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See Inside January 2010

The Potential "Problem" with a Public Interest in Science

More media science coverage would certainly be good. Wouldn't it?



Matt Collins

In October a blog post circulated widely in the science journalism community. Larry Husten mused at CardioBrief.org about the potential benefits to society if only mainstream newspapers covered science with as much dedication as they cover baseball. Indeed, it might be wonderful. But as a big sports fan, I know that there could be unexpected consequences of heightened media interest in science. For example, imagine all-science talk radio:

“Aaaaand good afternoon, everybody, how are your vital signs today?! Mike and the Mad Scientist with you here on QED radio, simulcast on the Nobel TV Network! How are you, Michael?”

“Fine, Mad Sci, good, the new issues of Nature and Science are out, lots to discuss, including an update on the state of the Mars rovers. Spirit has a bum wheel and has been on the disabled list, but NASA has some tricks that might get it back in the field.”

“And they published the genome of the horse! I hope that comes in handy at the Belmont, Michael.”

“Don’t bet on it, Sci. Listen, they’ve had the human genome sequenced for, what, 10 years, 12 years they’ve had the human genome sequenced and they’re still giving you and me the same meds, not personalized meds, and they’ve had the genome sequenced for, what, 10 years, 12 years.”

“Good point, Michael, excellent point. Whaddya say, let’s go to the phones and hear what science fans out there have on their minds today. Morris from Rego Park, you’re on QED.”

“Hi, Sci, hi, Mike, first time long time.”

“What’s on your mind today, Morris?”

“I wanted to float a trade by you guys. How about Harvard trades Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky for Sean Carroll and a postdoc to be named later?”

“Which Sean Carroll ya talking about, Morris buddy? There’s the physicist Sean Carroll at Caltech, and there’s the evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll at Wisconsin–Madison, and you can’t just call up and float a trade like that without saying which Sean Carroll, can ya, Michael?!”

“That’s a problem, Sci, and then there’s a bigger problem—Noam Chomsky isn’t at Harvard, he’s at M.I.T. Chomsky’s at M.I.T. Pinker’s at Harvard. He used to be at M.I.T., Pinker, Pinker used to be at M.I.T., but now he’s at Harvard. Chomsky’s at M.I.T., he’s at M.I.T., so you can’t put the package together in the first place, because Chomsky’s at M.I.T.”

“There you have it, Mo, you gotta do a little more homework before you call in, a little more housework. Here we go, Jeremy from Manhattan.” (The Twilight Zone theme plays in the background, as it does whenever Jeremy calls in.) “Hello, Jeremy.”

“Evolution’s just a theory! Global warming’s a hoax!"

“And goodbye, Jeremy. Jeremy’s meniscus is touching the bottom of the graduated cylinder there. Short Hal from Queens on the line, what’s up, Short Hal?”

“Not much, Sci, how are your liver enzyme levels today?”

“You’re a wise guy, Short Hal. Short Hal’s a hepatologist in his spare time, what’s on your mind, Hal?”

“Well, Sci, I’m talking to my friend, and he says that grad students are doing all kind of performance-enhancing substances, stuff like Mountain Dew, double espressos. And I just don’t know if you can compare the results they’re getting with the stuff that the old-timers did without these kinds of enhancers.”

“Hal, this is Mike, listen, you think Heisenberg wasn’t on massive doses of caffeine? He did his best work, when, in his early 20s? You think he was sleeping more than, what, two hours a night, three hours a night? Don’t kid yourself, there was stuff they did back then, maybe not Mountain Dew, but they had ways to keep working all night. I’ll tell you what they didn’t have back then, they didn’t have competitors coming in from all over the world to their labs to compete with them. If anything, these kids today, they’re on average better. I’m not saying that the best ones are better than, say, your Einsteins or your Feynmans, but I’d say on average the average ones are better today than the average ones were back then, pound for pound.”

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