Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

When Science Meets Culture: What do we do with scientific knowledge?

EVE SAVORY, Documentary Reporter, The National, CBC

I was listening to the really interesting discussion from our two philosophers and learning a lot, but I was thinking: there really is a third solitude: Us.

I think that C.P. Snow was talking about the intellectuals of the ‘30s, the literary intellectuals and the scientific intellectuals, who would gather at cocktail parties and not begin to mingle. They couldn’t talk to each other.

But there’s all of those of us who don’t understand science words; don’t know what nominalism is; don’t care what a social construct is.

And those are the ones I have to talk to and I have to translate between the scientists and that third solitude that, really, doesn’t give a damn about the two cultures.

Listening to the really stimulating discussions, I kept thinking should be the dream beat. It’s new. It’s important. It affects our lives. It has drama and personalities and its certainly got some weird things going on.

I always think scientists and journalists have a lot in common, because we all want to find out something new; we all want to be the first to tell the world and, if this isn’t naive, I think we all would like to leave the world a little better understood by our work.

But it’s not a front page issue, is it? We all know that. And most reporters are not interested in talking to scientists. And most scientists don’t want to talk to journalists. And many in the public are only interested in science if it’s sexy, forbidden or does something to their food.

And they’re only interested in the environment if it does something to their water. And all of them will deny this, of course.

I have a couple of caveats: I am very proud to work for the CBC. It still has the Nature of Things and Quirks and Quarks; Bob Macdonald is on our show, The National Magazine, and there’s many scientific interviews on radio and television.

I also have another caveat: there’s Discovery channel now. And there are many specialists who cover science and do it well.

I’ve only covered this beat sporadically in the last few years. My job no longer exists, the science, medicine and technology job.

I haven’t done it since 1991. It was abolished because of cutbacks.

So I may be a little out of date.

But I do think, generally, that the vast majority of journalists just don’t want to touch science.

I want to take a few minutes to examine why we and everyone else covers every nuance of politics; why newspapers have daily food and sports and business sections and not a science section.

One reason is the way we work.

Journalism has been described as a profession, which is debatable to begin with, that requires thrusting one’s self into one unintelligible topic after another and, subsequently, passing one’s self as an expert.

So, the reporter who shows up for a newser at a molecular biology lab in the afternoon may well have been at the cop shop that morning. And you have ask, how can a scientist who devotes decades to one project, respect that reporter?

And how can the reporter, who needs the constant stimulus of the new, find that scientist’s narrow focus exciting? My own personal moto, by the way, is that news is the daily opiate of the restless.

And there’s the way we speak.

We speak English, or a variant thereof. We want certainty and positive results. Scientists often speak a jargon that only those in their own specialized discipline can comprehend and they speak of uncertainty and they see value in negative results.

There can be wilful refusal by scientists to understand the difficulties of our medium.

If I’m in the news biz, I cannot, for example, do an interview next month on a subject that has been published in Nature today. I’ve been asked to do that. And I’m in television, I need pictures – no, sir, I cannot do this interview on the telephone.

Scientists want to document everything.

Some years ago I wanted to do a story on transgenic mice. Ralph Brinster had put human growth hormone into a mouse and the picture on Science was of this giant, fat little mouse and its little, tiny normal sister.

I was told he will never again talk to television, because ABC had refused to mention his half dozen collaborators and the granting agencies in a two minute story.

I was really glad to hear John Polanyi say this morning that scientists no longer think that they can ethically bury themselves in their lab and devote themselves only to their work, because one of the great difficulties whenever there’s anything controversial is getting a scientist to talk about it.

I’ve had to go to the United States to someone to counter Gerry Nerifkin’s claims about biotechnology. I remember years ago finding it impossible to get anyone to talk about creationism from a scientific point of view.

One of the things that makes life really tough for science reporters is fear of peer smear. That’s the snarky, snarly attitude that a colleague who talks happily to the media, or worse, directly to the public, is a grubby, attention-grabber who should never have been given tenure.

Scientists have very good reasons to be cautious of us, of course.

Mark Twain once said, truth is such a precious article. Let us all economize in its use.

Perhaps, some journalists have taken this as their personal motto. We get things wrong. Some pump up the unimportant. A minor development is a major breakthrough. Conversely, sometimes we underplay, or totally miss the truly relevant. At our best we are storytellers.

That means we look for drama and crisis and conflict, the human story and the eureka moment. Where none is to be found, some reporters will find it anyway, or declare there is no story.

As H.G. Wells said about the press, the trouble is they don’t know the difference between a highway accident and the death of civilization.

We are too easily awed by the scientist in the white coat. We are uncritical of his or her self-congratulatory announcements. The magazine New Scientist has said that we, the lay media, retail science and medicine; we don’t investigate them, we distort.

I was talking to Paul Davies earlier and he pointed out that from the amount of coverage given to dinosaurs you’d think there are legions of scientists busy digging out old bones in the dusty plains. In fact, there’s a handful. But it’s sexy and our viewers want it.

Mathematics, entomology, solid state physics, geology might well not exist. And I’m certainly guilty of that.

And journalists seldom tell our consumers about the fits and starts of research; the failures, the fights the frauds; the funding lost, the funding found; the jealousies, the setbacks, the determination, the co-operation, the blood, the sweat, the toil end tears of science.

Because reporters are trained to seek out balance, for which you can also read – conflict – and because a reporter, him or herself often doesn’t have a foggy clue how to distinguish between a fringe scientist, trying to make a splash, and one of stature and, therefore, gives equal time to both, the public can find it impossible to tell who has credibility in a story that we report.

Science is very expensive to cover. It takes time to research these issues; to understand them, to get to where they’re happening. The appetite always, but especially now when budgets are so tight and newsrooms stretched so thin, is for the quick and cheap story that can be turned around in a day.

And the extraordinary number of scientific papers being published, as Margaret pointed out, makes it truly impossible for even a science writer to always know when something is new and significant in every field. So, pity the poor generalist.

Eric Koch really struck on the most important reason why I think journalists are so uncomfortable with science.

The vast majority of us, the reporters and researchers and editors and senior producers do think science should be covered by someone else.

But, science and scientists make us feel stupid, because most of us come from a humanities background. We don’t understand what scientists are doing, or what it means.

Writing about science scares many of us. It certainly scares me.

Our job is to get the story first, fastest and right. And it’s hard getting science right, especially when you’re trying to be first and fast.

So, of the hundreds of kids who are pouring out of journalism schools only a tiny handful want to cover science.

Since Woodward and Bernstein brought down [U.S. President Richard] Nixon everyone wants to bring down a government.

So, of course, they want to cover politics. Politics have power. Science is perceived as having no power, but lots of nerdy geeks and, by proximity, science writers are at risk of geekism. To many journalists, science writing is counter to their career interests.

The outcome of this mutual inability to do the job right is public confusion about matters scientific.

Eight of 10 people in a survey of 20 countries said global warming is caused by a hole in the Earth’s atmosphere. And there’s my favorite, the dear woman in Chicago who tied knots in her electric cord to keep her utility bills low.

I don’t think her reasoning, flawed as it may, is important. But, this is: some in the media have distorted reality so badly, that some people now believe that everything, the water, and the air and the food is poisoning them, except that which is really poisoning them.

Some years ago I watched on television a demonstration against the temporary storage of barrels of PCBs on a dock in Quebec.

And there was a young man, his face twisted with anger as he shouted about the government poisoning his children. As he spoke, a cigarette dangled from his mouth just inches from the face of the baby in the carrier against his chest.

I sense in the public and in my colleagues a growing suspicion and distrust o science and of scientists. And it extends to those of us who cover science.

Last year I did a documentary on the possibility of irradiating ground beef to kill the E. coli bacteria and prevent hamburger disease. And I got hate mail. I was accused of covering up a conspiracy involving the nuclear industry and a UBC scientist.

What is the responsibility of the media in this growing distrust and hostility?

Well, the same lack of critical thinking in much science coverage has now extended towards herbal remedies, alternative therapies, channeling angels, which is paranormal, and extraterrestrial visitors.

Perhaps for making up for our awe and lack of scepticism in covering science in mid-century, at its end some in the media are gleefully attacking its means, motives and ends.

And I wonder whether maybe there is a, so what? Maybe, so what? Maybe there’s no problem with that.

But, John Maddox said this morning that science has made us healthier and wealthier and wiser. And are we, the media and the scientists, through our mutual neglect and reluctance and dislike, allowing a future to develop in which the advances that he spoke of this morning will not get the trust of the public to proceed.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference