As a species, we humans rock hard. Among our MANY accomplishments (lookin' at you, wheel), we just solved instantaneous global communication. Ka-pow! We great apes now have fingertip access to the accumulated wisdom of five thousand years of our civilization, and breaking human news from all over the world is available to us at the speed of light. There's no reason we couldn't cultivate a smarter, more nuanced and contextualized understanding of life on this planet than any creature who ever dragged a tail across it.
And yet, to judge by the way we consume news, the bulk of us seem content with the most superficial understanding of the world around us, a sort of "David Letterman's Top Ten" news culture in which only a handful of Big Topics are introduced to the national conversation in a one-dimensional way.
Over the last few weeks, while Miley and her snuggle bears were refusing to yield the stage, did you catch that we found water on Mars and an ingredient of plastic on Saturn's largest moon? That oceans are losing their oxygen, and giant vines are taking over our forests? Archaeologists found a well-preserved 4000-year-old brain, 'boiled in its own juices." A breakthrough multimedia printing head was created that will let 3D printers print organic and inorganic materials at the same time--so you can print a sandwich and its lunchbag, say. Biologists discovered several new species in South America, including a chocolate frog. And so on, and so on.
We've somehow allowed science to be driven out of the national dialogue, or relegated to the "after the break" sidelines, and that's a big problem. And it's not just what we cover, but how we cover it--what I would call the scientific underpinnings of every story, otherwise known as 'what's really going on and why it matters.' In the current hypercompetitive newsscape, the need for speed automatically strips out everything but the headline essentials. The intellectually curious will do their own research and dig deeper; the rest are left with a simplistic, incomplete understanding of unfolding events.
Example one: The government shutdown over linking the routine raising of the debt ceiling to defunding Obamacare, which is the culmination of generations of runaway spending-bill-attachment logic and apparently a calculated strategy long in the making by conservative forces, was presented to you as a simple battle of wills between Barack Obama and John Boehner. "Who Will Blink?" wondered CNN on their homepage, as if literally daring them to settle the issue with a staring contest. (Which WOULD be kind of awesome, let's be honest.)
Example two: Syria's agreement to divest itself of chemical weapons played out as if the only critical dimension was whether accepting Putin's proposal would make Obama look weak. It took National Geographic to cover the real issues: Would it work? How would it get done? The details are fascinating. The hard part is tackling all the many, many individual weapons sites inside Syria ("probably on the order of tens of thousands"), possibly with robots, and separating each weapon into component parts and ingredients for disposal. Sarin would be made safer by mixing with hot water and liquid sodium hydroxide. Mustard gas would be rendered inert with alkaline water. It's a much better story than the invented presidential image controversy.
There seems to be a basic assumption that most people are either incapable of basic scientific understanding, or actively dismissive of it (perhaps thanks to Intelligent Design 101 textbooks). But the news media today aren't incentivized to elevate the public or cultivate real understanding: If your business model demands pageviews or Nielsen ratings, your job is not to satisfy people's curiosity, it's to get them to Stay Tuned. You want them whipped up right here, not moving on to someone else's media property. And the quick fix to serve that is bipartite drama (manufactured if necessary): two sides of a coin described in simple balance, to activate our human instinct to choose a side and defend it at length.
This simplistic approach isn't just weakminded storytelling--it's increasingly dangerous for digital democracy. Popular Science last month saw fit to suspend comments altogether, because they had collectively become a battlefield of idiots bitterly disputing whether Muslim Obama causes hurricanes, and such. Said PopSci's digital director: "If you carry out those results to their logical end--commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded--you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the "off" switch." Her point's well taken, but telling the kids to "shut up and stay on your own sides of the car" is no way to raise smart, productive citizens, which we need now more than ever.
I think it's incumbent on us, the creators and distributors of content, NOT to throw in the towel. Dig deeper, force yourself to get to the "why" and the "how," and be unafraid to showcase the wonderful science beneath every story. Focus on making your communication sharper and clearer. Use the illuminating tools of multimedia wherever possible. And most of all believe in your audience's ability to absorb the details when they're presented right. We have to encourage real digital dialogue around everything (though comments should run through a human filter, to keep pure trolls from haunting important bridges).
Finally, we the audience need to get even better at voting with our feet. Insist on the real story, and when you don't get it, move on to providers willing to do the work to bring it to you. They will eventually get the message. We're living in a world of instant feedback; change your habits and you might just change the world.
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