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Monday, March 17, 2008

It's News To Me: We're Scientifically Illiterate

Despite the fact that science affects us each and every day, cable news channels spend almost no time examining and reporting science. On average, five hours of cable news coverage contains 71 minutes of politics, 26 minutes of crime, 12 minutes of disasters and 10 minutes of celebrities.

Science, technology, health and the environment received just six minutes of coverage (with health and health care accounting for half of that.)

IMHO, there are three reasons why science gets little coverage.

(1) "If it bleeds, it leads." Bad news is news. Science is rarely bad news. Most of the time, science leads to good news, like cures for diseases or an expansion of our knowledge of the universe. Science rarely leads to murder or mayhem (except at the International Herpesvirus Workshop, because we're wild folks, but I digress.)

(2) A lot of people don't understand science. You can blame this on the pitiful state of science education, but part of the problem is the "Two Cultures" mentality fostered by CP Snow, et al, (, and the fact that science itself is compartmentalized, fractionated, and vernacular.

I have a PhD in microbiology (virology,) and I like physics and a lot of other science, but I can't read an issue of Nature or Science cover-to-cover because most of the papers in there are too far out of my field for me to understand. Sometimes, I can get the jist, but I couldn't talk about it with any alacrity. ( .

(3) Lack of celebrities. I'm not going to merely bemoan our celebrity-driven culture, but people with influence drive the memes.

Yeah, lots of people worry about the environment and global warming, but Al Gore, already a big-timer, got the best-selling book.

Admiral Richard Hawkins noted in 1662 that oranges and lemons cured scurvy, but he wasn't a celebrity. Captain Cook, who was a celebrity explorer, was credited with discovering that limes prevented scurvy in 1775, over a hundred years later, and only then was the practice of taking citrus on voyages adopted by the British navy.

Maybe if we recruited better looking scientists....

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID and CALLOUS, two novels with good-looking scientists.

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