If it’s attention you’re after, you can’t go past a good fight. Controversy and antagonism seem to trigger a level of engagement within the community that well tempered reasoning cannot ever hope to compete against and succeed.
The more polarised the issue, the more important it seems. Better still, as the level of certainty increases amongst those involved and their investment in being right increases, the more significant the issue appears to those on the sidelines. We need look no further than the strange behaviour surrounding the education of biological evolution to see this in action – few debates have ever made it to such dizzying heights of public interest.
Without a scrap of evidence to support my opinion, the sociologist in me is convinced that it is our desire to join the ranks of those who most closely share our values and beliefs in their fight that draws us in. Like a pack of poodles being forced by their lupine wiring to chase cars, humans take cues from those who represent their tribe and take sides in a fight, regardless of whether they’d ever given the argument a moment’s thought before.
Science relies on fights. Hence it’s common for the media to tap into this natural reservoir of conflict and present it to the public as some sort of egg-head gladiatorial. A battle of the boffins, if you will. Yet while it goes against our primal habit of group polarisation, the values of the scientific methodology favour calm mediation as opposed to emotional hair pulling and screaming matches. Where arguments are par for the course in science, journalists act like the drunken tosser who always yells ‘cat fight’ whenever two or more women do so much as roll their eyes at one another.
CNN journalist Christopher Reddy discusses this phenomenon in his must-read article, ‘How reporters mangle science on Gulf oil’.
“I must have spoken with at least 25 journalists last week, and despite my every effort to explain our findings, the media were more interested in using the new information to portray a duel between competing scientists. The story turned into an us-versus-them scenario in which some scientists are right and others are wrong. Seeking to elucidate, I felt caught in a crossfire.”
In dealing with the media, science communicators risk having measured opinions made into certainties in the name of a good fight. Subsequently, when new evidence comes to light, as is happening almost weekly in the Gulf oil disaster, scientists are left with egg on their face, or in the very least seem arrogant in their presumptions.
Conversely, consensus can be turned into opinion in order to create conflict under the guise of ‘fair reporting’. When the swirling light of the Falcon 9 rocket booster was spotted over Eastern Australia in June 2010, the ABC felt the need to include the easily-refutable views of a ‘UFO’ expert. Given it took very little research to show how flimsy this individual’s criticisms were, it can’t be for want of balanced reporting that the journalist chose to forgo the science for the appearance of a discussion.
I’ve had it put to me that it’s the love of mystery that pulls in the readers. I disagree. I don’t think people like mysteries. In fact, our brains hate them. Mysteries require us to say ‘I don’t know’. Our neurology isn’t comfortable with this information vacuum so rushes in to embrace answers regardless of their prematurity.
Rather than the lure of the unknown, it’s the dichotomy of right and wrong which motivates us to engage with the media. Journalists know this and understand the goldfield that science presents for conflict. Far from being presented as a gradual process of natural selection of ideas where theories slowly strengthen with time, science comes across as a punctuated equilibrium of discovery, if not a spontaneous intelligent design of beliefs.