Science Writers 2010: A Debate Over the Causes of Scientific Illiteracy and How Declining Science Journalism Fits Into That Picture

By Chris Mooney | November 7, 2010 12:00 pm

NASW PictureYesterday I appeared on a panel at the 2010 National Association of Science Writers meeting, along with public opinion experts Jon Miller and Carolyn L. Funk. Two write ups of the panel appeared on the event blog subsequently–here and here. To describe the event, then, let me just quote:

If you had $1 to spend on improving science literacy in America, how would you spend it? That was the question posed by Rick Borchelt, an organizer of today’s Civics of science session, to panelists Carolyn L. Funk, Jon Miller, and Chris Mooney.

Miller proposed spending half his dollar on improving pre-college science education, with the remainder on adult learning, a small portion of which would be used for science journalism. Mooney suggested spending the whole dollar on creating jobs for science journalists and young scientists, building an army of people devoted to improving public science literacy. And Funk said most of her dollar would go into the education system, with spending divided on efforts to incorporate science standards into elementary and lower-level education and on adult learning and informal adult education, the area where mainstream science journalism has its greatest impact.

Although the session raised more questions than it provided answers, the Agronsky & Co. style discussion, as promised, led to some interesting debate about the place of science journalism in science literacy and education in the United States. Science journalism is concerned mainly with delivering information about the latest developments in scientific discovery, and today most science reporting operates within the “just-in-time” model of new media. The cultural importance of science, the future of which could hinge on fitting into the new media scene, was perhaps most entertainingly discussed within the context of music and Rock Stars, a topic introduced by Mooney. Whether science and science journalism would benefit from riding the coat-tails of mass media remains to be seen.

As you can see, I talked a lot about the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign at the panel–my current attempt to contribute to part of the solution.

One central issue that arose yesterday was how to identify  the most important measure of scientific “illiteracy”–and how to assess whether the decline of science journalism is affecting that measure. Here, I argued that we should focus on the public’s engagement with science, and on science’s cultural standing, rather than strictly considering citizens’ knowledge of scientific facts.

I think the former is what’s really critical, as well as more closely tied to how journalism and media are faring. And in this sense, I don’t doubt that using celebrities and rock stars to draw greater attention to science is a solution that’s going to work.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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