31 March 2010

More TED skepticism: Is science news the most important news?

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Only days after a TED talk about Mars inspired this post correcting some of the misconceptions in the talk, another TED talk has me scratching my head. This one is by Kirk Citron, editor of “The Long News”, a project concerned with winnowing the few news stories from current events that will actually be seen as important 100 years or more from now. In his very brief talk he gives examples of news stories that he thinks probably won’t be remembered for long, such as the heroic splash landing of a plane on the Hudson river. But what I really thought was interesting was that he chose science news stories as some of the most significant.

Now, don’t get me wrong: a lot of science news is genuinely more important than the inane stories of scandal and petty politics that dominate the 24 hour news cycle. But I also know that science press releases tend to exaggerate the importance of the research being done. Science news invariably reports every incremental advance as a revolutionary discovery. This is, sadly, standard practice: scientists (and the associated media relations folks at their home institutions) have gotten good at this because that’s how you get funding. So when I see stories such as the ones that Citron cites (nano-bots being injected into mice to cure cancer, a “robot-scientist” making a discovery, the discovery of water on the moon) I am skeptical.

Regarding nano-bots: I remember reading a Scientific American back in middle school about this technology. Yes, it may revolutionize the future, but my point is that articles like the one that Citron mentioned have been coming out for years. Individual articles will probably not be remembered 100 years from now.

And of course, his special mention of the water on the moon story tells me that he doesn’t fully understand the science stories he has selected. The discovery of water on the moon is scientifically fascinating, but as far as I know, the amount of water present there is pretty miniscule and isn’t going to suddenly spur a rush to colonize.

Much like the Mars talk that I criticized, I agree with the message here, but disagree with the particulars. Call me cynical, but I don’t think that most of the science and technology stories that he chose will be remembered 100 years from now. Maybe a handful of them will grow to fruition and we will eventually see nano-bot medicine or moon colonies, but many more of them will fall out of favor, or some better way to do things will be discovered.

So is science news the most important news? I generally would have to say no. Obviously I think it is more important than the vast majority of day-to-day news, but major world events probably trump your typical breathless science news stories. Science inherently keeps good records, so it does have a better chance of being remembered, but despite what press releases might say, it’s a rare scientific discovery that will be remembered 100 years down the line.