14|06|13: Gods and man (2005)

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-13 um 14.13.41Preparing for a  working group on „Science in Society – How to Overcome a Disjuncture“  which I am going to chair at this year’s European Forum Alpbach (in case of interest: August 22, 09.00-15.00, at the Hauptschule Alpbach) I came across the following text I had drafted for a working group I participated nine years ago. The title was „From scientific journal to breaking news: science and the media“. Among the panelists were Philip Campbell, then and now Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Rainer Esser, CEO of the Zeit Publishing House in Hamburg, and (for some reason not mentioned in the programme) Richard Dawkins as himself. The draft remains relevant and will offer a nice starting point for this year’s discussion. 

Gods and men

Remarks on the fundamental incompatibility of science and media – and suggestions for peaceful co-existence

When Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, expressed his concerns about a determined Darwinism that can do without a master creator and his interest in the concept of Intelligent Design he did so on the Op-Ed-pages of the New York Times. The text had been offered to the editors by a professional public relation agency. The fast reaction similarly was expressed in the media; in Austria for instance the Wittgenstein-laureate and molecular biologist Renée Schroeder went public in an interview with the Austrian Press Agency, saying „that man had created the gods, not the gods man.“*

What is remarkable: The ancient battle between believing and knowing, catholic church and modern science was carried out with journalistic means, and I say, it was carried out with journalistic means on purpose. Schönborn did not choose Sunday’s sermon to express his thesis, but one of the most important daily newspapers in the world. Rest ashored, that he not only knew about the effect his words would leave, but that this effect actually was chosen deliberately. One might add that the date of publication too – at the beginning of the summer – was selected carefully to assure some proper acknowledgment by the media, the public and the scientific community. In return Schroeder reacted not with a letter or a statement in a scientific journal, but just matter-of-fact-wise with a real sound-bite even some writers envied here . and she chose a phrase, Fritz Lang had used in Godart’s „Le mépris”.

20 years ago it would have been unthought-of, that a man of the church and a scientist quarrel in front of a media audience. Both professions, church and science, would not even had contemplated to exchange their arguments so openly in public. But both institutions have – certainly in continental Europe – in the past 20 years undergone very fundamental changes that have questioned their self-understanding very drastically. As if that would not be enough both institutions face very immediate changes. Two agents have taken control over society neither church nor science can evade: the tight grip of economy and media on all parts of life.

Are any further proofs needed, that „the media“ have replaced church and science in their relevance. Have the media taken over control, are they the directors in a very literate sense meaning that the media put on stage whatever content is delivered, be it a new encyclical by the pope or the new superstring theory? That it does not matter if the material is bad or good but it only depends on the directing if a play or a film is accepted and acknowledged. That this key function influences the development of content in the sense that only that material is developed and offered that will be digested by the media?

This sketch leads me to number of questions for science:

What are we actually talking about: can scientists handle the media, can journalists understand the working principles of science?

Who are we talking to: the old story of permanent misconception. The expectations on both sides are as far apart as a headline and a scientific paper.

Why are we actually talking to each other: the scientist might be driven by vanity or the need of enlightenment of the public. The journalist should be driven by the interest in a good story. That does not have to be a contradiction if this is clear to both parts.

Why not soliloquy? It is not only the public that is often having a hard time understanding scientific results, by now scientists themselves find it hard to understand results even from related fields of science. There is not only the need for communicators between science and public but also within science.

Who has the floor? It is a paradox: the more complex a theory, a field of science, a school is the more difficult it is to mediate it’s results – and at the same time the more necessary it becomes. Why? The attention by the media has become the currency in the economic evaluation process. If a scientist produces a not immediately applicable product than at last it should be presentable and therefore talk for itself. If not so the scientist will have to talk for him/herself.

A picture says more than an article: Which sciences have attracted the most interest in the media in the past years? Those that have understood to visualize their results  – even if this leads to complete abbreviations up to the falsification of the content.

What’s left: After the hefty hype follows the practical sobriety, science and media will have to turn their often emotional into a professional relation – similar to what happened between journalism and politics since the 70s and with economy since the 80s.

* A few months later Schroeder and Schönborn went head-to-head in a discussion for the Austrian daily Der Standard.