APS News

Media Reps Offer Ways To Bridge Gap Between Scientists and Public

It's a rare occurrence to see science make national headlines. The collision of the comet Levy-Shoemaker with Jupiter last year was front page news for a couple of weeks, but subsequent data analysis and Hubble telescope images have failed to make a similar impact. And thanks to the pervasive coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, the momentous discovery of the top quark at Fermilab in March merited a mere six seconds of air time on national networks.

Why is the public so indifferent to science, when so much of the technology in their daily lives stems from it? And how can the scientific community reach the public to share the excitement of their work, particularly at a time when federal budgetary constraints are requiring scientists to re-justify their value to society? During a Wednesday afternoon session, of the Spring APS Meeting, representatives from print, radio, and television media addressed the issue and suggested a few effective methods of communicating science to broad audiences.

There is a far greater gulf than most scientists acknowledge that separates the scientific worldview from the attitudes of the rest of society, according to Donald Goldsmith, a former astronomer who left research to work for Interstellar Media in Berkeley, California, writing books and working on television programs about science. "Science repels most people, not only because of their negative experience with science education, but also because they correctly assess science as non-intuitive and in that sense inhuman," said Goldsmith, who professes himself "amazed, at times, at the public's heroic resistance to science."

The basic difficulty lies in the radically different outlook of scientists, which Goldsmith defines as "organized skepticism": that is, the notion that nothing is ever known for certain, and even problems that have been more or less resolved remain open to future debate. "Science proceeds by doubting things, and everything is subject to skeptical investigation," he said. "This is alien to human experience as most people perceive it, and therefore the mental framework of science stands as a very deep quantum barrier between the scientific community and the public at large."

The first step towards bridging the gulf, Goldsmith believes, is a recognition on the part of the scientific community that the chasm exists. The second step is finding ways to present science at a general level without disparaging the public's non-scientific outlook. Possible methods include humor; examples of practical technology resulting from science; hands-on experiments; images, through television, film, CD-ROM, etc.; and focusing on the personalities involved to demonstrate that science is a human endeavor.

While humor can sometimes be an effective means of getting people to relax about scientific material, Goldsmith has found that it is a tricky tool to manipulate for a broad audience, since not everybody gets the joke. He has found tie-ins to technology largely ineffective because the method is "just another form of collecting scientific bits of data." However, he believes that hands-on activities, visual images, and personalizing science offer considerable promise of reaching the general public. "These methods have a chance to connect with people because they take them out of the cerebral realm where we scientists mostly live and into the real world," he said.

Ira Flatow, a producer with Samanna Production Company and National Public Radio (NPR), has found that presenting science to the public as a detective story is an especially effective means of captivating their interest. A hands-on approach is also helpful in making the story more immediate. For instance, he was involved with an NPR program called "Newton's Apple," which featured hands-on science demonstrations. Based on his experiences, he believes that general audiences are interested in science, provided it presents scientists as human beings engaged in a different kind of work: namely, detective work.

Bailey Barash of CNN also takes a story-telling approach to packaging science news for general audiences, and, because television is a visual medium, relies heavily on images to illustrate scientific concepts. While efforts are made not to over-simplify scientific news stories, in general, "Our goal is to give the viewer one basic idea that they can come away with and relate it to their daily life," she said. "We back into explaining the scientific method in our reports. We can't force it down their throats."

What can the physics community do to get their research into the media? First and foremost, they have to be more active in cultivating media contacts and keeping them informed of breaking stories. "There are all kinds of wonderful things happening in science, but no one will hear about them if scientists don't tell anyone about them," said Flatow. "You must become more vocal as scientists and go out there and pitch your stories to sympathetic reporters and editors. You have to get people interested in the detective story that's going on here."

Local newspapers and TV stations are a prime place to start, mostly because they are more likely to be receptive to suggestions for science news stories, since there's less competition for coverage. "I think there is hope for getting more science to the public, but the action has to be at the local level; that's really where the future of science on TV lies," said Flatow. He is also hopeful that the information superhighway will offer a tremendous opportunity for exposure to science on the Internet.

While scientists might ideally want to see more details of the actual science in media coverage intended for a broad audience, the speakers agreed that this is unlikely to occur unless public attitudes shift so that they, too, demand it. "That's a great ideal, but until we have a society that values education on television and in the news, it's not going to happen," said Flatow. "When society begins to value education, that's when the paradigm will shift and we'll all want to ask those deeper kinds of questions."


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin