The State of Science Journalism: A Discussion with Science Writer Carl Zimmer
Posted Jun 05 2009 5:03pm
Science journalism is taking it on the chin lately. Major news outlets are curtailing their science coverage, and in some cases closing down science departments altogether. In a rough economy–when the overall future of print media is in question–it seems that science has been deemed expendable. In a sense, this is inexplicable, considering the fact that science has never failed to capture the public’s imagination. But with budgets tumbling, that fact isn’t keeping water out of the boat.
Carl Zimmer, science journalist and author, has spent a lot of time thinking about the state of science journalism. As a contributor to the New York Times, Discover, Scientific American, Science and Popular Science, he’s in an excellent position to weigh in on the current situation. I asked him if he would, and he graciously accepted.
DiSalvo: From your vantage point, what’s the trajectory of mainstream science journalism? Going up, going down, going elsewhere?
Zimmer: Hanging in there. There certainly have been a lot of depressing pieces of news about the science journalism business in recent months. CNN gets rid of its science unit. The Boston Globe eliminates its science section. Science magazines are still surviving, although Scientific American just lost its editor-in-chief John Rennie and other staffers. But in order for people to get excited enough about science to pick up a science magazine, somebody’s got to lure them in and show them why science is important and marvelous. It will be a shame if there’s less science in the public square. But I still think there’s a great passion for science out there. We just have to find ways to satisfy that passion in a sustainable way.
Along with those major outlets shutting down their science departments, we’re also seeing some going completely online. Is the same economic engine driving both of these trends?
Zimmer: I think so. When media outlets start suffering, they look around and try to figure out what they can live without. Unfortunately, a lot of them decide science can go. As far as I can tell, though, it doesn’t look like these stop-gap measures can stop the decline. So perhaps the people who are cutting science sections should ask whether they are actually still producing something people want to read.
If economics are trumping science, how much of a chance does science journalism stand?
Zimmer: I have hopes for science journalism in the long-term. It may evolve into some unexpected forms, but it will stay with us. Consider Stephen Colbert. He’s regularly got scientists and science writers on to talk about their work. And the people who watch that show go out and buy lots of books about science. Four years ago, could anyone have predicted that a guy doing a Bill O’Reilly impression on a comedy station would become a major new force in popularizing science?
Non-traditional outlets, like blogs, are more and more filling a role of delivering science content – but I know you’ve expressed some concerns before about blogs not having the resources to do solid investigative journalism, like a newspaper would. Do you think that function is really in jeopardy – or, perhaps, morphing into something else?
Zimmer: I can’t think of a blogger who arrived on the scene and declared that she or he was going to replace science journalists. They had something else in mind. They wanted to write about beetles or attack medical quacks or do something else that filled them with enough passion to figure out how to use WordPress. So I don’t think science bloggers ever claimed that they would replace science journalists. They were certainly ready to call out the bad science journalists and explain why they were peddling misinformation. But that’s different.
I could imagine science bloggers attracting some of the readers who would have turned to science journalism otherwise. But there’s some stuff that won’t be replicated if science journalism were to disappear. The plain fact is that it costs money to send people places to report. And science often happens in the remotest places on Earth, like the South Pole or Pacific islands or on top of mountains. Bloggers blog mainly for love, and love won’t get you to Mount Kilimanjaro.
I’ve heard some make the argument that if the mainstream behemoths of science news go down, we’ll be awash in disinformation coming from all sides. Is that a fear you share?
Zimmer: I do share that fear, but I also don’t think that’s a reason for mainstream behemoths to be smug and self-satisfied. I have been appalled at the lack of fact-checking at the Washington Post when George Will decides it’s time for him to be the expert on global warming. Indeed, every week you can delve into plenty of blog posts in which some irate scientist rails against bad reporting about science in some newspaper, on some television show, or on the radio.
If people can no longer get their science fix from major newspapers or magazines, they will turn to the Internet. And some of the most popular sources of science on the Internet are nightmares of nonsense. For some reason, the Huffington Post delights in a ludicrous cocktail of anti-vaccination disinformation, New Age gibberish about swine flu being in your mind, and other anti-scientific posts.
For the average reader looking for truthful content, how can someone distinguish the good from the bad?
Zimmer: It’s an iterative process. Readers shouldn’t just passively absorb what they see in print or on the monitor. They should explore, and the web means there’s no excuse not to. You may quickly discover critics who point out real problems with something you just read, or you may find that it jibes with what the experts are saying. There are also some good clues to the stuff you can trust—it frequently cites peer-reviewed research (and does so accurately), for example, and it doesn’t rely simply on name-calling (although that can be fun in the proper dosage).
If it’s clear—and it certainly seems to be–that fact-checking ain’t what it used to be, then why do we trust the big guys so much? Should we?
Zimmer: My criticisms are focused on the op-ed pages of newspapers and the fake scientific debates sometimes organized on television. These are places where people can make factually false statements, and no one give them a hard time about it because it’s opinion. There are still plenty of places where science journalism is carefully fact-checked. That doesn’t mean mistakes don’t get through—but if they do, corrections are published.
Right now, where is the best science content coming from? Is it an array of pubs, or a handful? (and which might you suggest for those wanting a regular dose of quality science news?)
Zimmer: I’m totally biased here, so feel free to ignore what I have to say. But the fact is that I like to publish in places where there’s a lot of reporting I like to read– The New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, Science Magazine, National Geographic. The New Yorker may go a few weeks between science stories, but they often have very intriguing stuff.
Any new books coming out from you that we should be on the lookout for?
Zimmer: I’m putting the last touches on The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. It’s a non-majors textbook with lots of illustrations and some of the weirder case studies of evolution I’ve encountered, such as the sexual arms race in ducks, mind-controlling parasites, and the evolution of snake venom. It should be out in November, to coincide with the 150 th anniversary of The Origin of Species.
Link to Carl Zimmer’s excellent science blog,The Loom