Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some Thoughts on Science Communication

As one who aspires to (humbly) carry on the noble work of conveying science to the public in the vein of people like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen J. Gould, I recently become a student member of the National Association of Science Writers. For a senior-year science writing course, we were to review and critique the primary professional website in our respective fields. My classmates are from a number of different fields including computer science, several engineering disciplines, and pre-med, just to name a few.

I realize that I may live to regret posting this here as my analysis may be read by other association members, but I feel this piece has a wider applicability than just the dozen or so people that would otherwise read it...


In the first decade of the 21st century there are very few public policy issues that are not profoundly affected by science and to have an electorate that is not scientifically literate and informed is a recipe for disaster. This is why having a competent cadre of professional science writers and communicators are essential for a 21st century democracy.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) (http://www.nasw.org/) is the largest professional association of science writers in the United Sates. The purpose of the association is clearly stated in Section 2 of their constitution (see: http://www.nasw.org/about/const.htm):

PURPOSE OF ORGANIZATION. This organization shall foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology, through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. In addition, this organization shall foster and promote the professional interests of science writers.

Based on what is available to non-members on their web site, this essay will attempt to answer the question of how effective the association is in achieving their purpose.

The NASW website, conspicuously devoid of commercial advertisements, is quite plain and utilitarian, but it is also straightforward and easy to navigate. Non-members have limited access to the site but there is nonetheless plenty of content available to the casual browser. At the top left, there is a “members only” area where members can view current and past editions of the
quarterly journal of the society, called Science Writers. Along the left-hand pane is a link to a “bookstore” section containing titles of interest to current and prospective science writers. Under “Member-Only Services” are job search and referral resources, a membership directory, and links for members to manage their individual accounts. On the right-hand pane are links to teaching and professional development materials, and to topics of interest to those that may be considering a career in science writing.

Just below the NASW logo at the top of the homepage is a small, red-bordered box that cycles through “science” news headlines from various on-line sources. Somewhat troubling is that one of the sources is Yahoo! News. Many scientists and critical thinkers place Yahoo! News above only the National Enquirer on the scale of journalistic and intellectual credibility.

Informally founded in 1934 in New York City by twelve pioneering science writers and formally incorporated as a professional society in 1955, the association is largely geared towards the professional development of science journalists who either work for major media outlets (broadcast and print) or those that freelance. There are currently about 2900 members in fields such as science writing, editing, science writing teachers, and students.

The NASW provides for the professional development of its members by working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to provide fellowships and internship opportunities for NASW members (http://www.nasw.org/resource/beginning/ archives/000183.htm#more). The Association also has an education committee but accessing specific information about it and what it has to offer requires member-only access.

As a service to prospective science writers, the site features an archived listserve exchange from 1997 resulting from a new member introducing herself to the group. (http://www.nasw.org/resource/beginning/archives/000145.htm#more) From the exchange, it is obvious that there is a diversity of viewpoints on the nature of science writing and reasons the various posters went into the field. The posters seemed to be divided into two main camps; working scientists who decided, for various reasons, to turn their hand to science writing and others who came to it from non-science journalism or another writing background. There was an obvious note of elitism in the comments of some of the traditional journalism types who took great umbrage at the thought that a scientist with no formal education in writing or journalism could just jump in and try their hand at science writing.

The statement of ethics for the association is found at http://www.nasw.org/about/ethics.htm.
The ethics of the Association seem largely concerned with avoiding giving the appearance that the Association is taking a stand, as an organization, for or against some issue or another. What is disturbing is what is not in their code of ethics. What is absent is a requirement for science writers and journalists to uphold in their work of communicating science to the public, the same kind of hard-nosed, rigorous intellectual honesty that is the heart and soul of scientific inquiry. Science is a systematic method for understanding the world; it is a process, not a collection of results; and those that write on scientific subjects for the public need to routinely convey this component of the scientific enterprise to their readers. It is the intellectually sloppy and simplistic standard of “he said, she said” journalism that gave the public the manufactured Global Warming “debate,” which persisted long after those in the field achieved a general consensus and convinced a gullible electorate that there is a legitimate, scientific alternative to biological evolution called “Intelligent Design.” This is a great disservice to the public and ill-equips citizens to make informed choices in both the voting booth and in their personal lives.

Science writers called to a press conference announcing an astounding breakthrough that fail to ask the scientists present why they chose to not submit their work to the normal error-correcting mechanism of peer-review is being, at best, sloppy, or at worst, intellectually dishonest. Since the days before the American Revolution, it was the very raison d’être of journalists to ask embarrassing questions. By refusing to ask hard questions, by being disinclined to risk alienating an interviewee in pursuit of a “story” that will sell, they are betraying the trust placed in them by a public that expects them to make sense of humanity’s ever-evolving understanding of the universe.

As a new student member of the NASW with full access to the listserve archives and current and past issues of Science Writers, I am happy to report that the discussion has evolved from the 1997 discussion mentioned above. On-line science writing and journalism, in the form of blogs, are recognized as an essential component in accomplishing the purpose of the NASW. While there are still some hold-outs for a more passive, traditional form of journalism in science writing, the contributions of writers trained in the methods and philosophy of scientific inquiry are certainly going to be keeping the more traditional journalists on their toes.

So does the NASW achieve its stated purpose? The answer would appear to be “Yes” but at this point, only imperfectly and with much room left for improvement. The evolution of the internet has allowed working scientists the opportunity to break into the field of science writing by giving them a means of posting their reflections on issues that concern them as scientists and citizens. The rapid feedback from readers which the internet enables, has in turn, allowed budding science writers to hone their skills far more quickly than was possible in the days of traditional print journalism. As a whole, the NASW is embracing this change as it strives to fulfill its vital mission.

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