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RE: New finds



On Thu, 11 Jul 2002 19:14:11  
 Tracy L. Ford wrote:
>So, your saying the problem is science itself and not accurately reporting
>it?

Oh, it is certainly both.  I'm just saying that science, at its deepest level, 
is too technical to accurately explain to the public in a) a general readership 
publication and b) the short amount of space that many stories are allowed.

>>>Therefore, I wouldn't hold the press lower than (_blank_).  Misspellings,
>bad grammar, and bias are valid reasons to criticize the press, but, the
>press has a job to serve the public and present news of value to the common
>people.<<
>
>Right and that's why a majority of the news is about movie stars? That's
>more important than science?
>I can do with out that! I want accurate reporting (which I don't think
>really happens all that much).

I would say that reporting on media stars and other celebrities is much 
different than science reporting.  Hopefully most science reporters stick to 
science and not to Hollywood gossip.  The reason that so many stories are about 
celebrities, however, is that is what the public wants to read.  Those stories 
sell papers.  People like Tracy and I would love to read newspapers with loads 
of accurately-reported science articles, but, alas, we only make up a very 
small portion of the public.  :-)

>>>A technical article on _Ampelosaurus_ would not be of any real value to
>the average person who reads a newspaper.  An article on a dinosaur
>discovery, with a mention of how it might relate to a previous discovery, is
>of interest, however.<<
>
>When it comes down to it, the upper levels of science are just too technical
>for those who have not studied it to understand.<<
>
>So it can't be explained to the public?

I think science CAN be explained to the public, but a newspaper is not the best 
place to do it.  First off, most newspapers don't have reporters who 
concentrate on science.  Second of all, (most) newspapers are printed daily and 
often cannot go into as much depth.  Third, space restrictions cut down on the 
length of articles.  I doubt that the French press could have gone into much 
depth on the evolutionary relationships of the Titanosauria because of space 
limitations.  Now, a science magazine is different.

>So, are you saying the press HAS to/NEEDS to DUMB things down for the public
>so the public can understand? Why not let the public look at a dictionary to
>find out a word they don't understand. 

Yes, the press must dumb some things down.  I doubt most of the anatomical 
terms that all of us hold so dear can be found in a traditional dictionary that 
the majority of newspaper readers have at home.  Analogies and comparisons are 
great ways for science to be explained, but simply stating the facts is often 
not interesting, or just too technical for the public.

>Do you agree that it's ok for the
>press to say a mammoth is a dinosaur? Or crocodilians are dinosaurs? Like
>they often do. I watch the local news and hear this all the time. How hard
>is it for the research department (is there one any more for the news) to
>actually do a quick research and get the story right?

Now, these mistakes are ones that newspapers should avoid.  If reporters or 
editors call a dinosaur a mammoth, or vice versa, then that is poor reporting.  
It's things like discussing exactly where _Tyrannosaurus_ fits in the theropod 
family tree, for instance, that are difficult to report to the public because 
of technicalities.

Let me give you an example.  I was recently in San Diego for the Junior Science 
and Humanities Symposium, which is a meeting where high school students such as 
myself present original research to other students.  Keep in mind that most of 
the students attending come from very good schools and take the highest level 
science classes offered.  At dinner one evening I began discussing cladistics, 
and nobody-NOBODY-had heard of it.  Cladistics isn't even taught in most (any?) 
Advanced Placement biology courses in high school.  Now, if it's not taught to 
students today, how are adults that were likely taught the antiquated 
kingdom-phylum-etc. classification supposed to understand crown groups, sister 
groups, and synapomorphies?

>Are you saying the public just wouldn't understand? Is it really that
>difficult to explain science in an interesting and accurate way? Or is the
>public so blasay that they don't care? Give them sports and a beer and
>that's all they need?

Hmmm...no, the public can understand, but it takes more than just a newspaper 
article.  As for sports and a beer, as a sports fan I'm quite happy reading 
about sports.  In fact, my summer job is writing about sports at my local 
newspaper (I'll be at the NASCAR races this weekend).  As a matter of fact, 
you'd be surprised to see just how upset parents can get over articles 
concerning their children's Little League games.  But, I also do some science 
reporting.  Two weeks ago I did a full page article on local Pennsylvanian 
fossils, and I've written about Sue for the paper.  About a month ago, though, 
another reporter in the newsroom was given a deadline story (he had about an 
hour to do it) on a Silurian fossil a local child found.  To put it bluntly, 
the story was terrible.  But, I'm sad to say, it served its purpose.  It 
explained the local discovery to the public, which is all the public probably 
really wanted to know.

Emma wrote:

>Science is NOT too technical. The problem lies, IMO, with the scientists,
   who fail to explain the technicalities in lay-persons' terms. Thus, the
   folks who write press releases for institutions don't understand what the
   scientists said,  the journalists (for the most part) don't understand what
   the PR folks said (and even without that intermediate step, the scientists
   often do such a lousy job, sitting up in their ivory towers....) ... is it
   any WONDER science stories are so inaccurate at times? And that folk believe
>what they see in dinosaur movies?

That's a huge problem, too.  But, the root of this problem lies in the 
technicalities of science.  If a scientist could explain something with one 
word there would be no problem.  But, when the science is so advanced it 
requires long explanations, which are easily misquoted or chopped up by 
reporters on deadline or editors trying to save space.

>All too often, the research scientists cut themselves off in their ivory
   towers. They consider the 'little people' (ie everyone except themselves)
   unworthy of their time, so they throw jargon and technical stuff out. The
   press (who have the lucky position of communicating the science to the
   masses) also don't understand, and worse, either fail to realize they don't
   understand, or don't bother even TRYING to understand. Unfortunately, the
   'little people', who then consider the scientists elitist, are the
   politicians, the taxpayers.... who essentially hold the purse strings for
>science research in the first place. 

Although I don't have as much experience as many on the list, I would basically 
agree.  Some scientists are elitists, and some reporters fool themselves into 
thinking they understand what they really don't.

>So, while the press often (mostly?) does a sloppy job, you can't tar all
   reporters with the same brush; and chances are, the scientists themselves,
   who are the ones whose work is being reported on, have not bothered to, or
   realize they should have, explained their work for the 'masses'. Research is
   great; educating people so they care about the research is even better.
>Scientists have this responsibility, and most are ducking it.

Scientists should be trained somehow in "public relations"...especially those 
scientists who are frequently making discoveries or conducting studies that 
have an appeal to the masses. 

Basically, to sum up, my opinion is this: the public can be educated on 
scientific topics.  But, newspapers are not in a good position to be completely 
accurate, because of space limitations and their duty to provide information to 
the general public.  Science magazines and newsletters can go into more depth, 
though.  Scientists also have a role to play.  They should be more forthcoming 
and should make themselves accessible to the press.  Otherwise, the interested 
public will not have the chance to learn about the wonders of science.

Steve

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Steve Brusatte-DINO LAND PALEONTOLOGY
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