The Modern Fire of Olympus

The Benefits and Pitfalls of Popular Science

Popular science, the flame of the modern times.

Though often definitionally recognized as science that is, by in large, presented to a layman audience, popular science is not science. In the aptly named paper, Problems with Popular Science in Dr. John F. McGowan’s website Mathematical Software, McGowan defines popular science as “almost any presentation of science and scientific issues outside of so-called ‘professional’ scientific venues, mainly research papers and conferences” (1). The key difference lies in the word “presentation”; McGowan emphasizes that it’s an interpretation of science for the general populous. That being so, the seeds of mal-intent and manipulation are sown through a fixation on media attention and retention, as opposed to scientific accuracy. In essence, popular science’s transformation from a medium of scientific inspiration to misinformation calls to action the need for a resurgence of scientific accuracy and journalistic integrity.

Bill Nye the Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering Guy

However, popular science had humble beginnings, all the way back to Saturday morning cartoons with a peculiar man named Bill. He ran a show promoting scientific literacy through enticing experiments, kid-sized anecdotes, and nifty facts for children to share. “Bill Nye the Science Guy” may have inspired millions to take up the mantle of a scientist, engineer, and most importantly, a believer in the science and the scientific method. Though the show itself ended over twenty years ago, the spirit of popular, educational, and fun science is a far cry from dead, with the proliferation of channels like VSauce, 3Blue1Brown, and Numberphile, serve to fill Bill’s shoes. His appearance (and the appearances of other popular science educators like Neil DeGrasse Tyson) in those YouTube channels are no coincidence; the benevolent essence of popular science is very much alive. Impressionable minds listen in the tens of millions, hearing ideas both thought provoking and destructive alike; the problem lies in the latter.

Alternatively, the power to sway hearts and minds are also held by those whom place audience retention and engagement of the pursuit and promotion of science. As a result, popular science has devolved into a tabloid-esque hook with a “studies say” sticker labelled onto wrong conclusions of misrepresented studies. As McGowan further elaborates, it is no surprise that popular science has now become synonymous with “science propaganda,” a reflection of not the media’s perpetuation of science, but their corruption of science (2). Whether red wine causes one to live longer, or whether one should drink champagne for a smoother pregnancy, this kind of fake information has very real implications.

However, the blame does not solely rest on the shoulders of journalism and media; some of it is placed on the researchers and the university press offices. According to health correspondent Julia Belluz in the aptly named article on Vox Media, Why so many of the health articles you read are junk, explained that “[university press shops] often overhype the findings of their scientists — while journalists play along uncritically, parroting whatever showed up in their inbox that day” (3a). Scientific and academic literacy should not completely rest on the hands of journalists, whose expertise lies in a completely different field. In any case, the researchers and their respective organizations, have an agenda, much like the journalists. In the online journal TheUnapologists, Charlie Debenham’s Popular Science — The Good, The Bad And The Ugly attacks the questionable connection between research and media. As he notes, a “catchy headline can erase all sins, whether it be a small sample size, the context of wider research, a need for replication studies, private interests, and anything else that may make the findings inconsequential or misleading” (5). In essence, researchers need attraction in order to receive funding for their research, thus creating an uneasy conflict of interest. In other cases, this dodgy practice occurs right in the research itself; as Julia Belluz explains in Vox Media’s An unhealthy obsession with p-values is ruining science, researchers “game their p-values or selectively report only low p-values” in order to make findings publishable (23b).

Regardless of who drops the poison into the soup, the effect is the same. Even if scientists choose to favour academic integrity, according to Charlie Debenham in the same article, “if the scientific bodies don’t spice up their findings then the media outlets will do it for them” (6). From the individual diet/lifestyle to public policy involving global warming, the general interpretation of science often has powerful implications and ramifications, yet these sources of popular science often take the responsibility with a sense of unwanted levity. In “The Culture Show,” accomplished journalist Jon Ronson questions the accountability of popular TED Speaker and popular science book writer Malcolm Gladwell, mentioning how his broken window theory of crime has affected how street justice groups go about their violent actions. In response, Gladwell retorts that his books “are not policy prescriptions; they are conversation starters. When [Gladwell says he wants] to start a conversation, [he] would like to present a series of ideas” (Ronson 4m 54s). What Gladwell represents is a greater misunderstanding with his position as the vessel of ideas from the public and the people who have a more definitive understanding of things. For sources to treat ideas as mere conversation starters and to feign obligation is dangerously irresponsible.

If there was ever perfect microcosm of the media’s misuse of popular science, it would be the questionable article written by TIME’s Laura Stampler, fittingly dubbed “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer;” at least, until its correction to “A Stinky Compound May Protect Against Cell Damage” amidst public backlash. On July 11, 2009, a scientific journal published a finding similar to the latter. TIME, desperate for engagement of their content, wildly extrapolated from the. TIME produced this conclusion after cell damage was mitigated after exposure to compounds that smell rotten, extrapolating that conclusion to smelling farts to prevent cancer. All evidence leading to a misguided focus on “shock value” is confirmed by the author, stating that while “no conclusions can be made at this time, may this news let [people] wince just a bit less next time” (6).

As soon as popular science blossomed into existence, as Cornell University professor Bruce Lewenstein explains in the online TheScientist article The Arrogance of ‘Pop Science’, “science [became] an economic commodity that could be sold in the same way that skiing, sailing, or city life are sold in magazines” (3). Popular science is a powerful tool, analogous to Prometheus’ fire, capable of both inspiring the next generation of scientists and feeding dangerous misinformation. Because of that, popular science and its proponents have a responsibility both to the researchers and the public to put accuracy and scientific literacy as its main priority, bringing the scientific fire from Olympus to the populous. The appreciation of hard, honest, good work should make a return to prevalence, like with replication studies that are boring but very important. Scientific literary should be championed by journalists, and scientific accuracy should be championed by scientists. It is important for the medium to have a return to form, where good journalism of actual research is being championed and appreciated. Popular science, the same flame that brings light, can forge destruction just as easily; know the Prometheus that carries the torch. In a world of skepticism, falsehoods, and misinformation, the only definitive truth online is that there is none.

Belluz, Julia. “Why so many of the health articles you read are junk”. Vox. Vox Media.Dec 10 2014. Web. Apr 29 2019.

Belluz, Julia. “An unhealthy obsession with p-values is ruining science”. Vox. Vox Media.Mar 2 2009. Web. Apr 30 2019.

Debenham, Charlie. “Pop Science — The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”. The Unapologists. n. p.Feb 22 2018. Web. Apr 29 2019.

Lewenstein, Bruce. “The Arrogance of ‘Pop Science’”. TheScientist. LabX Media Group.Jul 13 1987. Web. Apr 29 2019.

McGowan, John F. “Problems with Popular Science”. Mathematical Software. n. p.Mar 2 2009.Web. Apr 29 2019.

Ronson, Jon. “2/2 The Culture Show : Jon Ronson meets Malcolm Gladwell.” Youtube. Online.14min 28sec. Oct 3 2013.

Stampler, Julia. “Scientists Say Smelling Farts Might Prevent Cancer”. TIME. TIME USA.Jul 11 2009. Web. Apr 26 2019.

Resident moron at the University of Waterloo, living rent-free at https://sobercoder.me/.

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