the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Candle in the Dark

published November 2003 | Comments Off
Instead of cursing the darkness of pseudoscience on television, light a candle with Cable Science Network
magazine cover

Ever since Galileo began the tradition of communicating science in the vernacular so that all might share in its fruits, a tension has existed between those — call them “excluders” — who think science is for professionals only and regard its dissemination to wider audiences as infra dig and those — call them “includers” — who understand that all levels of science require clear composition and public understanding of process and product.

Throughout much of the 20th century the excluders have ruled the roost, punishing those in their flock who dared to write for those paying the bills. Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan, for example, whose PBS television series Cosmos was viewed by more than half a billion people, was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences primarily (his biographers have demonstrated through interviews with insiders) because he invested too much time in science popularization.

Over the past two decades, however, a literary genre has arisen in which professional scientists are presenting original research and theories in books written for both their colleagues and the public. Most of Stephen Jay Gould’s works are in this mode, as are those of Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and others. In fact, if you want to be considered a cultured person in today’s society, it is not enough to be steeped in literature, art and music. You need to know something about science.

The problem is that most people do not get their science through books and PBS documentary series. Although science junkies can fill their trough with such outstanding series as PBS’s Nova and Scientific American Frontiers, most folks pick up bits and pieces from short newspaper articles or evening news sound bites, which typically alternate between scary medical findings and stunning Hubble Space Telescope images, leaving out the subtleties of how science is really done and why contradictory findings do not mean that the process has failed. Worse still, most networks pander to the ratings game and air a mélange of pseudoscience about ESP, UFOs and moon landing hoaxes.

Like most scientists, I complain bitterly and often about such dismal programming. We write letters to network executives, but to no avail. One solution is to create our own network. Thus, Cable Science Network, or CSN, is in the offing. Roger Bingham of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego is spearheading a movement (of which I am a part, along with Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and Salk Institute neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski) to launch a nonprofit organization modeled on the ubiquitous C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network), now available in more than 85 million homes. CSN would be science 24/7 — all science, all the time — freeing us, in Bingham’s words, from “the tyranny of the sound bite.”

Wouldn’t it be great to watch congressional hearings on cloning, bioterrorism, global warming and aging? Wouldn’t it be fabulous to attend — via cable — cutting-edge lectures given by scientists a various annual scientific conferences? Every year tens of thousands of neuroscientists, for example, converge to exchange data on how the brain works. Wouldn’t you love to sit in on some of those presentations rather than waiting to hear about one of them in a 30-second encapsulation on network TV? Science luminaries who today may have an audience of a couple hundred people in a university lecture hall could instead reach a couple hundred thousand.

With CSN, all this will bring science to the people — and to scientists, legislators, teachers and students — as never before. Sagan called science “a candle in the dark.” CSN is still in the developmental stage (see www.csntv.org), but if we can switch it on, it will be a candle whose light will illuminate a path toward the globalization of science.

topics in this column: , , ,

Comments are closed.