Narrating Science and Blogging the Gulf: the Effects of the Information Age on Scientific Communication.
‘Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists […] between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension’
– C.P.Snow (1959)
The reworking of science: refashioning and re-representing research findings in popular media has reached an all-new level. Scientific narratives are now multidisciplinary, have multiple ‘protagonists’ and multiple authors.The rise of blogging has enabled science to achieve its most accessible form yet with anybody able to review, link, and refashion science in his or her very own narrative. The comment boxes at the bottom of online articles allow people to partake in the discourse of science with an immediacy afforded only by the Internet revolution, and micro-blogging sites such as twitter encourage social dialogue and extended dissemination, via the ‘re-tweet’ feature, to like-minded individuals.
I myself admit that 70% of my scientific reading comes from articles, papers and reviews that have been ‘tweeted’ by @NewScientist, @WellcomeTrust, @Nature and companions. The simple convenience of social networking has revolutionised the popularisation of science so that not only is it widely read, but also widely discussed. This scientific infiltration to an audience of unprecedented size has raised concerns over the accuracy of some popular science texts. Most notably newspapers and freelance websites are often guilty of exaggerating research findings or presenting them within misleading narratives to make better reading. The hot-topic of science journalism at the moment concerns the relative scientific training of such vocations. Should journalists who report popular science be able to understand the original research paper they are reporting on? I think yes. Holding a BSc in both Biology and English I know it will seem easy for me to come to this conclusion, but I’m not advocating such interdisciplinarity simply because I could do it.
The problem stems from the nature of popular science. Those with scientific backgrounds tend to, quite naturally, disappear off into science-focussed vocations, and those with humanities or journalistic backgrounds tend not to have had the time or impetus to study hard science. But this is slowly changing. With the internet-driven boom in science education, a career in science journalism is becoming a popular choice; the recent governmental funding controversies concerning the Arts and Humanities have called generally for the implication of interdisciplinary action and one destination for this collaboration is in the field of popular science.
Although the duo may seem unconventional, a matching of Arts and Science provides a unique perspective on the way we view the world and endows the scholar with a coveted set of skills for effectively presenting hard science theory in a manageable format. I think a working knowledge of a scientific paper is a valuable and [should be] essential requirement for any science journalist – how can they act as a mediator between science and culture if they are barely more informed than their target readership? I’m not advocating a complete scientific training (although this of course would be ideal) but simply a familiarisation with key scientific concepts and protocol in order to present reliable and well-informed journalism.
Ultimately these kind of debates are of vital importance and made all the more poignant by an increasing number of the general public professing to be scientifically-versed. To ensure informed support or opposition for key scientific protocols and policies we must encourage people to read widely and approach potentially controversial articles with caution. Look for signs of authenticity like citing the original paper, quoting researchers in context and offering links for further information. That said, in my mind anything that encourages a genuinely interdisciplinary approach is a positive thing, so kudos to all the bloggers out there – continue to tell the story of science and do your bit to blog the gulf!
 C. P. Snow, ‘The Two Cultures’ The Rede Lecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959) <http://s-f-walker.org.uk/pubsebooks/2cultures/Rede-lecture-2-cultures.pdf>