Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/May 1914/Science in Newspapers


By Dr. J. A. UDDEN


IT is well known that charlatans and fools sometimes exploit the press for their own purposes. Our journalists are often men of chiefly literary training. They may be able to diagnose a case of megalomania among writers of verse and they may know how to identify a literary pirate. But they are not always prepared to detect scientific frauds or able to discern the fallacies of self-hypnotized persons proclaiming new laws in physics or chemistry. It is no wonder that there exists a general distrust among scientific men for "newspaper science."

This condition is to be regretted. The press is a great educational institution in our age. It is an agent that should be enlisted in the service of science to disseminate knowledge among men. The inefficient service of the American press in this direction in the past is, I believe, a natural result of the momentum of social conditions generally. It is to some extent to be ascribed to the tardiness of our educational institutions in responding to changing social conditions. To be more specific: the journalistic profession is recruited from our high schools and colleges. Few students who have taken up scientific subjects in the curriculum seek, or secure, work on newspapers. Language students, young men and women who have spent their time in studying Greek, Latin, modern languages and literature, are more often given such employment. Suitable courses are not always selected by those who train themselves for newspaper writing. They should be able not only to write good English, but they should also possess a large fund of general knowledge, including the elements of natural science, which now enters into our endeavors almost everywhere.

The above statements express a vague feeling which the present writer has entertained for some time. It has been his desire to investigate the basis for this feeling. When recently an opportunity seemed to offer itself for making some observations on the attitude of the press to science, I decided to make use of it. I collected the reports published by the six dailies of Toronto during the meeting of the Twelfth International Geological Congress, last summer. Copies of nearly all of the six local dailies published from the 7th to the 14th of August were secured, and clippings were made of the reports, articles and items touching on the congress or its members.

The text of these clippings contained about 55,500 words. A rough classification of the contents of this text placed the various paragraphs under nine catagories, as indicated in the following list, where the approximate number of words and percentage of total space alloted to material of each class is also given.

Number of
Per Cent.
of Space
Reports of proceedings 14,420 26
General information about the congress 10,510 19
Reports of social functions 10,310 19
Personal notes 6,720 12
Interviews 5,020 9
Accounts of geological excursions 4,020 7
Reports on individual papers 3,160 6
Editorials 1,240 2
Discussions of scientific questions of popular interest 120 6

About twenty-six per cent, of the space of the text was given to a more or less formal record of the proceedings of the congress, its general sessions, and the sessions of its various sections. A large part of this space was given to the reporting of the addresses of welcome by the government officials and of the replies to these addresses. In the preparation of copy of this kind the reportorial staffs of our large dailies are trained experts and this part of the work was well performed. Not so with the reporting of the professional papers and discussions! Some of the reporters wisely inserted merely the titles of the papers which were read, and the names of the authors.

It is evident that many of these papers were such that reporting even their title seems to have been quite purposeless in a daily paper. The giving of an intelligent statement of their contents by anybody but a specialist would have been impossible. It may have been useless to attempt reporting the papers with such titles as "A physico-chemical contribution to the study of dolomitization"; "On regional granitization"; "Fractional crystallization, the prime factor in the differentiation of rock magmas," and some others. How utterly hopeless it is for the reporter, in journalistic haste, to present to the general reader a comprehensible abstract of a scientific paper, is evident from one report made of a paper on some explorations in South America, by an American geologist. The author is mentioned as attributing the presence of great interior basins to the unequal warping of the earth in the process of elevation. To illustrate this point the reporter then quotes the gentleman as follows:

It might seem strange to you to live 5,000 miles above the sea, but we think of it as a flat plane. First, there is the plateau sloping at the coast toward the ocean, then the pre-Andean depression and again the depression and again the mountains, which are on the average 70 miles across. The streams that flow west through the Andes, causing international disputes between the Argentine and Chili as to boundaries can probably be attributed to glacial erasion.

In another attempt to report the contents of a paper on "The Influence of Depth on the Character of Metalliferous Deposits," the following obscurities occur:

"The deepest borings," said the speaker, "had either copper or gold as their objective, but precipitation was most favorable at a depth of 2,000 to 4,000 feet. A point of great interest was the extent of enrichment in regard to depth, but secondary enrichment was limited to a short stretch below the ground water."

In reporting one or two other papers it appears likely that the writers sought and obtained assistance from some competent source, securing much better results.

Only one of the professional papers was made a "feature," by the Toronto press. This was the paper presented to the congress by one of Toronto's own men, on the subject "An Estimate of Post-glacial and Interglacial time in North America." The "write-ups" of this paper demonstrate that the contents of at least some such papers can be profitably reported even in a daily newspaper, if the necessary effort and space be given to the task. Scientific discussion requires an accuracy of expression that can rarely be attained in speedy writing. To give as much space to other papers as to this one was evidently out of the question, and the editorial management certainly made a proper selection in "featuring" this paper. It treated a local subject of general anc! popular interest.

Under the head "general information about the congress," were classified such paragraphs as could not be placed in any of the other subjects mentioned in the list. These paragraphs include a variety of subjects, from an account of the history of the organization of the first International Geological Congress at Philadelphia in 1876, and an inventory of all the expenses connected with the present meeting, to the length of time taken for a morning nap by some of the attending geologists on Sunday, and the color of the laundry bill received by another visitor. The matter classified under this head consists of items of information secured by the reporters from any chance source about anything connected with the congress. By inquiry from a foreign member, one reporter appears to have learned the significance of the color scheme of the ribbons worn by many of the delegates on the pins bearing their names, and he wrote a neat little item on "How delegates in the Congress know what tongue to use in greeting." Another reporter, probably less obtrusive, wrote a half column under the heading "Politeness a Feature of Congress," evidently basing his observations on what he saw and heard, without making any inquiries. A paragraph which seems to have been based on some interview was headed "Typical Geologists are not Wealthy." Another article, which was probably written off-hand and as a "bluff," dilates on the guess that geologists know rocks, but are "ignorant of human nature," and that they can neither "bluff" nor "exaggerate." This rather reveals the low ideals of some young men of our day; ideals entertained by a certain class of thoughtless youths in all callings, probably no more frequently among reporters than among others. The best and most effective kind of politics is not the kind that relies on bluffs. While it is likely true that scientists as a class hate sham and exaggeration, it is not to be forgotten that the great recent progress of geology is a direct result of the really effective political talents possessed by some geologists who have held, or who now hold, official positions the world over. Many good geologists are also skillful politicians, not to say that a few have even proved to be better politicians than geologists. As to the discovery that geologists are not a wealthy class, the public was elsewhere treated to interviews with two geologists who were millionaires. Some other millionaires among them seem to have escaped this attention. The space given to the discussion of the private economics of members of the congress must be regarded as a concession, by the knights of the quill, to the vulgar taste of our age, which knows no other measure of a man than his bank account. Everything considered, the presentation to the public of what may be called the general news of the congress was quite complete. Considering that the members of the congress spoke more than twenty languages, while the reporter was limited to two or three, the items of general information gathered were as many and as varied as could be reasonably expected.

One reporter discovered that geologists rarely laugh. "As many as six or eight papers will be read without producing a single flash of wit." To one who attended the sessions and took part in some of the excursions, the fairness of this statement appears questionable, to say the least. While some of the lesser lights of the congress may wisely have avoided any attempt at small wit, there were those who rightly regarded their audiences as consisting of people capable of appreciating humor and who also knew how to indulge without falling flat. In discussing continental movements one of these men said: "It must be a source of great satisfaction to know that the earth in our part is rigid." The reporter evidently took this as a serious statement, for he soon proceeds to make the assertion that "the congress, so far, has not revealed a geological humorist." Evidently the layman is at a disadvantage in this case. He can not always appreciate the background against which the geologists's humor becomes apparent.

In all these three characterizations by the reporters, that the geologists lack humor, wealth and "bluff," there appears a robust survival of an ancient popular attitude to scientists, which is hardly warranted in our time. This attitude is clearly not based on any investigation by the reporters. It is probably the result of high pressure work in filling space. The editorial managers were apparently disposed to give all space needed for ample information to the public on the congress, and the reporters did their best—and worst.

The reports on the congress contain six formal interviews. Two of the interviewed parties were government officials in charge of geological work in two leading nations of the world. The aim of the interviewer is to procure information that shall prove interesting to the public. These two interviews dealt with the organization and the work of the government geologists in the two countries nearest to the meeting place of the congress. In journalistic work local interest is always to be considered. How the popular interest is always uppermost in the reporter's mind appears in the selection of the subjects of the other interviews. One was a Japanese, interesting because of his nationality. Another was an owner of an anthracite mine. The special topic of this congress was the world's supply of coal. The other two interviews aimed to draw interest by the subjects touched upon—the geology of biblical lands, and the age of the earth expressed in years. The latter subject is twice discussed in the interviews.

From the point of view of the public it is perhaps to be regretted that scientists are averse to being interviewed. They hate to be quoted incorrectly, and they have a great dread for professional criticism. They fear to be suspected of too much appreciating popular recognition. This looks like moral cowardice. Really it comes from the fact that men of science in their work must necessarily ignore popular beliefs and popular recognition of the truths they may discover. But this is no reason why they should be disinclined to make some sacrifice for the education of the public.

All social functions of the congress were reported with fulness and detail. There were the usual descriptions of the gems and laces worn by the leading ladies and there were the customary accounts of felicitous remarks uttered by the men who spoke the toasts. The arrangements made for the entertainment of the visitors on each of these occasions were also adequately described. Here again the demands of local interests were met by the papers. They were performing an every-day duty to their home constituents.

About twelve per cent, of the text may be classified as personal notes on individual members of the congress, light biographical material. Such attentions were naturally given to men in high official positions, men of great renown, or people of unusual and striking accomplishments. The task of selecting the right material was, no doubt, difficult. One prominent foreign delegate was "featured" in this way, because he interests himself in politics and is a leader among the socialists in his home country. In some cases the selection must have depended on the chance of finding the information supplied. No doubt much more "copy" of this kind might have been secured. Everything considered, this class of copy must have been interesting reading for the public. No one can question its educational value. To the members of the congress themselves it was a help in learning to know each other. In two exceptional cases these sketches may have been unnecessarily embarrassing to the persons concerned, owing to the well-known journalistic tendency to be sensational. The contents of the headlines must have appeared brutal to a Chinese geologist, whom they proclaimed as having arrived in Toronto "in bond."

The many excursions arranged under the auspices of the congress received ample attention, seven per cent, of the text reporting such events. Preference was given to details of general human interest, such as the mode of travel, the personnel of the excursions, and some untoward or amusing incidents. Some reporters appeared disposed to furnish entertainment to the reader at the expense of the excursionists, as when they related in mock-heroic style the vicissitudes of an "armada" of steam launches exposed to a rough sea on an excursion to Scarboro Heights. Though it appears that the press reports might very profitably have presented more of the scientific significance of the things seen on these excursions, any such purpose on the part of the reporter promptly gave way to the dominant instinct of his class to entertain rather than instruct. A visit to the Don Valley, altogether without exciting incidents of any kind, resulted in more serious, though quite brief, references in the papers to the significance of the phenomena noted on the trip.

Editorial writers are usually not interested in the world of science. Nevertheless, some editorial comments on the congress were made in the Toronto papers. These touched on the practical utility of scientific research, and on the relation of society to physical sciences in general. They expressed also a mild defence of these sciences, stating that they are in the popular mind unjustly associated with gross materialism.

The fertile resources of the reporters were shown in their interviewing at least two geologists on a subject of unfailing popular interest—the age of the earth. One of the interviewed gentlemen was quoted as making his estimate 200,000,000 years. Another geologist said it was an unprofitable subject to discuss, and that different people meant different things in speaking of "creation," or of the beginning of the earth. The truth of this latter statement became quite evident in the discussion at one of the sessions of the congress, but this perhaps escaped the attention of the reporters.

The total space given to the reporting of the congress was nearly 3,000 square inches. Of this space about sixty-seven per cent, was text, seventeen per cent, was given to the reproduction of photographs or to other illustrations, and sixteen per cent, was taken up by large headlines. There were reproduced the likenesses of fifty-one individuals connected with the congress. Two parties were thus presented to the public four times; seven, twice; and the rest of the fifty-one, once.

In the selection of subjects for illustrations it appears that popular interest was also considered. Gems have an attraction for many, and so have foreigners. The public enjoys what is picturesque. We all like to know the faces of men in high and responsible positions. All this the editors take into consideration.

Some conclusions drawn from this reconnaissance of what the journals of Toronto produced on the meeting of the Twelfth International Geological Congress, may perhaps be mapped in rough outline as below: There is certainly no desire on the part of the press to misrepresent or suppress science or its devotees. The urgent haste imposed on the work of our journalists naturally prevents them from competing in accuracy either with scientists in general or with geologists in particular, whose productions it may take a lifetime to prepare and several years to publish. The same haste sometimes forces editors to use copy which should be consigned to the waste-basket.

The contents of our newspapers always reflect the tastes and the interests of the general public. In the schools attended by those who constitute the reading public to-day, science teaching was defective. Hence, perhaps, the weak public demand for reading on scientific subjects. The looseness of the elective system in our secondary schools is perhaps responsible for the fact that many reporters are sadly ignorant in even the rudiments of science and altogether incapable of appreciating or describing in the most general way the proceedings of such a body of men as met in America on this occasion.

The undesirable result of this shortcoming of the press in its important function as an educator might easily be remedied by cooperation between scientists and journalists on occasions like this meeting. The press should make sure always to be just a trifle ahead, in knowledge as well as in "smartness," of the public it educates.

The elevated position of the savant, intellectually, does not relieve him entirely of general human duties to his fellow men. In the organization of the mechanism of a general congress of scientists of any group, a press committee would be neither a superfluous nor a disgraceful feature. We are all human. A meeting of this kind should be made to hasten the time when the public will demand reliable reports, not only on sports, trade and politics, but also on science.