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Astronomy Education in the United States


B. Daily Newspapers (Radio/TV News)

If you follow astronomy reporting in U.S. newspapers, you are probably used to reading the syndicated copy of some of the very best science reporters (from such newspapers as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, or The Los Angeles Times.) But these reporters, many of whom have some training in science, and who generally belong to a trade organization called the National Association of Science Writers, are really the cream of the profession. Under that cream comes a much larger group of reporters, editors, and radio and TV people whose training and judgment have become a cause for national concern.

In the old days, many journalists were trained in some academic subject (or self-trained) and went out to report the news. Today, there are over 400 schools or departments of journalism in the US (although many are slowly changing their names to include words like communication and media in part because many of their graduates hope to earn large salaries reading the news from cue cards on television.) These graduates, armed with courses as unspecific and muddled as anything our schools of education can come up with, are beginning to fill the ranks of the radio, television, and print media in the country. Many have minimal or no training in science and a good fraction share the larger public's distrust of and sense of intimidation by scientists.

Even many of the elite journalists in the first group don't do as much digging and reporting these days as you might imagine. They have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the public information officers at universities, research labs, and scientific societies, whose job it is to get out the news from their institution and have it be as widely disseminated as possible. (The two groups are actually so interwoven that journalists frequently move from one to the other and back again with ease.) Because no reporter can keep up with all that is happening in every science, many have come to rely on public information officers to identify noteworthy stories for them. And those are usually the stories that are then developed. There are exceptions — often stories with a local angle or a whiff of scandal — but many journalists are happy to pluck the fruit from the low hanging branches of the information tree; it is rare to see them do much climbing on their own.

In San Francisco, for example, the majority of non-local astronomy stories the public has gotten to read or hear about in the past two years have been determined by only two processes: 1. what stories Steve Maran, the Public Information Officer of the American Astronomical Society, decides to feature at the society meeting press conferences (which are attended by many top science reporters whose stories are frequently syndicated around the country); and 2. what stories NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute public information officers decide to hold news conferences or issue illustrated news releases about.

When the non-elite group of journalists cover some science story (especially on radio and TV), they often do so reluctantly and frequently make a muddle of it. Or they wind up simply rewriting a press release or wire service copy, or focusing on a local scientist who can comment in 20 seconds on the story. Furthermore, it often turns out that most of what these journalists call science news is actually news about medicine or applied technology.

It is these second-tier journalists who often get confused (to make the most charitable interpretation) between science and pseudoscience. They were the ones who reacted to the Nancy Reagan astrology revelations by interviewing local astrologers (who made it all sound like the most natural thing in the world that the president's schedule should be determined by astrological forecasting) and by doing puff pieces on all the movie stars that also guided their lives by astrology.

But there is another part of modern journalism, which more rarely gets discussed: the gatekeepers of the media. Decisions about what gets on the evening news are usually not made by the people you watch on your screen. Decisions about what gets significant coverage in the newspapers are not made by the people whose bylines you know. Decisions about what topics are discussed on the radio are often not made by the people whose voices you hear.

Making these decision is the role of the gate-keepers, editors and producers who filter the news, select the stories to be covered, and direct the tone of the material that will be read on the air. These gate-keepers are often young, superficially educated, and lack any serious knowledge of science. Yet they are the ones who assign the stories to reporters, determine the length of articles or broadcast pieces, and decide where these pieces will appear. They have been, many of them, raised on a steady diet of the kind of journalism we now have, and so accept the current system without question.

Furthermore, it is this group, more than the reporters, that is actually charged with minding the corporate bottom line at their institutions, and is thus most likely to pander to the worst instincts of the public instead of educating them. (Just count the number of news stories about ghosts around Halloween or the predictions of psychics around the new year.) Their sense of the public trust of journalism is founded much more on an entertainment than an educational model, and the trends in what gets reported and how it gets reported clearly bear out their influence. Small wonder that serious science and skeptical inquiry, which is the best thing the scientific method has to teach us, get such short shrift.

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C. Radio and Television Programming

Now we get further into the media wasteland, where oases are harder to find. Scientists tend to focus on and hear about these oases, such as the Stardate and Earth & Sky radio programs, the NOVA television series on PBS, the new telecourse on astronomy from Coast Community College, an occasional special somewhere on a cable channel, etc. The most successful astronomy TV program was Cosmos, estimated to have been seen by 500 million people in more than 60 countries since 1980. But all these are merely exceptions to the general rule of what is seen on television on an average night.

Overall, the television picture is very dim indeed, with vast quantities of pseudo-science being served up by most of the commercial networks. (This is being exacerbated by the tremendous growth of what is called "tabloid tv" — shows that generally imitate the contents and approach of the tabloid newspapers.) Science on many stations is often limited to ten-second newsbites on the evening news that make little sense to the uninitiated (and are often "Guinness Book of World Records" stories — the farthest galaxy, or the most massive black hole.)

As a country, we need to recognize the enormous power that the media have, and pay more attention to how decisions are made in the media. By this I don't mean censorship, but rather undertaking a long-term educational program to make sure that those who have the responsibility for deciding what goes on the air (or what is printed) have the education and the informed background to make sensible judgments. One step would be to introduce and require excellent science overview courses developed specifically for students going into journalism. Another would be for everyone who is dissatisfied with science coverage on the media to make his or her voice heard locally or nationally. (In San Francisco, the work we have done at the ASP has increased the amount of astronomy on local radio and television significantly and, although it took a while, it was not a very painful exercise.)

The argument the media always make in response to such concerns is that they are merely giving the public what it wants. But this argument is specious. Someone like me, who began life in Communist Eastern Europe, never got to taste a mango or an avocado as a child. Thus I would never have known to ask for a mango or an avocado, or have realized that I might want one. But after we came to America, I was introduced to a much wider range of foods: my palate was educated...and now I ask for mango and avocado regularly. Similarly, I would suggest that when the media tell us that people are much more interested in the Bermuda triangle that the Great Attractor, they are merely confessing our joint failure at educating both the gatekeepers of the media and the public about the tasty treats real science has to offer.

In focusing so strongly on the entertainment aspect of their mission over the educational aspect, the media lose sight of the fact that there is an alternative to pandering to the lowest taste. It is the far more difficult and long term job (and the almost forgotten pleasure) of elevating the tastes and desires of their audience to new levels of perception and understanding.

I should mention that there is a national organization which is making a creditable effort to help the media sort out science from fiction science. The group is called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a mouthful of a name, but a group with their hearts in the right place. It consists of scientists, educators, magicians, philosophers, lawyers, and other skeptics whose interest is to get the rational, skeptical perspective about fiction science out to the media and the public.

Through their superb magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, their meetings and workshops, and their information releases to the media, CSICOP has managed to alert and educate a significant number of reporters to stop and consider what they are doing when they file a story involving pseudoscience. They also work to bring together such reporters with skeptical spokespeople before a story is written. (They can be contacted at: P.O. Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226; I urge everyone in astronomy education to get to know their work and support what they are doing.)

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