October thought experiment: suppose the World Series were covered like the Nobel Prize

October brings the Nobel Prize announcements and the World Series. No one will mistake media coverage of one for the other. Each Nobel Prize will get one article and 10 seconds on the evening news. A soft feature will quote the new Nobel recipient’s complete surprise at the 4 AM phone call.

By contrast, baseball, like all major sports, is covered in great depth, by legions of sports reporters. Coverage is continuous during the long baseball season, reaches a near-hysterical peak in October, and continues generously even during the off-season.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that newspapers covered baseball the way they cover science. What would happen? What kind of articles would we see and what kind of stories would we miss?

The World Series Article— Every paper would run one article on the World Series. Most papers would run the article after the contest had ended, and would dutifully report the final scores. Of course, few readers would actually read the articles, since the papers would have never explained why the world series was important; in fact it would not have been mentioned in any of the paper’s sports coverage all year.

Some papers would run the World Series article before the Series was over. Having polled a number of experts the paper’s sports reporter — there would only be one, of course, and he or she would much prefer to write about Hollywood — would announce the name of the team that was almost certain to win the Series. If that prediction turned out to be wrong an easy to miss correction might be buried in the back pages sometime in the weeks after the contest was over.

The Profile— Each paper would run one profile each season of one player, chosen because of some colorful trait or scandal. The fact that this player would be an average fielder with a batting average of .198 would be glossed over in the article.

This one profile would lead to dozens of similar articles in other newspapers, but, the next season, no newspaper would cover the story when the player is quietly dropped from the roster and no other team picks him up. More importantly, no newspaper would write about his teammate, the quiet, decent fellow who lacks the gift for colorful talk, is free of scandal, and who, with his .350 batting average and his outstanding defensive abilities, is a future hall of famer.

The Game— One game each season would be covered in great detail. Usually this game would take place early in the season, between two teams never in serious contention for the playoffs. It would be reported, however, as the most important game of the season.

The Economic Story– There would be no stories about the changing economics of professional baseball or players’ salaries, or steroids. However, when a third base coach from the home team is caught using team money for hookers, this will become a front page story.

If baseball was covered like this, the way science is actually covered, no one would read the box scores. Facts in isolation, without context or meaning, are dull. Science, like sports, is not a dry collection of facts. Science is interesting because it is an ongoing, constantly unfolding process. Like a baseball season it too has a narrative, but it is infinitely more complex and varied.

Most Americans find astrology more interesting than astronomy,  and care more about psychics than about physicists. This is largely because, in the presentation of science to the public, the science itself has been stripped from the story, and what we’re left with is the bare announcement of a new fact, a fact that exists without context or significance. Most readers would not look skeptically at a story reporting that scientists, like the alchemists of old, had discovered the formula for turning lead into gold.

Is it any wonder that vast numbers of people are afraid to take the flu vaccines, or that they believe that cell phones cause brain cancer, or that they put their faith in homeopathic remedies? The long-term assault on science budgets during the Bush adminstration caused little concern. For all most people knew or cared, they might as well have been told that the budget for research into phrenology — the 19th century science of reading head bumps — was being cut.

The chief postwar motivation for US investment in science was to beat the Russians. Now that we’ve been to the moon, and the Russians have been thoroughly eliminated as a threat, we need a new motivation to continue to support science. This time, however, that motivation must spring from the inside, and not from an outside threat. This will only be possible if more people can gain a better understanding of what science is and what scientists do.

Now imagine for a moment that newspapers covered science the way they now cover sports. Imagine that newspapers poured battalions of reporters and researchers into investigating important science stories, just as they now do for the Michael Jackson story. Just imagine.

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