We need no-nonsense optimism in the news and science is there to provide it

I stopped regularly watching news a while ago and don’t miss it at all. It doesn’t mean that I no longer care about what is happening in the world – on the contrary, I try to stay informed but carefully curate the content that I consume. From news websites, to paper magazines, books, podcasts and video channels. Of course, this means I stay in my (leftist, progressive, liberal, woke, call it whatever you like) bubble most of the time. While I am aware of the limitations, I see no added value in watching news in mainstream media, especially TV and biggest portals. The truth is, these information sources and their prepacked messages do nothing for me except induce anxiety and fear that the world is going to end any day now. They certainly do not give a balanced view of what’s going on because most news programmes and websites – at least in Poland, where I come from – are completely devoid of any science topics, thus completely lack the cautious optimism that science news bring about.

I would like to give credit when it’s due, though. Many websites such as The Guardian still have active science sections. Sadly, these are quite often quite difficult to find, hidden in the ‘nobody reads that’ sections, lack funding, are relegated to the weekend sections together with all the other topics considered to be less pressing, or all of the above. If science somehow makes it to the main page, the story must be really big or controversial, or it’s only in the spotlight because of a shortage of ‘real news’ (ie. corrupt politicians insulting each other, natural disasters and celebrities fighting for attention). To add insult to the injury, if science is present in mainstream news at all, it is often presented as a quirky, wide-eyed endeavour leading to bombshells like ‘are most polar bears left-handed?’.

cnn

There is no ‘Science’ section on the CNN.com website. Tech and Health comes closest, but plenty of research domains won’t fall into this category

bbc

guardian

Guardian.co.uk and news.bbc.co.uk are doing it better. BBC news even had a science-ish story about white reindeers that the header photo of this post comes from

onet

onet.pl, the largest Polish web portal, doesn’t have an easily traceable science section. They do publish science news of varying quality though. These rarely make it to the top of the page

wyborcza

wyborcza.pl, a website for the biggest Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, at least has a science section (‘Nauka’) on the website. Science stories usually lose the fight for the top spots with politics, though

It’s partly understandable that journalists are fishing for stories that would be a bit weird, quirky or cute, assuming that it’s the only way to make anyone read something science-related. However, this approach creates an image of science as a sinkhole where public money disappears and that only occasionally sometimes spits out marginally useful trivia. Science (if done correctly and for the right reasons) is a polar opposite of it, though. It is the most rational way we have to describe the world and would perfectly address everyone’s need to know what is going on*. Moreover, every scientific discovery by definition is something to be happy about.

You might say – sure, some science stories fall into this category. Nobody is going to deny that discovery of new drugs or more environmentally friendly modes of transport is a reason to be happy. But what about the terrifying findings like that we have only 12 years to tackle climate change, otherwise we’ll be screwed?. How is that optimistic? Well, as every MD or mental health professional will tell you, having a diagnosis is the first and crucial step toward recovery. Only identifying the problem and the magnitude of it will allow us to tackle it. Learning that we’re destroying the Earth at an alarming rate won’t give us humans a warm fuzzy feeling about ourselves. However, after we’ve recovered from the shock, we are better equipped to deal with the mess we have made because we have a fuller picture. Knowing about something is already better than being in the dark.

What about the science news that claim one thing one day, and a complete opposite the next? How are we supposed to be chipper about knowing that sugar, not fat, is the true killer, when somebody else will claim that fats are deadly vein-cloggers and we should stick to carbs instead?

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There are two issues to unpack here. Firstly, if written about at all, science tends to be overly simplified and exaggerated in popular media. What might have originally been a study making a few cautious assumptions, after several rounds of journalistic retouching turns into a boast claiming all the mysteries of the world have been resolved. So if you follow the sensationalist science stories that seem to contradict each other and trace the original research papers, you might find that they don’t actually oppose each other and are probably very careful in their conclusions.

Secondly, being wrong is an everyday occurrence in science. Reseach is not a straight line from hypothesis to a theory, more like a long and winding road with a lot of intermediate conclusions that prove false over time. However, when added up, all these mistakes and errors lead to a better understanding of a problem and each of them brings us closer to knowing what the world is really like. However, if scientific process is absent in the media, there is no way people can have an idea how research works. They just see researchers proudly claiming that they’ve found the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything one after another, and giving completely different and often contradicting answers. We need to remember that these scientists are often misquoted and made more confident in their findings than they really are. They are also more often wrong than right, but that’s fine. That’s how progress is made.

This was my quite long and meandering of saying – we really need science communication in our daily lives. Not through elaborate movies, science fairs, podcasts, blogs etc. – which are all great, by the way, but tend to reach only the people that are already interested in science and are actively looking for this kind of content. What we need is science news as a part of everyone’s daily news feed, as a much needed balance to the horrifying forest fire stories, drug cartel tragedies, sexual misconduct accusations and news of important people passing away. Every day thousands of people are working really hard to understand the world and are making enormous breakthroughs to potentially make our lives better. This could be a dose of no-nonsense optimism we all so badly need today. So please, news broadcasters, give science a daily slot on your show or website. Not a separate show that nobody will watch. Not a special feature on the Good News Day that some broadcasters celebrate. Make us an integral part of the news feed. We will all benefit from it, promise.

*One of the circulating working hypotheses about the rise of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories (hi, flat-earthers) is that it addresses the common need to understand the world by giving simplistic answers. The more we as scientists ignore this need and not care about the general public, the more powerful pseudoscience grows in this void.

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