Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why So Uninformed, Public?

Several times in class we’ve discussed the issues of fairness and balance as they relate to science journalism.  Interestingly, the catch phrase of Fox News is “fair and balanced.”  However, a recent study (click here for a summary) suggests that exclusive Fox News viewers know less about certain issues than those who watch only CNN or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”  In fact, people who watched no news outperformed those who watched Fox News.  Does this mean that “fairness and balance” leads to a misinformed audience OR that Fox News viewers are less informed than others because their source of information is not “fair and balanced” but rather has different goals OR might it mean something entirely different?  How might the goals of a media outlet affect their audience’s knowledge?

Why can't the American public answer just 2 of 4 basic questions about international news and not even 2 of 5 questions about domestic current events? Is it because of the source of news they are absorbing? Is it because we don't read newspapers or watch the news enough? Do we just not care? I cannot be sure. 

Roughly a year ago, Michael Kelley wrote an article for Business Insider called "Watching Fox News Makes You Less Informed Than Watching No News At All." It summarized a study by students at Fairleigh Dickinson University, during which they polled 1,185 participants nationwide asking them about their political affiliations, which news programs they watched in the past week, and then a series of a few questions about current events. 

In the study, they found that overall, those who watched Fox News were the least informed about foreign and domestic news, less even than those who watched no news at all. They found that if people watched the program most affiliated with their political beliefs were more informed than the total population that watched these specified channels (MSNBC for Liberals and Fox News for Conservatives). Even with political affiliation assisting the scores of Fox and MSNBC viewers, they still score significantly lower than people who listen to NPR or any of the other unaffiliated news programs. 

Fox News prides itself in being a "fair and balanced" program, which is curious when these poll results are taken into consideration. Rather than judge how people are misinformed due to "fair and balanced" news, I'd like to call into question Fox's definition of the term. From my experience with the program, they frequently discuss issues in a sort of round-table format where the majority of the "experts" at the table are conservative, with a small percentage of liberals who's views are typically overlooked during the discussion. If this is considered "balance" I'd like to question the predisposition of the scale. 

They also use a more traditional style of news delivery, with a broadcaster reporting supposedly "fair and balanced" stories. This claim is more difficult to refute because generally reporters cover the facts as they happened, but the stories they choose to show are ones which would be of interest to their conservative audience. They rarely show stories which would interest liberals, which supports the findings of the FDU study that liberals who watched Fox News are far less informed by the program than even people who watch no news at all. It seems as if "fair and balanced," to Fox News simply means fair and balanced in the eyes of their loyal viewers.

Programs like Fox News are not the most reputable sources of information due to their obvious political affiliations. They limit their audience by reporting stories with a bias and reporting stories that would interest their biased viewers. Judging by the poll results, and assuming that "fair and balanced" reporting is that which leads to the most informed public, I would have to say that NPR takes the fair cake on this one. It makes sure to tell stories from the most true point of view out there, and they base this with evidence and investigative reporting, as well as writing in a way that is clearly beneficial to their listeners. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Playground Level of Scientific Balance

In "Unpopular Science," an article written by Christopher Mooney published on, Mooney questions the idea of balance when it comes to science writing. Some people involved in this type of writing believe that articles and publications should present balanced views of their stories, giving equal attention to both sides of every scientific assertion. In his article, Mooney wrote:
“Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming "skeptics" and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon's human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community's very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking "balance". 
Personally, I agree with Mooney's stance on balance in scientific writing to the extent that the two sides of an argument should not be equally represented, because if scientific findings are significant, the skeptical side is usually that which is least represented in scientific findings. I do, however, believe that the other side of the story should be represented somehow in the article or publication in question, rather than ignored. Scientific findings require an intensive amount of evidence and research before they can be considered "facts" and until they can be, science writers should present their readers with the ability to be somewhat skeptical and think for themselves.

I view the issue of balance less like a traditional balance scale such as this one: 
Instead I think of it more in terms of the seesaws my friends and I used to play on as children. When we were of the age to go to the playground and entertain ourselves, all of the children were relatively the same weight, so the seesaw could provide us with seemingly endless entertainment. Once we tired of going up and down, up and down, up and down, we always tried to position ourselves in the air so that neither of us had to be touching the ground. We tried to make the seesaw balance.

The thing about the seesaw was that no matter how close two friends were in weight, the kids never ended up balancing right in the middle. Something about the seesaw itself must have made it such that even if both children could sit in the air at the same time with feet dangling, the two sides of the seesaw were rarely an equal height off the ground. Something about one side of the apparatus caused it to "balance" out at unbalanced height levels. 

Something about good science writing should make the reader feel as if they are receiving "balance" by allowing for both sides of the story to hang in the air of the article, although one side should carry more weight than the other in order to be an effectively compelling piece of writing. The balance lies in sharing enough of the opposite side of the story so that it can hang in the air a bit while the main reason for writing the scientific piece sits higher in the air, thus most visible and important to the targeted audience.


Historically, scientists have earned a rather strange and somewhat negative reputation among the general public. Although "earned" may not exactly be the right word, considering the reputation is not widely supported when you actually consider the population of scientists in the world.

When a child is asked to draw a picture of a scientist, they most commonly depict aging males wearing glasses and a lab coat in a lab setting with things like beakers and flames surrounding the scientist in the drawing. Back in 2000, a classroom of 7th graders went on a field-trip to a lab called Fermilab, where they all were asked to draw pictures of their idea of a scientist before and after a visit in the lab. (The drawings and description of this little project can be found on this website.) Many of the children's initial drawings are like those described above. There were a few that even had wild hair with bald patches on top.

The 7th graders were also asked to write a short statement about their drawings, which for the most part perpetuated the same stereotypes as the drawings themselves. One girl, Amy, wrote, "He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly." Ashley wrote, "To me a scientist is bald and has hair coming out of the sides of his head...Scientists live in their own world and the rest of society puts them there." Both sets of comments perpetuate this "mad scientist" persona that lies in the minds of many members of society, but Ashley is particularly insightful because she actually pointed that out in her comment.

Society has a tendency to put all types of scientists into this category of borderline lunacy without taking into account the numerous aspects of their lives would be radically different without the amazing and innovative work of so many scientists, past and present. This concept makes the job of a scientist all the more difficult because they do not have the trust of the public, and without that, even the most groundbreaking of discoveries carry little weight in the eyes of society. For this reason, science writers have an obligation to bridge the gap between citizens' distrust and science itself. They have the unique position of being able to take scientific discoveries and make them readable and believable to people who may be suspicious or skeptical. Good science writers can absorb and understand scientists' findings and write about them in a way that has impact to society because it utilizes supportive concrete evidence in a way that is interesting and easy to comprehend.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Role (or Lack Thereof) of "Truthiness" in Science Writing

According to this video clip of Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report about the concept of "Truthiness," it is different from fact because it implies some kind of internal feeling where the consumer of facts decides what to believe. Colbert says that we live in a "country divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart." He takes a comedic look at the notion that consumers of news and science have a tendency to believe some information and disregard other facts as untrue. Truthiness is, more or less, the information that is developed between fact and public belief, where people take facts and choose to believe them, bend them, or disregard them completely.

Personally, when I make my life decisions, many of them are based on gut feelings, or simply what I feel like I should do at any given moment in any given situation. The thing about most decisions, though, is that most of them do not involve science. Should I go to lunch now or after class? Do I have time to put gas in the car before work, or should I go after? Upper Wismer for dinner or lower? These are not the types of decisions that require consult of science. Therefor, in cases like this I am fine with relying on my own personal conceptions of the "truthiness" of the situation.

When it comes to science, I admit that I also have a tendency to create my own truthiness. I know that scientific evidence says that I should wash my hands with warm water for at least thirty seconds, but my average is probably more like somewhere between five and fifteen seconds. I know that I should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but sometimes I need a double bacon cheeseburger for lunch, and no, I do not want a salad with that. I know that my car's gas light is on, but I'm going to try to make it to my destination anyway even though there's a scientific probability that I won't make it all the way to the gas station.

This being said, I believe that scientific facts are just that, facts, and am generally trusting of scientific findings. I think that scientific writers have an obligation to their readers to report facts rather than adding any form of truthiness. Journalists have a responsibility to report the truth in an objective manner, once all sides of the story have been considered. Science is science, and should be written about as such, without personal opinions interfering. Every individual obviously has the right to develop his/her own truthiness when it comes to the information they have received, but the important part is that they receive true information. What they do with it afterwards is completely up to them.

Emotional Correlation Between Vaccines and Autism

There is no doubt that vaccine-autism advocates are scientifically incorrect.  Not a single scientific study shows a correlation between vaccines and autism, and numerous studies demonstrate that the risk of injury from vaccination is far lower than the risk of disease from being unvaccinated.  But is it accurate to call vaccine-autism advocates scientifically illiterate, or ignorant?  After all, these individuals probably have done much more “research” on a scientific topic than most other individuals have.  What do the tendencies of vaccine-autism advocates to ignore scientific evidence, yet believe Jenny McCarthy, teach you as a science writer?

While there are numerous advocates that draw connections between childhood vaccinations and autism, these advocates have little scientific evidence on which to stand. There are numerous scientific articles which display evidence that is to the contrary, essentially saying that there is no correlation between vaccination and the onset of autism. Yet still, there are citizens all over the country who still follow Jenny McCarthy's preaching religiously, that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism, even with no scientific backing. 

This phenomenon speaks to the notion that just because scientific evidence exists, does not mean that people will accept it, or even read it. Jenny McCarthy has built herself a following comprised mainly of parents of autistic children who believe that their children are autistic because of vaccinations. In reality, this cannot have been a difficult following to raise, due to the tendency of all people to find a scapegoat for their problems. When parents find out that their child is autistic, they are extremely emotionally vulnerable because they have just found out that their life and their child's life will never be completely "normal" by most social standards. At this point of emotional vulnerability, parents will be looking for a reason. They will be asking, "why me? Why my child? Who did this?" and things of this nature. This is the point at which they may turn on the television and see McCarthy sitting with a panel of researchers who may or may not know what they are talking about, discussing the terrible affects of vaccinating children, i.e. autism. 

With so much scientific evidence to the contrary, parents must cling to this vaccination theory on an emotional level rather than a factual one. If they were trusting of the facts and sought them out, McCarthy's followers would understand that many major medical and scientifically respected organizations agree that there is no link between autism and vaccination. According to a WebMD special report, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Medicine are all in agreement about the nonexistence of this connection. This article speaks a great deal to the idea in this blog post that the connection many people hold onto about vaccination is based in emotions rather than evidence. These emotions are causing scientists to start getting involved and conduct more research, which usually is not fruitful in terms of finding a connection. For further reading about this, please see the article mentioned above.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Writers' Responsibility to Give Science Away

On January 31, 2013 Dr. Katherine Hirsh-Pasek came to give a talk at Ursinus College entitled "From the Lab to the Living Room: Where Psychological Science Meets the Common Good." During the talk, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek told us about what she called "the education pickle" that is plaguing the American education system. America is not on the list of top ten countries in math, reading, or science. In fact, we are not even close to dreaming of the top ten in any of those categories, and 50% of inner city students do not graduate high school. She attributes this to the "learning industry" in the U.S., which refers to the way children are taught and tested such that the education system has a tendency to profit from memorization, which is not necessarily the best way for children to learn. 

Dr. Hirsh-Pasek went on to tell us about studies she and her research partners have conducted in the psychological science field which aimed to find out which methods of instruction are most effective and conducive to learning. The studies she talked about were focused primarily on early childhood education, and the general findings were that guided play is the most effective method of teaching children. Guided play involves allowing children to work in an environment that is designed to point them in the direction of a certain type of knowledge or information. The idea is that when a child is pushed towards the correct answer or way of doing something, they figure it out on their own, and therefor have a better rate of retention, and greater likelihood of using the learned method in the future. 

The studies she talked about had significant findings, but Dr. Hirsh-Pasek also presented the very interesting and relevant issue of getting this scientific research out to the public in order to facilitate change. She referenced George Miller's 1969 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association, during which he discussed the difficulty and importance of "giving science away." Scientists can make important discoveries that should facilitate societal changes in many different areas, but the people who have the power to make these changes very often do not get their hands on the scientific information that would lead to these things. 

Science writers have the means and the abilities to help society by "giving science away" to the public. Studies like Dr. Hirsh-Pasek's have the ability to alter the way society is run, but they cannot have significant impact unless science writers step in and make the results of the studies readable and accessible to the general public. If science like this can be publicized, it is far more likely that it will get into the hands and minds of people with the power to have an impact. All it takes is one person to read an article, or one parent sitting in on Dr. Hirsh-Pasek's talk at Ursinus to go home and use the guided play techniques, or talk to their child's school administrators to change the life of a child who otherwise may have grown up without ever knowing their true potential.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Astronaut-Hopeful turns Science-Hater?

When you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, many of them tell you they want to be a superhero, race car driver, firefighter, or a princess, but a good amount of them will also tell you things like "i wanna be an astronaut!" Preschoolers and elementary school students generally love the sciences, from astronomy to marine biology to chemistry to earth science and back. When we're young we have a curiosity about the world around us that only dissipates as we grow older. Children hunger for knowledge and ask questions about anything from the stars in the sky to the core of the Earth, and everything in between. They want to know what's going on inside their bodies and where they came from, all the way back through their own history to prehistoric times. Even for all of the answers adults give, they have another question to follow it up with, even if the question is as small as one word, "Why?" 

Although our primary schools are filled with tiny scientific minds just waiting to be nurtured and molded into scientifically literate adults, we lose this hunger somewhere along in the schooling system. I remember in elementary school, we had a science swap for an hour once or twice a weep, during which time we would travel as a class to the classrooms of other teachers of students our grade. Each teacher was a different type of "scientist" and every time we swapped rooms, they would have a hands-on lab for us to learn about earth science, electricity, chemistry, etc. Specifically, i remember making our own ecosystems in the earth science section in transparent glass Tupperware containers. We layered different types of dirt and sand, a little grass, and water, then covered the top with plastic wrap and put them all by the window, so that they would get sunlight. A couple days later, when we went back to check on our ecosystems and we could see the clouds (condensation) in the sky (plastic wrap) and when the condensation dripped down it would rain in the ecosystem and water the grass seeds in the dirt.

It is this type of hands-on, visual science that interests children and makes them want to learn and get excited about the new information they absorb. As children grow up and the science they learn becomes more difficult and complicated, they lose interest and no longer have this hunger for knowledge. Children become adolescents and young adults who are bogged down with learning facts and formulas that just confuse and get in the way of the things that interested them about science in the first place. There comes a time when the technical information that teens have to memorize comes to the forefront and the intriguing part of science falls to the back.

The science writer has a responsibility to get the original intrigue of science back into the minds and hearts of adolescents and young adults by tugging on their imagination and helping them get back the love of knowledge that they had as kids. Writers have the power to make words come alive on the page, and because of this they have the responsibility to use this power for the academic minds. They can make scientific facts, theories, and research findings into something worth reading and enrich the public's scientific literacy.