Just 2 percent of news is about science and tech, report finds

It’s the kind of result anyone who writes about science for the general public will find disheartening: less than 2 percent of news coverage in traditional media over a five-year-period was about science and technology, according to a new federal report.

The report, “Science & Engineering Indicators,” was released to Congress by the National Science Board this month and sums up in one chapter the state of public comprehension of science. There are the usual—and at this point mostly unsurprising—statistics that show basic scientific literacy isn’t great, but isn’t the worst in the world. Sprinkled in is the occasional truly astonishing fact, such as that only 55 percent of people think astrology is “not at all scientific.” That’s the lowest the number has dipped since 1983. Half of Americans also apparently think lasers are generated by concentrating sound waves.

But the point of evidence is to use it, and for me that means finding ways to try and translate stories about science to the public that are effective, interesting, and informative. Sprinkled into the new report are plenty of facts that will give people pause, along with fodder to think more carefully about our assumptions about how to write, talk, and teach about science.

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Here are a few of the observations I found most interesting:

-- A survey found that between 2000 and 2008, just 1 percent of the characters on prime-time network television shows were scientists. And those were overwhelmingly white men. TV always presents a skewed version of reality, but this statistic underscores an imbalance that you can easily encounter in real life. A feature story that ran in the Globe food section recently about the Google cafeteria in Cambridge was striking because there were so few women in the photos.

-- Despite the fact that science and technology are very infrequently featured in news stories, science and technology news is “very closely” followed by 16 percent of Americans—about the same percentage that in 2012 very closely followed news stories about business and finance (15 percent) or politics and Washington news (17 percent). Local government was closely followed by 21 percent of the American public, beating science—but that’s less than the number who closely follow health news (23 percent).

-- Although there are routine surveys testing people’s understanding of basic scientific facts, what has always seemed to matter more is being able to reason about problems in a rational way. This report found that only a third of people could comprehend the basics of how scientific inquiry works, such as understanding why drugs are tested the way they are, with one group receiving the medication and another group not.

The basic method scientists use to figure stuff out is one that can benefit people in all walks of life. I would like people to all know that the Earth goes around the sun (only 74 percent did), but I would be more fearful of the person who answered the question incorrectly on the spot, but lacked the mental tools to work their way to the correct answer given some evidence. As a science reporter, I often try as much as I can to write about the process of coming up with an idea—the process of testing it, doubting it, troubleshooting. That process seems to me as important as knowing any single result, and is really more what science is about, since the ground-breaking result is the rarity. The part where people struggle to figure out what’s going on is the real work.

-- The word “science” itself seems to be confusing to people. A small percentage of people think economics and sociology are “very scientific”—a far smaller percentage than rate firefighting or farming as “very scientific.” Oddly, 20 percent of people said journalism was either “very” or “pretty” scientific. I can tell you, it is not even “slightly” scientific. But people rated marriage counseling and working in sales about the same, so at least it seems people are putting us in equally unscientific company.

-- In general, people seem supportive of investing in research. An interesting fact was that most people thought too little was spent on the environment, a topic that gets even less news coverage than science and technology—just about 1 percent of stories are about the environment, according to the report. And that’s even though an analysis of topics mentioned in blog and Twitter posts on weekdays found that an environmental issue, global warming, consistently made the list of top-five topics.

-- Finally, there is the public perception of scientists. People seem to finally be realizing that scientists and engineers are people. Only 19 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “scientists don’t get as much fun out of life as other people do,” although a third still believe they are “apt to be odd and peculiar people.”

I’m lucky to write for a pretty sophisticated science audience, given the concentration of universities, biotechnology companies, and hospitals in the area. But I always want to use this kind of information to help do a better job. What do you think? What kinds of stories and topics in science and technology would you like to see covered more?