Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Science and the Mass Media: Is Mutual Understanding Possible?

Speaking at the meeting of the RAN [Russian Academy of Sciences] Presidium on 27 March 2001, Academician V. L. Ginzburg angrily said, "I consider the conduct of some of our mass media most scandalous. Time and again they undermine freedom of the press, a genuinely great achievement of the post-Soviet epoch, with absolute freedom, with a disregard for the interests of the public and taking a boorish attitude toward science and scientists". Another RAN academician, E. P. Kruglyakov, citing one of his articles, "Does Only the Mass Media Need Freedom of Speech?", replied that the mass media also needs wide circulation and in chasing after it they regularly throw all kinds of sensational cock-and-bull stories at the population, enjoying freedom of the press.

Yes, since the beginning of the 1990s an understanding of freedom of speech has entered our life in a real way, not just lip service as it was in the USSR. Now one can write and talk about most anything one pleases (the law prohibits only inflaming ethnic differences and war propaganda). It would seem that there was something to celebrate after long prohibitions and censorship. But it soon became clear that this freedom has a downside which has turned out to be quite negative. And among other things, a muddy stream of antiscientific and pseudoscientific information landed on the heads of Russians. As a result gullible and poorly-educated people, of whom there are unfortunately quite enough right now, have had their mistrust of real science reinforced. A completely distorted idea of the understanding of "real science" itself is being gradually developed among the population: it is regarded as those "miracles" with which the mass media hastens to excite them, but genuine researchers, conducting themselves with modesty dignity and not putting great sensations before the public, are regarded as unproductive idlers, not deserving of respect and support.

Speaking at a RAN Presidium, E. P. Kruglyakov said, "A systematic, intentional duping of the population is going on via the mass media. Just a few of these headlines are frightening, 'Ordinary lasers destroy human blood', 'The collapse of classical physics', 'The monster blood-drinkers return', 'Russian physicists have discovered a new lethal radiation'. The terrible poison which they feed people leads to an estrangement of the public and the systematic cultivation of a doomed people for whom everything has been predetermined. They dissuade people from thinking critically but teach them to believe blindly.

In his article "Is the Mass Media Working for Readers or Charlatans?" published in a St. Petersburg newspaper, the author also cited examples of how obvious con men as well as people whom one could very easily take for crazy have even penetrated TV screens at a time when representatives of real science are often intentionally not let near the mass media. The desire of the mass media to earn money at any price without disdaining even obvious disinformation has been cited as one of the reasons for such a situation. Another reason is that journalists, being scholars by education, often simply are not in a position to distinguish disinformation from truth in the field of natural sciences. A solution is seen in the introduction in higher education of a course in the principles of the natural sciences and the theory of the perception of the laws of nature for scholars in general and for journalists in particular.

The point of view of the representatives of science on such a situation has been shown above. But what do journalists themselves say about this topic? They have kept silent for a long time, evidently assuming that everything is clear. They think journalists are also people, they want to live well, and they need to earn money to do this, and therefore in market conditions and the lack of state financing the mass media have to forget about conscience and be for sale to whomever pays. But finally, not long ago a silver lining appeared in the cloud: journalists themselves made an attempt to speak on this topic: an event was held on 4-5 April called a master class on "Science in the Mass Media Today. The Experience of Russian and British Journalism" within the framework of the "Science Week in St. Petersburg". True, it was led by Muscovites: the Chief Editor of the "InformNauka" Agency and the Journals "Khimiya i Zhizn' [Chemistry and Life]", L. Strel'nikova, and the scientific reviewer of the newspaper "Moskovskaya Pravda" and President of "Intellekt", the Association of Science Journalists, V. Yegikova. Unfortunately, the event was closed (admittance was according to a strict list) and only three scientists could attend and speak (including one of the most active members of the Commission to Combat Pseudoscience of the RAN Presidium, Ye. B. Aleksandrov). It is good that the texts of the main speeches later appeared on the Internet.

Let's look at what the journalists said and allow me to comment on some of their statements.

Strel'nikova. In some 10 years we have miraculously managed to nullify and destroy the appealing image of a scientist in Russia, to destroy it practically down to the foundations.

Author. Who is "us"? From the above it is obvious that for this to have been done so quickly the mass media had to have a hand, lauding the people who have been obviously hurting real science for these 10 years.

S. This is not only the fault of journalists, but scientists, too...

A. This is called "shifting the blame"!

S. ...who cannot and do not understand, and do not want to cooperate with the press. It is important that scientists understand that only through the mass media and by no other means is it possible to inform the public about their work. And if you do not inform the public about your research then you have no chance of attracting investors or finding financing or interested partners, not just in Russia but also abroad.

A. What an accusation! It turns out that scientists are persistently called upon to tell of their achievements in the mass media but they do not want to, they balk and do not understand why this is necessary, thereby hampering the work of science journalists. No, the problem is not in a misunderstanding but that a scientist, if he is a real scientist, prefers to repeatedly verify the results achieved and report it to the circle of his specialist colleagues or publish in a specialized scientific publication before going to a large audience or the mass media.

"Science", says E. P. Kruglyakov, "lives and develops according to its inherent ethical standards. Any new effect, any discovery must first find recognition in the scientific community. Therefore the authors of any significant scientific result strive to publish it in the most prestigious scientific journals (refereed, of course). The publication of initial results in the mass media is considered bad form".

But here a pseudoscientist himself hastens to publicize the slightest sensational fruit of his (often unhealthy) fantasy in the press in the hope of becoming famous and/or getting financing (governmental or private) and "interested partners". Does a real scientists need to go that route? One does not wish to think that Lyubov' Nikolayevna is consciously calling for this.

It is another matter when a scientist resists an invitation to speak against pseudoscience in the mass media. Such a thing actually happens. The usual explanation is: "Criticizing pseudoscience in the press gives its publicity". Well, this is true, but only until the object of criticism goes to the mass media, that is, he has already promoted himself. For example, not long ago the newspaper "Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedomosti [St. Petersburg Gazette]" devoted an entire column to a panegyric to one Mr. Petrik, boundlessly exaggerating and ascribing to him inconceivable scientific credits (there is a suspicion that he initiated and paid for the publication). The silence of scientists in similar instances could be seen as support for charlatanism. (The truth is, it is not the case that a refutation comes to light, as occurred with a letter about Petrik to the newspaper by academician Ye. B. Aleksandrov of the RAN).

S. Regardless of how the information was furnished, negatively, positively, regularly, or in good quantity, public opinion is formed which in a normally organized, stable, and democratic society must unavoidably influence the decisionmaking in the legislature, the corresponding laws, and the shaping of the budget, including the part that affects science.

A. I repeat that in submitting to the suppliers of premature pseudoscientific information, the mass media is forming a negative public opinion about real science which also unquestionably influences the thinking of legislators.

S. Those people who are interested in investing money in promising businesses also read the mass media. There are many cases when patrons who have found out about some interesting research have said, "How much money do you need?"

A. It would not be a bad thing to enlighten such patrons, explaining to them which research really deserves financial investment. To do this, space needs to be given in the mass media to real scientists, not to the suppliers of exaggerated sensations.

S. If some professor at some university in the US conducts an experiment and sees that they yank a frog by its leg and it croaks 8 times and in Russia only 5 times, he immediately calls a press conference, invites the governor to it, and tells him of the research and adds: "Governor, only thanks to you have we managed to scale incredible heights in this problem". The press races with one another to write about the frog and the scientist. The governor weeps from pride and joy. Next year he increases financing of this laboratory. Such means of dealing with the press are not as yet in the traditions of Russian scientists.

A. From this example it follows that the Russian science frog needed to be better fed (that is, science needs to be financed). But not by going so far as extreme flattery of governors who are science-illiterate so that they loosen their purse-strings (we note that from the taxpayers' wallet, not their own). This is just one of the methods from the arsenal of pseudoscientific charlatans.

S. It is very difficult to write about science, especially contemporary science. It is incredibly complicated, compartmented, and its terminology is bloated. For a journalist with an education in the humanities it is unquestionably difficult to write about research in the natural sciences, if only because one needs to talk to a scientist in his own language. Hardly any science journalist is equipped to do this. There is a small group at the MGU [Moscow State University] Journalism Department.

A. That's what I've been writing about (see above). This situation urgently needs to be corrected and to be written about repeatedly.

S. It is true that journalists without an education in the natural sciences have an advantage; they view all scientific illusions with the eyes of the man in the street, a real representative of the public, and because they can see right away what is of interest to the reader.

A. The "advantage" of this is in quotes. It is also somewhat of a misfortune that the interest of a journalist who is trying to write about science quite often is reduced to that of the man on the street. A striking example is the cooperation of the newspaper "Argumenty i Fakty" with Mr. Muldashev, this irrepressible belcher of fabricated pseudoscientific sensations eagerly swallowed by the average reader whom the mass media eagerly dissuades from thinking critically.

S. Since 1993 the government of Great Britain has placed the dialogue between science and the public under observation and it has become a part of government policy. Quite a lot has changed. BBC has flourished in the past 10 years. Special popular science channels and programs have been created. An entire TV channel exists which deals only with popularizing scientific knowledge. And the main bulk of BBC news is full of news about science, scientific research, and scientists. Entire institutions have appeared whose goal is to train specialists who have the suitable education and can develop ties between science and the public as managers. An association of press secretaries has appeared, etc.

Europe wants to build an economy based on knowledge. It has announced a program for this purpose whose budget is 17.5 billion euros. A suitable budget has been provided for the program "Nauka i Obshchestvo [Science and the Public]".

A European press center for science and arts called AlphaGalileo appeared in 1998. Information is gathered here from European countries about science, including press releases, which is adequately and correctly prepared in European institutes and universities. All these materials are openly accessible and journalists from around the world collect and use the information.

A. Only one thing follows from this: the government and mass media of Russia need to follow the European example in this matter (especially the British example).

S. Our InformNauka Agency regularly places information on a website and thus publicizes our scientists. This resource is updated daily and contains an enormous amount of interesting information about science.

A. This is good but, in the opinion of scientists, the matter is not only about and so much about "the enormous amount" as the quality of the information.

S. The Japanese have set themselves an ambitious goal - to clone a mammoth. The results were published recently; this was in all the press. Our InformNauka Agency just stimulated the progress of this sensation.

A. Here's an example of "quality": the Japanese have still only set a goal but InformNauka instantly hurried "to stimulate the progress of the sensation". Such methods of operation need hardly be a source of pride.

S. The preference of our Agency is that the correspondents, young scientists who have studied the profession in our intensive courses but continue to work in institutes and universities, remain in science. Therefore, they are already in a position to act as an expert at the first stage of the selection of information, that is, to chop out the "noise" and select what is important and interesting. But we have been teaching and continue to teach them to write in an interesting manner.

A. This is actually a solution to the problem. Only why is it necessary to take only young scientists as experts? What about age discrimination?

V. Yegikova. A person writing about science is counted in the West as an elite journalist; this topic is considered one of the most complex and the status of a science journalist is as respected as that of a political observer.

Science journalism is not paid here as it is in the West but it also ends up being damaging even inside the profession of journalism. There is the idea of a "stringer". In the West this sounds respectable and honored but if you say here that you're a "stringer" the attitude will not be the best.

European journalists even have courses for professional journalists, who can gain more knowledge on a particular science problem. Such training is subsidized by the publishers for whom the journalists work because they think: the more the journalist studies the better it'll be for the publication. And they can even get a grant and, let's say, a year of study in order to write better about scientific problems.

A. It's hard not to agree with this criticism directed at the Russian mass media where science journalists are materially and ethically harmed. Fortunately, exceptions have already appeared called master classes.

Ye. If money comes to many European science centers from the government, in America money is earned for research and therefore it needs to be shown that it is interesting. Scientists are interested in their research being known and that is why they seek to contact journalists.

A. See my comments on an analogous statement of Ms. Strel'nikova. In addition, the statement that in America money is earned for research, as distinct from Europe, is not accurate. There is government financing in America, too (and it is enormous!). Both in Europe and America there are various sources of financing for science.

T. Pichugina, Director of the InformNauka Agency. I'll list the rules formulated by American science journalist Boyce Rensberger which every journalist who writes about science should know.

  1. He cautions against blind trust in a scientist's authority. If a scientist does not offer you clear proof of his results or his discovery you have the right to doubt any of his statements. Let him show you, let him prove it to you. In spite of the fact that you are not a specialist in his field, nevertheless he is obliged to explain it to you so that it is understood. Otherwise you have the right not to believe the scientist.
  2. Science is not a textbook in which truths are written and cannot be refuted. Any statement of a scientist, any result arises in the process of discussion and dispute. Rensberger advises you to avoid biases, stock expressions, or stereotypes because later on everything might not be so, but the opposite.
  3. When you talk with a scientist who isn't confident about something and says to you: "probably", "possibly", or "I doubt", this testifies to his scientific integrity. It means that he recognizes that he doesn't know something. This stimulates him to further scientific work. It means that he wants to find out or discover something else. This speaks well of him as a scientist. Modern scientific research is complex, often leads to a dead end, and at times turns out to be inaccurate.
  4. A journalist and a scientist are professions of a single kind. Both pursue the same goal - knowing the truth - and both want to report it to the people.

A. The last point is especially important but is unfortunately often consigned to oblivion in market conditions where the mass media is in the position of a salesman not hesitant to sell poor-quality merchandise for the sake of commercial success.

P. The first complaint of scientists against science journalists is that they write illiterately, incompetently, and make many mistakes.

L. Titova, Press Secretary of the RAN Brain Institute. Yes, often a person, even one recording to a Dictaphone, then transcribes it incorrectly. Therefore a request to journalists is to always give material for proofreading.

P. Not everything is so simple. In a note to scientists the American Geophysical Society advises: "Never ask a journalist to send a text for coordination. You thereby insult him and cast doubt on his professionalism". Coordination of a text has an ethical aspect. But what if this is critical material? A scientist will not like a person who can influence your objectivity as a journalist. But you have your point of view and you have a right to defend it. There are also times when a scientist wants to rewrite the entire text in scientific terminology and this makes the work very difficult. But in those cases when you are simply literally processing the words of a scientist and you are acting as a popularizer of science this needs to be shown, of course.

A second complaint that scientists have of journalists is: they are inclined to embellish a scientific observation which seems insignificant to the scientist. It is hard for a journalist to decide what is insignificant in science and what is not but the rules of the genre oblige him to select and stress what has been achieved. Because otherwise why write if it is unimportant?

A. In other words: why write about a scientific observation if it does not "grab" at a sensation or it is impossible to bring to this level by embellishment? No, it is necessary to write about science based above all not on the rules of the genre (obviously this means notorious "PR") but on a desire to enlighten the reader. The object of enlightenment is not served by an "embellished" scientific observation.

P. Finally, the third and last complaint that scientists have against journalists: they often write too playfully about serious things. For a scientist puts his life into this, but you've written "Hee hee, ha ha", in general, quickly. Not all scientists are offended, but some are.

A. There's humor and there's humor. Science likes good humor.

M. Astvatsaturyan, scientific observer of "Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo)" Radio, author, and host of the "Granit nauki [Granite of Science]", "Nauchnyy Al'manakh [Scientific Almanac]", and "Klinika [Clinic]" programs. There has always been and always will be interest in science. This can be exploited and we are exploiting it.

A. The mass media should not exploit people's interest in science, but satisfy it.

As. Since 1998 a popular weekly 3-minute program called "Granit Nauki" has been presented on "Ekho Moskvy". Many people know of it. There are two more programs of 9 and 12 minutes each. There are weekly reviews, one on medicine called "Klinika", the second "Nauchnyy Al'manakh" on all scientific events and not only Russian ones. There is also commentary by scientists about discoveries.

A. If these are quality programs, then this is an excellent example for other cities. There was also a "Nauka i Lzhenauka [Science and Pseudoscience]" series in St. Petersburg from 1999 to 2001 (initiated by the Russian Humanist Society). Its contents were sporadically put into the material of a more general program, "Gorod i Gorozhane [The City and the City-dwellers]". About 30 programs appeared in all but then the effort fizzled out. Evidently St. Petersburg radio lacks its own Astvatsaturyan.

As. A producer from BBC told about how they made a film about the scientist Andrew Weils who proved Fermat's Theorem. It would seem that this was a very boring topic - a mathematician, but people have tried to prove this theorem for 400 years, gone out of their minds, and committed suicide. And here's a clip: they ask Weils how it was and he begins to cry. Imagine the effect! Yes, this is populism, but it needs to be used to drum into people that there is science and non-science. If they do not know what science is doing then they will pin their hopes on "electrical brushes" for cancer, holy water, and Gemokods [Translator's note: a recent program developed in Russia to test for food intolerance].

A. That is, to get a large effect in the cause of popularizing ("drumming into") science, it is suggested to journalists that they address themselves not only to people's reason but also their emotions. This idea is dubious, for this is precisely the usual method from the arsenal of science's antagonists (the clergy, for example).

As. As regards sources of information, then it is very important to me that it be a refereed journal. A review is rule number one for me.

A. It is correct that this is the best way of not getting hoodwinked by pseudoscientists.

As. Scientists do not fear going on the radio very much and prefer live broadcasts because no one can "make them fit" there. They are afraid of the press and have reason to be.

A. This is a valuable self-critical admission coming from the lips of a representative of the mass media.

As. The majority of us have a scientific background and this is very important for popularizing science. It is good for a journalist who writes about science to have a background in science himself.

A. It would be a good thing.

The above was arranged as a dialog in form only. Meanwhile, there is a pressing need for a real, broad exchange of opinions between representatives of science and the mass media to develop mutual understanding (a closed master class in St. Petersburg did not close the subject). Let this article serve as an invitation to such a dialog. I can suggest the website of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Humanist Society - - as a starting point for this but other alternatives are possible. The main thing is that it happen and be public. The problem is too serious to brush aside.

Gennady Shevelev
Translated by Gary Goldberg