Encountering geoscience issues in the popular press
Marian Buzon, University of Idaho
Geoscientists (as do all scientists) have a duty to present facts to their audience, whether that audience is composed of other scientists or of the general public. Many scientific issues find their way into the popular press limelight and become blown out of proportion or are even presented in such a way that the articles are factually inaccurate. This activity involves critical reading of popular press articles and a little research to focus on the facts of the straight-up science. A few articles and research prompts of choice have been selected as examples.
This activity can be used with a group of individuals having any background in science and research, and could also involve those with a background in law or media studies.
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Participants should have a general background in how to find reliable research resources. Mastery of scientific skills or knowledge is not necessary, but general geoscience knowledge is recommended (college sophomores or higher education).
How the activity is situated in the course
The participants should have at least a week of notice before the activity in order to find a popular press article that discusses a scientific issue, and to prepare their research. Students should present a brief summary of the article and deliver a few minutes lesson on the science. After presentations, the class should engage in a discussion/debate about the involvement of scientists in educating the public. Participants can work in groups or may split into groups for the discussion.
Goals Content/concepts goals for this activity
- Make future scientists aware of the power that popular press articles have on the public. We all hold a duty to provide facts to our audiences; this ideal should be instilled in undergraduate coursework to emphasize its importance.
- Show students that there are many ways we are directly affected by geoscience issues. We (society) need people that understand and can explain the interface between humans/human health and geoscience.
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Students should to be able to recognize when an article is not written by a science professional, and need to be able to present scientific facts in an unbiased manner.
Other skills goals for this activity
Basic research skills are required such as finding reliable sources and navigating databases.
Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise
- Fulfilling duties as a scientist, presenting facts
- Bias in popular press articles
- Interface between humans and geoscience; what are the impacts?
Case Study Scenario
- Select a popular press geoscience article: choose an article that is not written by a geoscience professional but addresses a geoscience issue.
- Getting to know the author: Who wrote this article? It may be interesting to read other articles by the same author to get a taste for their voice/views.
- Fact Finding: Define key words in the article; think of words that are specific to geology that many people might not know exactly what they mean. Describe analytical methods, processes, or mechanisms that would not be "common knowledge". Research the effects, if applicable, of decisions made concerning your topic. Create a brief ,unbiased presentation of the facts you have found and present to your audience.
- Group Discussion: After presentations, meet in small groups to discuss the significance of educating your audience versus "opinionating" them. Consider the following questions:
- Are there times when it is appropriate for scientists to give their opinion on an issue?
- Popular press articles can bring a lot of attention to an issue. Discuss the positive and negative effects of science journalism. How does it affect people outside the scientific community and those within the scientific community/ geoscience industry?
- Can information ever be presented in a completely unbiased manner?
Teaching Notes and Tips
This case study could easily be split into two activities and might not be suitable for all groups of students. I like the pairing of giving a presentation, and group discussion because it requires two different types of participation. Many students, and people in general, are not comfortable with talking in front of a group so this is a good opportunity to do so in a low key environment. On the other hand, group work activities typically do not guarantee that all students are engaged, but are a far less intimidating way to participate.
Generally, it is best to find popular press articles that were written in the last couple years so that the information is up to date. However, it may be interesting to encourage students to look at older articles to see how popular opinions have changed over time with regard to certain issues.