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Alan Boyle - 2008 Hill Lecture

Britney Spears vs. Chimps with Spears:

Talking about Science in a Tabloid Culture

For students of bizarre primate behavior, February 22, 2007, was a red-letter day.  The day started out with big news from the savannahs of Senegal, where researchers reported spotting chimpanzees using spearlike weapons to hunt and kill another type of primate known as lesser bushbabies.[1]

It was the first time scientists had seen one primate species fashioning the tools of warfare to snuff out other primates.  That is, if you don’t count humans.

Later in the day, there was another news flash from the frontiers of primatology: From the wilds of Malibu came word that . . . Britney Spears was back in rehab.[2]

It wasn’t the first time a celebrity’s bizarre behavior made headlines, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  But it did provide further evidence for the hypothesis that even the attributes highly prized in a community – such as wealth, social status, and physical attractiveness – are no guarantee of a stable existence.  That’s something even chimps can relate to.

So how did those two revelations stack up in the news coverage of the day?  In an earlier age, the story about chimps with spears might have found its way into the next day’s New York Times, while the story about Britney Spears might have been relegated to the tabloids and Hollywood magazines.

Nowadays, it’s exactly the opposite: The rehab story was all over the media, as any story about Britney Spears usually is.  (In the Times, the item amounted to a couple of sentences in a briefs column.)  The “chimps with spears” story, however, didn’t pop up in the Times until almost two months later, as part of a larger feature about chimp behavior.

When it comes to our own Web site at MSNBC.com, that single story about Spears in Malibu attracted almost four times as many page views as the story about the spears in Senegal.  Both stories did respectably well, but in terms of exposure as well as traffic, Britney stomped all over the chimps.

That’s the way it usually turns out nowadays, not only for Britney, but for Lindsay Lohan, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, and other exotic primates. Over the past 10 years, the rise of the Internet, 24-hour news channels, and celebrity magazines have put the spotlight on the tabloid side of the news universe – and have left the less glossy corners of that universe behind in the shadows.

This is a cause for concern among journalists – at least for journalists who see their profession as the pursuit of public good rather than the pursuit of public bad behavior.  Online media companies, such as the one I work for, are particularly good at developing data to see what people really look at rather than what we think they should look at. And if we were to target our journalism based on the raw statistics alone, we’d be putting a lot more resources into serving up celebrity photos, gossip, and sensational crime stories.

Here’s how the problem was put recently by Chicago Tribune Company owner Sam Zell, who’s a big fan of celebrity news and cute puppies: “It seems like an awful lot of journalism that’s being written is not being read.”

How this affects talking about science

The challenge is especially acute for science journalism: To cite just one statistic, the number of weekly science sections appearing in U.S. newspapers reached a peak of 95 in 1989 but fell to just 34 sections as of 2005, based on an analysis of reports from the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information as well as Editor & Publisher.

In print media, science writers are becoming somewhat of an endangered species, based on anecdotal information.  That’s especially the case if you regard science news as distinct from so-called “news you can use” features on health and fitness.

Unfortunately, science coverage is often looked upon as news you can’t use – which puts it on a level with the daily Britney Spears update.  To some extent, we science writers are doing it to ourselves by defining what we do as having no relation to what we eat, what we wear, how we live, or who we watch.

That kind of perceived irrelevance puts the whole enterprise of expert reporting about scientific issues in peril. In fact, it contributes to the tabloidization of the media marketplace by leading media managers to decide that coverage of scientific issues isn’t important to their customers – and therefore do not help with the bottom line.

The peril is particularly acute in a media marketplace that inundates the customers with information they have to pick and choose from.  It’s entirely possible to fill your media diet with Britney Spears and cut out the chimps with spears entirely.

If we want to write about those chimps, and tell the world about it, we have to fashion our own weapons to capture the public’s attention – just like the tabloids do.

 How to use tabloid tactics

So how do you talk about science in a tabloid culture?

One strategy would be to capitalize blatantly on that culture.  For example, the closest I’ve ever come to learning about vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers is when I’ve visited a Web site called “Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics.”[3] Despite what the site claims, Britney is no expert on the subject, and the pictures are totally gratuitous.  But if the tabloid angle gets even one more person to plow through the dense calculus behind laser physics . . . well, maybe the exercise is worth it.

Another angle would be to mash up the kind of speculation we see in the tabloids with the celebrities of history.  Some science stories lend themselves naturally to this treatment.  The CAT scan on King Tutankhamen’s mummy, for example, was a story that deserved to be ripped from the headlines and turned into a Law and Order episode: “Who Killed King Tut?”  (Actually, the scan indicated that a leg injury was the likeliest cause of death.)[4]

More recently, we had a story about hallucinogenic plants in the Sinai desert, and whether Moses and other ancient Israelites may have consumed such plants.  This story was based on very thin evidence – an article that was written by an Israeli psychologist for a new philosophical journal.  I have to admit that the headline – “Was Moses High on Mount Sinai” – would have fit right in with the biblical-era version of the National Enquirer.  I would see the story as more of a conversation starter about the mash-up of scriptural scholarship and ethnobotany, rather than a solid case of biblical archaeology.[5]

Yet another angle involves focus on the personalities behind the science.  Let’s face it: A lot of the people who read about the foibles of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton have rarely if ever listened to their CDs or bought a ticket to their movies or watched their TV shows.  Similarly, you don’t need to know how the shotgun method of gene-sequencing works to appreciate the tale of J. Craig Venter, a guy who not only decoded the human genome but also killed a sea snake with his bare hands during the Vietnam War.

The scientific world has had its share of fascinating celebrities and bad behavior, ranging from physicist Stephen Hawking’s victory over disability, to biologist Woo-Suk Hwang’s stem-cell scandal, to geneticist James Watson’s controversy over race remarks.

To my mind, Columbia’s Brian Greene and Harvard’s Lisa Randall exude the same kind of sex appeal for the scientific set that Britney Spears once did for music fans.[6]

But you do have to be careful about the sex-appeal angle: After interviewing Lisa Randall for Science Friday, NPR radio host Ira Flatow came in for a ribbing because it sounded as if he was flirting with Lisa on the air.  And after interviewing Brian Greene for an MSNBC.com Q&A, I received an e-mail from a fellow science writer chiding me for saying that Brian was married and therefore “taken.”  (She had a point, and I toned down the reference.)[7]

If only scientists were always as fascinating as the celebrities described in one of my favorite fake stories from The Onion, which is headlined “Stephen Jay Gould Speaks Out Against Science Paparazzi.”  In the article, Gould and other science superstars are quoted as railing against the photographers who constantly hound them as they frequent hotspots like the Mayo Clinic, MIT, Princeton, and the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica.[8]

I particularly like the article’s closing made-up quote from a die-hard science fan: “These scientists are the most important people in America," she’s quoted as saying.  "Our very future depends on them.  They are enabling us to live longer and better, discovering the history of the planet we live on, and unraveling the mysteries of the universe.  There's no way we'd ever let them work in obscurity.  It's laughable.”

These examples of tabloid science may seem laughable as well, but there’s a germ of truth behind all of them.  Playing off the personalities, cultural icons, cheap thrills, and pop culture references evoked by scientific research can all whet the popular appetite for science news.

However, these angles don’t get to the key values of math and science, medicine and engineering – the very real values brought up in The Onion’s fake article: to understand how our universe works, to take advantage of those workings, and to make our lives better.

The fact that science stories can also give you a sense of fun and adventure is a plus.  And there’s at least one other payoff you can’t get after reading another Britney Spears story: You come away feeling smarter.

Going beyond the tabloids

Doing all that is a challenge.  Take one of our most popular science stories so far this year: Researchers in Korea succeeded in developing a line of cloned cats that carried a marker gene capable of producing a red fluorescent protein.  The “glow in the dark” angle was worthy of tabloid treatment – and that sparked most of the more than 1,200 comments we published on that story.

However, a lot of our users missed the reason whythose kitties glowed in the dark (or at least under ultraviolet light).  As I pointed out in the original story, the fluorescent protein was merely a signal showing that genetic information could be transferred into a cloned animal. That has implications for new disease treatments – for example, creating replacement tissue with the genetic defects corrected.  It also could lead to new types of transgenic breeds of animals – for example, goats capable of producing spider silk in their milk.

The glow-in-the-dark angle is the tabloid hook, but if you look deeper into the story, it’s about much more than cute kitties.

That’s the secret weapon that can keep those of us who are interested in science for our own sake from becoming lesser bushbabies in the fight for media survival.  The results of research and development touch every sphere of life and imagination: medicine and medical ethics . . . environmental problems and environmental solutions . . . engineering breakdowns and engineering’s grandest feats . . . the perils and promise of exploration on this planet and beyond . . . our deepest fears and our highest hopes for the future.

Some of these topics take in much more than science journalism in the classical sense.  For example, take the issue of climate change: How much of an impact is industrial activity having on the atmosphere and the weather, and what can we do about it?

The answers will obviously have an impact on science and technology, but they will also affect tax policy, economics, politics, diplomacy, lifestyle, and even entertainment – as anyone who watched the “Live 8” concerts or saw Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film can attest.  Religious groups ranging from the Vatican to the Southern Baptist Convention have underscored the view that preserving the environment is a religious obligation.

Medical research is another field that raises a host of social implications.  The pace of innovation in biomedicine is increasing at a rate that’s hard to keep up with: Several recent experiments have raised hopes that normal skin cells could be reprogrammed into super-cells that can become virtually any tissue in the body.  How will that affect the debate over stem cells and cloning?  Once again, the answers will impact politics and ethics as well as economics and lifestyle.

There are ample scientific angles to other fields as well, as I’ve found out during my 12 years working at MSNBC.  For the sports section, I’ve written about how such things as sharkskin swimsuits, ski undercoatings, wind tunnel tests, and even sleep-cycle adjustments have affected Olympic performance.  For the business section, I’ve written about how mathematical models are being used to predict how markets will fare – with varying degrees of accuracy.

I’ve also written about the science of predictive markets as it’s applied to political polling, about how the phases of the Moon may have affected the start of the war in Iraq five years ago, and even about how phone-dialing patterns are being used to predict who’s going to be tossed from American Idol.  Now, there’s a tabloid story for you.

Then there are the truly deep questions that don’t have to do with everyday life, but offer the ultimate in tabloid appeal: Where did the universe, stars, planets, and life come from?  What is our place in the cosmos and in the animal kingdom?  Are we alone?  What will ultimately happen to our species, our planet, our universe?  These big questions open the door to a host of scientific stories – including the story about chimps with spears.

The people who tell these stories don’t have to be science journalists per se. They may be coming to these subjects from the business desk or the health beat or they may write primarily about education or politics or religion or they may be general-assignment reporters.  But as time goes on and society becomes more dependent on technological innovations, I do think that journalists in general will have to have a better grounding in how the scientific method works, and what the limits of that method are.  They’ll have to know how to talk about these topics accurately while making them accessible to the general public.

For example, over the past few years, there have been quite a lot of claims and counterclaims about global warming.  Cutting through all the back-and-forth and getting at the truth will be an important task – and that role could be taken on by science reporters, business reporters, political reporters, or even well-spoken scientists and knowledgeable amateurs.  The same goes for other topics that go deeper than the tabloids.

This kind of discourse is too important to be left confined to a one-way communication medium, whether we’re talking about the tabloids or The New York Times.  And so I want to turn to the role that multi-channel media – such as the online outfit that I work for – can play in raising the level of discourse.

Conversations about science

Talking about science is challenging nowadays – and not only because of the heavy competition in the media marketplace.  The people who participate in the conversation over scientific issues should be . . . well . . . conversant with the foundations of science.

Statistics kept up by the National Science Foundation indicate that, on average, Americans have just so-so knowledge about the scientific basics.  They’re particularly in the dark about emerging fields such as nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms, and stem cell research.

Evolutionary biology is one of the best examples showing how there’s not always common ground on the scientific fundamentals.  In our own unscientific survey of MSNBC users, almost a quarter of the people who clicked on the survey said they didn’t accept any evidence that humans arose through evolution.  And in more rigorous polls, more than half of the respondents said they didn’t accept evolutionary theory.

Meanwhile, other surveys have indicated that about a third of all Americans think Earth is being visited by extraterrestrial beings, more than a quarter believe astrology really works, and more than half say some people have psychic powers.

The public discourse on scientific issues will have to take these attitudes into account, adding a dimension that doesn’t usually enter into the water-cooler discussion over whether Britney Spears is a bad mother.

The image that the wider public has of scientists and their research often suffers from multiple misconceptions.  On one hand, many people think that scientists should have everything figured out already.  It’s hard to get people excited about looking for the traces of organic chemicals on Mars when they think the aliens are already here.  On the other hand, people don’t always deal well with the fact that scientific conclusions are provisional, based on the evidence at hand and subject to change if new evidence comes in.  A scientist’s claim can be written off as “just a theory” and no more deserving of credence than anyone else’s opinion.

In a one-way conversation, the general reader may end up confused enough to skip the story about chimps with spears – or some other, weightier matter – and go on to read the latest about Britney.

The good news is that most Americans really do believe that science and technology are important for the future, and that in general the benefits of research outweigh the risks.  That shows up clearly and consistently in surveys that the National Science Foundation has conducted for 15 years.  But there’s controversy as well: Most of those surveyed worry that scientists don’t pay enough attention to society’s moral values.

I’m giving you just a quick snapshot of public attitudes toward scientific and technological issues here.  The point of all this is that there are important needs going unmet in the public discourse over science – ranging from having good sources of information to having a place to exchange views about issues that are deeper than Britney Spears’ troubles.

The place to talk about science: cyberspace

The Internet is playing an important role in responding to the public’s hunger for discourse over science, and bridging the knowledge gap.  Cyberspace is the one place where there is cause for optimism.  The National Science Foundation’s surveys indicate that Internet media outlets are currently the public’s No. 2 source for science news, just behind television.

A 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project came up with similar results, plus lots more.  That survey found that 87 percent of online users have employed the Internet as a research tool – ranging from merely looking up a scientific term to downloading scientific data.  And when the Pew pollsters looked at usage patterns among broadband Internet users who were younger than 30, the Internet was the No. 1 source, beating television 44 percent to 32 percent.

For the next generation, the Internet may well be where it’s at when it comes to finding out about science.  There are several factors that make cyberspace a good place to talk about science – and show off scientific wonders as well.

The first factor is the Internet’s academic legacy.  Once the World Wide Web took off in the early 1990s, it would have been ridiculous to try to do science without Internet access.  For many years, scientists have traveled a well-worn information superhighway using online resources ranging from e-mail to Internet2’s massive data streams.  That has made the Internet into the sharpened spear of choice when it comes to capturing the attention of the scientific community.

The second factor springs from the first: I’m talking about the easy availability of scientific source material, ranging from unfiltered papers to imagery of the cosmos and the microcosm.  These are fantastic resources for science journalists as well as scientists and news consumers.  Who needs science paparazzi when the riches of research are just a click away?  By linking to these resources, or adapting them for our own reports, we can add extra depth and dimension to almost any science story.

The past few years have brought yet another dimension to science reporting on the Web: Scientists themselves are using Web sites, blogs, and discussion forums to interact directly with the interested public.  Twenty years ago, there were precious few scientists who made an impact through the media: astronomer Carl Sagan, for instance.  Today, countless scientists use the Web to explain their work, debate the trends in their field, and even critique how their discoveries are presented in the media.  A short list might include astronomer Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, cosmologist Sean Carroll atCosmic Variance, biologist P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula, and the folks behind Real Climate and Talk Origins.

Of course, it’s just as easy to spread scientific poppycock over the Internet.  Consider this headline[9]:

Asteroid plummets toward Britney Spears concert —

NASA launches rocket in attempt to speed it up

And that means the day-to-day role of journalists is, if anything, more important online than it is offline.  It’s up to us to help the public separate the pearls from the poppycock.  Of course, that also means we journalists will occasionally come in for a whuppin’ – but that’s OK.  If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the autoclave.

That brings me to what I see as the biggest factor in favor of online science journalism: the ability to engage the audience as well as scientists and other experts in the scientific discourse.

I’ve found that there are always people who know more about any given subject than I do, and I’m honored to have those people write in and set me straight.  Also, there are always people who write in even though they know virtually nothing about the subject I’m writing about – and if I can set just one of those people straight, that’s good for the cause of science literacy.

Even when the comments I receive on my own Weblog, called Cosmic Log, get the science wrong, I can usually depend on other readers to correct the error.  It’s good to be exposed to other points of view, even if they seem wrong-headed.  Over the six years that I’ve been doing the blog, I think I’ve gained some insights into the thought processes behind the belief in UFOs and the disbelief in evolution.  I think those insights help me engage the public better and force me to take a second look at my own beliefs.

As online tools become more sophisticated – and more “social-centric” – new methods may evolve for bridging the science-literacy gap.  Such methods could blend science coverage in printed publications with Internet portals, discussion boards, and social-networking tools to create a knowledgeable community around the news.

I’m even inclined to make my peace with Britney Spears.  After all, the Pew Internet survey found that two-thirds of all Internet users came across news and information about science when they went online for other reasons.  In fact, the figures indicate that such “happenstance” is the primary way that Internet users come across science news.

Those users might have started out looking for their daily celebrity fix – but they came away learning something about science, and getting smarter in the process. Depending on their experience, they might even seek out more science stories online or in print.

If we can evolve new ways to get solid and relevant reports in front of online readers, and adapt some of the tricks of the tabloid trade – for good rather than evil, of course – well, maybe Britney Spears and the chimps with spears will end up being on the same side after all.


[1] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17281240/

[2] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17260263

[3] http://britneyspears.ac/lasers.htm

[4] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7128729/

[5] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23468364/

[6] http://www.drury.edu/uc/archives/greene.jpg

  http://www.aapt.org/Events/SM2006/images/Randall(web).jpg

[7] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17738478/

[8] http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28269

[9] http://www.thespoof.com/news/spoof.cfm?headline=s2i2721

 

Alan Boyle Biography

Alan Boyle is the Science Editor for MSNBC.com, responsible for the content and presentation of the Science and Space sections of MSNBC on the Internet.  He also contributes to the News, Opinion, Technology, and Health sections.  In his Cosmic Logon MSNBC.com, he writes about physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, paleontology, archaeology, and other -ologies that strikes his fancy.  He also brings science stories to the MSNBC cable channel.

Boyle was born in Cascade, Iowa, and graduated from Loras College in Dubuque maxima cum laude with majors in English, Writing, and Philosophy.  He earned his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.  He began his journalism career at theCincinnati Post, then spent six years at theSpokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and twelve years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Through the course of his newspaper career, he wrote and edited general news, lifestyle and entertainment news, and international news.

 He joined MSNBC on the Internet at its launch in 1996, first as a writer/editor, then as a reporter focusing on the online milieu.  After covering the aftermath of a catastrophic collision on the Mir space station and the sensational Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997, he was put full-time on the space beat – which led him to draw upon his longstanding interest in science and space as well as his graduate-school classes in science writing.  Over time, his portfolio came to include coverage of science as well as space stories.

For his pioneering work in science journalism on the Internet, Boyle has won many honors, among them:

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Journalism Award (2002).
  • National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Award (2002).
  • Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter’s Almquist Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism (2007).

Boyle lives in Bellevue, Washington, with his wife, Tonia; his daughter, Natalie, a budding entomologist; and his son, Evan, a math maven.