Science vs. Britney Spears

Last week, most of the attention of the media, Old and New, revolved around the question if it is McCain supporters or Obama supporters who are more likely to think that Britney Spears is teh hawt (dunno what the answer is, but I recall seeing some statistics about the overwhelming lead by the Red States in porn consumption, TV watching, numbers of adult establishments and number of visits to such establishments per capita, and this may or may not correlate with the perception of Britney Spears as attractive to certain subsets of the male population).
But her name has also been mentioned a number of times recently in discussions of poor scientific understanding by the American public, the role of scientific reporting, and the role of science blogs.
For instance, for the longest time, the most visited post on the entire scienceblogs.com network was a post about Britney. It was one of those throw-away posts, with a silly title, a one-liner, a picture and a link. Something that takes no thought and about two minutes to post. Something almost all of us post sometimes, just to fill the page. For fun. Not a post that requires hours of research and writing. The success of that post (I have not checked the site-wide stats in ages, but perhaps the Expelled and Crackergate posts have beat it down to third place now) is sometimes invoked as an example how the general public is much more likely to search the web for “Britney+Spears+naked+picture” than to search for scientific content (watch my sitemeter go wild after posting this!).
At the second Science Blogging Conference (the content of the wiki will find a new online home soon), Britney Spears was again invoked in a similar role in the ‘Framing Science’ session. She is what the media serves, and she is what the masses want to see. No room for science.
But how would the modern American media look like If Scientists Were Tabloid Fodder? Notice, again, the mention of Britney in that post. Notice also how Sara Aton is deemed as famous as Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. A quick search of my blog found these two posts that mention Sara Aton, so you know who she is – brilliant, for sure. Makes me happy that my colleague gets such attention!
Then, in a recent post, Trey goes back to the ‘Framing Science’ session at SBC’08 and gives a different analysis of the problem than what Jennifer proposed at the time (read the whole Trey’s post – it is very informative and thought-provoking).
Victor, in the comments, makes it even more clear – the difference between now and then, now being 2008 and then being, let’s say, 1958, is in the distribution. With three TV channels, a local paper or two, a local radio station or two, everyone got the same serving of both news and entertainment. This was a “push” – the information is pushed onto the audience, who has to take it or go live in a cave.
Today, the media reality is that it is a “pull” model – there are so many outlets, hundreds of cable channels, increased numbers of magazine, millions of blogs, satellite radio, that everyone searches for information and entertainment they are interested in. And ignore the rest.
So, if NBC served 15 minutes of science every day in 1958, everyone got to see 15 minutes of science every day. And could talk about it around the water-cooler the next day. Today, even if NBC still gives its 15 daily minutes, this means that most people get zero minutes of science news by not choosing to watch NBC, while those who are particularly interested know where to go to get their daily fill which is probably measured in hours per day (just try reading every single post on scienceblogs.com every day and following every link – it’s a full time job, ask the Overlords: they are paid to do it and still cannot manage to!).
It is now like that about every topic imaginable: a small number of people particularly interested in a topic have MUCH more sources today than ever. But it is also possible to ignore everything else. Thus, most people ignore most topics. Thus, most people ignore science.
Yet we agree that, at this day and age, a certain level of scientific understanding is more important than ever for general population. So many decisions one makes in personal life, in health-care choices and in political choices, require better understanding of science than the general population ever had in history. The general ignorance of science is nothing new – as Trey points out, the surveys indicate that the levels of scientific understanding and knowledge have been holding steady for decades in the USA (and probably also everywhere else in the world).
How do we increase scientific knowledge and understanding of the general population? No matter how good we are at science reporting and science communication as a whole – and I wrote a lengthy post recently claiming that we are – this will not matter as long as this is a “pull” culture and most people will never get to see any of that science communication anyway, be it good or bad.
The only way to do this is to somehow revert to “push”. But that is impossible in the current media ecology. Reversal to three TV channels is impossible, not to mention a really bad idea.
So, the media is not the way. While the science communication in the media, Old and New, has to be there, and has to be good, it will not be the venue for increasing science literacy in the general population.
The only venue I can think of, the only place where “push” still works and people are literally forced to listen to things they personally don’t care about – is school.
But science education in the USA is abysmal. What little there is of it is taught in a horrendous way – memorization of seemingly useless factoids. Solving puzzles. Learning Latin names for body parts. It is hard, it is boring, and it makes no sense.
The only way to make a scientifically educated population is to completely rethink science education – to make much more of it compulsory for graduation from middle and high schools and colleges, to make it interesting and relevant, and to put stress on the process and method and the historical context rather than on the factoids. To make the kids interested in science (they are born interested, then lose interest later – let’s see how we can keep them interested instead). To teach the kids how to remain interested in science, how to find and WANT to find relevant scientific information for the rest of their lives.
But this takes a lot of political muscle, especially since we are facing a ridiculous educational system in which the schooling is run by local boards, often filled with total incompetents. I guess all of us who got out or lucked out of the tenure-track trajectory should run for local school boards and start the revolution from within….
Unless you have a better idea?

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8 responses to “Science vs. Britney Spears

  1. I’ve been thinking hard about this issue while ruminating on my past experiences with math and science, and had specifically been pondering the “push/pull” phenomenon. How do we get folks to WANT to eat their veggies, when it’s so poorly and blandly prepared in the classroom? Serving on science boards is as good a place to start as any, but that alone might not be sufficient. How DOES one institute broad educational reform in a society that just doesn’t care?

  2. i agree with your “push-pull” model, but you’re missing an important component to the equation comparing “now” with “then”…
    while advertising was certainly a part of 1958 media, it wasn’t the full-court press onslaught we see now.. but with print, radio, tv and certainly with online news, actual content competes for space/time with advertising…
    at the recent international coral reef symposium in florida, seaweb (an ocean media and news network) pulled together a panel of distinguished scientists and distinguished science journalists to discuss the challenges of getting coral reef science and conservation messages to the masses…
    the response from the journalists was blunt, but clear… their hands are tied by editors who are looking at ad revenue generated from user click-through’s (at least online) and column inches of ad space for print media… all journalists present claimed they would much rather be writing about something “meaningful” and press their editors for more science coverage… but the editorial firewall filters heavily for the sensational (what readers are searching for and what advertisers want to be seen with)…
    i still think a pull model could work in favor of readers “pulling” more science from online news sources, but only if editors start providing a regular opportunity for readers to be exposed to science content… science tuesday’s in the ny times is the only recurring science content i can think of in print media… looking across cnn’s online masthead, there isn’t even a science tab (interestingly, it’s buried under “tech”)… which i think speaks volumes as to science’ general appeal…

  3. I don’t have a better idea, but I do think this and other science sites constitute a good idea in themselves.
    People look for interesting things to read and watch. Though Britney et. al. are content free, they are pretty interesting. But you and I think science is interesting, and unlike 50 years ago we have a way to potentially reach numerous people by writing about science in a (hopefully) interesting way.
    The “pull” model isn’t bad in itself – you and me and the rest of the science world just have to step up to the microphone and make science understandable and fascinating enough for a general audience to want to pull it.

  4. Tsk tsk, you are just perpetuating an unsubstantiated sterotype about Britney. Clearly, you have never visited Britney Spears guide to Semiconductor Physics: Fabrication of VCSELs.

  5. A friend who is a physics professor (at a school without a physics major, so she’s teaching students interested in “other things”), incorporates media into her teaching. Students have to write up brief summaries of science news on a periodic basis, including why the particular article caught their attention, and Fridays are, in part, for YouTube videos with an interesting physics component.
    Students and former students send her links all the time to interesting bits of media because she’s the person who told them these things exist and are cool to find cool. She probably has the best Friday attendance in her department, too, but I don’t know that she’s checked.
    Basically, if we want people to use science media, I think we have to teach them to use it.

  6. Being from the UK, I struggle to understand why schools in the US have their curricula dictated by local boards. Is there a standard curriculum that all children must be taught, or is it down to the local board to decide everything? Surely this is a potential target for change?

  7. If the community is not interested in science, it is us to blame.
    I think scientists fail to communicate, and fail to explain the knowledge to general community. I have been an NSF fellow for teaching to GK-12 students for a while and the idea we have in mind is to connect the real life to science.
    Isn’t it funny? If you ask me, science is all about life itself! But then you get into the classroom, and the students ask “how will this help me in real life?”. It really hurts. Didn’t Einstein once said “if a physical theory cannot be explained to a child, it is probably worthless.” But do scientists really care about delivering information to public? Or do “general scientific community” prefers to criticize “general public’” ignorance? If we, as scientists are not going to enlighten the darkness, who else will?
    Back to Britney, I have no problem reaching people via her. I think we can use Britneys, Hiltons and so ons as a way to attract publics’ interest. It is doable. The issue is to make people gain the initial interest, if the title that includes Britney draws attention, let it be. Slowly we can deliver the information over the “daily life” issues. And again, that issue could be the love life of Britney. Does not matter. (here is the way we do it: http://www.udel.edu/pbl/)
    It is the scientists who should reach to general publics’ level. If you don’t mind reading, here is something I posted couple weeks ago, I find it related.
    http://www.counterminds.com/2008/07/science-buuuu.html
    At last, thanks for the interesting title!
    ~betul :)

  8. I love Paris