In the past few months I have become addicted to listening to ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning radio show. My family and friends find this addiction inscrutable as I am not particularly interested in sports, do not attend sporting events, or play any sports. What I enjoy about this show, first and foremost, is the relationship between the two Mikes. They are another iteration of odd-couple zaniness. Secondly, I love learning about worlds I know nothing about and this show provides an entertaining window into sports fandom.
This morning, in the midst of an ongoing conversation Mike and Mike are having about the late, great baseball player Tony Gwynn (for background see: http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/16/opinion/downey-tony-gwynn/index.html?iid=article_sidebar) and how wonderful and generous Gwynn was in an interview. Musing as to whether this kind of generosity is encountered today, one of the Mikes (Mike Greenberg) mentioned that there’s been a social norms change in the relationship between sports journalists and sports figures. It used to be that sports organizations were all for media coverage of their players and actively sought exposure. A generation ago there were relatively few sports-media outlets with limited opportunities for coverage. Today, Greenberg observed, more effort by sport organization’s PR professionals is expended “protecting” players from media exposure. A contributing reason? The 24/7 explosion of media outlets including blogs and all forms of social media. The consequent explosion in the number of individuals looking for “content” is to some extent outstripping the availability of content. Also a factor is the preference for controversial content that can then self-feed even more discussions, blog-post, and tweets.
Ah. So finally, here comes the message for academic science: could it be time for institutions to move from seeking media attention to protecting scientists and the intellectual pursuit of scientific knowledge? At one time, “explaining” science to the public (primarily as a mechanism for shoring up public support for science) might have justified the willingness to have researchers work with journalists. But, perhaps it is no longer possible, in a reasonable way, to meet the insatiable needs of the ever-expanding media outlets seeking content?
A risk is that academic science becomes over-exposed. This risk is compounded by the rise of the researcher as public intellectual. Many academic scientists now write popular books, regularly contribute newspaper columns, and keep active blogs. Institutions produce videos and pod-casts. As scientific communication morphs to edutainment there is a tendency to lose precision, skepticism, and the willingness to be wrong – all important characteristics of authentic discussion.
The TED-ification of science/public interaction means no line of research is now too esoteric or obscure to escape some gussying up for its moment in the limelight. Similarly, no finding, regardless of how incremental, escapes characterization as a monumental breakthrough.
I worry that science seems to be garnering some special authority so that there is absolutely no problem for which science is not (or has not) the answer. Impossible boots to fill.
So every now and then it might be good to resist the interview, the Newsweek cover, the slick radio production, or whatever – unless there is a real and important story to tell – a story that can be told in its entirety, uncertainties included.
The unintended consequence of all this
The generation of thoughtful, meaningful scientific understanding cannot keep pace with the whirlwind need for news, commentary, and controversy every minute of every hour of every day.