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Are We Playing Telephone With Our Information?

You know the game.  Say something in someones ear and they pass it down the line.  By the time it gets to the end the LHC is going to destroy the world.

The way that we obtain our information has changed a great deal since the advent of institutionalized journalism in the media.  Gone are the days when news was spread by the witness, replaced by the omniscent entities that are NBC, Fox News, CNN, and the BBC (CSPAN not so much).

This method of dispersing information is not without merit.  It allows for the most important news to reach as many people as possible in the shortest period of time.  With one source few sources of information, it is easy to keep up to date with the world.  All you have to do is turn on your television.

In reality, unfortunately, that is not how it works.  Instead of a constant stream of relavent, unbiased information, what we get from these networks is celebrety gossip and tradgedy shoved down our throats.  While I could rant about the media all day, I would like to focus specifically on the problems this causes for the dissemination of scientific information.

Non-Scientists are deciding what is important

Here are the top stories on health you can find at CNN.com.  If you look you will notice that not one of these stories involves medical breakthroughs, vaccines, artificial hearts, or anything even vaguely scientific.  None of the other major news sites are any better.   Even if you do manage to find something with any scientific worth on the website, fat chance you’ll hear about it on TV where many people still get all of their news.

Non- Scientists are trying to explain science

Imagine if a quantum physicist walked up to you (assuming you aren’t one) and explained uncertainty as it applies to special reletivity.  Now imagine that hours later you have to explain it to someone else who never took an intro physics class in their life.  Now that person will go on television and explain it to the world.  Think some ideas might come across incorrectly?  Well this is the system we now use, and this game of telephone that our information goes through is a major reason that a large percentage of the public does not fully understand concepts like global warming and vaccinations. I heard from a guy who heard from a guy that carbon footprints are getting the ozone layer dirty.  This is the kind of thing that we can expect when getting second-hand information, which begs the question…

Why are we still using second hand sources?

Now that we are living in the age of the internet and moving towards a system of open-source information, there is no reason that we can’t get our information from first-hand accounts.  An summary from someone who has actually done the research would be infinitely more reliable and accurate than someone else trying to give the same information with a far lesser understanding of the subject.  A scientist saying “here’s what I did, and this is what it means” is so much more relavent than someone with a journalism degree saying “someone did this, and it could possibly mean the end of life as we know it.”

Is this our fault?  What can we as the scientific community do to circumvent the media?

I say it is our fault, and we need to put down the telephone and start shouting from the rooftops.  Yes I realize that doesn’t really mean anything, but I’m passionate about this dammit!  Sharing knowledge should be just as much a part of a researchers job as gaining knowledge.

Please share your thoughts

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