Saturday, 10 March 2007

Sounds painful

Physicists say nerves use sound, not electricity. I'm surprised this isn't bigger news. It seems like this is something someone should have noticed before. I have no idea whether Heimburg and Jackson are right, of course--but the fact that they have published results leads me to conclude that matters are far less settled in this area of nerves than I assumed.

I pay closer attention to science than most people. That's both a cause and a function of my vocation. I learn about new developments in science from the internet, from conversation and from newsmedia. I used to subscribe to popular science magazines, but now I just read Slashdot headlines and follow up when the story surprises me--as in the case above. It takes a lot of work to keep up with even the narrowest of scientific fields, and without being a specialist, it is often impossible to evaluate the significance of what you read (or, for that matter, to recognize that the titles of scientific articles are written in English).

Mainstream media, with its capitalistic/competitive mechanism for choosing stories, makes some curious decisions when it comes to science stories. We read about invisibility cloaks and Star-Trek-style transporter devices (capable of transporting a quarter for the cost of just a few million dollars!). To what standards should we hold the mainstream media when it comes to science stories?

Al Gore blames the media for the lack of political will to motivate action over climate change. In the past few decades, he says, the media has carefully avoided taking a strong stance on climate change. Even in strongly worded articles, room is always left for opposing viewpoints. Indeed, the whole issue is invariably framed as a "debate." Is this a legitimate position? Gore argues that sometimes there is just a matter of fact about the status of a theory--it has been accepted. By insisting on avoiding bias, journalists have systematically misled the public into believing in a debate that in fact exists only in the coverage.

Of course, if scientists can be wrong about whether Pluto is a planet, or how nerves conduct signals, journalistic skepticism is suddenly a whole lot more understandable.

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