barbara_strauch's picture
Science Editor, The New York Times; Author, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain; The Primal Teen
The Disconnect

Every day, as Science Editor of The New York Times, I think about how we convey increasingly complex science to the general public. How do we explain the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson and help our readers understand what an enormous, astonishing—even beautiful—discovery it is.

Luckily, here at the Times, we have writers like Dennis Overbye, who not only deal every day with the science of the cosmos, but who can write about it with the poetry it often deserves.

But luck is an important ingredient here. The Times remains committed to a deep coverage of science. But such a commitment feels increasingly lonely. Over the past several years, I have watched science and health coverage by general-interest newspapers shrink. As a health and science editor, I used to pick up other major newspapers with trepidation, knowing there might be a good story we missed or an important angle that we overlooked. The Times had serious competition.

Today, sadly, that is most often not the case. Coverage of health and science in general-interest newspapers has declined dramatically. Reporters whose work I have long admired have moved on to other things or retired or been fired, as science staffs have been slashed. True, there are many, many more good websites and some excellent blogs that cover a wide range of science topics, but most are aimed at smaller segments of readers, who search out information focused in specific areas. Some general interest papers in other countries continue to value science coverage, but unless you're a reader with access to those publications that doesn't help much.

Something quite serious has been lost. And, of course, this has ramifications not only for the general level of scientific understanding, but for funding decisions in Washington—and even access to medical care. And it's not good for those of us at The Times, either. Competition makes us all better.

This decline in general-interest science coverage comes at a time of divergent directions in the general public. At one level, there seems to be increasing ignorance. After all, it's not just science news coverage that has suffered, but also the teaching of science in schools. And we just went through a political season that saw how all this can play out, with major political figures spouting off one silly statement after another, particularly about women's health. Here at the Times we knew the scientific discourse on these topics had gotten so ridiculous—and dangerous—that we launched a team of reporters on a series we called "Political Science," with a string of stories that tried to set the scientific record straight.

But something else is going on, as well. Even as we have in some pockets what seems like increasing ignorance of science, we have at the same time, a growing interest of many. It's easy to see, from where I sit, how high that interest is. Articles about anything scientific, from the current findings in human evolution to the latest rover landing on Mars, not to mention new genetic approaches to cancer—and yes, even the Higgs boson—zoom to the top of our newspaper's most emailed list.

We know our readers love science and cannot get enough of it. And it's not just our readers. As the rover Curiosity approached Mars, people of all ages in all parts of the country had "Curiosity parties" to watch news of the landing. Mars parties! Social media, too, has shown us how much interest there is across the board, with YouTube videos and tweets on science often becoming instant megahits.

So what we have is a high interest and a lot of misinformation floating around. And we have fewer and fewer places that provide real information to a general audience that is understandable, at least by those of us who do not yet have our doctorates in astrophysics. The disconnect is what we should all be worried about.

Still, I should also take a moment to mention a few things that I am actually worrying less about. And this, too, is a bit of a contradiction. In some cases, in my dozen or so years in the Science Department here at the Times, I have watched as our readers—all of us actually—have become more sophisticated.

Misunderstanding and hype have not gone away. But over the last decade, we all have gained a more nuanced understanding of how our medical-industrial complex operates—and the money that often drives it.

And we have a clearer understanding of the complexity of common diseases, from mental illness to heart disease to Alzheimer's. We have reached a common understanding that there is no magic bullet to fix such diseases or even address the problems in our health care system.

While we still have a long way to go, the conversation is beginning to change in these areas and others. The constant drumbeat about obesity is, as we reported recently, showing some signs of having an impact: obesity rates are edging downward in children. We all understand, too, that medicine has gotten too expensive and that there is a lot of overtreatment going on in this country. Again, we have moved past the point of thinking there are quick solutions to these issues. But more people are talking about such topics—at least a little here and there—without so much shouting about death panels.

In at least few of these areas, I am, when I think about it, oddly hopeful.