Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A weather eye on the public understanding of science

A new blog called RealClimate >> Climate Science has begun to do for climate what the various evolution sites do for evolution - attempt to deal with public misunderstanding, and in particular journalistic misunderstanding, of the science.

For some years I dealt with the media as a PR hack for an educational institution. In that time, I came to several, rather cynical, conclusions:

1. Journalists tend to major in economics or political science, if they have any education at all.

2. The media is not about information, but attitude.

3. Education is a word that many use, but few actually understand.

In almost every case in which the media dealt with an issue arising from my institution, whether technical or not, they got it wrong. Blanket. The errors ranged from about half wrong to all wrong. Sometimes, it was hard to see what they were actually referring to.

Ironically, the most accurate the media ever were was when they did what I call "top and tailing": taking a media release (that had been checked by those involved), adding a (wrong) opening and closing paragraph, and putting a journalist's by-line to it. It was dishonest and everybody knew it, but it meant that at least some of the information was right.

The least accurate stories on education or science were when journalists took it upon themselves to be "investigative". We had stories of experiments on children, fraud claims, exaggerated claims about new technologies, especially computers, and so forth. Now I work for a medical research institute and we get the same things here (one "quality" paper tried to blame the Institute from the 1950s for experimenting on orphan children - what actually happened was that the nuns who ran an orphanage came to the institute to ask for help to stop the kids dying of pneumonia).

My conclusion? There is not the slightest justification for the media. None at all. It's all about pushing the agendas of those who own them to achieve the society they want. It's Plato's Big Lie (he called it a Noble Lie, but let's be honest here).

Perhaps I'm just a sad disillusioned old man. Congrats to the Real Climate folk, anyway...