Monday, February 19, 2007

Sasquatch Rears His Head

On Sunday morning I like to read the newspaper. My wife goes for the glossy pages from the ads, while my goal is a grey thumb. Sure, I probably have heard much of the news from the past week, but the leisurely atmosphere of the weekend affords me a little more time to read some specifics and think more about the context of the reports.

So wasn't I surprised to read the front page news: "Science knowledge increases, but ..."

A science story was on the front page! It helped that the annual AAAS meeting was this weekend, and with it comes a blip of science media coverage, but I'll take it.

So what's the 'but...'?

Americans know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.
In 1988, only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005.

So, how does the Seattle Times react to this news? By printing the latest evidence proving the existence of Sasquatch, of course. A syndicated article from the Washington Post (the other Washington) proclaimed that, "Officials, not Sasquatch fans, puzzled by nonhuman foot." The best part was that the two stories were immediately adjacent to one another!!!

Basically, someone found an 8 inch long, skinned foot in a landfill in Spotsylvania, Virginia. A gross picture and an assortment of other Bigfoot related information is available at Gee, it looks like a bear paw to me. Poor bear.

This situation offends me for three reasons:
  1. From a public interest perspective, the Bigfoot article is more fun to read. It involves a forensic analysis, a search through a landfill, several good jokes and comments by the chamber of commerce. Conversely, the scientific literacy article has going for it citations of a Brit as well as a bunch of professors and then a laundry list of statistics. References to astrology and evolution could have been fleshed out better.
  2. I wonder who is to blame for science illiteracy... Could it be that newspapers and the 500 word article just can't do the job of helping the public sort out science from psuedoscience? This is surely related to a conflict between providing news and selling papers...
  3. Back off, Spotsylvania! Sasquatch is ours! I'm with the Fredericksburg, VA barista who is "from Washington state, home of the Bigfoot, so no way [is this foot from a Sasquatch]," she said. "It's too warm [in Virginia]."

Well there we have it. Science is only as good as its use in public interest stories.

1 comment:

BuddhistValkyrie said...

So, the question is, why can't the scientific article be as interesting as the Sasquatch article? Obviously forensic science is nothing to sniff at, and what with the popularity of Bones and the CSI's, there's ample opportunity to grab the public interest and do some educating at the same time.

Why do scientists feel the need to hide behind the unaccessible? Why do we (well, okay, them - my writing tends towards accessible, and with enough pop culture to send any staid scientists into fits) have to make it so boring and uninteresting to the layman?

A lot of people don't have the privilege of kickin' it in the Ivory Tower - they do their four years time in higher education (if that), then move on to the "real" working world. What science they get and retain is going to have to be easy and accessible - and study after study has shown that we remember things that are fun.

We science-y types tend to be bright folk; why can't we cash in on this trend, write fun and interesting stories that accurately talk about science, and increase the public knowledge at large, all at the same time?