It’s no secret that science journalism is, with a few notable exceptions, very lackluster in general. It seems to a lot of biologists whom I speak to that cell and molecular biology, genetics, and related fields, are especially underrepresented in the press. Yesterday, Alex vented a bit on this, reflecting on the capacity for wonder in the fundamental features of life, and lamenting the public’s overall ignorance of this branch of science. The conversation in the comments looks to get a bit off-track, as it usually does: will creationists quote-mine Alex on his descriptions of cellular complexity, and adaptability vis-a-vis nature vs. nurture. I think though that the original topic, attention in the media, deserves far more discussion however.
Who are the voices that carry discussions of the subcellular world forth to the public? Astronomy and the biology of organisms have long captured the public’s interest, and geophysics has gained repute in the past decade as well. We have a handful of Nobel Laureates, such as Harold Varmus, trying to popularize subcellular biology, but where are the rockstars? (moonlighting musician scientists like Greg Graffin aside).
Subcellular biology just doesn’t appear to maintain the public’s attention long enough. They can’t see cells, and as we all know, vision is our preferred sense. Unlike microprocessors, we can’t use the cell – we must leave it to experts to manipulate such things. And unlike the cosmos, the microcosmos does not convey a sense of grandness, that the cell represents something greater than ourselves. Genetics is the only branch of the fields of subcellular biology that seems capable of holding the public’s attention, probably because our genes determine who we are more than anything else. Our genes and the heredity that they represent are the epitome of how nature defines us.
Alex provides a good bit more detail however – I’d like to quote this bit:
Why are cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, microbiology never covered in the media? I’ve spoken to so many science journalists – most of whom have no science training. I’ve come to the conclusion that the barrier is too high – as a result when it comes time to write about these topics, most science journalists end up writing about “genomes” and “junk DNA”. These are easy subjects – sometimes they’re discussed within the framework of evolution, but never within the context of “how a cell or an organism operates”. Think about this – your body makes about 20,000 machines – these cooperate to form functional cells that cooperate to make a body. How do you go from genotype to phenotype? How does it all work? Well more money is poured into this subject then any other topic out there. More man hours are going into this endeavour then any project undertaken by humankind. But you would never guess that from reading most newspapers.
The barrier too high? Or that there is not enough value placed on understanding how our genes influence our traits? Or maybe the religious opposition to science is so great that education of how best to explain the complexity of the cell is ignored or dismissed? Or all of the above?