Selling Science (Nelkin)

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Sunday, July 28, 2002

I chose to read Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science because it is often cited, I’ve read some of it previously and wanted to finish it, and it makes a good transition from my risk communication readings to communicating science. In addition, since I dabble in journalism myself, and I’d like to do more environmental/scientific journalism, I hoped that reading the book would provide me with some useful pointers – not to mention advice for my documentary.

For this book, Nelkin studied articles from the last two decades (i.e., 1967 – 1987), looking for the dominant themes and metaphors that the (print) media used to convey science and technology to the general public. She also interviewed many science journalists. I found her book very well-researched and informed. It was easy to read and very interesting.

While her findings were succinct and easy to understand, the implications were great. For example, in the media, imagery replaces content. Also, research is covered as a series of dramatic, hyperbolic events. Unfortunately, the over-enthusiastic coverage often leads to a disillusioned public, and probably public mistrust of scientists. I’d argue that balance is needed. Scientific reporters should always keep “equilibrium” in mind. Like a pendulum, if they push it too far one way, it’s going to swing back the other way, possibly with tragic results.

Nelkin also found that the media often portrays scientists as in competition with one another. To me, this suggests that the scientific community is weak, peer review is not always deemed necessary, and objectivity can go out the window. It’s dangerous since it may compel some scientists to release results prematurely, without peer review. They may do so because of the perception of competition, a thirst for publicity, or a need for research dollars.

Nelkin’s description of the treatment of female scientists in the press was new to me. It’s bizarre how reporters sought to tie them in with typical female stereotypes (the housewife, the cook, etc.). Maybe this was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is very sexist. Male scientists are put on a pedestal for their intellect, yet female scientists must look elegant and keep their homes in good order. On the other hand, the same attempts to relate the female scientists to the lay person should have been done with the male scientists as well. Wouldn’t the audience understand and relate to a scientist more easily if they found out that, in addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he drove his daughter to school every morning and took his son fishing on weekends?

Lastly, Nelkin found that scientists often leave neutrality behind and openly court publicity. In effect, they become advocates. Yet, as I’ve argued before, I think this “advocacy” is preferable to the formation of an information vacuum. Along these lines, Nelkin’s findings tie in nicely with my previous findings and thoughts concerning risk communication.

Nelkin’s book expands on the tensions that threaten to demolish the risk communication paradigm. Previously, I explored the paradoxes inherent in the paradigm, but Nelkin nicely points out the ironies. That is, people may understand science and technology, yet they still have faith in “magic bullets” and “miracle potions”. They depend on technology, yet they fear it.

Scientists, on the other hand, want their work publicized, yet complain about the publicity they get. In addition, journalists – desperate to attract readers – portray scientists as superhuman which, paradoxically, places them well outside the sphere of the lay person. During my readings, I’ve encountered many such ironies, tensions, and paradoxes (e.g., Risk Communication: Paradigm and Paradox and Learning Through Conflict). In order to organize them in my mind, let alone remember them all, I feel as though a large illustration is needed – like a flowchart or a food web. I’m inspired to create one. Only then can I see the entire picture of what’s going on.

Overall, much like risk communication, I’d have to conclude that media coverage of science and technology is not being done properly. Rarely did Nelkin have anything positive to say about the topic. This notion frightens.

While I have the scientific and critical background to de-code and deconstruct media messages, what does the rest of society do when it wants information about science? On the other hand, knowing that there are enormous difficulties facing both risk communication and scientific journalism means that I should have an interesting and productive career when I’m finished my Masters.

Aside from highlighting problems with the risk communication paradigm, I also felt that Nelkin pointed out many major structural and organizational flaws in other paradigms. For example, throughout Selling Science, scientific knowledge is portrayed as the most important resource of the nation. This worries me, because if risks are not communicated well and science is seen as arcane and distant, then won’t citizens question the value of their democracy? If the media conditions them into believing that science is the most important resource, yet they think science and scientists are far removed from them, then won’t that rift cause wide-spread resentment? It seems that the media is unknowingly working against both science and democracy, sometimes within the same article.

Nelkin also pointed out the tension between the hard and soft sciences. I think that the chasm between scientists and the liberal arts is unnecessary and self-defeating. I don’t think that teaching science literacy will work if people are generally illiterate to begin with. And the way people become literate is through the liberal arts. Reading, writing, storytelling, and art are all ways that young children communicate with their peers early on in life. They have to develop those skills first, before moving into the sciences – at least that is how I think I evolved as a scientific thinker. I think it would help if scientists thought back to how they learnt their life skills, well before they became specialized in the sciences. At any rate, I think the science paradigm must change and/or adjust to a more holistic view that is better equipped to operate within a democratic society where the public has a “need to know” and a “right to know”.

Of course, I can not reserve blame for the scientists – the current structure and function of the (print) media is also to blame. For example, media portrays science as pure and dispassionate, even in the face of scandals and corruption. I find this odd since I have seen scientists on WWF campaign drives. Clearly, they are emotionally attached to the issue, yet does the media think they aren’t? Does the general public think they aren’t? And why – is it because the title graphic below them says they are a scientist? I’d like to see a study were one person, say an artist, makes an emotional plea for help then another person, a scientist, makes the very same plea to the same audience at a later date, and the same audience right after the artist. How would the audience react? Would they think the scientist was more objective, informed, and reliable based solely on their title? Again, this would point to the media’s fixation with image over content – a sore point which Nelkin mentioned many times.

It also disturbs me that journalists will expose frauds on an individual basis, yet will not question the scientific paradigm – nor do they report on the substance or the methodology. In turn, this leads to further public misunderstanding (and mistrust) of science. In essence, the media really aren’t opening science up to the public – they are joining in with the scientists to keep it isolated and removed from public scrutiny.

Interestingly, the same (apparent) indecision occurs in the media as it does in science. That is, what’s accepted one year may be heavily criticized the next. My question is would this be due to changes in the science and technology, changes in editorial decision making and/or framing, or both? Regardless, if the public is confused by scientists who don’t agree, or who reverse decisions as new data becomes available, then they must be equally (or even more) disgruntled when media back-steps on a scientific or technological issue. If the public can’t trust the media, and they can’t appreciate the uncertainty associated with science, then who do they trust?

According to Selling Science, journalistic articles on science and technology seem to fly between two extremes – magic bullet or apocalypse. They never land in-between. In addition, scientific methodology demands that results either falsify the null hypothesis or agree with it – there is no in-between. Thus, scientists won’t talk about the extremes for fear that the public will become distressed or a new finding will embarrass them down the road. In this case, an information vacuum could form. So, what we are left with is, once again, the swinging pendulum.

It seems to me that there is no middle ground or equilibrium state for the public to rest peacefully on. I’d argue that, considering the quality of both media and scientific communications, they should start building this “middle ground”. Reporting the extremes will make the public anxious, especially when things swing the other way shortly thereafter. To accomplish this, media must avoid dramatizations and sensationalism. Scientists, on the other hand, should become advocates for their work, while maintaining a holistic view as to how their research will benefit or impact public life. However, care must be taken in choosing what to advocate and when.

When a scientist is clearly aligned with an industry, or has some financial motivation, the advocacy becomes tainted. Acceptable advocacy means building trust and credibility slowly, and being honest with the public about why you are being an advocate and what you will gain from it. Timing is also important. As I mentioned previously in my Mad Cows … report, there must be a “threshold” by which scientists must inform the public about their research, even if the findings are not complete or peer reviewed. Otherwise, they risk an information vacuum or – worst still – public accusations of inaction, especially if public health is at risk.

Nelkin’s book reaffirmed my view that if you can link your environmental story to the public health, then you’ll get their attention. This is represented in the well-rounded way that journalists report on health related technologies. Nelkin found that these reports are much more ambivalent and cautious in their wording than other science-related articles. It seems that health is a sacred cow that requires much more thorough research and less sensationalism compared to other articles.

I have only a few minor criticisms of Selling Science. Unfortunately, Nelkin touches only briefly on the impact of culture on how media reports on science. For example, the media compares biotechnology to the Frankenstein monster and lobotomies to A Clockwork Orange. Of course, there are the standard references to Orwell and Huxley’s literary work. It’s interesting that science fiction is most often used in conjuring up images and metaphors. Highly speculative in nature, full of drama, and concerned with entertainment first and science second, it seems to have a lot in common with science journalism!

I also wish that Nelkin’s emphasis on TV media was not secondary to print sources. Maybe in 1987 more people were reliant on newspapers for scientific information, but now I wonder if TV and the Internet has absorbed more of the market share (I’m almost positive that it has!).

I also realized that while Nelkin is describing bias, and the need for both journalists and scientists to highlight certain information at the expense of other information, her book itself is biased. There are only certain examples she can include. This caught my attention when she mentioned the dioxin case studies. Her descriptions were not as thorough as those in Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk. I was also somewhat irked by what I saw as redundancy. It seemed like Nelkin kept bringing up the same points and examples again and again. However, as I complete my readings, I notice the same risk communication problems popping up again and again. So, in this sense, Nelkin is helping to substantiate and confirm my past readings.

Having read Selling Science, I was also struck with a few questions. Industry scientists are more likely to release test results and get a spin cycle going in the press, since it generates research dollars and improves company stock. But if the public doesn’t trust their scientists, will they trust government scientists? To be more blunt, are these actions tarnishing science in general?

I also wonder if the public perception of science as mystical or esoteric stems from very early cultural perceptions of wizards, witches, shaman, and alchemists – basically the starting point of modern chemistry, naturopathic medicine, and natural sciences. Rather like wizards, witches, shaman, and alchemists, scientists are sought out by some, yet feared by others and often at odds with organized religion (i.e., theory of evolution, stem cell research, biotechnology etc.).

In conclusion, I think the strongest point that Nelkin makes is that a tension between science and the media will always exist, but is completely necessary and very healthy. The media must act as a watchdog on the insular world of science. It must remind the world of science that it’s decisions affect society and, accordingly, it must be accountable to the public. The book provided me with many useful contrasts between the worlds of journalists and scientists. These contrasts are very useful for the science advocacy portion of my Wolf Ecology readings. In fact, in order to better understand the differences and tensions, I’m going to make up a list of characteristics of scientists, media, and the public within the risk communication paradigm. Once I’ve organized my thoughts in this manner, I can (hopefully) work towards solving some of the problems in my own work.


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