Mass media,


television, has

replaced schools

and universities

as the public's

primary source

of scientific 



Reporting Science
Scientific literacy and the media’s role in science education
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
As I was contemplating how to open our discussion on science and the media, I sat down to coffee with my local Sunday paper. The front page headline read “Worst fears come to fruition: Virus resistant to every known antibiotic is becoming more common.”

     I reread the headline in puzzlement and frustration: Viral infections don’t respond to antibiotics. While literally this statement might apply to any increasingly common virus, I guessed the real point was the headline writer simply didn’t know the difference between a virus and a bacteria. As I read further, I learned the “virus” referred to was Staphylococcus aureus, a common and sometimes life-threatening bacteria.

     Headline writers, editors and reporters with so little understanding of a basic biological principle only aggravate problems like antibiotic resistance. Resistant strains of bacteria have arisen, in part, from patients insisting and doctors acquiescing to demands for antibiotics to treat non-bacterial infections.

     Misinformation, propagated both knowingly and inadvertently, by print news sources, as well as radio and television, occurs for many reasons: the quest for audiences and profits through the use of sensationalism, reporter gullibility, lack of understanding of how science works, as well as basic scientific illiteracy among reporters and editors, as seen in the example above.

     Even journalism’s quest for “balanced reporting” creates problems. While offering a balanced view is important in discussions concerning decision making and public controversies, presenting arguments that lack validity for the sake of “balance” serves little purpose. Art Levine, media reporter for U.S. News & World Report, wrote, “ side of a debate consists of sheer hooey, and the press’s failure to make this plain does society a disservice” (July 14, 1997, A little less balance, please). Case in point was the 50th anniversary of the alleged Roswell UFO crash for which he described news coverage as “preposterously ‘objective’.” Levine proposed a more rational approach to Roswell “would be to focus on mounting evidence collected by more discriminating UFO researchers that many key Roswell witnesses... ‘aren’t telling the truth’.”

     In 1997, CSICOP unveiled its Council for Media Integrity, chaired by author Steve Allen and Nobel laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg. Paul Kurtz, CSICOP founder and chairman, cited surveys showing mass media, especially television, has replaced schools and universities as the public’s primary source of scientific information. Television, unfortunately, has proven itself less than responsible as a reliable source for scientific information. Producers have blurred the lines between information and entertainment, fact and fiction, and truth and heresy, with little regard for, or recognition of, their role as educators. This problem is compounded when irresponsible television programming is repackaged by major publishing houses, frequently owned by the same company, for readers.

     Given the role the media plays in bringing science to the general public, the quality of science reporting in print and broadcast will have a major impact on our nation’s level of scientific literacy. We are poorly served by stories that portray dowsing as an effective tool for choosing medications, finding water, or selecting which “personal” ad to answer (Smithsonian, January, 1996); or reports that declare acupuncture is “mainstream” medicine and effective enough to be used as the sole anesthetic for open-heart surgery (Parade, August 16, 1998).

     Why is it important to have a scientifically literate public? In our technological world, we sometimes find a “disconnect” between what science provides society and the public’s understanding of how things come to be. Dan Goldin, NASA administrator, was once asked, “Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?” During the farm crisis of the 1980s, my husband, formerly a Montana farmer, participated in a public relations program in which farmers talked with grocery shoppers. One irate customer told him farmers were unnecessary now that we have grocery stores. Extreme cases? Perhaps. But without an appreciation for how science and technology provide the services we depend upon, the public will be unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to maintain and improve upon the successes science has achieved.

     Science, in the public’s mind, too often is associated with the atomic bomb and Thalidomide, rather than economic development, advances in health care, and our ability to feed an expanding population. Such a mind-set tends to emphasize policies to control, rather than promote, science. Scientific illiteracy, especially by elected officials, hinders our ability to solve pressing problems. Decision making becomes guided by fear and simplistic thinking. Policy outcomes are determined by mantras such as “natural is good, chemicals are bad,” or “all radiation is bad.” Effective use of safe or new technologies, for example the irradiation of meat products to prevent food-poisoning deaths, are blocked by the public’s fear.

     Many important personal decisions, especially those concerning health care, require us to use scientific information. Should I get antibiotics for my flu? Should I seek medical care from a homeopath or our family physician? Parents of autistic children who seek “facilitated communicators,” while tragically by-passing more realistic treatments to improve their child’s functional abilities, have either dismissed or ignored the scientific research evaluating facilitated communication (FC). If the parent also holds pseudoscientific beliefs, they may accept the excuse some facilitators give to explain FC’s failure in controlled studies. Namely, that the facilitator is “psychically” receiving the child’s messages and the tests interfered with this psychic transmission. Certainly, pseudoscientific belief, scientific illiteracy, and lack of understanding about the methods of science can interfere with effective personal decision making.

     Across the country, grassroots skeptical organizations such as Oregonians for Rationality have assumed a role in promoting scientific literacy. The skeptical movement has brought together an uncommon mixture of individuals educated in diverse fields, from scientists and magicians to engineers, psychologists and historians, who, together, can effectively address pseudoscience and scientific misinformation. Many active skeptics are experts in fields heavily assaulted by pseudoscience. It behooves skeptics concerned about scientific literacy to understand the process and problems of reporting science. In this way, we can offer appropriate expertise to outstanding science journalists, such as Richard Hill, and support their work as science educators.

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© 2000 Oregonians for Rationality