Science Journalism (or Lack Thereof) and Its Impact on the Senate

If a scientist makes a finding, is there anyone around to explain it?

In the same week that the U.S. Senate voted to declare whether or not climate change was a hoax, and, separately, whether it is caused by human activity, the Wilson Quarterly posted a piece by recent Wilson Center scholar Louise Lief on our country’s science journalism deficit.

Scientists and the work they do, writes Lief, are largely a mystery to the public:

In a March 2011 Research!America survey, two-thirds of Americans polled could not name a single living scientist. Little surprise, then, that the National Science Board has found that a majority of Americans do not understand what scientists do at work.

Undoubtedly, this contributes to the wide gap that exists between what scientists think and what the public believes.

The real-world effects, as they play out on our country’s front pages, have been especially obvious of late, whether it was the hysterical coverage of Ebola or Congress’ relationship to scientific consensus. The Grist’s David Roberts summed up the Senate vote on climate change nicely:

It was a striking juxtaposition: a governmental body comprised of lay people deciding on an issue that professionals have put through decades of rigorous scientific study.

The Schatz Amendment, on whether humans are largely to blame for climate change, was the one that really illustrated the political implications of the lack of public discourse on science. Forty-nine members of Congress disagreed with the consensus of 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists.

And the American public is as divided as Congress on that question. A recent Pew survey showed that 40 percent of participants believe climate change is man-made, almost as much as the 35 percent who deny climate change exists at all. Among conservatives, the percentage of those who believe humans contribute to climate change falls to about 8 percent.

The space between what scientists believe and what the public believes gets lost in translation precisely because there aren’t many journalists around to explain the findings to the public. Nor is much space devoted to covering science. According to Lief:

In the general media, where most of the public still gets its news, there is almost no science or environmental coverage. A Pew Research Center content analysis of a broad sampling of media outlets cited by the National Science Board revealed that from 2007 to 2010, science and technology accounted for only 1.5 percent of all news stories, with the same percentage for environmental news. That number dropped to 1 percent in both categories in 2011.

As CJR has noted, it’s a shrinking coverage area: whole science departments have been wiped out, J-schools are shutting down science reporting programs and papers are dropping their science reporters.

Lief argues that science needn’t necessarily be the domain solely of specialists, and that it can and should be incorporated into the work of journalists covering a variety of fields. But many have pointed out there is still a need for more specialists who are able to not only interpret a single study, but understand how a study fits into a body of research. These ideas are not necessarily at odds with each other, but the question of how to achieve these ends, how to make the discussion of science a comfortable part of our vernacular, palatable enough to sustain interest and reverse the winnowing of coverage, remains.