23 December 2010

Is science interesting?

Posted by vivienne

Does science need human interest to make it popular with the public? Today, I spoke to a woman who seemed to believe  science news stories don’t need a human element because science is intrinsically interesting. She mentioned Martin Robbins’ famous spoof criticising science journalism. I think she was referring to where Martin writes:

If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

In this paragraph I will reference or quote some minor celebrity, historical figure, eccentric, or a group of sufferers; because my editors are ideologically committed to the idea that all news stories need a “human interest”, and I’m not convinced that the scientists are interesting enough.

Let’s assume she felt science stories shouldn’t need ‘human interest’, such as how a discovery might raise the hopes of people with a disease. If so, I disagree with her, but only in some cases.

Some science doesn’t need human interest because it’s intrinsically, well, awesome. You don’t need a small child with a rare genetic disease to get people interested in black holes, the birth of the universe or big, stompy space dinosaurs with huge horns. Society studies this stuff because it’s awe-inspiringly cool and makes us go ‘WOW’. The role of the writer isn’t to get people weeping into their cereal – it’s to capture, bottle and pass on a sense of wonder!

Silly or smutty scientific studies are another case where the news coverage doesn’t always need human interest. Everyone likes reading about sex, especially online (as Trekkie Monster said). I don’t need to say anything more than ‘squirrel masturbation’ to get the few people who haven’t read Ed Yong’s post on the subject to click on this link – no reality TV stars needed. Ed is among the world’s best ‘prawnographers’ – science writing about animal sex.

Many scientists, sadly, don’t get to spend 2000 hours watching ground squirrels playing with their nuts. Scientists in many areas of basic biology or physics are studying stuff that might turn into useful technology or treatments for disease in years to come. Their progress is slow, painstaking and prone to setbacks. Their work is immensely important and may transform the lives of our children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, this might happen in 15 or 50 years time… if at all.

The latter are the research studies that need human interest adding to news stories to make them interesting and relevant. Journalists need to mention the possible, future benefits to families and society. These ‘human interest’ reasons are why society is funding this research. The hope that their research might – in the future – save a child’s life is probably why some basic researchers get up in a morning.

The final category of science stories are about applied research, although these are normally covered by health, business or environmental – not science – journalists. Take, for example, medical technology piloted for the first time in a hospital or the go-ahead for a new design of power station. These stories are intrinsically relevant to human life – they would be meaningless without mentioning it.

The debate rages on and on about whether journalists should cover the coolness of brain research or its relevance to Alzheimer’s – even if a treatment is years away. The answer is it all depends on the field of science. Some science is cool. Period. Other science is only cool to most people because it might help their grandchildren. The role of a science journalist is to sprinkle studies – where needed – with a festive dusting of human interest… and bah humbug to the scientists who think otherwise.