Television 

science 

programs 

aren't bad ...

they are just

not in the 

same league 

as those by 

the "enemy."

 

 

 

 

Science and the Media
Prominent skeptics examine the roots of misinformation
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
Scientists and skeptics are infuriated over the media's science reporting. A panel of prominent skeptics, hosted by National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, spoke from the First World Skeptics Congress in Buffalo, New York. The live phone-in talk show focused on how science is covered. The consensus: hysteria and sensationalism rule the day.

     Misinformation is ubiquitous and it leaves scientists fuming. Recently, while walking through Oregon State University's life sciences building, I saw, tacked to the main bulletin board, an article torn from the San Francisco Chronicle. The article reported Danish men who ate organic foods had higher sperm counts. It went on to discuss how sperm counts around the world were declining. In large, dark letters above the article someone had tacked a sign "Irresponsible Journalism!!" Below they had posted a list of studies whose results contradicted reports of declining sperm counts. The article did not mention of any of these studies, or the contradictory nature of the data.

     Scientists' fuming erupted into fury last February when NBC aired their pseudo-documentary, The Mysterious Origins of Man. Scientists protested, calling the program "shameful" and "irresponsible." Jere Lipps, director of the University of California's Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley, was quoted in Science as saying, "What makes me so upset is their distortion of science and what science is all about." Skeptics, too, protested. CSICOP's newsletter, Skeptical Briefs, and many local groups, published the names, addresses, and phone numbers of NBC staff and a list of sponsors to contact with complaints. NBC appeared not to notice the protests at the time, but capitalized on them by using innuendoes of 'What are scientists hiding from us?' when they promoted the program's rebroadcast in June.

     Despite Mysterious Origins anti-Darwinian message and criticism of closed-minded scientists, even creationists were disgruntled. Hosted by former Moses, Charlton Heston, it contradicted the creationists' young-Earth view and, instead, set out to "prove" human-like species have existed on Earth for 100 million years and have progressed to civilization multiple times. As evidence they showed what were supposedly: 55 million-year-old tools, fossil evidence that humans lived with dinosaurs, and astronomical data indicating Incan monuments and the Sphinx are 12,000 years old.

    Mysterious Origins was based on the book Forbidden Archaeology by Michael Crema and Dr. Richard Thompson and on the teachings of Hare Krishna. It was apparently well received by its 15 million viewers. According to Skeptic magazine, the ISKCON World Review (the Hare Krishna newspaper) reported "viewers ordered 4,500 copies of Forbidden Archeology ($40 each) within 12 days after the program aired. They also ordered 5,000 videos of the show at $19.99 each." CBS's May 1 special, Mysteries of the Millennium, which combined Biblical prophesies, Indian folklore, Nostradamus' predictions, and ecological disaster scenarios to support an apocalyptic end to the world with the coming millennium, reportedly was also popular. Of course there are countless other pseudoscientific specials, network series, and talk shows, most presented unquestioned, as though they were factual.

     Why is the quality of science reporting so poor and the quantity of pseudoscience reporting so overwhelming? Does the media have a responsibility to provide factual information or merely entertaining programming?

     According to Paul Kurtz, CSICOP Chairman and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at State University of New York, media outlets aren't interested in education, but in profits. There is an attitude among those who control the media that "as long as I have high ratings, that's all I need." Major publishing houses, often owned by the same people, repeat the same paranormal misinformation as television. They simply repackage the same products in different forms to fit television or print.

     While misinformation and pseudoscience has always been around, said Kurtz, the problem is worse now because we educate less effectively than we used to, leaving people more susceptible to mystery-mongering by the media. The public is often misled because television fails to distinguish between entertainment and information. "The media," said Kurtz, "have replaced schools and universities and, I believe, the scientific community."

     Or, as another panel member described it, television has become "the great village explainer." More people attend college today, said John Paulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University, yet astronomy professors complain students don't know the difference between astronomy and astrology - an effect they blame on the mass media.

     Milton Rosenberg is a social psychologist at the University of Chicago and host of the talk show Extension 720 which is carried on WGN, a leading commercial radio station in Chicago. He has maintained consistently high ratings for 25 years while covering many scientific topics. He feels audiences will "rise to the level of the programming." Unfortunately, he observed, most talk shows provide "misinformation, mystery mongering, and sensationalism that emphasizes the likelihood of astrology, alternative medicines, ESP, psychokinesis, psycho babble, alien abduction, and whatever is the paranormal panic or paraphysical promise of the year."

     "It is nonsense to see this as a global conspiracy by the mass media," argued Phillip Adams, a broadcast producer and co-founder of the Australian Skeptics. "People want to believe. They are like fish that jump out of the river, find the bait in the basket, and hook themselves." He pointed out that if the mass media were to disappear tomorrow, the nonsense wouldn't end. "It is almost as if the dazzling light of science has cast very dark shadows in which these counter-cultures survive. They don't need the media; they have their own specialized media in print magazines and fringe publications," he said.

     Even when the media report legitimate science, they often get the story wrong. Many journalists assigned to cover science have never taken a science class beyond their required introductory biology course; they don't understand science themselves. The information they report is often so oversimplified as to be wrong. The gray areas of real science are difficult to explain - and impossible to convey in a sound-bite format. "There is a trade-off between precision and clarity," said Paulos. "Especially in newspapers where an enlightening clarity is always preferred over a muddled collection of details - even correct details." Numbers are usually presented without context or the means to evaluate them. Unless one knows where the numbers have come from and the protocol used to collect them, they are difficult to interpret. Paulos suggests journalists adopt a standard litany of questions: "How many? How likely? What is the rate? Is the rate increasing or decreasing? Is this a study or anecdote? What are the details? Can the numbers be tallied in different ways? Do the numbers say what they are purported to say? These are simple questions," said Paulos.

     The panel discussed other problems that diminish the quality of science reporting. The media may try to polarize an issue to make it more exciting. Polarization also makes reporting easier, since extremes require less explanation. Or they attempt to present "both sides" of a story, leading to what one panelist called "the spurious search for the flat-Earth person to balance it out." One caller complained, "journalists are credential happy. They think the opinion of a Ph.D. or medical doctor, even one outside of his expertise, is gospel. This has a terrible influence on how the public sees controversial issues."

     Scientists themselves compound these problems. Often they will not talk to journalists. "Many scientists rate the press one step below Congress people," said show host, Ira Flato. Their reluctance may stem from having been burned in the past, usually by being misquoted or misunderstood, remarked one panelist. This again is often aggravated by scientists who use jargon or find it difficult to explain their highly specialized knowledge for a general audience.

     There is a perception that science is boring and can't draw the audiences or the readership of other kinds of programming. Adams, however, argued the problem was not the subject of science, but how it is covered. "The television science programs aren't bad ... they are just not in the same league as those by the enemy," said Adams. Most science writing and programming fails to catch the "awe and wonderment and dread with which people confront the universe ... storytellers are much better. So if science is going to compete with the storytellers, with the fable - it has got to learn a bit of language. I think it is too easy to dump on the media and not say to the scientist, 'You've got a job to do. You've got to go out and communicate with a better sense of wonderment'."

     Adams believes science can best be popularized through fiction. "You won't win the fight with documentaries; you'll win it with drama because that's where kids get most of their spiritual and intellectual nourishment," said Adams. "What we need is a television series called CSICOP - like Robocop - with Arnold Schwarznegger playing Paul Kurtz smashing through the door, confronting the fundamentalist."

     One dubious caller pointed out that pop culture usually portrays scientists as villains, the maniacs who want to change the world or mess with mother nature. But Adams defended fiction saying, "Understand the impulse there. We live in a century of megadeath, overkill, Hiroshima. We live in a century when science has to be equated in some sense with technological, appalling outcomes. It's not Frankenstein - its alive and well in our century. So I understand the yearning and fears people express. It's a little too glib to say they are silly, psychotic, mad. These are genuine fears the community feels and they have got to be dealt with rationally."

     Kurtz stressed the importance of having a populace that understands science and its methods, "Our civilization is based on science and technology and unless we convey the key point that science is not a miracle, but is based upon the process of reflective inquiry where you test claims by reference to evidence, it seems to me it is difficult to make progress."

     CSICOP has just announced the formation of the Council for Media Integrity to be chaired by entertainer Steve Allen and Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg. Also joining the council is a long list of other well-known scientists and science writers. While there is concern to avoid any appearance of censorship, the council hopes to convince the media that it has a responsibility to present some science-based programming to counter the huge numbers of paranormal offerings by the major networks.

     "We here at the First World's Skeptics Congress feel we have an education task to convince those in the media that they do have some responsibility," said Kurtz.
 
 

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality