Science and media: bridging the gulf

by Eve Savory

Eve Savory, a documentary science and environment journalist with CBC TV's The National and a graduate of UBC's Faculty of Arts, is the recent recipient of UBC's Great Trekker Award. The following is an excerpt of remarks she made at the awards ceremony.

Picture I'm going to take this opportunity to ride one of my favourite hobby horses. It's the gulf between my trade -- journalism -- and that practiced by the people whose stories I most like to tell -- the scientists, physicians and engineers. This university is in a position to become the Canadian leader in bridging that gulf.

When I look back at my time here, the gulf between the cultures existed even among students.

I was in Arts and we were always marching somewhere -- usually against the war in Vietnam. The science students didn't show up much and we figured they were already locked away in their ivory tower.

Since those days in the late '60s I think the gulf has become a chasm. Most of us journalists come from a humanities background. It seems some reporters take their view of science directly from the Handy Guide.

Writing about science scares many of us. It scares me. Our job is to get the story first, fastest and right and it's hard getting science right. Especially when you're trying to be first and fast.

So, far too many reporters mangle it, twist it, sensationalize it or totally miss the point.

It's not all one-sided. Scientists can be cutting in their sarcasm about our attempts -- so hostile, they refuse to talk to us, or unintelligible when they do.

And those scientists who do enjoy communicating science require courage because some of their colleagues scorn and deride them.

The outcome of this mutual inability or unwillingness to do the job right is public confusion about matters scientific. For example, eight out of 10 people in a survey of 20 countries said global warming is caused by a hole in the earth's atmosphere.

And there's the dear woman in Chicago who ties knots in her electric cords to keep her utility bill low.

Some in the media have distorted reality so badly that some people now believe everything -- the water, the air, the food -- is poisoning them, except that which really is poisoning them.

Some years ago I watched a demonstration on TV against the temporary storage of barrels of PCBs on a dock in Quebec.

There was a young man, his face twisted with anger, as he shouted about the government poisoning his community. As he spoke a cigarette dangled from his mouth just inches from the face of the baby in the carrier against his chest.

But there's something else, something scarier happening.

Increasingly you see uncritical articles in the media on channelling, angels, healing hands, auras, witches, the paranormal and extraterrestrial visitors.

Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer in the United States, has written, "What we are seeing, in the press and in our society, is nothing less than the deconstruction of the Enlightenment and its principle institution, which is science."

Raymond Eve, a sociologist at the University of Texas did a survey of New Agers. He points out that as a group they are often highly educated, affluent and have the clout to influence school curriculum and research policies. He found a large majority believe they can communicate with the dead, and that nine out of 10 New Agers believe psychics can predict the future. They also believe that science causes spiritual decline and scientists have dangerous powers.

Perhaps it is not as bad in Canada. But there is definitely a growing suspicion and cynicism towards science and medicine in the public.

Last year I did a documentary on the possibility of irradiating ground beef to kill the E. Coli bacteria and prevent hamburger disease. I got hate mail. I was accused of covering up a conspiracy involving the nuclear industry and a UBC scientist.

I fear that the growing distrust will damage our universities and perhaps our society.

Yet, I'm optimistic.

I'm optimistic because UBC now has the Sing Tao School of Journalism. The school's director, Donna Logan, is committed to science journalism.

And it's because UBC's president, Martha Piper, wants to promote interdisciplinary education and is committed to public awareness of the research at UBC.

It's because Grant Ingram, the principal of St. John's College, is planning to bring science and journalism students together -- to get to them before the walls go up.

And it's because UBC is doing some of the best and most newsworthy science in the country -- and it has a large number of scientists who, bless them, are willing to forgive us our errors and talk to us.

So I'm going to give some examples of what others have done that could be a model for UBC.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science has a well-established media fellowship scheme. Scientists get to spend a week in a newsroom, researching stories, setting up interviews, asking questions, writing stories.

How about one-week internships in TV, radio, or print newsrooms for UBC science students who are interested in understanding how media works?

How about having a lecture about journalism and the importance of communicating science compulsory for all first-year science students?

How about the journalism students spending a couple of hours a term in a lab of their choice? And not just for the ones who want to cover science.

How about a Science Writer in Residence? A quick search on the Web turned up half a dozen, including ones at Cambridge, the University of Wisconsin - Madison and one attached to Columbia University's medical college.

Imagine if UBC had a journalist whose job was to hang out with researchers on campus, write stories about them and get them published. Perhaps a position could be shared with SFU, UVic and UNBC.

Oxford University has a chair devoted to the public understanding of science, funded by Charles Simonyi of Microsoft. Could UBC tap into his research?

And every summer for the last 13 years Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., has offered fully-funded science writing fellowships for reporters and editors.

There is also the opportunity for an additional seven weeks of field work in places like Alaska, Sweden and Brazil. Maybe UBC could offer a scaled-down one- week version of such a fellowship to a recent UBC journalism graduate or a working science reporter.

There are dozens of science organizations in Canada -- from the B.C. Science Council, to Canadian science writers, the biological societies, the Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society -- which are trying to promote the public awareness of science.

What we need is a university to start at ground zero -- with the students-- and that university should be UBC.