Ira Flatow Makes Science User-Friendly

Through a popular nationally syndicated science talk program, Science Friday, host Ira Flatow spreads science news to a broad audience.  The podcasts of Science Friday have been downloaded more than 1.4 million times making it the third most downloaded show in American public radio.

Flatow was on hand at Duke University on Monday to keynote the Center for Science Education’s Showcase, an event of the North Carolina Science Festival.

His talk, “Science And The Media:  Talking Science In A Science Challenged World,” focused on the challenges of bringing science information to the public.  Despite the challenges, Flatow has an optimistic view that the public is interested in science and will seek out the information.  One challenge mentioned is that the gatekeepers of mainstream media shy away from science coverage.

“Science news works in the middle of all the other news that’s happening and we fight for space,” Flatow said.  “The scene has shifted, there’s so much junk going on.”

Flatow explained that the problem is not just on cable news, but is also a problem with mainstream media.  This is how NBC achor Brian Williams explained the estimate of the U.S. population turning 300 million:
The next night, Williams said, “There is, as expected, news tonight about that American milestone that we were just at the cusp of when last we spoke last night. This morning, at 7:46 a.m., and again don’t ask us how anyone figures this out….
This signals another trend in the media business, Flatow said, that the media is getting rid of science reporters.  He pointed to the CNN and Boston Globe layoffs.

“Science sections are becoming as extinct as dinosaurs,” he said.  “Because the money is not being invested in keeping the sections around.  The first thing a paper kills when it’s going under is usually the science section.”

One of the biggest problems science journalists face, Flatow said, is that the public doesn’t understand basic science concepts.  Science literacy is a much-debated topic.  U.K. researcher and blogger Alice Bell provided an overview of this topic on her blog through the looking glass.

Another challenge Flatow mentioned is that science journalists “face a population that doesn’t want to believe in science.”  The Journal of Risk Research recently released a study that found people chose what science to believe and not believe based on their own value judgments.

Flatow mentioned Barack Obama’s inaugural address where the President states that he’s going to restore science to its rightful place.  Flatow agrees with the President that science is just as important as athletics and should be regarded as such.

Scientists and engineers also need to be a part of the equation.  Flatow believes that there should be a communication requirement for science students.  “I talk to science students all the time and when you ask them what they do they can’t utter a clear phrase to tell us what they’re working on.”

People who are good at communicating science:

The visual elements of science make it cool and Flatow showed a few videos of scientists explaining science.  Many of the videos were taken from his website that is seeking out cool science videos that clearly demonstrate scientific experiments or concepts.

Ending on an optimistic note, Flatow noted that the access of the Internet helps removes the gatekeepers of mainstream media, “science is coming back into the minds of people,” Flatow said.  “We may be entering another golden age of science.”