A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ensia about how popular media tend to separate science and nature stories as if they’re unrelated categories. Most major online news websites have separate pages for ‘Science’ stories (predominantly technology, space and medical research) and ‘Environment’ stories (mostly pieces on nature, wilderness, environmental activism, or cute wildlife, sometimes with a few pieces on climate change thrown in for good measure).
Not much has changed since. The annual tradition of ‘top science stories of 2017’ show a marked absence of stories about the science of non-human organisms, ecosystems, ecology and the natural world. Here are a few examples…
NBC News: 0% (0/8 listed stories)
Thumbs down: for conflating weather and climate change in their final story.
Vox: 0% (0/7)
Thumbs down: for perpetuating the myth that ‘Whoa, that’s awesome’ only applies to space, tech, and medicine.
BBC: 12.5% (1/8)
Thumbs down: for claiming in the intro that the list covered the biggest ‘science and environment’ stories, but only including one actual ‘environment’ story.
Mental Floss: 20% (2/10)
Thumbs up: for this well-crafted paragraph that describes beautifully how scientists need a long time to build knowledge and test theories.
The Verge: 27% (3/11)
Thumbs up: for including the animal farts story.
Australian Academy of Science: 40% (2/5)
Thumbs up: for including the story about how Australia’s indigenous people have been living harmoniously with their environment for tens of thousands of years longer than previously thought.
Science magazine: 40% (4/10)
Thumbs up: for including a ‘space ecology’ story on how humans have documented hearing the sounds of space.
The Guardian: 42% (5/12)
Thumbs down: for rehashing the misleading media hype about the ‘insect decline’ study.
NZ Herald: 50% (5/10) (NZ stories); 30% (3/10) (World stories)
Thumbs up: for having the highest proportion of actual environment stories, albeit only for the New Zealand list.
Other sites have even given environmental stories their own separate list.
But let’s not forget that Science is made up of many, many disciplines, not just space, medicine and new tech. The natural environment underpins every aspect of our lives – your personal health and safety depend upon what happens in the natural world around you, either in person or through the food, fibre and shelter you use to survive (this is what ecosystem services is all about).
So how does segregating Science and Environment affect science communication? Popular media can be the main information source for many people. If popular media perpetuate the myth that the natural world is somehow separate from ‘real science’, does this have profound effects on public understanding of how science really works?
Science, the word, originated from the French word for knowledge, regardless of discipline. Science, the modern discipline we recognise today as distinct from Humanities, originated in the natural world. And the word Scientist was originally proposed to function as a similar term to ‘artist’, a non-gendered, unified term for anyone doing scientific research across the multitude of sciencey disciplines: entomology, zoology, botany, ornithology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, natural history, astronomy, geology, biology, systematics etc. etc. This makes total sense, yet the term was only accepted by the science community fairly recently, in the early 1900s.
So in 2018 and beyond, why not embrace Science, all of it, every single discipline!
© Manu Saunders 2017