The Third Culture Charles Arthur

The Peculiar Feedback Loops - Both Negative and Positive - That Drive Media Reporting of Technological and Science Issues

The most important unreported story, and perhaps one that is impossible to report, is about the peculiar feedback loops— both negative and positive — that drive media reporting of technological and science issues.

In Britain, the science repoting agenda in the past year has been dominated by stories about genetically modified food and crops. Britons have rejected them, crops in experiments have been torn up (thus preventing the results of the experiments, which could show whether or not the crops had harmful effects, being produced). Supermarkets vie with each other to find some way in which they don't use genetically modified ingredients or crops. Newspapers run "campaigns" against genetically modified ingredients.

There is an incredible positive feedback loop operating there, driving ever wilder hysteria — at least amongst the media. Whether the public really cares is hard to ascertain.

Meanwhile climate change, that oft-repeated phrase, is almost accepted as being right here, right now; to the extent that my news editor's eyes glaze over at the mention of more global warming data, more melting ice shelves (apart from "Are there good pictures?" A calving ice shelf can do it.) There is clearly a negative feedback loop running there. The only way to garner interest is to present someone or some paper which says it isn't happening. Which seems to me pointless, before Stephen Schneider jumps on me.

But what is making those loops run in the way they do? Why doesn't genetically modified food get a negative loop, and climate change a positive one? What are the factors that make these loops run with a + or - on the input multiplier?

Damned if I know how it all . But I'll read about it with fascination. As we are more and more media-saturated, understanding how all this works looks increasingly important, yet increasingly hard to do.

CHARLES ARTHUR is technology editor at The Independent newspaper.