Is Science Journalism Dead–Or Does it Just Smell Funny? By Wolfgang C. Goede

ESOF 2012

While there is a lot of big-time research going on, which costs billions of Euros, our profession likes to act as „descendents of Prometheus, taking the fire from the scientific olympus and bring it down to the people“. This is a quote from Dorothy Nelkin’s book „Selling Science“.

For example,  the dream of nuclear fusion has been pursued for 60 years, the scientific promise to harvest unbounded energy. But we are still very far away to put this vision into reality, whereas research on Low Energy Nuclear Reactions has been banned by the scientific establishment, without noticeable opposition.

Many science and technical journalists have always sided with the scientific, economic and political powers: with the car manufacturers, who could not imagine until recently that automobiles run on other than fossil fuels; they became NASA’s loudspeakers and ignored the lamentable state of the Space Shuttle, which eventually led to the shocking accident; and they believed in the tobacco industry, which did not get tired to repeat: Smoking does not harm your health, although the adverse effects had already been known in the 1950’s.

No lessons were learned from history after major research organisations in  Nazi-Germany declared blatant racism as a scientific truth and the media just went along with this, not only in Germany. Political ideology applied to science and reinforced by science journalists caused famines in Soviet Russia and left millions dead.

Last century’s history teaches us that research is always about power, political and economic strings, the abyss of financing and money as well as the often well hidden self-interest and ambitions of researchers. Science in theory is about truth, but in reality about power. These are the stakes and major stakeholder, however one is missing.

When on July 4, 2012 CERN revealed its breakthrough, this was also a victory for Europe’s taxpayers and citizens who have largely financed the collider. But do they really understand what’s going on with the God particle, why research is necessary. Has anyone asked the principal stakeholder?

Citizens have not raised their voice so far, but perhaps German clergymen speak up for them. They are opposing the god particle, the term and probably also the research, because it demystifies God. They claim that another field of research deserves much more attention: climate change, waste of energy, the depletion of natural resources!

We  will need a new planet by 2030, if we don’t improve our act and shape up, say these catholics and raise the question: Should some of the moneys used for basic research, fusion and particle physics not be invested into the sustainability of our earth? Which also would suggest that tax payers are consulted as to the priorities of research moneys.

Until 1789 Europe was ruled by the “Ancien Regime”. Does it survive in science and science journalism, as the Prometheus quote indicates? We have the power to change this. Rather than cheerleaders, science journalists should be critical investigators who flip the coin and look behind it. The German Association of Science Writers TELI wants to facilitate this mission and proposes a new platform for science journalists.

The “Sci Journs House of Debate” shall stimulate scientific debate in society and bridge the gap between researchers, politicians and citizens. It zeros in on major scientific issues of the 21. century and triggers them with provocative questions: Electricity as expensive as fuel? Food stamps for fish and meat?  Prostheses and major surgery only until 60?

Science must become part of the mainstream society. This has succeeded once  research results are being debated as passionately as soccer scores. Only this will provide the missing checks and balances which keep the other stakeholders of science under control.

This was a contribution to ESOF Dublin 2012, a panel discussion with the title above, moderated by Brian Trench, Irish Science & Technology Journalists Association ISTJA.  On the panel were Elisabetta Tola, Formicablu – Italy, and Vesa Niinikangas, president of the World Federation of Science Journalists – Canada//Finland

About Wolfgang C. Goede

Wolfgang C. Goede is a science journalist based in Munich, Germany. He is a board member of the German Association of Science Writers TELI.