News About Science News

They say that news serves as the first draft of history, and that reportage is just literature in a hurry. Both history and literature have more patience and perspective than the often urgent work of science. So, what’s new and what is news in the special domain of science? For me, the important news in this area is about news itself and the relation between news and science. The most important news about science is how transparent it is becoming.

News is both socially constructed, and it is the construction of the social.  

It is socially constructed in that it is contextual, subjective, and ephemeral. And it constructs the social in that the work of news is to tell us who and what we are. We’ve known the social construction aspect of news about politics and power since Plato’s cave. Now, we are learning to recognize more of the interplay between science and social construction with the emergence of more transparent, open science news. Through the news about science news, we are learning how much science is socially constructed, and how to deal with this fact.

The most important changes with regard to news are, themselves, social. News, including science news is collected, collated, curated, and consumed by ever-growing circles of stakeholders. During our lifetime, or even the past decade, the Science-News-Society axis has been redrawn entirely. Instead of being a trickle down, so called “broad”-cast experience, news is now a bottom-up phenomenon. Fewer "invisible colleges," and many more public arenas for science. News about discoveries, innovations, controversies and evidence are increasingly grass-roots generated and ranked, and universally  more accessible. Economics of tuition and budget play a role, as does the evolving perception of the structure of knowledge.

Quite a few factors come to play in forming these developments. Literacy is up, censorship is down. Access is up. Uniformity and control over news sources are down, even though algorithmic news curation and ranking are up. Thus, through the news about science and the new ways of such news, expectations for the democratization of science, its funding and fruits, are all up. In fact, this venue, the public and cross-disciplinary conversations here on Edge, are one pleasant and prime example.

While attempts to control or filter news, including the news about science, have not slowed down, the actual ability of regimes and authorities to put a lid on public knowledge of events and discoveries is falling apart. Sharing, in all its online forms, is up. Science news is a major case in point with regards to sharing. The boundaries between scientific publishing and news enterprises are eroding. In this open and transparent environment, anti-intellectual and non-scientific phenomena such as conspiracy theories are less likely to hold for very long.

Truth just might have a chance.

This is not necessarily all good news. I state all of these not because we should let our guard down. Problems and challenges are at both the high and the low end. More transparent and participatory science may mean too much populism. Critical thinking about the organs and channels of news dissemination should continue. At the other, “high” end, monopolies still loom, not the least of which in scientific publishing. Concentrated ownership of media outlets is still a threat, and in some locations growing. Attempts to manipulate the reporting of news, scientific literature and learning curricula in the service of an ideology, power that be or plain interests have not gone away. The loss of some traditional venues for news, the erosion of business models for others, alongside the problems experienced by some of the scientific dissemination are a continuing cause for concern. But this is a transitional period, and the transition is in the right direction.

Whether the first draft of history, or just “literature in a hurry,” the important news is more in the eye of the beholder than set in stone. Thus, the most encouraging news about science is that there are many more eyes beholding, ranking, participating and reacting to the news of science.