Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Sorry State of Science Reporting

I've been reading the news almost religiously for most of the summer, from three sources: National Public Radio, British Broadcasting Company, and Al Jazeera. Yes, I realize this makes me sound incredibly liberal. Contrary to my expectations, I do not feel like a more responsible global citizen than I was before. While I enjoy reading about what is happening in the world, it has not brought any greater sense of connectedness. If anything, it makes me feel less connected with my surroundings. However, that is not the point of this post.

Every day on NPR's site, if not also on BBC's, I look through the Science and Technology categories hoping to find something that catches my interest. After all, I am very interested in both science and technology. However, all of the stories filed under the science category are about
a) Swine Flu
b) Climate Change
c) the dubious findings of some pyschological or, at best, neurological study that show humans behave like X because of gene Y that evolved to help our ancestors do Z.

All of the posts filed under Technology are about the iPhone.

The Discovery Channel's lineup reveals similar trends: Animals, The Environment, People vs. the Environment (or is that Man and Wild?), Mythbusters, etc.

The Science Channel (run by the same company) isn't much different, with more focus on Space and manufacturing/construction.

I happen to know that huge, exciting discoveries are being made in the worlds of particle physics, chemistry, nanotechnology, robotics, computing, etc. Why are none of these being documented by the popular media? Surely the same people that figured out how to make popular tv out of the manufacturing processes of everything from chocolate bars to safety pins can make a thrilling show about molecular cars or parallel computing.

The difference between the way I use a pc and the way my grandfather, a retired electrical engineer who spent his career designing and programming computerized test systems, uses a pc is significant. I get things done faster and more efficiently. He knows far more about the inner workings of the computer. He's written programs at the assembler level on punch cards. But I grew up with mouse-based user interfaces and file systems, and they're as natural to me as riding a bike.

If the next generation of children in this country could grow up seeing simulations of molecular structures, interacting with them in games and educational programs, they could develop an innate understanding of nanomechanics. Just as gravity and magnetism are fairly intuitive to beginning physics students, so Van der Waals interactions or very-low-Reynolds number fluid flows could be intuitive for the next generation of engineers and scientists.

Right now, no one is talking about these topics. When nanotechnology is brought up in the news at all, it is usually with either a vague sense of foreboding or an undefined promise of amazing things: "Now with nanotechnology!" We need science journalists who break the trend of reporting on psychology and medicine for the sake of human interest. We need science journalists who will act as translators between scientists and citizens without dumbing down the science of talking over the collective head of society.

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