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Dumbed down

On the downplaying of science in the newspapers

Jennifer Rohn 14 May 2006

Perhaps the editors felt that the header ‘Science’ might cause readers to bolt and scurry onwards in search of Sudoku puzzles…

Those of you who enjoy lazy weekend mornings as much as I do might be familiar with the sort of fare on offer when all the best bits of the newspaper have been exhausted. And I’m not just talking about the glossy supplements. I’m talking about the back end of the glossy supplements where, in the shadowy domain of horoscopes, detox recipes and advertisements thinly veiled as "lifestyle journalism", lies an altogether different attitude to science than what can be found in the main news pages. A good example of this is the "alternative medicine" column, usually penned by a woman with an earthy, reassuring sounding name. In the UK’s Guardian, it’s Emma Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was queried a few weeks ago by a reader who’d been told not to keep her electric blanket on all night because it would "dry" her bone marrow. At first, I was happy at Mitchell’s response: she’d never heard of such a thing, and it was the fire risks that the reader should be concerned about. But then Mitchell went on to explain that the blanket might also "clash with and disrupt our energy", thereby interfering with "natural" therapies such as homeopathy, flower remedies and "healing" which enables "the body’s vital energy to flow undisturbed".

Now there is currently an active and healthy scientific debate amongst scientists about the effects of electromagnetic radiation, such as that emitted by electric blankets, mobile phones, hair dryers and electricity pylons, on human cancers (click here for a recent example). Although the balance of scholarly opinion currently resides on the side of such risks being low to non-existent, one can at least have an intelligent discussion about it. If one chooses to side with the "alternative" viewpoint, Mitchell could have mentioned the evidence that such electric fields might be detrimental. Instead, she resorted to smoke and mirrors, using language, such as "vital energy", that is medically meaningless. If this is the alternative, it’s a pretty poor showing.

Now of course I understand that newspapers have an obligation to employ columnists who exhibit a variety of opinions and beliefs, especially those that are probably espoused by the majority of their readers. But I’m starting to get the feeling that the Guardian, at least, is not terribly interested in science. Last autumn, when the paper converted to its current commuter-friendly tabloid format, its weekly science supplement, entitled Life, was discontinued. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, explained that it was not a demotion of science – far from it, as there would now be daily science news by a team of dedicated science correspondents. He said: "This will be unique in the British press, enabling us to continue to lead the way in science coverage ... [and] will also enable us to be more responsive to the daily news and explain the science behind events and issues."

It sounded promising, and I was prepared to give Rusbridger the benefit of the doubt, but eight months on, I conclude that the net result of eliminating Life was less science in the Guardian, and certainly less interesting science. Main science news – such as the South Korean stem cell scandal – ends up on the front page as it always did even when Life was around, and Ben Goldacre’s popular column Bad Science was salvaged, but the dribble of articles buried in the science news page continues to be disappointing, both in quantity as well as in terms of innovation. (‘Page’ is a generous description, by the way, as the science often jostles for space with display advertisements.)

It’s also illuminating to inspect which weekly supplements didn’t get the chop during the format shakeup: Media, Education, Society, Film/Music, and Technology (meaning IT). And sports coverage was promoted to its own daily section as thick or thicker than the main section itself.

The disregard of science plays out in more subtle ways. For example, in last Wednesday’s Guardian G2 daily magazine, there was a feature by the arts journalist Mark Lawson entitled No experience necessary, which surveyed the various professions and highlighted youthful savants in each. These professions were Sport, Music, Politics, Writing, Judges, Journalism, Art, Business, and inexplicably lumped together, Doctors and Coppers (presumably because our main frame of reference these days, television, is currently saturated with medical and police procedural dramas that are almost interchangeable). Something missing? Well, there was a further profession labeled ‘Academe’, about university subjects and the rise of the mature student. It did mention mathematics and physics in one sentence, but this certainly felt like an afterthought.

Doesn’t Science deserve its own category? Apparently not. Perhaps the editors felt that this particular header, in large orange font, might cause readers to bolt and scurry onwards in search of Sudoku puzzles, diet advice or the evening’s TV listings.

Personally, I think the Guardian isn’t giving its readers enough credit. Although science and scientists will never be as interesting to the masses as sports or celebrities, there are vast numbers of people employed in science- and health-related fields, and a sizeable further chunk of laypeople who are genuinely interested and would like to know more. Maybe it’s time to cater to them for a change.