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Jun. 05, 2009

Two Cultures, Too Few Messengers

by Karen A. Frenkel

In early May, The New York Academy of Sciences hosted a day-long conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of C. P. Snow’s seminal lecture, “Two Cultures.” The first panel, “Historical Perspective: From Aristotle to “Science Wars” set the tone for the day. Below I highlight what was said and remarks that were echoed later in the day.

Ann Blair, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University, opened the discussion by outlining the evolution of the split between the humanities and sciences. Before and during the scientific revolution, those engaged in scientific inquiry were known as "natural philosophers" or "men of science." The signs of separation are evident during the time of Isaac Newton, though, who created a barrier by making calculus indispensable, Blair said. Nevertheless, amateurs conducted experiments until the nineteenth century. Diderot, the great encyclopedist of the Enlightenment, included memory, human and natural history, reason (math, logic, physics), imagination (poetry, fine arts) in his seminal collection. During the nineteenth century, the British and Americans formed academies for chemistry, biology, and geology. In 1833, William Whewell coined the word “scientist.” Since the early nineteenth century, the sciences and humanities have had separate journals. Today there are multiple cultures among scientists.

Blair then argued that the boundary between the cultures is good. “Science benefits from demarcation,” she said. “Why does science need that today? Because without that separation, it can be used to further agendas, power, and politics. If science is considered part of a political agenda, she warned, it will rise and fall with that political agenda. (Stem cells, anyone?) We need to protect the autonomy of science, she said. We need multiple cultures, each with autonomy and authority. Then we can bridge them with science writing and other forms of communication.

After a review of a key argument he presented at the trial of evolution vs intelligent design in Dover, PA, Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University, pointed to the failure of the popularization of science. (The trial took place in the fall of 2005 and is officially known as Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, You can read about it in Seed Magazine, MSNBC coverage, and the judge’s ruling.

Miller said we've known for a long time that humans possess 46 chromosomes and that the other great apes have 48. This discrepancy poses an interesting problem if, in fact, we share common ancestry with gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees: How could we have lost a pair of chromosomes? Simply dropping from 24 pairs to 23 would be fatal in any primate, said Miller. The only way to explain the data is to hypothesize that two separate chromosomes fused to form a single one. We can test this hypothesis because we have the data––the sequence of our DNA. Every chromosome has a special DNA sequence at both ends called a telomere sequence. Near the middle is another special sequence called a centromere. If one of our chromosomes formed from the fusion of two ancestral chromosomes, we would now possess a chromosome with a telomere in the center where it actually doesn't belong, and that chromosome should have two centromeres.

In fact, this is so for human chromosome Number 2. We have telomere DNA near the center, and the genes line up corresponding to primate chromosome Numbers 12 and 13.

Miller said Intelligent Design cannot explain why we have such a chromosome, unless people are willing to admit that an intelligent designer rigged chromosome Number 2 to dupe us into thinking that we evolved. “If the designer wanted to fool us, he did heck of a job,” Miller quipped. Here is a further discussion of his testimony at Dover.

The closer we look at our own DNA, the more detailed a glimpse we get of our own genome, the more powerful the evidence of our common ancestry with other species. “This is controvertible," Miller concluded, “Scientists have known it for 28 years, yet the public is unaware of it.” This is due to a failure to popularize the findings and “that’s the great divide between the two cultures,” he said.

I wish that rather than faulting inadequate communication about scientific knowledge Miller had addressed Blair’s interesting statement that science is disadvantaged when it becomes politicized. Miller stopped short of reprimanding the science press, and he has ably done his part to reach the public with in his fine books, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Cliff Street Books, 1999) and, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (Penguin, 2008).

But several other speakers later in the day took direct shots at the media. It’s too easy, and a distraction, to blame messengers for the cultural divide. There are many reasons for it, but let me clarify what’s happened to science media, at least with regard to newspapers. One major reason science coverage has dwindled during the past two decades is because corporations snapped up family-owned newspapers. Hungry Wall Street demanded 30 percent-plus profits from papers with respectable 15 percent profits. The financial devastation of 2008 merely accelerated the demise of newspapers, in general. Former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun David Simon, who left journalism and created HBO’s hit The Wire, described this at congressional hearings in early May. Here’s the link.

But back to the science press, family-owned the papers were content to have other departments support service-oriented ones, like science. Not so Wall Street’s MBAs. In the spring issue of the National Association of Science Writers magazine, Science Writers, Geoff Brumfiel reported on the contrast between science journalism now and 20 years ago. Because only NASW’s 2,282 members can get the magazine, I’m excerpting the article:

Science journalism boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the United States—where by 1989 some 95 newspapers had dedicated science sections—and elsewhere, the field’s precipitous rise was supported by buoyant profits in the media sector. "The model of a major paper was that they did really serious science coverage," says Deborah Blum, who won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in the Sacramento Bee on the use of animals in research, and who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But there was a problem with the science sections, she says. "They didn’t make money."
Most papers were willing to support their sections, even at a loss, because science was the thing to have. Today, in a harsher mass-media landscape, that has changed. ‘Across the United States, newspaper science sections have been shut down: this month The Boston Globe stopped running its weekly science and health section. Nor is the written word the only casualty, as the closure of (Peter) Dykstra’s seven-person (science science, technology, environment, and weather) unit at CNN indicates. Nature’s survey shows that, of those working in the United States and Canada, one in three had seen staffing cuts at their organization.”

The Nature survey Brumfiel noted queried 493 science journalists and showed both job loss and increasing workloads for those who remain Here are results in full. Brumfiel quoted Robert Lee Hotz, a science journalist for the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Independent science coverage is not just endangered, it’s dying.” Although science writers have become bloggers and public relations officers for universities, their work will not find the broad audiences once served by mass media. Dykstra said: “Science and environment news will be ‘ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out.”

So if scientists what the press to cover their discoveries, they should consider speaking out about the evisceration of the science press.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to report some good news that broke on Friday, May 22. Several science magazine sites report greatly increased readership. See “Digital Boxscores Preview: Science, Celebs Lead ’09 Growth” on Min. I’m also proud to say I write for one of the science sites mentioned, www.SciAm.com. Looks like once again it’s becoming de rigueur to be curious about science and technology.

- by Karen A. Frenkel
For information about me please visit my website, www.karenafrenkel.com.

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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