Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Darn Right I'm Annoyed

Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday, every news publication that has earned a spot in my Google Reader published at least one article about Robert G. Edwards, co-developer of the in vitro fertilization process, receiving the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. My first reaction: This is ridiculously stupid.

If you're going to give a Nobel to any reproductive technology, the only ones that should even be considered are those that prevent pregnancies and reduce complications of development and childbirth. The ability to limit the number of children has improved the lives of women. Reductions of health issues experienced by newborns because of factors in the womb or during childbirth improve the lives of countless individuals. Reducing the risk of death and permanent physical damage to the mothers from childbirth also has obvious social benefits, but artificially creating more children than could otherwise be naturally conceived? Seriously, this is considered an important breakthrough in medicine? You know what? Screw orphans. This isn't even about them. This is about the fact that bringing extra people into the world is at best a wash and quite possibly harmful for the future.

Besides, it doesn't even affect that many people. Sure I just implied that this is actually a bad discovery because it brings in more lives on an overcrowded planet, but my real point is that this just doesn't really make any difference in the grand scheme of things. This treatment only really "helps" a select few who are both relatively wealthy enough to afford the treatment and who cannot conceive by other means. Basically, it allows rich people to not have to adopt and still get a kid.

But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is the coverage of this story. The ability to cure the infertility of the wealthy isn't even the most significant side effect of this development. The true significance, as pointed out to me by my brother-in-law, is that it opened the door to cloning, which is currently more a futuristic oddity, but actually has real potential to turn into life-saving and life-improving treatments in the very near future. After all, cloning hasn't just resulted in cloning entire farm animals. It has also led to research in recreating lost or malfunctioning parts of sick and injured people. That's medical progress I think holds actual real value. Despite this, several news outlets failed to mention this connection entirely and the best mention was in The Washington Post, a service I don't even follow, with a mention in the second paragraph but no further detail.

In the end, I don't really have so much of a problem with the Nobel going to Edwards. It's much like Watson's and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA. You know, the whole double helix thing is really just a model until you realize it helped further research involving genetics.

I do end up with a problem with journalism, however, and I think it starts with college journalism programs. I know when I was in school my journalism major required almost no math or science, none outside of the bare minimums required for all students, yet statistics and science are at the heart of some of the more important news in the modern world. Because of this, here we are having to hear about new breakthroughs and problems through the filter of people who are clueless. Even some of the more major political issues of the day are inherently scientific in nature. College journalism programs shouldn't require their graduates to even minor in the sciences, but they should require a broad and serious exposure to the hard sciences and statistics. Not doing so is incredibly irresponsible.


Courtney said...

Journalism is a strange field in that it requires one to be an expert in two things. You have to be a decent writer and researcher, and you also have to be a quasi-expert in the field you're covering. Sadly, a lot of journalists are one or the other, not both.

However, I do think most of the intricacies of what journalists cover have to be learned on the job. Should we have been required to know college-level math and science? Yes, and we were. We had to take that stuff. But our major was a BA. There are schools that classify journalism as a BS degree that requires more math and science. Graduates of those schools probably had easier times finding jobs and keeping them.

I do think, though, that more schools should emphasize interdisciplinary majors when it comes to journalism. Since most jobs in the field involve science and/or business, pushing an interdisciplinary major that combines the writing and news-gathering classes with the more technical business and science stuff would probably yield better journalists.

Jacob said...

I don't know about you, but I took Honors History of Biology and Finite math to fulfill my math and science. I had a 99 average in Finite Math. It was easier than what I had in 10th grade in high school. Neither class would have prepared me for covering science issues.

They could always formulate statistics and science for journalists classes that covered the basics that would prepare students to cover these issues more intelligently. They wouldn't have to be up to the standards of a math or science major's class, but they'd have to take it serious.

Statistics aren't going to be picked up on the job and it's pretty obvious journalists aren't picking up much understanding of science on the job.

Julie said...

I disagree with your assesment.

I can find plenty of faults with the current state of the media but I don't think the answer is more science & math education for journalists.

Journalists should be able to write reasonably well on any given topic if only they research the topic and interview the experts. Mass media is designed to give the general population an overview. If you want more in-depth coverage, seek out a technical publication.

my guess is that this particular 'oversight' has much more to do with politics than anything else.

Jacob said...

My thing is that most of what journalists cover can easily be grasped by a moderately intelligent person doing their research conscientiously. Science and statistics aren't that way. To be able to write about something in a way that the uninitiated can understand means you need to be able to understand it better than the average person, because unless you're just parroting something, you have to understand it to put it into simpler language.