In which I ponder the new Two Cultures

Given the recent trendiness of science/art/lit projects, and the grant money and audience interest they can pull in, CP Snow’s notion of ‘the Two Cultures’ is starting to feel a little bit antiquated. But I do sometimes wonder if a new division hasn’t quietly slipped in to take its place: science vs. journalism. If you squint into the distance, you just might be able to make out the front line now: scientists ranged on one side, bristling with dry ice canisters and sharp pipettors, and the journalists, whose job it is to report on their latest breakthroughs, lined up on the other with veeery sharp pencils, each camp teetering on the edge of the divide and no shortage of suspicious glances and bitchy comments in between.

If the relationship has grown acrimonious, either acutely or chronically, it’s a real shame. After all, the two camps should rightly be commensal: science feeds exciting information to sell papers (or whatever the online/advert equivalent is these days), while journalists help scientists get the word out about their latest findings, thereby fostering public interest in the work (which could inspire everyone else to be happier with their taxes funneling in that general direction). But commentaries in the Guardian over the past year show that there is a lot of disagreement, whether it be for or against scientists being allowed to fact-check their media quotes, or scientists failing to understand the purpose of science journalism. The most recent salvo I’ve seen, already summarized, and defended, by Stephen Curry and Imran Khan, features Nature journalist Ananyo Bhattacharya suggesting that scientists had sold their souls to industry. The comment threads beneath all these and related blogs show that there are a lot of vigorous and diverse opinions out there.

What better time, then, to get together and clear the air in person? There’s nothing I like more than a good live debate, and fortunately Alok Jha of the Guardian – whose science section is shaping up to be the premiere online ring for civilized sparring – is guest-curating the perfect opportunity at London’s Royal Institute on 13 March: Scientists and journalists need different things from science: Discuss. We’ll get to hear from Bhattacharya, one of the chief stirrers (for whom I have a soft spot, ever since we worked out that he’d actually been at one of the grad student parties I lampooned in my first novel Experimental Heart), and Cardiff scientist Chris Chambers, who begs to differ with Bhattacharya’s opinion on fact-checking. Also due to speak are everyone’s favorite science blogger Ed Yong, and Fiona Fox, the head of the Science Media Center, all moderated by Imperial College science communicator Alice Bell.

I have a special interest in this topic because I straddle the divide; although I’m a practicing scientist, I also earn freelance on the side writing science news. It makes for a rather unusual sensation – I can feel and recognize, sometimes, the wariness of my sources down the phone line, but when I’ve got my journalist’s hat on I am going for the kill. On the other hand, when I give quotes to the press, I am sometimes nervous about being taken out of context. Occasionally journalists spontaneously ask me to check my quotes, which I always appreciate – but then, if a source demands to see his quote before publication, after I’ve interviewed him on-the-record, it can get awkward. In short, I can see both sides of the argument, and on a given day I’m not entirely sure who is right or wrong.

A little bird has told me that the organizers are very much hoping to attract a goodly number of media-hostile – or at least, indifferent – scientists, because that would be a lot more interesting than preaching to the converted. And it’s not just going to be a rehashing of old grievances: there will be a genuine attempt to try to improve the understanding between the camps, and possibly effect some sort of change for Good. So if you hate those over-inflated headlines, meddling subs and a cure for cancer in five years’ time, why not come along and have your say – and see what the other side really thinks, and why?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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2 Responses to In which I ponder the new Two Cultures

  1. Yet *another* reason it would be nice to be in London – sounds like it will be an interesting debate.

    And now you’ve got me worried about being quoted in one of your upcoming (?) news pieces… ;)

  2. P.S. Not on-topic, but the collaborative paper between yourself, Dr. Caplan, et al. has now appeared in PubMed. :)