Posted by: ateedub | February 1, 2009

Science in American Popular Culture

Chris Mooney has an interesting column on Science Progress this week. He – rightly in my opinion – identifies Colbert as one of the leading (or only) popular purveyors of science on TV. Chris says:

In other words, you might say that George W. Bush’s anti-intellectual administration created a perfect opening for Stephen Colbert’s hugely popular caricature of anti-intellectualism; and this in turn transformed Colbert into possibly our most important defender and explainer of scientific knowledge. (Again, if you get the jokes.)

This led me to think about where we go (as a nation/culture) for our information. Although the numbers are steadily dropping, I will assume that many people still rely primarily on the evening news shows to to find out what’s going on in the world. And the amount of science you get there is really slim.  In fact, NBC’s  Nightly News no longer has a science or technology link in its left-hand nav. (CBS Evening News and ABC World News thankfully do still have them.)

Generally though, we get health segments that interview doctors about the impact of a new finding, but not about what the finding is. More often, it’s a story about a potty trained parrot. I kid you not – this is one of the stories that came up on NBC NN’s site when I searched for science.

I have a general dissatisfaction with the evening news shows (how much news can you really convey in 22 minutes?), but why does the Post have so little original science reporting (most of it now comes from HealthDay and AP)? The Times is trying to limp on with its reduced staff. But I think the real question is why the public is not demanding in-depth science coverage.

In the 1950s and 60s, there is no way a paper could get by without covering the science being done at our national laboratories, or the technology and engineering feats that went into building some of the first space age rockets.

I could go on about this, but I think the real question is one that Mooney brings up in his column – what will happen now that we have an administration that promotes science? Will America’s inventions, discoveries, and achievements once again take a central role in our sense of national pride?

This brings me to Sanjay Gupta. Having a charismatic, media-friendly Surgeon General or National Science Advisor, or Secretary of HHS would do wonders for public perception of science and its importance (of the three, Gupta is the only one suited to this role). If Gupta accepts the offer as Surgeon General, and is confirmed by the Senate, his role would be that of spokesperson – or maybe even science evangelist.

I’m not sold on the idea that we should hire our scientific and medical leadership based on their social appeal. But being in PR, I struggle to find someone with the charisma, knowledge, and the time to be an evangelist for my organization, or for science. So perhaps this is the right approach for the administration, as long as Gupta and Obama ensure that someone is doing the hard science work behind the scenes.

Incidentally, Chris, I think you took the right approach to the Report. Did you see the interview with Philippe Petit the next night? He skewered Colbert, making me want to see his movie far less than I had wanted to before.

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