Losing the message in the medium, John Eades

John Eades, Tokyo University

Address: CERN, 1211 Geneva 23; John.Eades@cern.ch





         I here examine the mystifying way that science stories have sometimes been covered by the media over the last several years. In doing this, I am drawing largely from personal experience with newspapers, radio and TV channels in the UK, the US, Switzerland, France, Canada, the US and Japan, and as a consumer of science reporting as well as an occasional media interviewee. I conclude that we only have ourselves to blame for the consequences of this.




A few years ago, I bought a CD of Sibelius’ 5th symphony. This is one of his best known works, but the version I bought was the original 1915 one rather than the revised version of 1919 (which until about ten years ago was the only version ever played.) What I expected were minor changes in orchestration, maybe with a few passages cut out here and there, or reduced in length. What I got was the kind of shock you might feel if you met someone in the street you had known all your life, and found that he was 20 cm taller than he was three weeks last Tuesday, and that his hair had turned blue. Although it was recognizably the same work, based on the same thematic material, it was also an entirely different work.


I often get much the same feeling when I look at media coverage of science topics I am familiar with. Communicating clearly about science is extremely difficult and requires talents rarely found among professional scientists, so it is not my intention here to indulge in gratuitous media bashing. What I do want to suggest is that somewhere in science reporting, many of the most important basic ideas about science and the things we learn from it are being lost, that this phenomenon is not infrequent, and that the so-called serious, responsible media channels are by no means free of it. Questions such as – what constitutes an experiment, what is the purpose of research, what are its methods, what is not science, and why in fact we need to do research at all, are hardly ever addressed. In other words the baby is (inadvertently for sure) being thrown out with the bathwater. Everyone loses. What is to be done?



Some media views of Science


To explain what I mean, I begin with several examples of media coverage of news items which, it is claimed, concern physical science.


TV documentary about Cold Fusion circa 1997:


In the first scene, a garage door opens and a car emerges …. Voice over: ‘This car runs on water…’. The camera pans out and it becomes evident that the car was being pushed. Much later, very near the end, a viewer with a good memory, a sharp ear and a critical frame of mind could conclude from an aside, that in fact the car had never yet run on water.


A Teletext item (2001), NOT about cold fusion (in full):


         ‘Scientists in the US have produced a car that runs on water. It gets 300 km to a gallon and works by burning the hydrogen found in water.’


Both these examples came from BBC World Service TV. I could have chosen many more examples that have mystified and irritated me because they seem to miss the whole point of science. Why, for example were no explanations or apologies given in the TV documentary for leading the viewer astray, why were no penetrating questions asked, and why were the doubters carefully edited to appear closed-minded, out-of touch and even rather silly? Concerning the Teletext item my reaction was – yes, it has indeed been known for a very long time that water is H2O, and that hydrogen burns with Oxygen to produce it, and that energy in the form of heat comes out when you do this. How simple to start with water, separate it into hydrogen and oxygen, then burn these gases back to water. If it’s this simple, how come no one ever wised up to this possibility before?


When I look at the results of newspaper/radio interviews given by myself, I am equally mystified but I don’t feel quite so superior any more:


BBC radio, circa 1998:


         JE: ‘No, there is no conceivable way in which our research on antihydrogen can ever lead to new sources of energy …’


         Interviewer: ‘Why are you doing it then?’


JE flounders around helplessly at this totally unexpected turn of events. Luckily this exchange took place before the interview started, and I was able to remind the interviewer that physics does not concern itself exclusively with the search for new energy sources. He immediately recognized his mistake.


BBC radio, 2000


         JE: ‘Well It’s not easy to explain to people having breakfast in the kitchen why we are so interested in antiparticles and antimatter, but try and think of it this way. If you replace your toaster or refrigerator by one constructed like its mirror image, the new one will work fine. But this couldn’t always be guaranteed if the appliance involved radioactive substances unless you also made the new one out of antimatter. We think nature is maybe trying to tell us something important here about the way she has organized the world….’


         Interviewer: ‘… but I can see refrigerators….’


Completely floored, JE turns in a truly appalling performance trying to recover from this…


         Interviewer interrupts:’ … I have heard that entire cities can be powered by antimatter ….’


JE Gives up trying to explain – spends the rest of the interview trying to lay this idea to rest, all the while regretting not having heeded the CERN public relation department’s advice – ‘ Just answer the questions, never, ever, try to explain anything’.



Sunday Times, 1997


The subject is the Antiproton Decelerator constructed at CERN to slow antiprotons, which we can only create in the laboratory at very high speeds, down to speeds at which they can be captured and examined. At the end, I am quoted as saying:


         ‘Once we have captured anti-atoms, we could learn to employ them in a number of ways. The use of antimatter as a fuel would be a horrendously expensive per kilowatt-hour, but it may represent a practical solution to some otherwise unsolvable fuel problem.’


I read this in total astonishment. What I said was something like the following: a) one or two people marginally connected with physics, but not known for the sharpness of their critical faculties, have claimed something like that b) no-one takes it seriously and c) that it looks to me like an excellent investment for people who really enjoy losing money, because even if it worked the cost per kWh would make nonsense of the whole endeavor.


What goes wrong?


Now I have to back off a bit here, and make it clear that I do not wish, and have no right, to complain that Science was not being given a fair shake in any of these presentations – indeed every one of them was extremely positive about science. What it seems to me that all these examples have in common is that different people or groups of people were looking at representations of the same thing but seeing different things, with none of them understanding what it was they saw. I suppose that what brought this most clearly into focus for me was the news item paraphrased below:


BBC World Service TV Evening News item, early 2000:


… In California, a new particle accelerator of some kind is coming into operation, tunnels are shown, computers, flashing lights and talking heads appear, much discussion takes place about the mystery of antimatter and the secrets of the universe.


At the end, the newsreader (Stephen Cole) reappears and says: Well, I didn’t understand a word of that!


Neither did I. I wondered how such a thing could have come into existence without me knowing about it, until the name of the project (BaBar, at Stanford University, California) was revealed at the very end. Only then did everything fall into some kind of context although the connection between the report and what I know continues to mystify me years later.


The point I want to make here is that if neither physicist nor layman understood a word of it, what purpose was being served? The same impression was reinforced by the following:

BBC ‘Horizon’ documentary, January 2005, repeated February 2006:


This programme concerned a phenomenon called global dimming and began by warning us that this ‘… deadly new phenomenonmay already have led to the starvation of millions.’ There followed some twenty minutes of elaborate computer graphics and dramatic imagery, interspersed with sound bites from worried-looking climate scientists and accompanied by screechingly dissonant soundtrack chords. The point being made seemed to be that the water in your garden birdbath evaporates faster when the sun is shining. By the end of the programme I was with difficulty able to decode the wider message that a) atmospheric pollution reflects part of the sunlight entering the atmosphere so that less of it reaches the earth’s surface b) this cooling effect may to some extent be canceling out the warming effect from increased atmospheric CO2 (and also be changing rainfall patterns) c) cleaning up atmospheric pollution is therefore likely to make global warming worse. This is an important message, and Horizon is to be congratulated for bringing it to general attention. But why did I, a working scientist, have to peel away so many layers of media embellishment to get it? And why didn’t my wife get it at all? And how was it that the programme summary[1] managed, in one page, to get that message across clearly, while an hour of TV programming nearly lost it for both of us?


It seemed to me that in both these examples the medium had been allowed to hijack the message, that in the attempt to decode the mystique of real science for general public consumption, it had been re-coded in the form of a new mystique – entertainment.


Is this objection important anyway?


It is easy to say that this discrepancy between the scientist’s view of science and the image of it presented in the media does not matter and that I am being unrealistic. After all, I am sometimes told, the general public can’t be expected to follow explanations, only stories, and if these are presented in a colorful, entertaining way, the funding will continue to roll in, so what harm is done?


Leaving aside the questionable ethics of such an approach, the proof of this pudding must surely be in the eating. What is the result of this (sympathetic, I repeat) science coverage in terms of the way science is perceived by non-scientists? Here is how one person sees particle physics research:


         ‘Despite their access to copious research funds, today’s scientists have yet to prove that a quark is worth a bag of beans. The quarks are coming! The quarks are coming! Run for your lives . . .! Yes, I know I shouldn’t jeer at science, noble science, which, after all, gave us mobile telephones, collapsible umbrellas and multi-striped toothpaste, but science really does ask for it . . . Now I must be serious. Can you eat quarks? Can you spread them on your bed when the cold weather comes?’


No this was not John Cleese raving away in an episode of Monty Python, but a 1996 article by Bernard Levin in The Times. Yes – The Times – the world pinnacle (as it calls itself) of serious, responsible journalism. In a letter a few days later it was pointed out that in fact B. Levin, who was a constant contributor to most of the influential, serious magazines and newspapers in the UK, ate a very large number of quarks every day and would die if he didn’t. He did in fact die in 2004, missed by friends and foes alike, although not of quark starvation.


Here is how another person sees celestial mechanics:


         ‘P.R. a publié …. le livre-catastrophe qui porte ce titre … le feu du ciel -, dans lequel (l’auteur) ‘voit’ à l’avance les Parisiens, transformés en torches vivantes, se jeter par milliers dans la Seine, tandis que les éléphants du zoo de Vincennes défoncent les grilles du parc et se précipitent dans le lac Daumesnil…. … Notre-Dame et le Louvre ne seront bientôt plus que des ‘amas indistincts.’


No, this is not a description of mass panic in the Middle Ages at the sight of a comet, nor a story from the National Enquirer or France Dimanche. It is a review in Le Monde Interactif of a book by a famous fashion designer, Paco Rabanne. Rabanne describes there the likely (to him) consequences of the eclipse of 1999, which he thought would somehow cause the MIR space station to fall on Paris. He was deadly serious to the extent that he shut the shop and ran away from Paris on the eclipse day because he really believed that the sky was going to fall on his head.




         ‘I find myself at a loss to understand the relationship between its current and potential benefits to ordinary people and the billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money that go into.. the facility… A project that only the most dedicated physicist seems able to …appreciate… seems absurd unless there is significant payback and spin-off in commercial terms…. With half the investment …[in the internet] we could have created a superhighway of business opportunities… in contrast to the academic nonsense of fleeting quarks [and] protons that might have been there for a billionth of a second.’


No prizes for guessing which organization Christopher Lloyd (Sunday Times June 9 1996) is referring to. Particularly noteworthy here is the neat way the internet (a spin-off from basic research if there ever was one) is used as an argument for reducing funding of the very basic research of which it was a spin-off! I’m still trying to figure that one out.


Vast though the ignorance of many such prominent people may be, opinions like these determine to a large extent everyone else’s perception of many things, including science. Of course I can’t show that they are causally related to specific examples of media coverage of science like those I gave earlier. However, no-one’s ideas arise spontaneously out of the vacuum. Someone, somewhere, has given Levin the impression that the purpose of science is to produce consumer gimmicks, Lloyd that it is commercial exploitation for profit and that protons have a lifetime of one nanosecond (why is he still around to say so?), and Rabanne that Newton’s law of gravitation is some kind of optional extra.


Who can this someone be but us? And how did we do it? I think by failing to insist that the media present science, as it is, and not as an unrecognizable package of easily saleable images, or as a collection of promises for things we cannot possibly deliver.


Some lost messages


My argument should, I hope, now be clear: We tell certain things about science to the media. Even when they report on these stories sympathetically (which is usually the case) the result is often incomprehensible, both to us and to the people it is aimed at! So the real message is somehow getting lost. As a result, many loud and influential voices are raised against science, especially basic science, which has now been in serious financial trouble in the US for many years, and is becoming more so in Europe (although not yet, it seems, in Japan). In this section I present a personal view of some of the messages that I think get lost in the media.


Science does not equal technology.


Most of the items on the BBC TV world service programme ‘Science News’ seem to be about technology, and even the name of this workshop contributes to the conflation of these two quite different things in peoples’ minds. Yet, as the presence today of numerous age-old engineering works testifies, technology predated science by thousands of years. Technology is easier to talk about, and no one needs to stress that in the last few hundred years it has made extensive use of science, but that doesn’t make them the same thing.


Practical applications are not guaranteed.


The idea now seems universally accepted that a successful scientific discovery is one that results in someone making money by applying it to daily life. I am invariably asked about this, and I usually try to reply as follows. In the mid-nineteenth century Maxwell, Faraday and others were doing research on two mysterious phenomena – magnetism and electricity. This was basic science – so basic that only the most dedicated physicist seemed able to appreciate it as Lloyd might have said. Today, not a single moment of our waking or sleeping hours remains untouched by what they did, which was to understand these phenomena and the relationship between them. But their agenda was to understand nature’s rules, not to prepare for the technological revolution which did in fact come about later. It is said that Faraday foresaw this when, in reply to Mr. Gladstone’s question

‘But what is its usefulness Mr Faraday? He replied ‘Why, sir, there is every possibility that you may soon tax it ‘. The hard truth is, however, that this kind of revolution was almost unique in human history. Very little fundamental research will ever result in commercial applications, and we should not let the pervasiveness of electromagnetic technology be taken by the general public as an indication that it will. When it has happened, we always had to consult nature first. This brings me to my next point.


Nature is in charge.


When we do succeed to discover nature’s laws, we are obliged to abide by them. More often than not, they are inconvenient for us, because in framing them she takes no account whatever of human wishes and desires. This message does not seem to get through in the media, which often imply that by waiting a while and letting human ingenuity and know-how get to work, we will find some way of fooling her. No amount of ingenuity and know-how is, however, going to allow you to get a net output of energy by taking water molecules apart and then putting them back together again. You will always lose some, simply because nature has decided that that is the way things are. Dennis Overbye, a science correspondent for the New York Times once put all this rather neatly in his statement of the three laws of thermodynamics as: 1) You can’t win 2) You can’t break even 3) You can’t get out of the game. Such uncomfortable truths are difficult to sell, but that is no reason for telling people the opposite.


Everyone is a scientist.


If we are going to insist that science does not equal technology, or profit, we must be careful not to imply that it is some kind of mysterious cabalistic ritual without any relevance at all to everyday life. Just the opposite is true – while science is largely a collection of tools and ways of thinking, even the most refined of these are of the kind that everyone uses and encounters all the time, without a second thought. I don’t think we use daily life nearly enough when presenting scientific ideas. Here are a few examples; I could think of many others:


Fields: If I were to start talking about representations of scalar and vector fields to an interviewer he would quickly and very properly shunt me onto another topic. Yet millions of people watch them on TV every night without getting indigestion, except that they call them the weather forecast. Every temperature chart is in fact a representation of a scalar field, and every wind speed chart a representation of a vector field (sometimes the vector fields are even shown dynamically propagating in space and time). Here we have one of the extremely complicated concepts of modern physics making a daily appearance in everyone’s living room.


Doubt: The skeptic doth neither affirm nor deny any position’, Walter Raleigh once said, ‘but doubteth of it, and applyeth his Reason against that which is affirmed, or denied, to justify his non-consenting’. Much later, Karl Popper pointed out that doubt is one of the most valuable ingredients of the scientific method. When the cold fusion argument arose, the scientific world received it with the same doubt they reserve for every new claim. We are told that the general public is, on the other hand, simply not used to skeptical thinking, or to examining all claims critically. Maybe. People do, however, buy used cars, they know that they have to use their critical faculties when doing so, and the media sensibly encourage them in this. What is different when someone offers a car that runs on water? Or unlimited, cheap, non-polluting energy? Or, for that matter, suggests that the Internet is going to make everyone rich and happy overnight?


Number vs. Quantity: Shortly after Chernobyl, it was announced on the Swiss TV evening news that we could all relax – the radioactivity of meat had now fallen below 10 Curies per Kg. Of course, I would not go within several km of any butcher’s shop whose meat was even one millionth as radioactive as that. The announcer probably meant nanoCuries (billionths of a Curie), but we scientists cannot blame him if we never told him that a small number (10) can be a very large quantity, or a large one a small quantity. A daily fact of life for many commuters in Geneva is that it is some 50 km from here to Lausanne. It is also 50,000,000 mm and 0.000 000 000 000 19 light years. It ought not to be too difficult to get across the idea that we choose the most convenient number for a given quantity, with, for example, a convenient, relevant, and understandable unit for the radioactivity of meat being the activity per Kg of the average human being (yes, we are all slightly radioactive).


Science and Culture.


What I have tried to say above is that what is often presented as science is nothing of the kind and while it is tempting to blame this obfuscation on the media, the fault usually lies in us. Although I stressed the importance of scientific thinking in everyday life, I still have not replaced the striped toothpaste and collapsible umbrellas with excitement and adventure. I started off by talking about a Sibelius symphony and I want to finish on a similar cultural note. We never seem to insist when talking to the media that science is part of human culture, and to me this is perhaps the most egregious deficiency in the story we do tell. Far more eloquent voices than mine have placed science in its proper cultural context, so I will let them do the talking:


I begin with Democritus on atoms:


         ‘The only existing things are atoms and empty space – all else is mere opinion. The atoms are infinite in number and infinitely various in form; they strike together and the lateral motions and whirlings which then arise are the beginnings of worlds…The soul consists of fine, smooth, round atoms like those of fire. These are the most mobile of all. They interpenetrate the whole body, and in their motions, the phenomenon of life arises.’


Much, but not all of this would be accepted as valid today, but even when he is wrong, there is a breadth and nobility of vision here which few people would fail to accept as a contribution to our cultural life.


Newton, 2100 years later, talking about the real business of particle physics before its time, put it this way:


         ‘There are therefore Agents in Nature able to make particles of Bodies ftick together by very ftrong attractions. And it is the businefs of experimental philofophy to find them out.’


Levin and Lloyd please note, there is no mention whatever here of striped toothpaste or commercial profit.


Bertrand Russell, saying much more eloquently what I said above about nature taking no heed of our convenience or comfort in deciding the way things will be:


         ‘[T]hat all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.’


My final quotation is by Ramamurti Shankar, who is talking about the role of symmetry principles in physics:


‘Should we at times be despondent over the fact that we know so few of nature’s laws, let us find solace in these symmetry principles, which tell us that what little we know is universal and eternal. From the lonely hydrogen atom in intergalactic space which emits its 21 centimetre radiation as predicted by quantum theory, to giant galaxies that gyrate to the tune of Newton’s laws, every step in the cosmic dance that follows the beat we discovered bears witness to our achievements, and will continue to do so aeons from now, even if in the meantime the last human mind has been stilled.’


I think you will not have guessed that this comes from a textbook on Quantum Mechanics. I left it to the end, because here, it seems to me, is the real answer to everyone who sees in science only what he wishes to see.


An earlier version of this article was presented at the 6th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology PCST-6, CERN, Geneva, 1-3 Feb 2001.