Science has grown in popular in recent years. With the rise of the internet, the latest scientific breakthroughs can be found not only in virtual newspapers but on various blogs, Youtube clips and television channels. Yet many fear that the science peddled to the public by the mainstream media is nothing other than hyperbolic claims gift wrapped into cheap sound bites. This is known as infotainment. Infotainment consists of packaging scientific data to the public in a manner that is as informative as it is entertaining. The difficulty with infotainment is finding a balance between truth and entertainment. Many worry that science journalists’ value the latter over the former. However, as is the case with most opposing spectrums, a middle ground can often be found. In light of this middle ground, the following argues that infotainment has a positive overall impact on the public. In particular, infotainment is vindicated on the grounds that it helps increase science literacy, fuels further research and is intended to be targeted towards laypeople rather than scientists.
One of the major benefits of infotainment is that it increases the science literacy of the general public. The purpose of science is to provide models that reflect how the nature of the world operates. In short, science is all around us. In order to effectively function in the world, we have to have a realistic understanding of both our internal and external environment. This can be as trivial as knowing why we need to wash our hands after going to the restroom, to the long-term consequences of global warming. As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states in an article published in Parade Magazine, “When you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. It’s a source of empowerment (Parade, 2014).” People are not scientists so the information presented needs to be packaged in a way that is applicable to their mindset. This is not intended to disrespect the mentality of the general public. Many of the people who read infotainment are college educated and simply need an up-date on the latest scientific news.
It goes without question that the mainstream press has, at times, misrepresented scientific data in order to make it appealing to a general audience. However, these are bad examples of infotainment. When infotainment is done correctly, a balance between information and entertainment can be achieved. Here, I am best reminded of the science journalist John Horgan who has made a career of not only presenting science ideas, but challenging the authority that peddles those ideas. For example, in recent news, scientists believe that they have detected gravitational ripples embedded in the cosmic microwave background radiation predicted by the theory of inflation. A flurry of science journalists ran to the keyboard eager to inform the public that, “these findings provide proof of inflation and parallel universes.”
Proof is a dangerous word in science that teeters on the edge of sloppy infotainment. In contrast, Horgan presented the recent discovery in a blog piece entitled, “Why I Still Doubt Inflation, in Space of Gravitation Wave Findings,” and then proceeded to argue that inflationary theory still faces many unsolved problems, and that these findings should be taken with a grain of salt (Horgan, 2014). In this instance, Horgan actually stands out against the mainstream press by challenging scientific ideas while soberly presenting them. This is the kind of infotainment that finds the appropriate balance between information and entertainment. In this instance, entertainment takes the guise of warranted criticism.
Another benefit of infotainment is that it helps fuel further scientific research. Most scientific research is conducted at federal universities that are fueled by American tax dollars. This being the case, Americans have an inherent right to understand what their hard earned tax dollars are going towards and why it matters. When the public is not informed about why certain scientific research matters, important funds are cut. An imminent example is when the Superconducting Super collider was shut down in Texas. The funds were cut because the Texas administration was not persuaded that the collider had any practical benefits. As a corollary, the Unites States is no longer at the forefront of particle physics. The mentality to cut funds for the accelerator was a product of failing to understand how the nature of science operates. In contrast, the citizens of Geneva, Switzerland were persuaded to fund the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) because of effective infotainment. As Carl Zimmer makes note in his article “King of Cosmos,” most of the electronics in hospitals are the product of principles of physics discovered by physicists who had no interest in medicine (Zimmer, 2014). Likewise, although the practical benefits produced by the LHC are unknown, the engineering used to construct the LHC is sure to give rise to new and interesting technology. It is this kind of reasoning, as purported by infotainment, that helped the LHC be constructed.
The last reason that infotainment is good is because it is targeted towards a specific kind of audience. In particular, much of the criticism towards infotainment is from scientists who are already experts in their respected field. They argue that infotainment over simplifies the data and does not do justice to the study. The problem is that infotainment is not written for scientists. Rather, infotainment is written for the general public. Indeed, some scientists even rely on infotainment to know the latest science taking place outside his or her respected field. In other words, scientists and journalists inhabit two separate disciplines. As an anonymous blogger notes, it should therefore be unsurprising that the jargon peddled by scientists is not the same as the jargon peddled by journalists (Supernovacondensate, 2013). To be terse, the criticisms projected towards infotainment by scientists are unwarranted.
In conclusion, science journalism is most needed by both the public and scientists. Effective infotainment is needed by the public because it fuels science literacy and is a necessary key to flourishing in the world. Effective infotainment is needed by scientists to help fund their studies. Although it goes without question that infotainment can misrepresent science at times, infotainment is quite fruitful when done correctly. Most of the criticisms projected towards infotainment stems from two separate disciplines speaking past each other. Thus, it is in consideration of these points that the benefits of infotainment has an overall positive effect on the general public.