Doing a disservice to science

on May 04 in Writing by

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading a fantastic new book by Richard Zurawski, the well-known metorologist and media personality. I did a review for the book in the May 1st edition of The Chronicle Herald and for space reasons, a lot of what I wrote got cut out.

There was a certain irony in that happening because Zurawski’s book is about how because of its brevity, television does a bad job of how it represents science.

Zurawski argues television does a bad job representing science because most journalists don’t have science backgrounds. Well, that certainly applies to me. The last time I took a science course was in high school; Grade 12 biology to be exact.

Some of the best stuff from the article didn’t make into the published version of my review, so I’m pasting the full review below. Enjoy!

It is often said you shouldn’t believe everything you see on television, and with good reason.

“Everybody thinks television is benign, it is an entertainment source, it is one of those things that doesn’t have much of an effect on society,” says Richard Zurawski, the noted meteorologist and media personality. “What I want people to realize is that television is the most influential medium we’ve ever had.”

Zurawski is the author of Media Mediocrity-Waging War Against Science, a fascinating new book which looks at the negative effects television has on people’s understanding of science.

As a medium to present information, science and television news are a pretty incompatible couple. While science issues are generally complex and take time to explain, television is about sound bites. Not surprisingly, science issues often get misrepresented or misconstrued due to the lack of depth in the media coverage.

“If you think you’re getting… good information from television, to quote NBC: You’re dreaming in technicolour,” says Zurawski.

He says this problem is further compounded by the fact most journalists don’t have backgrounds in science.

“Today, we have very serious science issues all over the place and nobody that’s reporting this stuff on television really understands it,” says Zurawski.

The inspiration for the book came from his realization that most people get their science information from television. To many, Zurawski is best known for his work on Wonder Why?, a television science show that ran in the early 1990s.

“We’re not much of a reading society anymore,” notes Zurawski. “It appears that 80 per cent of all science information comes from television news and that’s sort of what really prompted this book.”

As a broadcaster, Zurawski is well known for his ability to communicate complex ideas in an easy to understand manner. Media Mediocrity isn’t any different and it is one of the things that should make this book mandatory reading material for students (and adults alike).

A book such as this would help educate people as to the gravity of some of the issues the world faces, such as climate change. As Zurawski notes in the book, 97 per cent of climatology and global warming researchers agree that global warming is caused by humans, or in other words is anthropogenic.

Despite this, there is much “doubt” as to whether global warming is anthropogenic. This is because of a number of factors, including “the standard journalistic credo which says that there are two sides to every story,” says Zurawski. “In actual fact, there aren’t.”

By presenting a countering opinion on global warming, it creates doubt in people’s minds, he says.

Another reason for the debate is the role people and organizations with vested interests play in the debate. This is especially true for nuclear power, which has taken a public relations beating since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“When you look at the statistics, nuclear power is by far the safest power generator that we have, including solar panels, windmills and hydroelectricity in terms of the impact on its environment and the impact on the population in terms of death and injury,” says Zurawski. “The science of nuclear power is a technology that’s been pilloried by both sides, by the fossil fuel industry so that we burn more coal and by the anti-nuke crowd that say we’re all going to glow in the dark.

“By shutting down nuclear reactors, you’re just going to rely on another form of energy that is going to make things worse. For example, 10,000 miners die a year in the mining of coal. That’s more than the total number of deaths attributed to all nuclear accidents and all nuclear spillages in the 60 years nuclear power plants have been active.”

Not surprisingly, the media isn’t doing a great job talking about these issues.

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