Guardians of the Flame: Parting Thoughts on Science, Journalism, and Progress

[Originally published at the Knight Science Journalism blog]

One of the drearier memes in media circles today is that it’s a great time for journalism, but a rotten time to be a journalist. Thanks to the Internet, which gives a platform to millions of new voices, readers have more content to choose from than ever before. But the new ways of paying for it—the revenue from cat-video listicles and advertorials supplied by “brand publishers,” plus the semi-philanthropic impulses of owners like Pierre Omidyar or Jeff Bezos—aren’t likely to provide a living wage for large numbers of full-time journalists.

Or so the meme goes. And it’s partly true. The economic challenges facing the news industry are real, and they are particularly acute for specialists, including journalists who cover science, technology, and health, and the environment. 

But they are just that: challenges. Problems have solutions, though their forms may be hard for us to see until they’re upon us. 

It may seem at times that the market is indifferent to our craft. But while there are lingering questions about who will pay us to cover science and technology, we can’t let these difficulties undermine our convictions about the work’s necessity—indeed, its centrality. As my friend and mentor Victor McElheny, the founding director of the Knight Science Journalism program, likes to say, despair is a luxury we can’t afford. “We have to think of where our reporting fits into larger purposes,” Victor wrote here last month.

My own term as acting director of KSJ ends today. As I step away from the job, which I’ve enjoyed immensely, I’d like to explain why I’m an optimist. Not just about the future prospects for science and technology journalists and allied craftspeople, but about the future of our species. 

We’ve got big challenges ahead of us in this century, to be sure. Global warming, a disastrous side effect of our reliance on fossil fuels, is finally starting to get the attention it’s due, and will occupy more and more of our politics and planning. Many other problems will have to be tackled at the same time: food and water shortages, unequal access to education and economic opportunities, automation-induced unemployment, the continuing threat of nuclear weapons, the diseases of poverty and aging, death itself. 

Progress won’t be easy or cheap. But we’ve got a powerful tool at our disposal, one that didn’t exist, or didn’t persist, in earlier societies. It’s called science. 

Since 1660 or so, we’ve been perfecting a system that produces ever-more-accurate (or at least, less inaccurate) accounts of the workings of the physical world. It’s built on a commitment to curiosity, innovation, theoretical rigor, experimental testing, and open debate and criticism. Paired with its tinkerer sibling, technology, science has enabled a tenfold increase in the human population since 1700, not to mention vast improvements in longevity and living standards. 

And it’s not only in the material realm that we’re figuring things out. There’s also been real, if halting, moral and social progress. Since 1945, we have managed to avoid another catastrophic world war. The share of the global population living in fully or partially democratic countries is higher than it has ever been. Last week’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the U.S. showed that even at a time of great political discord, we’re capable of growing beyond old prejudices and improving our theories about governance. As Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his opinion for the majority: “New insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.” The operative phrase being new insights and understandings.

So far, modern society’s track record at eliminating injustice, spreading wealth, and putting down genocidal maniacs is rather good, at least compared to the million stagnant years of human history that came before. So there is every reason to expect that we’ll find ways to cope with the 21st century’s grand challenges. There’s only one thing that could slow us down: lazy backsliding from the scientific values that drive the whole Enlightenment enterprise.

The solutions to our biggest problems will be expensive and complicated, so they will have to be formulated, approved, and implemented with broad public involvement; there is no other way. The burden on citizens is to become informed and knowledgeable, and therefore empowered, on a daunting array of subjects, from healthcare options to energy policy. Ideally, citizens should also understand and agree that the search for solutions will be a scientific process, guided by evidence, experiment, and open debate. 

That’s a lot to ask. And it’s clear from the past decade or two of public discourse that our system for keeping everyone informed and engaged about science and technology has major weaknesses. It’s vulnerable to substandard education, cognitive biases, misinformation (careless error), and disinformation (outright lies). Nonscientific and anti-scientific ideas crop up with alarming frequency. They spread at Internet speed, and resist extermination.

Simply put, too many people still believe that vaccines cause autism, that genetically modified foods are inherently hazardous, that evolution is “just a theory,” that climate change is a fiction invented by environmental scientists, that a Capricorn should never date a Sagittarius, and that foreign terrorists are a worrisome threat. (In fact, you’re more likely to be killed by a meteorite—or a domestic terrorist).

Just because the Enlightenment world-view has survived for the last 350 years, in other words, doesn’t mean it’s here to stay. Previous societies have seen their own mini-Enlightenments come and go—witness Athens in the 5th century BCE and Florence in the late 15th century CE. (For a great deal more on this theme, see The Beginning of Infinity by quantum physicist David Deutsch.) Clearly, science is a flame that needs constant tending. 

I earned my PhD in the history and social study of science and technology here at MIT in the early 1990s, a time when science’s claims on truth were under broad attack in the academy. I still believe there’s a place for healthy skepticism toward science and its products. But I also know which side our bread is buttered on. The more thoroughly societies can enshrine and celebrate rational, scientific values, the faster solutions to our big problems will emerge and spread. 

And that’s where science and technology communicators come in. Jonathan Swift said, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” Today, the Internet gives falsehood a turbo-boost, but it also speeds its antidote: facts. 

Whose business is it to spread information rapidly, broadly, and accurately? Journalists. And who is best qualified to help the public grasp the latest scientific insights and technological innovations and their impact on society and the economy? Science and technology journalists. As long as societies depend on research and innovation to keep their economies growing and stave off disaster—meaning, forevermore—they’ll also need people who can explain what’s happening and mediate the social and political conversations required for good decision-making. 

Journalists aren’t the only people who care about communicating science, of course. There’s a growing corps of scientists and engineers, as well as students training for careers in science, who enjoy public speaking, K-12 outreach, and digital storytelling. Enthusiasts of all stripes, from rail buffs to amateur astronomers, Arduino programmers, and environmental activists, gather in classrooms and clubs and use social media to share their passions and concerns. Millions of people every year visit science museums and participate in science festivals and science cafés. These science-hungry publics are natural bulwarks against backsliding, and institutions like MIT that are entrusted with significant amounts of science funding must find ways to support, involve, and energize them. 

But science and technology reporters are my main tribe, and right now they’re in need of a little encouragement. Hence these parting thoughts about the indispensable role of journalists in solving the big problems—ideas I’ve also tried to get across to the Knight Fellows in various forms during my year here at KSJ. The truth is that it’s a great time for journalism and a great time to be a journalist. It just takes a spirit of creativity, entrepreneurship, and endurance. The reward is knowing that you’re doing something that really matters.

Before I sign off, I want to say thanks to a bunch of folks for making this year so rewarding, and for advising me along the way. They include David Kaiser, head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, where KSJ is based; Rosalind Williams, acting head of STS last fall; Deborah Blum, who arrives next week as director of KSJ; Victor McElheny, the founding director of KSJ; David Mindell, a professor in the STS Program and Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; John Durant, director of the MIT Museum; and Deborah Fitzgerald, the departing Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. 

I’m also deeply grateful to the talented and dedicated KSJ staff: Bianca Sinausky, Eric Strattman, and Patrick Wellever (who recently departed for National Geographic). And finally, I want to say thanks to the best group of Knight Fellows ever: Rachael Buchanan, Ibby Caputo, Ian Cheney, Olga Dobrovidova, Gideon Gil, Giovana Girardi, Scott Huler, Matt Kaplan, Kathleen MacLaughlin, George Musser, and Bob Young. So long, and thanks for all the fun.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist