is.
And I think we have to get people —
SHINE John, I want to get into this.
GIBBONS That’s false. Sorry.
SEIGENTHALER Sure. Everybody, I think,
HERSHEY … so that they … wants into this.
Jack, you, then Dr. Shine, then Gentry, and
GIBBONS You better read the literature better. then Bob. I think that’s the order in which you
raised your hand.
LEE That’s not what I said, either. Jack, did you want to continue or …

GIBBONS That’s not what Gentry said. GIBBONS Well, I think we probably shouldn’t
spend too much time on this, but it is a good
HERSHEY The data speaks for itself, and I example of where a piece of information, tech-
think people have to look at the data, and that’s nical information, has been misinterpreted and
what we ought to be instilling in them: to do the not fully clarified.
work, get the data firsthand and not try and just There’s always a controversy, and the very
get a story based on a few seconds of casual ob- heart of science is to challenge and to answer.
servation and then a call to action. That incident, that observation you’ve talked

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
about, as I understand it, has been fully resolved derstand what science is about.
with the community in terms of why there And I’m not suggesting that journalists have
seems to be a difference between upper-atmo- a responsibility as educators. I’ve learned from
sphere temperature sensing and ground-tem- talking to journalists that that’s not the business
perature sensing. they’re in, but I think it is the business of bring-
But you need to look into it and get the facts ing perspective. And I wonder whether there
straight or else you’re going to lead people off in isn’t some room for doing a better job in terms
the wrong direction, honestly. of looking at all parts of the elephant.

HERSHEY I think that is examined, and the SEIGENTHALER Gentry.
models do not include this gradient between
higher temperatures on the ground and lower LEE Yeah. Let me just do two things. First with
temperatures higher up, and that is an area that Steven here, I’ve got to make sure that I’m not
needs more science. misquoted. My statement was that natural
causes have caused greater variations than the
SHINE John, with regard to the issue of skep- ones that people are talking about with global
ticism about science: as one who was educated warming.
at Harvard but spent 25 years at UCLA, I can But I want to pick up on …
156
tell you that neither faculty, neither scientists, ac-
cept what the others say is truth. And, as a mat- SEIGENTHALER You’re on C-SPAN, so you
ter of fact, the higher the level of the academic have a record.
institutions involved, the greater the skepticism,
very often. LEE OK. Good. Now, I want to pick up on
So I’m not too worried about people accept- this issue of science not having the whole story.
ing pronouncements as being absolute truth. On Viking, we ran a democracy [as] some of
But what I am concerned about is that, in the you may remember. After we landed on the sur-
skeptical reporting of science, the media not so face, we allowed any scientist to talk to any re-
thoroughly confuse the public that they can’t porter. David certainly remembers that. So one
figure out what the hell’s going on. article in this newspaper said: “No life on Mars.”
Another article in this newspaper said there was
SEIGENTHALER Well I … life on Mars. And back and forth we went. So
someone said, “What’s going on here?” And I
SHINE And what happens is that, if one picks said, “Well, you know, it’s because we didn’t send
up a whole variety of issues which are simply the right set of instruments so that we could de-
not clear—and I’m not referring to global termine unambiguously whether or not there
warming at all; I’m talking about a whole range was life there.”
of issues that have to do with everything from Someone said, “Why don’t you hold a press
the use of antibiotics to your diet and choles- conference?” And so I decided I was going to
terol and so forth—and simply report with have one on the epistemology of the scientific
skepticism this or that, I think that furthers the method. It was canceled because no reporters
confusion in the public’s mind about what sci- were going to attend.
ence is. I think it makes it much more difficult
for them to evaluate it, and I would like to see SEIGENTHALER We have a question from
responsible journalists spending more time in the audience, but Bob, you wanted to say some-
doing pieces which put together a number of re- thing about it.
ports instead of continuing to report on a par-
ticular gene sequence or a particular report and FRI Well, I think basically I wanted to ask
presenting those in ways so the public can un- Shannon: You know, you watched this ex-

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
change. How does a journalist react to. …We
have the science adviser to the president saying SEIGENTHALER Just on the question of glo-
one thing and an engineer in the audience saying bal warming, my own … one of my great weak-
something else, and I just will remind you that nesses is that I devour as many newspapers as I
as background—because it’s related to some- can every day and listen to as much of the me-
thing you said earlier—that Lord Rutherford in dia, and I … one of my failings is that occasion-
the late 19th century, who was sort of the Jack ally [I] listen to Rush Limbaugh.
Gibbons of the time, said decisively that physics He has absolutely no doubt about the prob-
is a closed science. lem of global warming. It’s not a serious prob-
lem; it is only the sun. And if we can solve the
BROWNLEE You mean, we’d figured it all out. problem with the sun with a little cloud cover, it
would all go away.
FRI We’d all figured it out. You know, no You had a question.
quantum mechanics.
DAVID PERLMAN Yeah. I’m Dave Perlman
SEIGENTHALER Well, I suppose the conflict from the San Francisco Chronicle, and as a daily
is at least as old as Galileo, isn’t it? newspaper reporter who has been covering sci-
ence for a long time, I think a couple of things
157
FRI How did … how do you … that have been said here focus on an area of sci-
ence journalism that many reporters don’t pay
BROWNLEE If you have time, you keep dig- attention to. And that is the political implica-
ging, and you keep digging, and you talk to tions of scientific uncertainty.
more people, and you talk to more people and And here we have the global-warming con-
you hope that a few of them can get that per- troversy. We also had mention of SIDS. In both
spective to sort out why NASA has one set of of those cases, there is an enormous overtone or
measurements and the ground measurements underlay of political interest.
are different and … you know, why they don’t Now, a lot of us have covered the climate
agree, and you keep digging. change. I won’t call it global warming, because
The problem is, you’re not always given the I’m a neutral newspaperman. All we know is
time to do that. I’m often given a lot of time on that something is going on that’s changing the
a story, or—by sheer dint of having done it for climate, apparently.
a few number of years—I know how to try to And you can iden-
sort these things out, but an awful lot of jour- tify scientists—John,
nalists don’t have this time. you’ve used the word
And as far as journalists having the back- “reputable” and I’ll use
ground—I wanted to relate a little incident. it too—you can iden-
In the National Association of Science Writers tify reputable scientists
newsletter very recently, a journalist, who is in and get to know them
fact a very high-level journalist, boasted that she and get to understand
had absolutely no science background and she a political point of view
thought that made her a better science journalist. that they represent.
Everybody I know was outraged by this. Ev- And it’s very difficult
erybody—every science journalist I know—was for us as newspaper
outraged, because we in fact believe that you re- reporters to bring that
ally need to understand the material. And un- question in without Perlman
derstanding science is not like understanding sounding like propagandists, but it’s extremely
how the legislature works; it’s a lot more com- important, and it makes us investigative report-
plicated. ers.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
The easiest thing to do is to cover a story out was skeptical.
of The New England Journal of Medicine, where So now, I’m “mainstream,” because I think
at the end of the article it points out a conflict of humans are a good part of the story. But the
interest between the scientist who is representing question is, there are still aspects of that which
himself as delivering a new concept in medical are very uncertain. But when we lump them up,
science and then it says that he represents the people are confused.
vice president of—I don’t know—Boehringer- So in the process of covering skeptics—
Engleheim, if it’s an AIDS story. which is completely appropriate—if you don’t
Those things are important for journalists to tell the lay audience that this represents a cur-
remember, now: that not all science is neutral. rent minority opinion, it’s very unlikely they’ll
Much of science that goes on has either policy know that for themselves.
implications or outright political implications. And while we must all of us applaud the
Right, left, up, down, Republican, Democrat—it Galileos of the world and the Copernicuses who
doesn’t matter. come along and turn the paradigm upside
But that’s a function of science writing that has down, the truth is that most science is what we
come more and more into the foreground in the call “normal” science.
last 20 years, I would say, than it ever had before. Most science is probably going to come out
… Once upon a time, we all believed any- fairly close to the conventional wisdom. And the
158
thing that appeared in a peer-review journal. reason we remember the ones who turned it
Not necessarily anymore. [We] have to look upside down is because it’s so rare.
further. So as a result of that, while, yes, we must
cover the skeptics, we also have to let people
SEIGENTHALER Question. know … where people sit in that general bal-
ance, so that we don’t have paralysis ‘cause the
STEVE SCHNEIDER Yes. I’m Steve Schneider. average person thinks, “Gee, if those experts
I’m the Steve they were referring to earlier who don’t know, how do I know?”
was apparently going to settle the global-warm- So by exaggerating the contention that exists,
ing dispute. by forgetting to report the consensus, we there-
I won’t settle the global-warming dispute fore are miscommunicating—not just report-
here, because we’re still in dispute over details. ers, but scientists as well—miscommunicating
But I think it’s very important for us to distin- where the general spectrum of knowledge is.
guish between those aspects of not just this Now, in the global-warming issue in particu-
problem, but any kind of complex lar, we heard a debate about whether facts were
sociotechnical problem where we have a large right or facts were wrong.
consensus on a component: [i.e.,] where there’s Actually, we were both right. In a sense, it
a component we have a fairly good understand- was a question of how to interpret it. Indeed,
ing of, [although there’s] some uncertainty. the earth satellites that have been used since
[Then, there are] those components that are 1979 have shown very little trend in the average
highly speculative. The problem is that they get temperature change in the atmosphere, but this
all lumped up. … As a result, you’re going to is largely a measurement that goes from … the
find a skeptic out there—and I think it’s appro- upper atmosphere right down to the surface.
priate to cover skeptics. The top and the bottom are mixed up.
When climate change from humans first When there are clouds around, you don’t get
started and I was in this business 25 years ago, I exactly the right answer. When there’s snow
was the skeptic, because the conventional wis- around, you don’t get exactly the right answer.
dom was what Gentry Lee said: It was a natural It’s very difficult to interpret exactly what you’re
phenomenon. And we … even though we looking at, plus the satellite record only goes
weren’t sure about warming and cooling, that back to 1979, whereas the surface thermometers

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
go back over 100 to 200 years. We’ve not addressed at all another set of ma-
So the fact … that global warming has oc- jor problems that I think the media and science
curred: what that means is that the surface ther- will have to increasingly address.
mometers of the world have shown us about a First, the capacity since Sputnik, in terms of
one-degree Fahrenheit rise in a century, a cen- what we can do with technology, has gotten to
tury and a half. That’s not disputed by virtually the point where it raises a whole series of ethical
anyone knowledgeable. and economic issues that we’ve never had to
The fact that mountain glaciers have receded face before, including who do we transplant,
and sea levels have risen, that is global warming. under what circumstances, for how long?
That’s a fact. And secondly, the whole issue of information
The debate is over whether or not this is a technology and its implications for privacy, for
natural accident or whether we did it, and … I health insurance and all the things that are re-
would argue the bulk of the community thinks lated to that.
that it’s unlikely to be just natural. And even more interesting, it seems to me,
There are a few people who still adhere to than some of the current articles in The New
that. But the question is: At what probability? England Journal is that … 40 to 50 percent of the
And the probability that comes from the main- health dollars [are] spent on illnesses that are
stream is that it’s much better than even that related to behavior. All of the issues of research
159
we’re at least part of the story and that there’s a in the social and behavioral sciences, I would
discernible signal. And then the political side is, predict, will be major elements of the agenda for
who can—[Shannon] brought up risks—how the first part of the next century because, in fact,
do you want to take risks? that’s where a good deal of the next … advances
I mean, how do you weigh the risk of invest- are going to take place.
ing present resources that you could use for And I’d be very interested in people’s notion
other good things in hedging against something as to whether, in fact, scientists on the one hand
that might happen, versus do you want to leave are really prepared to deal with these kinds of is-
posterity biologically poor and having to adapt sues—ethical, social, moral issues of … cloning
to potentially dangerous climate change? That’s of humans is perhaps the most recent example
a value judgment every person’s competent to of that—and on the other hand are the media
make, if they know what that game is. prepared to deal with the potentials for ideol-
So our job is to make them understand the ogy, theology and a whole variety of other
game. And it’s so easy to get confused in the things to enter into science in a way that nobody
mistakes between the details about what satellite argued about with Sputnik?
says and what surface says. And that’s why sci- I mean, there was no Religious Right to ar-
ence is a community. That’s why we have a Na- gue about whether we should try to get a 12-
tional Research Council to try to sort this out. pound ball to go around the earth in 1958, but
That’s why there’s an intergovernmental panel there are a lot of issues now in these areas, and I
on climate change. wonder how people feel about our capacity in
It’s very difficult to do that in public fora. the media to deal with these.

SEIGENTHALER Ken Shine and then Shan- SEIGENTHALER Before I call on Shannon,
non. I’d just say one of the roundtables that Hartz
and Chappell conducted was in this room, and
SHINE Mr. Perlman, I think appropriately, … Leon Lederman, who’s here, was on that panel
raised the problem of politics and science. We’ve and raised the same question about journalists’
just been talking about some of the science poli- view of theology that you raised today, and I
tics, if you will. think it’s a legitimate one, from a scientist’s per-
spective.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
I wonder how a journalist committed to sci-
ence deals with that issue. LEE Sometimes they can’t. They need help,
and that’s why the two have to get together.
BROWNLEE With religious issues? We have a little game that we play in our
house. [At] the end of each month we try to fig-
SEIGENTHALER Yeah. With the whole ques- ure out what’s the most significant thing that
tion of … happened in this last month, from the point of
view of long-term history.
BROWNLEE As rarely as possible. In fact, I Remember, I have all these boys to raise, and
think my comment about what Steve was say- I’m trying to get them to think—not always
ing went into Ken’s comment. successfully.
You just gave an extemporaneous version of The end of last month, everybody voted for
exactly what I’m talking about is really needed Diana, and I said, “Nope. It’s not Diana’s death.
from scientists, which is the ability to put infor- I’m sorry. What really is the most important
mation into perspective, to say what that main- thing that happened that will affect every person
stream point of view is, to say where the conflict on this planet is IBM’s discovery that they can
is, and to then say what some of the implica- use copper on silicon in chips. That will revolu-
tions are of what the mainstream is concluding tionize everybody’s life five years from now.”
160
and what the implications are of where the dis- And they said, “Well, how did you figure that
agreement is in science. out?” And I said … Because it wasn’t in the
What scientists do so much is that they. … newspapers. It wasn’t in the stories they read
When they talk to me, they imagine that they are and so forth.
talking through me to their peers. They are not And that’s where …
talking to a lay audience.
And I don’t mean that they have to talk BROWNLEE It will be now.
down to me, but what they need to do is they
need to start thinking about these larger issues LEE What … And I was very disappointed,
when they talk about something. I mean, in Shannon, in the stories that I read about that
some arenas and some findings you don’t need announcement, because the reporters didn’t get
bigger issues. it. IBM would have appeared to have been self-
When I talk to Thomas Eisner, a wonderful aggrandizing if they had come forward and
scientist at Cornell who does work on insects, said, “Look, folks. This is going to mean such
it’s just a really cool finding. It’s not something and such and such.”
that has to be put into some grand perspective. So we’ve got to do it together.
So scientists themselves need to learn to talk
in those ways, and journalists need to start ask- SEIGENTHALER We’ve just heard from three
ing those larger questions and trying to get sci- journalists who are committed to coverage of
entists to think in those ways. science, and they make the point, I think, ex-
tremely well. I mean, you can’t tell the story in
LEE But they may have to do it together. This six paragraphs, as Jack says, or in a sound bite.
whole issue of perspective. … Earlier you raised It takes the time to address the issue, to deal
the issue of why don’t the scientists put things in with arguments on both sides and to come to
perspective. Sometimes they’re just not some informed conclusion about what the facts
equipped to do so. truly are. And sometimes there …
There’s a question in the back of the room.
BROWNLEE They don’t do it. They sit in their
labs …. LOU VILLADSEN Yeah. We are talking about,
you know, these grand needs … .

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
SEIGENTHALER I’m sorry. Would you iden- LEE We did that on Galileo about the prob-
tify yourself, please. ability of having radioactive plutonium scat-
tered everywhere, and apparently that got lost.
VILLADSEN I’m Lou Villadsen. I’m from It hadn’t been done for Cassini. We did it in
UCLA. I’m getting a nod from Dr. Shine. lightning units.
You’re talking about scientists and journalists
putting things into larger perspectives of politics SEIGENTHALER Leon Lederman had a
and of the larger body of science. I would make question. Here’s a microphone, doctor.
a plea, as the educated lay reader, for putting
things into context in the story. LEDERMAN I’d like to come back to your co-
Mr. Lee made a comment about the Mir gent article by Dr. Dave Barry.
spinning wildly out of control, and it’s rotating
every six minutes. SEIGENTHALER Dr. Barry of The Miami
Herald?
SEIGENTHALER He said it, but …
LEDERMAN Yes. I think we could dismiss
VILLADSEN OK. I don’t know if six minutes that. To show you what we’re up against, I just
161
is spinning wildly out of control or not, because happen to have here a similar column, but it’s
I don’t know whether the Mir’s normal rotation not by Dave Barry. It’s by the president—
is six days or six hours or six years, so I have … former president—of the University of Chicago,
Hutchins—you might remember him—who
LEE Six minutes is hardly spinning at all. We wrote … I’ll just read a few little things:
shouldn’t have mentioned it. “I do not know much about science, but I
know a lot about scientists. Though I do not
VILLADSEN But that’s the point. [Say, for in- know much about the professional politics, I
stance,] this particular information [is] about know about academic politics, and that is the
cholesterol doubling our risk of this particular worst kind.
type of cancer. What does that mean? Com- “Not only is academic politics the worst kind
pared to what? of politics, but scientists are the worst kind of
And you can put that in one line in every academic politicians.”
single story. Even The Economist—which I think He goes on from there to get a little more lu-
is one of the best weeklies—fails to put context rid, and to finish he says, “It is clear that the be-
in most of its articles. And it’s so simple, and it havior of professors is questionable at best. Sci-
would add so much to the discourse for those entists are worse than other professors, because
of us who do read, do pay attention and are they have special problems. One of these is that
trying to make sensible conclusions out of all of their productive lives often end at 35.
the information that we get. “I knew an astronomer who contributed”—
probably Dave Schramm—“to international
SHINE I’m trying to convince people to de- journals at the age of 11. Compare that with the
velop a new index, which I would call the “Light- difficulty of contributing at a similar age to an
ning Index.” One lightning unit would be the international journal on, let us say, Greek law.
odds that you were hit by lightning. Then you “The scientist has limited education. He la-
could express a whole variety of other issues— bors on the topic of his dissertation, wins the
like the probability of death from cancer—in so Nobel Prize, and by the time he’s 35 has sud-
many lightning units. denly nothing to do.
“He has no general ideas, and, while he is
pursuing his specialization, science has gone

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
past him. He has no alternative but to spend the
rest of his life making a nuisance of himself.” McGOWAN Well, I must say I have not read
So we have the spread from Dave Barry to Dave Barry before this, and so he may have …
the president of the University of Chicago in But that column that was read did not indicate
what I think is an almost obscene view of sci- to me that it was cool to be stupid. What it indi-
ence. Here’s the man who never questioned cated to me is that there’s a little bit of humor in
what this 11-year-old said or what the Nobel this thing called science. There’s a little bit of hu-
Prize winner [did] that might have been exciting, mor in people sort of pretending to know every-
might have changed … the way the world thing, and it deserves being poked fun at every
works. once in awhile.
There’s your problem.
LEE I completely agree with that, that it …
SEIGENTHALER Leon, would you hand the
microphone to Alan, please. McGOWAN OK.

McGOWAN Whatever standing I have left in LEE We deserve to have fun ...
the scientific community I’m probably going to
lose after this comment, but I. …You know, part McGOWAN And it tells people also—is a sig-
162
of my reaction to the negative response to Dave nal to people—that science is important, be-
Barry, and even to Leon’s, is: Come on, folks. cause important things get poked fun at. If it’s
Scientists want to be part of the American not important, it doesn’t get poked fun at.
life. They want to be part of the American cul- So I think we ought to lighten up a little bit
ture, and along comes a very humorous colum- and recognize that Dave Barry or even Shannon
nist poking a little bit of fun at the pompous sci- Brownlee or anybody who reports science is not
entist—of course, [none] of us knows any the only place that people [learn] about science.
pompous scientists, but there are some out People are smarter than they’re often given
there—and then we criticize. credit for; they absorb information from a vari-
I think we’re going to have to understand ety of sources. Sometimes we actually don’t
that when we get out there and are part of the want that which we say we want. Because when
fabric of American thought, we’re going to get there’s controversy in the public and in the me-
poked fun at a little bit, and that’s the good dia about science, a lot of scientists don’t like it
news. because they’re sort of washing the laundry in
public. But, in fact, that teaches a great deal
LEE I don’t think he’s poking fun at us. I object about the scientific process, and it teaches a
to his making it au courant to be intellectually great deal about what science is actually about,
stupid. which is looking for the flaws in an argument.
That’s what I object to, and that’s what that Now, we have a problem, as Ken pointed
article suggests: that you’re resonating with the out, that we sometimes have difficulty explain-
society if you don’t understand all of these ing the nuances of a particular issue. And some-
things. I deal with it every day in every way. times the media goes overboard, like in the SIDS
With my children, it is not “in” at their schools case, and causes great harm. That’s a problem.
to know things. It is better to be ignorant. We have to deal with that problem, but I
And I’m sorry. This is something [about] think we ought to recognize that we’re moving
which I’m very passionate and very obsessed. It into the spotlight of the American public, and
is not campy or cool to be stupid. Sorry. that’s the good news, although it [brings] with it
some problems.
SEIGENTHALER Alan.

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
school to go to college.
SEIGENTHALER I should say that … To And not only was he successful in doing that,
make the other side of the point, I asked our but Hughes Aircraft matched them with seven
staff at the center, before I came today, to dig more and his retirement dinners … Instead of
into some of the scientific journals for articles giving him money for gifts, he asked people to
that might make the point that scientists can be give money for the scholarship fund, so they got
unintelligible. I brought along a half-dozen ar- several more scholarships.
ticles—which I’m not going to inflict upon Now, is he the average scientist? No. Most
you—but let me say, I don’t have to make the scientists don’t have the resources to leave a
point. portion of their retirement for this purpose.
If you just read the articles, you will under- But there’s a huge spectrum in science, and I
stand why journalists frequently—even the think this notion of doing caricatures … I
best—don’t understand. would suggest that President Hutchins needs to
Ken. go back and spend some time in some science
labs to find that there are young people who
SHINE ... First of all, I think, let’s separate the have very broad, very intense interests, not only
Dave Barry article from the Hutchins article. in what they do but in the implications of what
Dave Barry raised a number of important is- they do for society. I think we’re giving them a
163
sues, and I think what we’re saying is that … bad rap.
My response to that was, it would be nice if he
had an opportunity to experience different ways SEIGENTHALER You have the floor.
to learn.
My concern is, I don’t believe in caricatures, DAVID SCHRAMM What I was going to do
whether you’re caricaturing teachers or scientists is go back and pick up on this point … We were
or anybody else. I think the caricature of the sci- talking about Dave Barry. Now, he’s a humorist
entist, which is conveyed in the media, on televi- rather than necessarily a great intellectual.
sion, and a whole variety of places, is wrong. But I think a problem in American society—
There are a spectrum of people who do science. and, in some ways, it’s more in American society
They are, as Shannon pointed out, a human … than in some other countries—is that people
who are the so-called intelligentsia of American
SEIGENTHALER When you say “wrong,” do society—the columnists, the anchormen and so
you mean stigmatizing? Dr. Strangelove … Is on—will pride themselves on not knowing sci-
that the caricature? ence. Yet they claim to be intellectuals. So they
will make statements like “I can’t do arithmetic,”
SHINE The whole range of being isolated, of yet they would be embarrassed to say they can’t
not understanding what’s going on in life out- read.
side of their …Whatever terms you want to use, But they would be … They’re perfectly
there are a whole series of stereotypes that are happy and they’re not embarrassed to say they
not appropriate, are not accurate. I just want to can’t do arithmetic or they can’t understand sci-
just remind this group that my mentor retired ence. I think that’s a real problem that American
on June 30th after 36 years in science. He was a society has.
world-famous cardiovascular physiologist who You don’t see that in, for example, the French
for years has been helping kids in a school in intelligentsia or the Japanese, where you will not
Los Angeles, a minority school, to learn science see a leader in that society say they can’t do
and understand science. arithmetic. But you will see it in American soci-
And when he retired, he took a portion of his ety.
retirement fund at the University of California
and created seven scholarships for kids in that

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
where things come from and where they go.
SEIGENTHALER Shannon, I saw you nod- So I enjoyed that one. But I feel that what
ding your head. Do you want to comment on we’ve returned to here in the last few minutes is
that? where C.P. Snow left off sometime back when he
talked about the gulf between cultures. His was
BROWNLEE I’m agreeing that there is this social science, but I think you can talk about
sort of anti-science attitude among the intelli- current-day cultures in another way.
gentsia quite often, and editors are part of that You can talk about the gulf between the cul-
group. But I was also sort of disturbed when tures that think in long-term perspectives versus
you say that anchormen are part … are, you those that think in short-term perspectives.
know, among the intelligentsia. That’s a scary In the political world you usually think in
thought. terms of the next … Well, let’s see, our morning
staff meetings mostly are about today, and
SCHRAMM I would agree with that. But, un- rarely do we get to the next month.
fortunately, they are the purveyors of what in- On the other hand, in the halls of science you
formation we have to the bulk of society. really worry about things in the next century,
because you are dealing with the pulse that has a
SEIGENTHALER Well, I know that … I hate naturally long time constant to it.
164
to say this. I know that many of [the scientists] So it’s bridging these … It’s identifying and
would not acknowledge that they can’t write, bridging these cultures between not only our
but I tell you, if you read the journals, you come disciplines, but the way we see the world, that is
to the conclusion that there are many of them really a challenge for all of us.
that have problems with writing understand-
ably. You can make the point, I suppose, that LARRY WITHAM Yes. Larry Witham from
some journalists do, too. The Washington Times. I’m covering this event
Jack, do you want to respond to Ken Shine’s today, so I’ll have to be careful [to] just ask a
suggestion that the media stigmatizes you? question.
I don’t cover science as a specialty, but I ask
GIBBONS I … scientists about social issues frequently. My
question is about the public perception of scien-
SEIGENTHALER “Caricaturizes” is a more tists.
accurate thing for a journalist to say. On one hand, [the public] love[s] to learn
how computers work or how you genetically
GIBBONS I have … I once ran the Office of engineer insulin. And they’re sometimes inter-
Technology Assessment, and we always devel- ested in funding—how much of their tax dollar
oped two “hands” on everything. They were will go to your projects. But then they meet the
[“on] this [hand”] and [then “on] the other occasional scientist who says “science is a way of
[hand].” life” as [in] “skepticism is a way of life.”
But I enjoyed the Barry quote, because I took So you falsify everything in the lab, but then
it as a wonderful sort of humorous presenta- you go home—well, you try to falsify to see if
tion that, in fact, draws attention to the reality it’s true—but then, when you go home, [you]
that most people don’t know where that stuff even question what your parents say, question
comes from. They don’t connect cause and ef- what the religious leaders say, and you know all.
fect. Carl Sagan’s last book, Candle in the Dark …
And in [not] doing so, they not only are less skepticism is a way of life. And then the Ameri-
able to operate as informed citizens, but they can public draws back and says, “I don’t want
also don’t get to enjoy life—the extraordinary those scientists teaching my children.”
excitement that comes from thinking about How do you respond to their concerns?

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
umn was that he doesn’t understand the stock
SEIGENTHALER Anyone. Ken. market either. He twice said he was dumb. He
said journalists are dumb, twice.
SHINE Well, first of all I … Gentry and then Shannon.

SEIGENTHALER Gentry. All right. First Ken LEE I’ve been dealing with what scientists are
and then Gentry. about for many, many years with Saturday
morning cartoons. That’s where it gets started. I
SHINE Yeah. First of all, again, I would argue don’t know if any of you’ve ever watched them,
there that this is an oversimplification of science but the scientists in real life are never as bad as
and who scientists are. There are a full range of they are on the Saturday morning cartoons.
belief systems among scientists. There are scien- This issue about science—scientists having
tists who have written about, for example, how the only way to live and the only way to ap-
to rationalize the Bible with science. proach truth—is one that has bothered me for
These are fundamentally important ques- a long time. Most scientists that I know—and I
tions, and scientists don’t have any better access think that the doctor will agree with me here—
to the truth about a number of these issues than accept that there are arenas in which science has
others. But I think what you’re seeing is that an epistemology to gain answers and that
165
they are increasingly concerned about what the there’s another in which there’re no answers
impact of what they do has on the rest of soci- that can be gathered by science today—and per-
ety. haps not ever.
After all, that tall, gangly guy that I men- The single biggest epiphany I ever had—and
tioned who I took the seminar from—Jim I’ll share this with you right now—was when I
Watson—was the one who invented the ELSI realized what Goethe proved really meant that
program so that the … ethical, social, and legal there does not exist a mathematical structure in
issues in the genome project—in terms of their which all theorems can be proven. There will al-
implications for society—were funded as part of ways be some theorem that cannot be proved.
that activity. And when you sit and think about what that
So, I think, (a.) I would not want to over- means from the point of view of science, you
simplify this particular aspect of things and have to accept that there always exists some-
(secondly) … again, you know, we talk about thing that you will not be able to use your tech-
jargon … As somebody who’s criticized lots of nique to solve.
my colleagues in science for their shortcomings, Now, I wasn’t trying to become too esoteric
I want to emphasize that people who cover fi- here. But the point is, most scientists that I
nancial markets have a hell of a lot of jargon know do not regard science as a way of life and
they have to understand about the financial apply it to everything in their life.
market, and those people have a certain value
system. And they—the investment bankers on SEIGENTHALER Shannon and then Bob.
Wall Street … we don’t sit around arguing
about what they have to say about social issues BROWNLEE Dr. Shine and Dr. Lee, I’d like you
when they go home at night. to remember who your audience is for a mo-
So I think we ought to be a little bit careful as ment, and explain who Goethe is and explain
to, again, what type of stereotypes we place what ELSI is.
upon what a scientist thinks about a number of
value systems. LEE Thank you, Shannon.

SEIGENTHALER Just in fairness to what SHINE I actually tried to define it. It’s (E)thical,
Dave Barry wrote: The bottom line of that col- (L)egal, and (S)ocial (I)ssues, and it’s the por-

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
tion of the genome project which funds projects You know, seems to me that you need to
to look at these ethical, social and legal issues. think of science as at least a part of the arsenal
And, I guess, before you define Goethe, I of critical thought in a modern society.
would want to … Now, that doesn’t need to mean that a TV
anchorperson needs to understand quarks in a
LEE He was a guy. lot of detail, and I think that’s what kind of re-
pels people. We’d like to attract more kids into
SHINE Yeah, I know … or identify him—you science so that they’ll understand more about
know, again, the thing, one of the things—rea- quarks, but that’s a different problem.
sons—why this is particularly poignant to me is Helping the general populus understand sci-
because of our interest in interesting young people ence kind of as a liberal art, the same way we do
in science, particularly minority kids. And I’ve history and English and so forth, seems to me
spent more than a little time in—again—real-life to be the big challenge, and I would hate … to
situations with these youngsters. have those kinds of judgments made by any-
The notion that a youngster in a minority body who doesn’t at least understand, as a lib-
environment is labeled … a nerd [because he eral art, as much as about science as they do
or] she’s … interested in mathematics or might about theology.
be interested in science or. … It compounds the SEIGENTHALER We are about to run out of
166
problem that being serious about school is also time, but just a couple of more comments from
something that they shouldn’t do. And I think the floor.
that we need to be very much aware that Satur-
day morning cartoons, in fact, communicate to ALFRED GOLDMAN My name is Alfred
kids in inner-city schools [what] the value sys- Goldman.
tems are. Ms. Brownlee said that she is overwhelmed
And I’m very, very concerned about the fact by the volume of scientific information available
that, if we’re ever going to achieve any kind of to her. How does she decide what small amount
economic advance for that sector, that segment to publish and, therefore, [what] large amount
of the population, in a society in which science to leave unreported?
and technology will largely determine what your
income is—except for those people who bet on BROWNLEE I have a beat—which I don’t
it on Wall Street—those stereotypes, I think, are stick to very well—but I’m supposed to be cov-
critically important in terms of the future of ering biomedical research. I also cover family is-
those kids. sues—children’s issues. I dabble in neurobiology
and psychology.
LEE Fifteen seconds: Goethe’s a mathematician But more important: How does the maga-
whose … Oh, OK. I know you know that. Ev- zine decide what to cover? To a certain extent,
erybody else knows that, too. what we decide to cover is predigested for us by
the journals. Science puts out a digest of what
SEIGENTHALER Bob. the most significant papers are; Nature does. A
number of the journals do this, and then we try
BROWNLEE I was just making a point that to be a little more enterprising and go to the
it’s important to remember your audience. more obscure journals and look at what’s being
published there.
SEIGENTHALER It’s just a journalistic needle We also talk with scientists as regularly as we
there, Gentry. can to find out what’s going on in their fields. So
we’re constantly having to make judgments
FRI This kind of goes back to Dave Schramm’s about what stories to put in.
comment, in light of the question.

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
Now, there’s a tension between what the sci- scientists generally—and those that I come in
ence journalist wants to put in the magazine and contact with—do not like the press, but they do
what the editor thinks is interesting, and in like the high end of the press, so I think we have
some ways this is a good thing, because the edi- to kind of break those down, when you really
tor is Everyman or Everywoman, to some de- get down to it.
gree. We have a number of editors who have a But I also think that what you’re kind of
very fairly strong science background, and they dancing around is that scientists must be as
tend to make different choices than the other concerned today with communication of their
editors. But there’s this sort of weeding-out craft as they are with their own research. And
process that happens when you’re trying to de- that communication has to be—not dumbed-
cide what to cover and what not to cover. down—but made absolutely simple.
Now, I need people like Gentry Lee to say to If I were doing an interview with Dr. Lee, I
me, “You guys really missed the boat. This stuff think I would say, “What is Goethe?” and “What
about copper on chips is really, really impor- are those words?” because they do fall into a
tant.” And that’s where the value of having con- category of jargon to the lay-person out there
stant communication and real relationships that we represent. We just don’t understand,
with scientists comes in. and you lose us. And the minute you lose us,
SEIGENTHALER You know, we’ve heard then that’s the problem of communication. And
167
from scientists from diverse fields, and we have you lose children as well.
heard today from three journalists—all print. So I’m committed in the documentaries to
There is a television anchor from whom we’re absolutely coming down right to the basics and
going to hear at lunch, Bill Curtis here. He is a bouncing back and saying, “Do you understand
television journalist who covers science. that?” or “What is it again? Let’s reduce that to
Bill, before we break for lunch, I wonder if I the elementary level.”
could ask you to react to what you’ve heard.
And don’t bring up what you’re going to say at SEIGENTHALER Thank you very much, Bill.
lunch, but I … this has been a fascinating dis-
cussion for me, as a journalist. CURTIS I’ll save the rest for lunch.
Since [the phrase] “sound bite” has come up
and the whole question of where the public gets SEIGENTHALER We’ve run out of time. I
its news—and it gets most of its information would like simply to say to any of you who
from television—would you just react to what would like copies of the interim Hartz/Chappell
you’ve heard? report, you may get it either by writing to The
Freedom Forum here in Washington or to the
BILL CURTIS First of all, I would say that to First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt Univer-
be included in the nation’s intelligentsia was the sity in Nashville.
nicest thing that anybody ever said about a tele- I would like to thank Shannon and Bob,
vision anchorman. Jack, Gentry and Ken for their contributions to
A couple observations: One is that there is a this dialogue today.
spectrum of journalism that ranges from tab- I would like to thank this audience for its
loids and the paparazzi on the one hand to daily participation, and I would like to ask them to
deadlines to more thoughtful scientific publica- join in giving a round of applause to this distin-
tions to television evening news and local news guished panel.
and documentaries within PBS.
And all of those have a different boss, a dif-
ferent editor, and, I guess, a different standard.
So you can go from one who, I think, every-
body … I was reading the survey too, and the

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
168

Appendix B Sputnik: 40 Years Later
Bibliography
Angell, Marcia. Science on Trial; The Clash of Meyer, Philip. The New Precision Journalism.
Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Implant Case. New York: Norton, 1996. 1991.
Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box. New Nelkin, Dorothy. Selling Science. New York:
York: The Free Press, 1996. W.H. Freeman & Co., 1987.
Butterfield, Herbert. The Origins of Modern Oppenheimer, J. Robert. Science and the Com-
Science, 1300-1800. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin mon Understanding. New York: Simon and
& Company, 1968. Schuster, 1953.
Cohen, Victor. News and Numbers. Ames, Paulos, John Allen. A Mathematician Reads the
169
Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1989. Newspaper. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter’s Life. New York: Price, Derek de Solla. Science Since Babylon
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. (enlarged ed.). New Haven: Yale University
Ferris, Timothy. The Whole Shebang: A State- Press, 1975.
of-the-Universe(s) Report. New York: Simon Ronan, Colin A. Science: Its History and Devel-
& Schuster. opment Among the World’s Cultures. New
Gross, Paul R. and Levitt, Norman. Higher Su- York: Facts on File, 1983.
perstition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni- Walsh, Kenneth. Feeding the Beast: The White
versity Press, 1994 House Versus the Press. New York: Random
House, 1996.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
170
Acknowledgments

T
he inspiration for this enterprise Our two research assistants, Alex Lines and
originated with Joe B. Wyatt, Chan- Anjanette Eash, never tired of tracking down
cellor of Vanderbilt University. He elusive people and wayward documents.
was properly concerned that many
Americans, perhaps a majority, are being de- We had abundant outside help, notably from
prived of adequate knowledge about the most Alan McGowan of the American Association
interesting and exciting discoveries of our for the Advancement of Science, and Donna
time—information they need in order to be in- Gerardi of the National Academy of Sciences.
formed citizens and to follow matters that are We are especially grateful to the scientists, en-
just plain fascinating. For his resolve, insight gineers, journalists and educators who offered 171
and encouragement we are indebted. their time, experience and advice as partici-
pants in our roundtables. Our gratitude ex-
John Seigenthaler’s persistence brought us to- tends as well to the thousands of others who
gether and his prudent counsel smoothed our took the time to answer our questionnaire and
rough edges. Ken Paulson’s tenacity burnished offer comments.
the final product.
To a person, everyone at the First Amendment
Our editor, Natilee Duning, endowed with infi- Center, the Freedom Forum, and Vanderbilt
nite patience, a sharp knife and a large shovel University cheerfully contributed whenever
produced cohesion and coherence. David asked—usually before. In short, the First
Smith gave it visual pulsation. Tam Gordon co- Amendment Center coterie conferred not only
ordinated it all with aplomb. breadth and wisdom but made this project a
singular delight.

—Rick Chappell
—Jim Hartz

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
172
About the Authors
Jim Rick
Hartz Chappell
Jim Hartz is a veteran television and print Charles Richard (Rick) CHAPPELL, has been
journalist. His credits include his role as host the Associate Director for Science at NASA’s
and chief correspondent of Innovation, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville,
award-winning science and technology series Ala., since 1987 and has directed research in
on PBS; co-host of NBC’s Today show (1974- solar terrestrial physics and served as principal
77); and writer, director and narrator of such investigator on several satellite missions.
documentaries as A Funny Thing Happened on From May 1994 to May 1995, he worked
the Way to the Moon (on the early days of the with Vice President Al Gore to created an in-
173
U.S. space program) and Red Ink Nightmare novative K-12 science education program
(on the Grace Commission report). known as GLOBE (Global Learning and Ob- Authors Hartz (left)
As a military and aerospace reporter for servations to Benefit the Environment). He
NBC News, Hartz was the first journalist to fly founded the Aspen Global Change Institute in
and Chappell
in the U-2 spy plane and the F-15 Eagle. He 1989, together with John Denver’s Windstar
was also the first reporter to go up in the SR-71 Foundation.
spy plane (at Mach 3 and 80,000 feet), an as- Prior to that, he served as alternate payload
signment he undertook for Reader’s Digest specialist for the space shuttle mission STS-45,
magazine. which was carried out in March 1992. From
Among other honors, Hartz has received 1976 to 1985, he was mission scientist for
five Emmy awards and two Ace awards during Spacelab 1, a joint European/American shuttle
his career. In 1990, he was named to the Hall mission that conducted investigations in mate-
of Fame in his home state of Oklahoma. rial sciences, life sciences, space physics, earth
observations and astronomy.
Chappell graduated magna cum laude in
physics from Vanderbilt University and re-
ceived his Ph.D. in space science from Rice
University. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa
and has twice received the NASA Medal for
Exceptional Scientific Achievement. He has re-
cently joined Vanderbilt University as the Di-
rector of Science and Research Communica-
tions and an Adjunct Professor of Physics.

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
photo credits
5: (Romer) Photo by Anne Knudsen.
16: (Sawyer) Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.
25: (Wheeler) Photo courtesy of the National Science
Teachers Association.
37: (Ernst) Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
38: (Sargent) Photo courtesy of Bob Paz/Caltech.
40: (Hotz) Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.
(Hercules) UCIR/Sue Wribican
42: (Bredesen) Photo by Gary Layda.
174 (Woolley) Photo courtesy of Research!America.
49: (Thompson) Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
57: (Wilford) Photo courtesy of The New York Times.
70: (Nye) Photo courtesy of Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
76: (Europa) Image courtesy of NASA.
77: (Asteroid Toutatis) Image courtesy of NASA.
78: (Asteroid Mathilde) Image courtesy of NASA.
79: (Hale-Bopp Comet) Photo by Johnny Horne.
91: (Wang) Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
92: (Jacobson) Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
94: (Mitchell) Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.
95: (Brown) Photo courtesy of University of Virginia.
(Gray) Photo by Kodak Research Laboratory. Courtesy
of Caltech.
104: (Begley) Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by
permission.
109: (Wilkes) Photo by Don Harris. UCSC Photo Lab.
157: (Perlman) Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.
index
A D

Agris, Paul 109 Daney, Serge 56
Anderson, Paul S. 8 Davidson, Keay 75
Asia Deaver, Michael 93
S&T graduates 6 Derrington, Andrew 94
Augustine, Norman 66 Diamond, Jared 40
Dockery, John 63
B
Doctorow, E.L. 105
Bandurski, Robert 109
E 175
Basch, Ross 97
Beardsley, Tim 6 Einstein, Albert 16, 39, 102
Begley, Sharon 51, 56, 104 Ernst, David 37
Bernstein, Carl 56 Estrogen-replacement therapy 81
Bohner, Jerry 105 EurekAlert 106
Bredesen, Philip 42, 91, 93 Europe
Brown, Dorothy 108 S&T graduates 6
Brown, Jay 95 Science spending near U.S. 5
Brown, Rep. George 6
F
Bruzelius, Nils 92
FACS 106
C
Flam, Faye 77
Chandler, David 74, 77, 78 Flatow, Ira 22, 51, 56, 57, 58, 67, 88, 107
Chandler, Raymond 20 Franklin, Jon
Chesterton, G.K. 121 39, 51, 52, 57, 59, 88, 98, 104, 107
Cleghorn, Reese 22
G
Conant, James Bryant 115
Conrad, Charles 102 Gamma-ray bursts 74
Conti, Paul 92 Gartner, Michael 23, 57
Cooke, Robert 77 Gergen, David 7, 23
COPUS Media Fellowship Scheme 94 Giles, Robert 106
Cronkite, Walter 13, 22 Goldin, Daniel 21, 38, 41, 50, 64, 67, 97
Crouse, Chuck 107 Gray, Harry 95, 116
CSICOP 87 Greenberg, Daniel 4, 58, 83, 117
Curl, Robert F. 2

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
H M

Harris, Jay 86 Mammogram controversy 83
Harris, Russell 85 Marks, Alexandra 49
Harvin, Rusty 63 Mason, Scott 102
Harwood, Richard 18 McNamee, Tom 92
Hellman, Samuel 84 Mead, Margaret 37
Hemlock, Doreen 50 Media Resource Center
Hercules, David 40 Scientists who will talk with journalists 104
Horne, Johnny 78 Meyerson, Charles 49
Hotz, Robert Lee 40, 42, 106 Miller, Molly 38
Hoversten, Paul 78 Mitchell, Clifford 94
Hume, Ellen 48, 56, 59, 119 Mondale, Walter 5, 66
Humphrey, Hubert 113, 121 Moore, Thomas J. 7
Muench, Joanna 63
J
N
Jacobson, Harry 92, 106
Japan National Association of Science Writers (NASW) 108
176 R&D spending 5 Nuclear testing 80
Johnson, Douglas 95
O
K
O’Brien, Ted 13
Keel, William 39, 62 Oppenheimer, J. Robert 15, 22, 91
Krauthammer, Charles 73 Osheroff, Douglas D. 1
Kroto, Sir Harry 6
P
Kurtz, Paul 88
Pain, Stephanie 6
L
Perlman, David 77, 104
Lane, Neal 9, 21, 38, 67, 93 Plotkin, David 85
Lasch, Christopher 16 Pozefsky, Carol 49
Lawrence, Robert 86
R
Lebowitz, Fran 63
Lederman, Leon 50, 63, 87, 97, 120 Raff, Susan 92
Lee, David 1 Raspberry, William 18, 55
Love, Susan 83 Rensberger, Boyce 20, 38, 42, 63, 94, 104, 109
Loy, Jim 14 Richardson, Jonathan 96
Richardson, Robert C. 1
Rivard, Bob 48
Roberts, Derek 5
Roberts, Eugene 58, 60
Romer, Paul 5
Rowan, Katherine 93
S T

Sagan, Carl Thompson, Travis 49, 94
7, 13, 22, 41, 63, 67, 91, 96, 97, 103, 120
U
Sargent. Anneila 38
Sawyer, Kathy 14, 40, 51, 74, 76, 102, 105 Uchitelle, Louis 4
Schick, Theodore 67
Schmidt, William 66 W
Science degrees awarded
Walsh, Kenneth 48
U.S., Europe, Asia 6
Wang, Taylor 88, 91
Science writers
Ward, Barabara 121
Freelance 108
Warden, Chris 20
Shapiro, Saul 108
Wasson, John 84
Shapiro, Walter 61
Wells, H.G. 61
Shaw, G.B. 13
Wheeler, Gerald 25, 52, 104
Shippen, James 94
Wilde, Oscar 13
Sigma Xi
Wilford, John Noble 23, 51, 57
Scientific Research Society 104
Wilkes, John 109
Silverstein, Samuel 8 177
Williams, Mark 39
Smalley, Richard 1
Witze, Alexandra 75
Spratt, John 86
Woolf, Steven 86
Suplee, Curt 77
Woolley, Mary 42, 96
Sutherland, Frank 57
Wright, Greg 63
Szegedy-Maszak, Andrew 41

Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America’s Future
178