Montag, Oktober 18, 2010

Warum wir tatsächlich immer dümmer werden

Zugegeben: Dieser Artikel über den rasanten Rückgang des Wissenschaftsjournalismus stammt noch aus dem Jahr 2009. Aber er trifft noch immer ins Schwarze. Ein paar Absätze, die einen zentralen Aspekt dieses Problems behandeln:

As a rule, journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new. When it comes to science, however, this can lead them to pounce on each "hot" new result, even if that finding contradicts the last hot result or is soon overturned by a subsequent study. The resulting staccato coverage can leave the public hopelessly exasperated and confused. Should you drink more coffee or less? Does global warming increase the number and intensity of hurricanes or not? Are vaccines safe, or can they cause an autism epidemic? Experienced science journalists know how to cover such topics by contextualizing studies and deferring to the weight of the evidence. Inexperienced journalists, though, are likely to leave audiences with a severe case of media whiplash.

Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming "skeptics" and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon's human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community's very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking "balance."

For a disturbing glimpse of what to expect from a media world with vastly fewer trained science journalists, we need only recount how much of the press managed to bungle the most important science-related story of our time: global warming. We were warned and warned again about climate change, yet for decades did nothing as the problem steadily worsened. In large part, that's because the US public continues to rate global warming as a low priority, and politicians respond to that public. Both have been getting their cues about what matters from the media.

The mass media, however, got the climate story wrong in multiple ways--first, by covering it as a "he said, she said" controversy during the 1990s (bowing to pressure from special interests and their pet scientists, who strategically attacked the scientific consensus) and then, even after moving away from such "balanced" coverage, by providing far too little attention to the story overall--hardly proportionate to the grave planetary danger it poses. Climate change keeps worsening, yes, but how often is it the kind of news that can trump all the other urgent matters demanding media attention?

Na gut, mag sich mancher sagen, wer braucht denn heute noch die "Holzmedien" – es gibt doch jetzt diese schicken (und kostenlosen) Blogs. Die sind aber ein Teil des Problems, erklärt uns dieser Artikel in einigen Absätzen, die einen unweigerlich an den pseudowissenschaftlichen, aber immens beliebten Unfug auf Blogs wie "Die Achse des Guten" denken lassen:

If the Internet is most directly responsible for the decline of newspapers, then can science blogs and science-infused websites fill the gap?

Science content on the web is certainly booming. It's estimated that there are some 1,000 science blogs, and that's undoubtedly a very conservative figure. Science blogs often focus on hot-button topics such as vaccination, the teaching of evolution and the politics of climate change, and devote considerable time to parsing new research findings. Often written by scientists or science journalists, they're highly attuned to the many problems that have plagued the coverage of science, like phony "balance," and tend to avoid or even denounce them--with verve and attitude.

(...) Undoubtedly, one can find excellent science information on the web, but the question is whether most people will find it. Newspaper science journalists in their heyday wrote for a broad and diverse slice of the public. On the Internet, though, it's all about finding your particular micro-community. The web atomizes us – and while it certainly empowers, it empowers good and bad alike. Accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side – anti-vaccine advocates, anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers all have highly popular websites and blogs, and there is no reason to think good scientific information is somehow beating them back.

This problem was on full display in the 2008 Weblog Awards, a popularity contest that featured a tight race for Best Science Blog. The two leading contestants: PZ Myers's Pharyngula (, the online clearinghouse for confrontational atheism, and Watts Up With That (, written by former TV meteorologist Anthony Watts, a skeptic of the scientific conclusion that human activities have caused global warming. Both sites are polemical: one assaults religious faith; the other constantly attacks mainstream understanding of climate change.

In the end, Watts Up With That defeated Pharyngula, 14,150 votes to 12,238. The "science" contest came down to the religion-basher versus the misinformation-machine, and the misinformation-machine won. That speaks volumes about the form science commentary takes on the Internet.

Hierzulande läuft es ähnlich. Es gibt großartige Wissenschaftsblogs, die wieder und wieder erklärt haben, warum das Leugnen des Klimawandels schlicht unseriös ist. Die hohen Zugriffszahlen erhalten dank Unterstützung von BILD & Co. aber die oben erwähnten "Missinformationsmaschinen" wie die "Achse des Guten", wo Sachkunde durch rhetorischen Eifer ersetzt wird.

Immerhin erklärt der obige Artikel über den Niedergang des Wissenschaftsjournalismus auch, wie man dieser Entwicklung entgegenwirken kann. Die Ironie der Sache liegt allerdings darin, dass auch mein Blogbeitrag darüber nur zu wenigen Zugriffszahlen führen wird. Das Standardargument dazu ist mir aus vielen Foren wohlbekannt: "Böööh! So lange Absätze und dann auch noch alles auf Englisch!" In der Regel kommen solche Kommentare von denselben Leuten, die sich Bücher darüber zu kaufen, dass unser Land wegen der vielen Ausländer gefährlich zu verblöden drohe. In Wirklichkeit wollen immer weniger Menschen mühevoll dazulernen, statt auf bequeme Weise ihr eigenes Weltbild scheinbar bestätigt zu bekommen.