08/23/2010 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Communicating -- or Propagandizing? -- Science

Actor Alan Alda has embarked on an initiative to help scientists in "communicating science." Alda and Howard Schneider, founder of the Center for Communicating Science at the new journalism school at the State University of New York's Stony Brook University, spent a day recently at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) working with scientists.

Alda told a packed auditorium of BNL scientists, according to the Long Island newspaper North Shore Sun, that "nothing communicates better than an authentic presentation of yourself--not hidden by jargon in some cases, or by nervousness and that kind of thing. If you can really be there and communicate with the person you are talking to, then you get something happening between you and that person."

Alda's effort with scientists is an extension of his hosting the PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers." For Stony Brook University, having a Center for Communicating Science connects to its long-time main focus of scientific research and, in recent years, co-management of BNL.

BNL was set up in 1947 by the then U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to conduct research into nuclear science and also develop civilian uses for nuclear technology. It was managed from the start by a group of universities including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and MIT, but their contract was terminated in 1997 in the face of a public uproar over tritium leaking from a BNL nuclear reactor into the water table below. Long Island, in the center of which BNL is located, depends on its underground water table as its sole source of potable water. The Department of Energy, which replaced the AEC, charged the schools were derelict in their supervision of BNL; the leakage had been going on for years. DOE then gave Stony Brook University and Battelle Memorial Institute the contract to manage BNL.

However, many BNL scientists argued and still maintain that the DOE move was an overreaction, that although tritium is a radionuclide and causes cancer, the substance is widely used in what are marketed as "self-luminous" exit signs. These signs, they've stressed, are common in schools, stores, shopping centers, theatres and other public places. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. It has a 12.3 year half-life meaning it continues releasing radioactivity for more than a century. Among the issues involving tritium exit signs are the dangers of disposal.

To help scientists in "communicating science," to instruct them not to speak in jargon and to be personable, that is fine. There have been great accomplishments in science and getting information out is important.

But, on the other hand, science has become institutionalized over the last half-century and in the name of science some very bad things have been done and continue to be done, a lot of which has not been challenged by media.

Many of us are familiar with President Eisenhower's warning in his farewell address of 1961 about the rise of a "military-industrial complex." What most people do not know is that the original draft of that speech warned not just of a "military-industrial complex" but of a "military-industrial-scientific complex." Only because of the plea of Eisenhower's science advisor, former MIT President James Killian, was the word "scientific" eliminated.

Although allowing the removal of "scientific," Eisenhower went on in the speech with other words on the matter. He said, "Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists and laboratories" and warned that "in holding scientific research and discovery in respect...we must also be alert to the equal and opposing danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite."

David E. Lilienthal, the first chairman of the AEC, used words similar in a 1963 book Change, Hope, and the Bomb. He wrote that "the classic picture of the scientist as a creative individual, a man obsessed, working alone through the night, a man in a laboratory pursuing an idea--this has changed. Now scientists are ranked in platoons. They are organization men. In many cases, the independent and humble search for new truths about nature has become confused with the bureaucratic impulse to justify expenses and see that next year's budget is bigger than last's."

Lilienthal spoke about the "elaborate and even luxurious [national] laboratories that have grown up at Oak Ridge, Argonne, Brookhaven" and the push to use nuclear devices for "blowing out harbors, making explosions underground to produce steam, and so on." They demonstrated "how far scientists and administrators will go to try to establish a nonmilitary use" for nuclear technology.

The press in the United States was envisioned by the founders of the nation as an instrument to check, to watchdog government. A hundred years later, with the rise of huge corporations, the press was flexible enough to expand to not only challenging vested political power but also vested economic power--taking on the robber barons and their corporations during the muckraking era. In our time, the media must take on a new vested power: scientific and technological interests.

Where does the initiative in assisting scientists in "communicating science" stop and public relations and facilitating propaganda begin?