Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Times' science coverage is weak

The New York Times does an exemplary job of covering national politics and foreign policy. It manages to do a decent job of covering the arts. It runs its share of long pieces on a variety of subjects, whether it be a profile of a (putatively) important person or a school's struggle with decades of sexual abuse (I don't have a link to the Horace Mann story, sorry). It even manages to toss in regional stories that might have larger implications, particularly where it has a good supply of stringers, e.g., Texas and California.

For a national publication, though, its coverage of science is decidedly weak. I was going to say "dreadful", but the truth is, I can't think of another general-interest publication that does a better job.

That bugs me.

I know that All Knowledge Is Available On The Internet. Having it available and actually encountering it, though, are different things. We need gateways to expose people to information they don't know that they don't know, that they don't know they should seek out.

The Times does have a Science section. Its focus, though, is frustratingly narrow. The articles tend to be about technology, especially as it affects daily life; biology, especially as it affects health; or the environment. These are important subjects, to be sure, but they're not the be-all and end-all of science. Where are chemistry, geology, or physics, to name but three very big areas of scientific inquiry? When physics is in the news, as with the apparent confirmation of the Higgs boson's existence, the coverage tends to be more about the technology (the Large Hadron Collider, in that case) than the underlying physics. I don't expect a mathematically rigorous explanation, of course (I'm no more qualified to understand that than the average layman), but it would have been nice if the Times had put the news into context by explaining at least a little about the Standard Model.

I happen to be a cosmology buff, so the Times' treatment of this absorbing subject especially irks me. The nature, origin and fate of the universe may not be everybody's cup of tea, but as a topic it surely deserves better than vapid essays like this one. The paper covers small towns in Vermont with more care. Hell, it covers fashion far more thoroughly than science. If we had as many column-inches about current research as about Milan, the Times' readership would be the most scientifically literate bunch on the planet.

No publication can do everything well, I suppose, but the nearly unlimited room available to the Web version of the paper makes the narrowness and shallowness of its science coverage an especially egregious weakness. In an age where the national debate requires a populace that understands enough science to recognize bamboozlers and frauds (I'm looking at many of you, Republican lawmakers), this is a weakness we shouldn't tolerate in one of our most nationally important publications.

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