Monday, December 22, 2008

BB3: Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Media Coverage of Science

This is the ninth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

I have used the opportunity of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirhsenbaum's presentation at the Beyond Belief 3 conference, “Candles in the Dark”, to engage in a multi-post presentation that argues against supply-side reforms promoting science, in favor of demand-side or desire-side programs. Those programs use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote a desire for scientific literacy and an aversion to buffoonery and evidence-free decision making.

In their presentation, Mooney presented two “reasons” why interest in science is declining in this country. This involved the conglomeration of media into a small number of super-companies, and the fragmentation of media into millions of little, insignificant, individual blogs and web sites that allow users the opportunity to self-select what they read and see.

On the issue of conglomeration, Mooney pointed out how a number of major companies – Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom, NBC-Universal, et al., - have acquired almost all traditional print, radio, and television media. These organizations, of course, are not interested in truth. They are interested in the bottom line. In recent years, they have worked to improve their bottom line by getting rid of science and technology departments – and eliminating science and technology segments from their news.

Question: Why is it that the effect of conglomeration is to reduce science reporting? Mooney says that it is to save money. But this simply leads to another question. Why is it the case that saving money means cutting back on science reporting?

Here is another option for the media to save money . . . fire all of the sports reporters. Simply eliminate the sports section of the news broadcast and release all of the people who are involved in reporting on sporting events. This will save a lot more money than getting rid of the science reporters – for the simple reason that there are a lot more sports reporters to get rid of. Compare the mere size of the sports section of the paper to the science section, or the science broadcasts on the cable news networks to sports broadcasts, and you can see how much more money can be saved cutting sports reporting.

But sports reporting will not be cut.

The reason for this, quite obviously, is that there is a demand for sports reporting. The news organization that cuts sports from its reports will find its readers, listeners, and viewers abandoning them as well and going to the competitor that offers these products

The problem, as I have been arguing for this past week, is not a lack of supply of science reporting. The problem is a lack of demand. If we fix the demand problem, the supply problem will take care of itself.

The media is cutting science reporting because they can cut science reporting. There is not enough demand for this particular product to warrant the expense of continuing to report it. One might as well devote those resources to something that people actually care about.

The second media-related issue that Mooney blamed for causing more ignorance in science is that the media has become more fragmented. Here, Mooney is referring to the small “press” outlets available through the internet, where people can select from millions of available blogs those that happen to capture their interest. On television, 4 stations (each compelled to offer a few hours of news in exchange for having a license to broadcast over the public airways) provided news to people who had to view it whether they wanted to or not.

Now, people who want to avoid science broadcasts can easily do so . . . by turning to whatever stations and whatever shows appeal to their actual interests. This “self-selection” keeps people away from any view they dislike, or that various social groups have taught them to dislike.

Here, too, it makes no sense to argue that the problem is a lack of supply on the internet of good, scientific data. In fact, scientific data is easy to find on the internet. The reason that people are not taking advantage of their access to that data is precisely because they are not looking – because they do not demand scientific literacy in themselves or others.

This is because people do not value scientific literacy. Many value religious literacy. Many value sports literacy. Apparently, there is a market for games that test people’s knowledge of the television Sitcom Seinfeld, so there is a certain amount of cultural value to be found in Seinfeld literacy. However, there is little or no general public interest in having science literacy – not enough for people to find entertainment value in games that test this particular skill.

If there were a demand for scientific literacy, as there is for sports literacy, then media groups would have a science section and science reporters as they have a sports section and sports reporters, and there would be games that sought to fulfill this demand as there are games that help people develop their understandings of the Bible, or television and movie trivia.

The way to change the situation is not to complain about those who put less and less effort into activities that do not fulfill any demand or social value. The way to change the situation is to promote the social values that would put those institutions and activities in demand.

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