MSNBC or CNN should launch a show about science policy

Inspired by a radio interview I heard earlier today, I ran a quick Google search and found this 2008 nugget from Wired magazine:

The Project for Excellence in Journalism just released The State of the News Media 2008, its annual analysis of cable television news. The mediascape proved barren: On average, five hours of viewing would yield 71 minutes of politics, 26 minutes of crime, 12 minutes of disasters and 10 minutes of celebrities. Science, technology, health and the environment received just six minutes of coverage (with health and health care accounting for half of that.)

Think about that: for every five hours of cable news one watched in 2007, viewers say just three minutes of science, technology, and the environment, three things that underlie literally every single aspect of our lives. And what this report doesn't point out is that much of what we do hear about science comes from non-science reporters - why should I trust a reporter whose field of expertise is the national political process or the local school board to suddenly grasp the details of peer-reviewed data?

It seems that every time an MSNBC substitute host gains a slight following, they get their own show. Rachel Maddow, David Shuster, Dylan Ratigan, and now Lawrence O’Donnell. The next time MSNBC has a whole in its lineup, instead of turning to a personality, it should turn to a subject. Or maybe CNN could replace Larry King with an actual news show, not another celebrity-fest.

I’m not very good at science. Both my parents are geologists, and yet my lowest grade in college was in rocks for jocks. But I do know the scientific method when I see it, and I do understand the importance of science in my daily life. Just this week I’ve seen local news stories about toxic chemicals used in retail receipts and a debate over putting fluoride in municipal water. From the air we breathe to the way our children’s food is processed, there’s no escaping science. So before debating science policy, responsible journalists should make sure their viewers actually understand the science rather than the political talking points. Let’s move the science from destination websites only insiders visit to a venue people are already watching anyway – like cable news.

The new show should come from scientists and science journalists who reach conclusions after making their observations, not pundits who observe only what will affirm their existing beliefs. The host should refuse to ever interview politicians unless they a) are scientists themselves (there are four Congressmen with PhDs in physics or chemistry); b) are on for less than five minutes for the sole purpose of describing the contents of a bill they’ve introduced; or c) are being held accountable for attacking science, like when the Bush administration censored NASA and the EPA over climate change.

The whole point of such a show would be to communicate with voters and lay persons, so it shouldn’t be too wonky. 

When he was host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, actor Alan Alda’s primary goal was to get his guests to talk in ways viewers would understand. When the scientists rambled on for too long, they would begin to get too technical, and Alda would interject with another question. Remembering that they were talking to Alda rather than lecturing students, their passion would reignite. In his book Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda recounts relating such advice in a commencement speech at CalTech.


I’m assuming you’re here at Caltech because you love science, and I’m assuming you’ve learned a great deal here about how to do science. I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us…

And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.

Tell us frankly how you get there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.

Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out… and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.

Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.

Scientists live in the world of truth, which doesn’t always coincide with the real world and very rarely coincides with the political world. They are all about observation and documentation, and aren’t always good at communication. Climategate was a good example of that – there were no problems with climate data, but personality issues allowed the right-wing and the mainstream media to undermine the facts.

Scientists need help getting their findings across to us, findings our policy debates prove we need to understand. So let’s have someone who understands colloquial language, someone like Alda or journalist Andrew Revkin, host, and interview everyone from peer-reviewed academics to science bloggers – just no politicians.

Would there be an audience for this kind of show? I think so. The intellectual journalism of NPR gets better and better ratings every year, and the science show NOVA has aired on PBS for 36 years now. So let’s take that attitude and put it where the eyeballs are, not where we wish they were. Let’s improve cable news without losing ratings, and let’s improve this country.

Tags: MSNBC, CNN, cable news, Alan Alda, Andrew Revkin, Science (all tags)



Great idea!

I'm an English major and language buff, but I'm always fascinated by science. I've watched an awful lot of those Nova and Scientific American/Alda shows over the years (I'm 58 years old) and loved them. Why is National Geographic one of the most successful and popular print magazines of all times? It covered lots of subjects, but included lots of science-related stories about the Earth, space, the Solar System, and other scientific topics. It had lots of facts and data, but also lots of beautiful pictures to make the science real. Just as Nova has done with its beautiful imagery of the various scientific subjects it has covered over the years. People are hungry for information about the world and the universe we live in.

Most of us are not wedded to an antideluvian idea of the globe being only 6,000 years old. We embrace facts and information that explains who we are, how our world and universe are constructed, and how we, as humans, are impacting that world. I watch a lot of cable news, but I also regularly surf the cable channels for shows on science and history -- shows that help me learn more about myself, my world, the history of mankind, and the history of the universe.

As a H.S. reading teacher -- now retired -- I often engaged my students by having them read more than just literature. I taught my students that everything is connected -- that literature is connected to art, architecture, history, science, fashion, music and contemporary popular culture. We looked at examples of all of those things as they related to the literature we were reading at the time. My students always enjoyed it, especially because I would include visuals to illustrate the connections to the other disciplines that related to the literature we were reading about.

This experience has taught me that there is indeed a hunger for more knowledge about science out there, and if we satisfy that hunger, we will be doing our nation, our children, our race a world of good. We absolutely MUST encourage more students to get involved in science because our future as a nation very much depends on it. We cannot afford to let other nations like China and many European nations take the lead and leave us in the dust in this area.

We decry our loss of manufacturing jobs and the shrinking middle class in this country, but we are not exposing our young (or old, for that matter) to the wonders of science and technology -- the very bastions of future economic endeavors that will restart a new manufacturing sector that will be needed to rekindle the growth of our nation's middle class. Those who are never exposed to something never learn to love the wonders of it. I know this for a fact. I had my H.S. students from the South Bronx listien to Gregorian chant, Mozart, Beethoven, Big Band music, and was enthralled when they told me how much they enjoyed it -- they had never been exposed to it before. One class even bought me a CD of Opera's Greatest hits for a Christmas present, not because they were all now converts and were going to be spending a lot of their time listening to that kind of music, but just because they knew I liked it. They appreciated the fact that I had felt it was important enough to expose them to it, if only on a small scale. The same can happen with science and technology.

I have my doubts that MSNBC or CNN will give this idea serious consideration because they will think that only pop culture and reality shows will generate profits and revenues. But if they would just give it a SERIOUS try, they would be amazed at how many eyeballs they might attract from all the various demographic populations. This is a super idea! I hope it gets its chance someday.

by mcarnes 2010-07-30 01:38AM | 1 recs
YOu have such quaint notions !!

Science on the tubes ?  Whatever with you think of next !

Perhaps an intelligent discourse instead of dysfunctional debates in congress ...

by Ravi Verma 2010-07-30 03:41AM | 0 recs
Its amazing to me that I ever became one

To be honest, I would have to agree with this post. It's amazing to me I ever became a scientist - and the media definitely had an effect on me.

I was raised by a single mom, and every day after I came home from school I'd make myself a snack while my mom was at work - and then sit down and watch TV. One day I saw a scientist on the tube - and they portrayed him as a go-to guy, sort of good looking, but he had these glass tubes all connected together... and he could make things from almost nothing. It freaked me out.

So we started clubs in the local neighborhood. Nature clubs. And we hoarded these nature magazines in them. Fought away the bullies that tried to smash our clubhouses.

For awhile, I didn't think much about science but I kept making good grades in school. Then I got back into it when I was a teenager, because the wind, and current played a really important role in whether or not there would be waves. My life revolved around surfing, as a teen. And we could only convince our moms to take us to surf spots, one at a time. We had to predict the weather, and choose the right one. We would sit down and read weather maps and look for other spots that if they were breaking, would tell us whether or not the break we were heading to would be hot. We had only one shot.


Mostly I remember from those days - discussing our ideas. It seemed as if, when we all worked on an idea - we could get it right. We weren't nerds. We were kids that could take spare parts, and build a car.  Or know where to sail for good waves.  We'd make mistakes. One of my friends built a car and painted it using thrown away aircraft paint and he did something wrong with the finish of the paint and when the sun shown on the car it got so hot when you leaned on the car it literally burned your hand. The whole car was silver.  This was towards the end, when I left - and he was almost old enough to drive it. I heard it got everybody where they wanted to go.


Science to me was always about adventure. And honestly, machismo. The guy who was nerdy , and weak - in our neighborhood - was the guy who spent all of his time at home watching TV. He eventually grew to be kind of fat.

It seems like a paradox, doesn't it - that the kids who would be beating up the nerds - were also the ones to get the good grades, but it started with me - seeing that scientist on TV as a 2nd grader - and saying. Wow. I want to be that when I grow up.


Two of my six friends out of that group of friends are now scientists, as am I. The fourth became a teacher. The fifth, an artist (yes, the guy who painted his car silver!) and the sixth became a doctor.


And the nerdy guy up the street became a computer programmer. LOL.

by Trey Rentz 2010-07-30 05:33AM | 0 recs


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