Conversation with Dan Vergano: the Science Ghetto

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shutterstock_11125360Ann:  In the last year or more or so, science writers have had Twitterfights with a culture/media writer, a nonfiction writer, and a script writer.   After the latest fight another science writer, the wise and civilized Dan Vergano of USA Today, Twitter-messaged me that he wished these fights would stop because they reinforced the walls around the science ghetto.  “GUEST POST!” I said.  “I’d rather make it a conversation,” he said.  So, Dan:  I never heard of the science ghetto.  Does that mean I’m so far inside it I didn’t know it had an outside?

Dan:   Ann is making a funny with her question. Her book, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite is exactly the kind of look at the real-world intersection of science and militarism that I think matters more than one more story about a snub-nosed dinosaur.

Ann:  Oh well then. In that case, I completely see the force and rationale in your argument.  No — vanity aside for one second — really, I still don’t know what the science ghetto is.  And what’s the problem with stories about snub-nosed dinosaurs?

Dan:  The idea, and it comes from the redoubtable Tom Hayden, is that science reporting has largely become a secret garden walled off, and walling itself off, from the rest of the world.  Instead of reporting on the scientific aspects of news stories — whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation, whether Peak Oil is a real concern — we write pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks. All that stuff is great, but it is a news diet of ice cream and cookies without any sirloin. And it has contributed to the trade being regarded as a low-prestige, low-value part of news.

shutterstock_12366604Ann:  I need to back you up a minute. I don’t understand your last sentence. You’re at USA Today so you understand this stuff way better than I do.  Do the news media really see science writing as low-prestige, low-value?  Or is all this inferiority just something science writers feel about themselves?

Dan: Where does one start and the other begin? You have to define prestige, I suppose. I mean it in the sense of science writers being influential voices at news outlets with a broad audience.  Where is the science writer on the editorial pages at the the top 10 newspapers? Where is the science writer offering a perspective on the political debate of the day on network or cable news? Where is the science writer sitting at the editor in chief’s desk at Time, or The New Yorker, or The Atlantic? Why is David Brooks explaining social science or neuroscience to readers? The people picked to run these outlets and become their big voices are not from specialty beats like science writing, they are political, finance, investigative team and foreign affairs journalists generally, and I would argue that this is an indication of our trade’s ghettoization (and perhaps a reflection of the curious status of science in our society in general, a kind of oracular expertise on tap to be turned off when it becomes inconvenient).

Ann:  No science writers with big voices?  All whispering in the cellar? Really?

Dan:  There are exceptions — George Monbiot at The Guardian or National Geographic winning many National Magazine Awards. Rick Weiss at The Washington Post upended the Bush Administration’s narrative about stem cells in 2001 and Richard Harris at NPR broke the big news about the botched Deepwater Horizon oil spill flow rate in 2010.

But those are exceptions that point strongly to the rule: If you look at the glide path of newspaper science sections, more than 90 in 1990 and a handful of denuded ones today, the defenestration of science and medical expertise at CNN and the networks over the last two decades, the widespread switchover from staff writing positions to the “gig economy” of freelancing in the trade, I find it very hard to argue that science news is seen as a high-value part of most general audience news outlets. It is a helpful specialty, like the weather or the TV column, one that guarantees entertaining churns of medical study stories and space pictures, but it doesn’t bring in the pricey ads. This beats being a labor reporter (are there any left?) or a book reviewer (do they even get paid anymore?) but it is a kind of ghetto for your work.

Ann:  As a gig economist of long standing and someone who long ago learned to love the basement, this prestige is what exactly?

Dan: I mean prestige in the sense of newsroom power in our society, not in the cheap prestige of being a “senior” science reporter (this is what I am in some settings) or a “contributing” editor or whatever. Writing in general suffers from being too willing to be paid in cheap prestige, pride in getting a piece in The New York Times Magazine instead of getting paid enough to cover your health care.

Ann:  Yes. Well. I’ve just been talking to other giggers about online magazines whose names shall not be spoken who run fully-reported stories for a couple hundred dollars and “exposure” to their zillions of readers.  And being exposed to those readers gets me what?  They’re all venture capitalists burning to send mortgage checks to science writers?  But I’m off-topic, aren’t I.

Dan:  I fully realize that most science writers are just trying to get their last expense check cashed and could care less about their profession not having much input into the broader news conversation, especially given that we are still emerging from an economic depression, but if we just limit ourselves to the academic prestige of contributing to the right blog instead of trying to apply our skills to stuff that matters, say political and economic disputes, the profession is hobbled.  So, I wish science writers had more of an inferiority complex, it might give us a bigger chip on our shoulders about breaking through to bigger stories.

Ann:  Ok, for most of my career I’ve written happy little stories about galaxy evolution — a subject whose uselessness is exceeded only by its charm — and I like the argument that such stories are in every way enriching.  But you’re saying that enriching or not, they’re keeping science writers themselves useless and ghettoized.

Dan: I wouldn’t say useless, but certainly sidelined from making a bigger contribution. It is no accident that there is a science ghetto, if you look back to the founding of NASW during the Depression, the science reporters at most of the leading news organizations saw this kind of specialization and focus on gee-whiz stuff as their ticket to survival during tough economic times. And it has largely (I would argue) remained that way ever since. The concern I have now is that the mobile era will just exacerbate this tendency towards the trivial in science reporting — ever-more minute discussions of scientific desiderata in ever-more specialized niches of the gig economy. Don’t get me wrong, I like exploding stars and duck sex as much as the next guy, but we could be doing so much more, if we opened some gates in the secret garden’s walls.

Ann:  And if we did open the gates?

Dan: The reality is the scientific enterprise is wedded at the tailbone to our government, military and corporations. We ignore that if we make being a science reporter just being an entertainer, or don’t make any room for a wider role for ourselves. Does that make sense?

Ann:  Yes.  Yes, it does.  But I’ve opened the occasional gate and honestly, I don’t think I have the stamina to interview one more government or military or corporate person with the uncanny ability to string known words into sentences that make no sense whatever.  All those guys say is, “Take these words, quote them, nobody will understand or believe them, and come back when you want more words.”  The supernova guys at least want to talk about supernovas.

Dan:  You do know one reason we study supernovas is because we are looking for analogies to H-bombs in their behavior, right? You know all this from the Jasons. It isn’t all lollipops and cupcakes to explain why they are studying them at places like Los Alamos.

Ann:  I sort of knew that; it’s uncomfortable, isn’t it.  And now you’re going to tell me that by sticking to the non-bomb supernova specialists, I’m being selfish and reinforcing the ghetto.  And then I’m going to say, But how do you get enough substance out of the bomb specialists to write a story?  And you’ll say, Another subject, another blog post.  And then I’ll say, Ha! Gotcha! Caught you agreeing to work for free! Again!

___________

Dan Vergano is a hard nose; he comes by it honestly.

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Photos:  Dennis Cox at Shutterstock

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36 thoughts on “Conversation with Dan Vergano: the Science Ghetto

  1. On the one hand, you have the entirety of the world–galaxies, animal behaviour, cells, subatomic particles, billion of years of evolution, and so on.

    On the other hand, you have the tiny subset of that which directly affects humans, and our politics, economics, and lives.

    I find it sad, peculiar and almost incomprehensible that someone could compare these two things, and see the LATTER as being what matters, and the FORMER as being “trivial” and “ice cream and cookies without any sirloin” and “walled off” in some “ghetto”.

  2. The very idea that science writters and the public should focus only (or mostly) on stories that are politically, economically, or socially relevant is the antithesis of science. The goal of science is to explain how the natural world works and its history, the goal of science journalism is to tell those stories to the world so that are not walled of in the ghetto of academic journals.

    It is the responsibility of political, economics, and sociocultural journalists to tell their own stories using scientifically valid data. They must become literate in the science of the fields they study and seek out the opinion of scientists to validate questions like how long will it take Iran to build an atomic bomb. They must also then give up false equalities like there are two sides to the evolution and global warming “debates”. Dan Vergano’s complaints apply to journalists writ large, not science journalists.

  3. We can all disagree on what we want to write about, and find meaning in what we like. It’s a free country, journalism. And I certainly don’t intend to single anyone out with my jokes about duck sex.

    Perhaps the real problem is a lack of technical acumen in the world of journalism writ large, and it is unfair to ask people devoted to writing about basic science to take up the slack. Perhaps that’s a fair criticism of the idea of a ‘science ghetto’.

    But I would disagree there is a ‘goal’ of science journalism, or that a science writer isn’t allowed to find as much or more meaning in the lives and well-being of the people around them than in some esoteric development in astronomy. This is where I admire environmental and medical reporting, which is part of my beat, and maybe that colors my views. I just think there ought to be more balance in our profession.

  4. Uh oh, I think I was supposed to be part of this conversation, too. Sorry for not showing up, Dan and Ann, but then you both did a fine job of exploring the situation without me. So, well done!

    I’d like to add another shade to the science ghetto idea. Dan and I come at this from similar sets of experience – that of being staff science journalists as general interest, broad circulation, decidedly not high-brow publications. (USA Today for him, US News & World Report for me.)

    Dan is absolutely right in the observation that the road to the executive suite in media rarely if ever passes through the science desk – science-specific magazine excepted. But science-specific magazines are part of the ghetto. They’re not part of the media diet even of most people who still have a media diet.

    In the recent past in the US, it was possible – just – to cover science in a robust way at mainstream, general interest publications, with confidence that a general readership would see and engage with the reportage. The bulk quantity of excellent science reportage has not decreased, from what I can tell. But the opportunities for crossover — for someone who turns to the sports pages first to also bump into, read and engage with serious science reportage — has dropped off dramatically. One never sees sports scores while browsing LWON either, of course. But one doesn’t often see football teams bending over backward to try to get a reporter or two come see what they’re up to, with their super bowls and grey cups and whatnot.

    Had I not gone awol during the original conversation, I would have added this observation to Dan’s observations about an excess of penises (of any species, really) ultimately diluting the science brand: There seems to me to be a split in science coverage now, whereby science-specific publications get the meat, while more general interest (or link-hungry) publications get the fluff. I don’t need all my science coverage to be linked directly to the other news of the day – though that is a crucial and increasingly absent part of the mix – but if it’s not, I’d like to see a lot more mainstream coverage of science as the serious, relevant human endeavour that it is. I don’t think there’s a science journalist alive who hasn’t written about duck penises once in a while. But quirk isn’t the only way to sell a science story, or engage a mid- or low-brow audience in the real science of evolution, say. Oliver Morton used to ask why we can’t write a molecular biology story in which the protagonist is a molecule, not a (hopefully quirky) scientist. That final trick might be a touch beyond my grasp, but all of us can treat science with the respect and reality it deserves. And I think that means spending a little less time look for the quirk and the flash, and a little more figuring out where and why society will connect with science stories on their own terms. Most of science, after all, is neither quirky nor particularly breakthrough-ey. But that doesn’t mean that a great deal of it can’t be interesting, relevant and engaging beyond the small subset of us (i.e. everyone reading this thread, everyone tweeting about it, everyone who knows that “Discover,” to choose a random example, is still publishing) who already know that. I.e., outside the ghetto.

  5. There is, of course, a desperate need for science journalists to illuminate the technical underpinnings of potentially reckless social behavior: hydraulic fracturing, tar sands development, Iranian nuclear adventurism. But to dismiss stories about snub-nosed dinosaurs and duck sex as fluff diminishes one of story-telling’s best gambits. Every story about dinosaurs is an opportunity to engage the millions of Americans who don’t understand or believe in evolution. The dinosaur is only the vehicle for a much more important story. A duck sex story (I recently wrote one about sage grouse sex) is a way to seduce a listener into considering habitat destruction and even climate change as something that might affect said duck sex. Evolution and climate change are, I would propose, as important topics for our time as you can find. Dinosaurs and ducks are just the bait.

  6. Good provocation, Dan. But I’m not sure how you determine that there’s a paucity of science writing on the big political or economic issues of the day. At the Times, I can point to Andrew Pollack at the Times looking at the biomedical industrial complex through the lens of science. Or Charles Duhigg & others using interactive visualization to reveal widespread water pollution. I could go on.

    And to the extent that science writing *has* been ghetto-ized, aren’t you blaming the victim a bit? If the power structure at a newspaper is drawn from the political staff, perhaps they themselves might not know that much about science and prefer to avoid it, thus keeping it at the margins.

  7. I see two issues here which are linked, but somewhat confused in the article and response to it. The first of these issues, and the reason why science writing is confined to a “ghetto” within journalism, is that “news” is defined by journalism to be the things that directly affect people, and rates the importance of that news by how many and how much people are affected by it. This means that most developments in pure science are not considered very “newsworthy” and results in an undervaluation of science journalism.

    The second of these things is the criticism of some pure science journalism as being too uncritical of the institutions behind the science and acting as an uncritical cheerleader for possibly questionable advances. Again, one of the fundamental parts of “newsworthiness” is held to be a critical distance and skepticism of stated motives. I think this criticism is somewhat valid: without this aspect, science journalism runs the risk of being like tech or games journalism: fields where reports analyzing the latest advances shy away from deeper discussion of broader ethical implications. I see the best of science journalism as being far above this problem, but I can understand how someone would wish to see more critical reporting from science writers.

  8. Science writing does not hit the majority of people and speak to what they value, and what advertisers value as the click on sites. But that in no way argues that science writing is not valuable. Indeed, it makes it more so because formulaic contents designed to hit the masses is of necessity bland. Content on the latest advances in science (or history, english lit, philosophy) will never be mass media but beautiful writing by great writers like Ed Yong who commented above does increases the proportion of people who are challenged to think of content whose sole purpose on the web is often to increase clicks on sites.

  9. Great points! I know exactly what Dan is talking about and I have some of the same frustrations. For me, being a science journalist is to be a journalist first–the core mission is to hold powerful institutions accountable, empower readers with essential information, promote transparency and “afflict the comfortable,” etc. This is why I do not consider myself a science “communicator”: I see my role not as a conduit for discoveries, but as a knowledgeable outside observer on the enterprise of science, with a perspective on how it intersects with money, politics, and everyday life.
    The frustration is that I don’t get much opportunity to write those stories for consumer markets. It’s hard to get editors interested, because in general there seems to be more reader interest in stories about supernovae and “How the brain does X” and robots crawling around Mars, which can be fluff, or can be fascinating and enlightening and intellectually important (the way that Ed writes them!).
    There should be room for both.

  10. Seems to me science as a field is too often thought of as a niche interest. Everyone has some investment in/awareness of, say, politics or business, but science is often cornered off as an extra—like, as Dan says, ice cream. You don’t need to know why your debit card works in order to pay your bills. And so science journalism often goes the same way, unless the writer makes an explicit effort to point out to the reader why this stuff matters.

    I think it’s a shame that we need to use dinosaurs as “bait,” and perhaps if science journalism were incorporated more broadly into general news coverage, we wouldn’t need to. There’s also the matter of general science literacy. I like writing about galaxies and particles (in addition to budgets and policy), and it’s disheartening to see how many people—whom I know personally and who want to support my work—simply skip over my articles on the assumption that they just won’t understand them. I worry that this is the reaction many general readers have to science-related stories, and it prevents intelligent reporting and discussion about major issues like health care and climate change.

    Anyway, I’m brand new to the field, and find it all very exciting. I’m happy to get to be part of the conversation.

  11. Yanno, I concur there is something of a “science ghetto” in terms of its inclusion in the mainstream media, but I have to echo Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer’s points above: is this really the “fault” of the kind of science we write about, or is it a reflection of the huge bias towards political coverage that exists in our media? Science is under-valued, but saying it really should just focus on the here and now and impact on current events is the anti-thesis of what science is all about.

    Dan, I think you ARE a little biased by your own “beat”: health, environmental, technology, business, and scientific aspects of current events/policy are good and essential, but they do NOT trump other kinds of science writing in importance. Personally, the topics you cite as most important bore me. That doesn’t mean I dismiss them as fluffy or insignificant or not the best use of science writing.

    There are bigger more complex forces at work when it comes to what a culture (and its media) values. I think there is strong evidence that PEOPLE like and value science rather a lot when they get the chance to encounter it. That they DON’T often encounter it in the mainstream media has more to do with the editorial decisions being made. If the editors don’t value science, then their readers won’t hear about it.

  12. Dan makes some great points, but I agree with Carl that this is a little bit of blaming the victim. Why IS David Brooks educating people about neuroscience and sociology? I think it’s at least in part because people with the most journalistic “prestige,” as perceived by their fellows and by the public, are those who pontificate about politics. So this isn’t entirely our fault.

    I also think a lot of non-science journalists view science as esoteric and difficult. In some mainstream, non-specialist publications, like the newspaper I used to work for, things like the Deepwater Horizon spill and climate change become largely political stories. This can be attributed to a lack of scientific knowledge, but it’s also because science writers are seen as being in the gee-whiz, duck-penis-and-stars business. Meaning not well-versed in the economics of a major oil spill or the geopolitics of carbon cap and trade. I don’t think we’ve walled ourselves off in a secret garden, necessarily — it’s also that assignment editors and readers have us over there, providing fluffy gee-whizzery, and then politics and economics writers are the ones who do the contextual, big-picture stories and afflict the comforted.

    But I’m so happy I left political journalism for science writing four years ago. Scientists are like the opposite of politicians — they want to engage, and they (usually) don’t try to BS me, and when I write about their work, people (usually) don’t hate my commie pinko lies and my conservative propaganda in the same article on the same day. Plus I get to talk about stuff like bloated (gouty?) stars. Science is just … more fun. But I think it’s the sirloin, too. Explaining the concept of evolution with dinosaurs, for instance, is always going to feel more exciting and important than explaining the concept of quantitative easing.
    I guess I wish more people thought that way, and thought of those stories as the prestigious, interesting and fundamentally important ones.

  13. [[edited not for substance but for civility]] While science has many practical applications, it isn’t bounded by them. It’s an indication of both arrogance and ignorance to hold a view as a communicator that people are only interested in what affects them. People are better than that and while they will eat whats on the menu, it is a communicators job to ensure its diverse and interesting, not meat and potatoes. The opportunity of public communication is to expand people’s thinking, to encourage them to explore what is beyond their horizons and to surprise them with new knowledge, especially if it has not immediate impact on them. I’d hope wonder, imagination and sheer curiosity would have a deserved and important role in our society.

  14. I suspect that id humankind had always focused on research that was of direct and immediate practical benefit, we would still be investigating the best kind of stone for making axes and whether whale oil or lard was a better lubricant for wooden axles.

  15. This is a thorny topic, with a lot of confounding factors. What do people read? What do they want to read? What do the gatekeepers (editors, for example) assign to writers? How do these same people interpret success of a story? Hits? Unique readers? And there are time factors, like big traffic spikes that die rapidly versus long tail engagement that lasts for days or weeks.

    And then there’s the goal, which may be different for Dan and others than it is for me. I want to engage people in science, show them it’s beautiful and fun and cool, and relevant to their lives. Sometimes it’s no more than that (pretty pictures with some insight into the science behind it), but other times I’ll drill down into a topic if it has broader or more direct impact (vaccines, climate change, teaching evolution). For me, this is a full meal of meat-and-potatoes and dessert.

    And finally, note that we have a zillion people writing science now, so there’s room for people to specialize in both. And we do have both, I think. What’s needed is for some of the bigger venues to recognize that, and give science the platform it needs, both for “juicy” bits (the political and military aspects mentioned in the main article) as well as the engaging stories of specific nifty things like exploding stars and duck sex.

  16. Having covered straight-ahead Washington politics as well as duck-penis science (sorry, Ed, but this unfair shorthand is too good to check), I will tell you that at a general interest publication, the science beat is seen as a niche, albeit an important one. Classically, even when breaking news has a science component–Deepwater Horizon, an exploding spacecraft with people on board, etc.–the science writers don’t write the lead piece (with, sure, exceptions–Tom, Erika, and I would all point at Sharon Begley’s Newsweek years there). Dan’s making an important point, and saying he’s “blaming the victim” doesn’t make it go away–and maybe cheapens that expression a little bit.

    Of course those of us reading this site are going to think that explaining the way the universe works is more important, objectively, than explaining the way the Senate works. That’s true in the sense that the former ought to feel more satisfying as a humanist pursuit, but false in the sense of people needing immediate knowledge about, say, taxes or civil rights versus, say, supernovas or duck penises.

    Luckily we can find overlap. No assigning editor worth his or her place on the masthead is going to turn down a story that uncovers the hidden science behind some super-important, apparently non-science subject. We can all take delight in quirky, weird stories–I’m first in line–but I also believe that part of our responsibility is giving stories the scientific context we’re trained to offer.

  17. Journalists write about things that are relevant to people’s lives today.

    Science journalists write about things that are relevant to people’s lives tomorrow.

  18. Consider me firmly in Dan’s camp. I think more discussion about science policy and how and why we fund and conduct the work we do is vital, but then that might not be surprising since i used science writing to break into policy.

    But it’s no secret that science journalism is frequently criticized for being science cheerleading, something several of the commenters in this thread have even written about in the past.

  19. The reason the “science ghetto” perhaps exists is perceptive. People don’t respect science as a legitimate study and moreover, don’t respect it as a process. The reason science journalists cover topics Dan considers “ice cream” is because the relevant connections haven’t been made yet. Engineers for example don’t study scientific phenomena for the heck of it; they need the knowledge for a better understanding of what-has-been-done’s and what-could-be’s in solving real world problems. And if the news outlets aren’t the ones to change the public mindset and promote different ways of thinking, who will?

    If we can help the public to be more generalist of its views, a mastery of both science and the practical counterparts, then we can synthesize a much more intelligent and broad conversation about the issues that matter and even the issues that are worth even musing over–because maybe that is where the substance is hiding.

  20. While I don’t think the blame can be laid at the feet of science writers, this is a genuine problem:

    “Where is the science writer on the editorial pages at the the top 10 newspapers? Where is the science writer offering a perspective on the political debate of the day on network or cable news? Where is the science writer sitting at the editor in chief’s desk at Time, or The New Yorker, or The Atlantic? Why is David Brooks explaining social science or neuroscience to readers?”

    As political issues not only become more science-focused (e.g., global warming), but political stories become more quantitative and analysis-driven, having more science writers and scientists who are comfortable with science, the scientific method, and quantitative analysis is critical

  21. It’s good to see that a number of people are supporting Dan’s points, which I think were mostly well made. I’ve followed the science coverage in USA Today for years now, since they’re part of our audience. Our supernova and black holes stories used to appear in the science column in the Life section, but once that column disappeared so did much of the USA Today coverage of our stories, along with those of others in many science fields. I can understand Dan’s motivation for wanting more science background to be included in stories for the main section of the paper: self-preservation as an employee of USA Today.

    We’re well aware that some people love our supernova stories and others couldn’t care less, just like with ice-cream and cookies. People don’t *need* dessert to survive, but life would be plainer without them.

    Also, kudos to Ann for her interesting comments and questions and for encouraging this provocative post. I really enjoy reading discussions like this and I think they’re valuable.

  22. Perhaps I used the wrong article, “a” rather than “the” would have been a better choice. That said you’ve constructed quite the flimsy straw man Dan. I don’t think anyone has ever said ” that a science writer isn’t allowed to find as much or more meaning in the lives and well-being of the people around them than in some esoteric development in astronomy.”

    I too think there needs to be more balance, but I suspect differ in that I think it is the other reporters that should be finding that balance. If some journalist is writing a story on a political story that has a scientific aspect they would seek out experts and work with them to provide meaningful background and perspective.

    But if we as as a society have decided to have an NSF to fund research on dinosaur diversity, the mechanisms of super nova formation, and duck penises because such research is interesting and important for some reason than we need journalists to cover that and translate it to the public so they can understand why we do that kind of research.

    It is part of developing a scientifically literate public, and that, like most of science, may not have immediate benefits for society but lays the groundwork for debating important questions like what do we do about global warming and human driven extinctions (lots of basic science can inform our decisions here) and just what does it take to build a nuclear bomb?

  23. This discussion is less fraught if we’re better at defining terms: Encompassing science reporting, there’s the broader idea of the science-based reporter — someone who judges claims based on the lit, understands the limits of statistical significance, etc.

    There are pools of science-based reporters in business, econ, environment — even politics! We can do that work, too; many of us do. We don’t have to do it all the time. (Though I think it’s what staff reporters at general-interest pubs will increasingly do.) But we should find those other science-based reporters, foster their interest, and collaborate.

    Then we all take over.

  24. Well, in support of Dan, the story I wrote at the Washington Post that received the most positive attention both inside the newsroom (A1 placement, editor praise) and outside (page views and comments) was about the lack of jobs for scientists. So, yeah, there is positive reinforcement for venturing out of the ghetto. Now, was it as fun to write as the fire ant-raft story? Nah…

  25. I would also reflect that in a larger sense, scientists themselves are somewhat in the influence ghetto (at least by Dan’s measures). There are very few highly elected officials with a science background. The same is true for captains of industry (maybe with the exception of computer scientists, but they diverge fairly distantly from research scientists). There just isn’t a high apex of money or power in our society at even the highest levels of science, so I think part of the issue is that science journalism mirrors the relative influence of science on society as a whole.

    You know, as a relative newcomer to this area, I remember when I learned of Dan Vergano and was surprised that not only does USA Today have a science writer, they actually have a good one. It seems to me it’s an outlet who values populism at a very high level, so it’s not surprising to me that someone trying to do legitimate science writing there feels a bit ghetto-ized, but I’m sure glad you do it and I hope you keep pushing to change that.

    And maybe the best question: why ISN’T Carl Zimmer getting the occasional New York Times Op-Ed? Let’s be honest, I bet he could get one if he really wanted one.

  26. I would love to read more articles on the relationship of science in society. Eisenhower in his famous farewell speech in 1960 warned us of the military industrial complex. But what few people know is that he also warned us of a second influence: the scientific-technical elite:

    “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

    It is important for journalists to expose this influence. It is there, and it is something that we need to worry about.

    But it is equally important to report the discoveries of science. In the last week, an extremely important discovery was made in cosmology – more important than the Planck results. One major prediction of the Big Bang theory has finally been verified after 50 years. Only three elements are produced in the BB – hydrogen, helium, and lithium. Lithium has finally been measured correctly, and it agrees remarkably well with the predictions of the Big Bang theory.

    Now, in order to calculate the production of lithium, the bomb code executables need to be used. But what is the lasting significance of this discovery – that astronomy has used a code needed in making bombs, or that a half century prediction of the Big Bang has been confirmed?

  27. Why did I not know that news about the Big Bang lithium and the bomb, Nick? I don’t know which is more important — I’d vote for the former — but put together, they make a hell of a story. Dibs on a blog post stolen from a comment. And do you see the scientific/technical elite influencing public policy at all, let alone excessively? I can’t say I do but maybe I don’t know where to look. Wonderful comment, as usual.

  28. I’m surprised Nate Silver’s name hasn’t come up in this discussion. He’s someone who used sophisticated statistical techniques to report on politics. For that, he got widely attacked by the political reporters and, by various reports, felt unwelcome at the times. Why would anyone assume that someone who tried to inject science in political reporting would be received any better?

    I also happen to work some place where covering the science behind tech developments is highly encouraged. But there’s a problem: it’s almost impossible to do. Companies almost never want to tell you the technical details of their products, and their patent filings are always written as broadly as possible. The last time we reported in detail on something like that, we had a research lab donate time on its electron microscope – that’s not something that’s going to happen that often.

    This isn’t to say that Dan doesn’t have some interesting suggestions. What i’d have liked to see more of is some suggestion as to how to actually go about following up on them.

  29. So I’ve pretty much written about science exclusively for science-focused sections and publications for a decade now. I have no problem writing about pure science news for science aficionados. However, I’ve also written and enjoyed writing other kinds of stories for more general publications, and I know the hunger to appear on A1, above the fold. I wonder if part of the divide in the comments section reflects the experience of working on one side of the divide versus both sides of the divide.

    I don’t think both sides are mutually exclusive, and I don’t think anyone’s arguing both sides are mutually exclusive. I do agree with Dan in wanting more stories about the science in mainstream news, rather than just stories about just the science, but like Brian, darned if I don’t prefer writing stories about just the science.

    I do agree with Dan that science writers should put themselves out there more, if only to ensure proper coverage of important topics. There’ve been some real messes when it comes to climate change and neuroscience, among other topics.

  30. I agree with Dan that there is a pretty segregated science-publishing space (“ghetto” is a loaded way of saying it), but I don’t think it comes from something as simple and ephemeral as what science journalists choose to write about day-to-day — I thnk it has more to do with deep-seated preferences in different cultures and subcultures.

    In the culture of big mainstream publications like newspapers, science for the sake of science just isn’t that popular. In surveys readers can be persuaded to say they like science, and they can be lured into reading stories that are especially grabby (e.g., men are from Mars-type stuff), especially big (e.g., Higgs boson), or especially timely (e.g., did global warming cause Hurricane Sandy). But the plain truth of it is that most people who read mainstream American publications (I don’t know other countries’ audiences as well) don’t care much about science. Many more of them care a lot more about national political and economic issues, which is why those are the prestigious beats.

    In the overall science market — if you averaged out all the publications aimed at people actively seeking out science — the most popular topic is “look at this really freaking cool science.” There are definitely science readers who are interested in seeing science applied to electoral politics, or art, or sci-fi, or holding science institutions to account. But the greatest common denominator among science readers, the heart of the beat, is still “look at this awesomely interesting thing about the world.” I think that’s why the science “ghetto” doesn’t cover science-in-real-life as much as Dan wants: It’s not as broadly popular among traditional science readers that the publications serve.

    But there’s a silver lining to the unbundling of newspapers and the disintegration of their science sections: There’s lots of new stuff happening online, and much of it has the potential to cover science in some different ways from the traditional mainstream and science markets. Places like Aeon, Matter, and Nautilus (where I work) are covering science in new ways and carving out new niches. Bigger, established pubs like The New Yorker and The Economist have increased their science coverage, and they go about it in different ways. Newsy, non-science digital pubs like HuffPo, The Verge, and Business Insider have started doing more and/or better science coverage.

    I don’t think the growth and development of digital journalism is going to suddenly elevate science writers to prestige positions in the mainstream media world. But I think it will give journalists a lot more opportunities for flexibility in what they cover.

  31. One thing I should probably mention in all of these comments is this was largely an attempt to define the “science ghetto” for folks who may not have heard of it before. It seems to have struck a nerve, likely because it is part of an old debate in science reporting, going back to at least the publication of Silent Spring, raising the sort of questions that we should always be asking ourselves as professionals. But it is just a critique (a hypothesis, if you will). Try and see it in that spirit, not as an assault on the in its totality, but as a way to ask where the field is headed in the mobile era.

  32. Looks like the comment thing ate some words:

    Try and see it in that spirit, not as an assault on science reporting in its totality, but as a way to ask where the field is headed in the mobile era.

  33. I’m firmly in Dan’s camp. But, I have a different take on it of course. Having been privileged to once long ago work for a medium size local paper for at least 50% of my time as a science writer, what I think is missing, and what maybe Dan was referring to, is the integration of the science writers expertise into stories in general. I got to write side bars on the science behind legislative or agency decisions. I got to write about how science and technology influenced life in the community, i.e., sewage treatment, recycling, fish hatcheries, etc.

    When there was national news, I got to write the local connection, but it was science, engineering or technology I wrote about, not the aunt of the person working at NASA. And it was great fun. I even got to do a small bit of investigative reporting.

    I know that this ability wasn’t very prevalent in the 70s when the paper allowed me to do it and it isn’t now. And yeah, why should some political writer explain what the Clean Air Act has to do with our lives. It has never made sense to me.

    Yes, I love writing about interesting engineering innovations and climate science and even the random penis story, but I agree that we should also (collective we) be engaged in bringing the science content to the political, economic and international news, and that just does not happen as much as it used to, and that wasn’t all that much to start with.

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