Friday, February 4, 2011

A Sound Bite Society

Some years ago I had been in a discussion about the rather abysmal state of science education in the U.S. today. We decided that we should do something about it and that the best approach would be to try to make ourselves available to the news people. That way we could intercept bad information before it got into the news and provide some real science. I called a news organization and talked about what we could offer. The very nice gentleman who answered said, “We want somebody who can talk in sound bites.”

As you might guess, our project went nowhere. Precious little science can be boiled down to the few words in a sound bite. How can you explain quantum mechanics in a sentence or two? Yet our society today depends heavily on technology based on that part of physics. Likewise you can't explain DNA testing, the spread of disease, and a host of other concepts without going into more depth than a sound bite allows.

No, science cannot be reasonably described in sound bites, that just does not work. Sound bites, like the proverbs and maxims of old, may help us remember things but they do not help understand them. Nearly every concept of importance requires more information to be understood. It is a major loss to the country that a field of study that affects our daily lives to the extent science and technology do should be so poorly understood.

Nor is science the only problem area. Economics, politics, even sports are usually described in sound bites. In fact sometimes it seems that the only real in-depth information available in the media is gossip about celebrities. If we want real information about anything important we have to dig it out for ourselves.

Is help on the way? Yes and no. On the down side we have things like Twitter that limit messages to 140 characters, effectively a sound bite you send to your friends and family. Now there are a few messages that can be adequately covered in 140 characters, even some important ideas like parents or spouses expressing love. However the real danger is that people get used to such short messages to the point that they lose patience with anything that can't be expressed in a sound bite. Constant exposure to sound bites leads to the expectation that everything should be expressible in a sound bite.

However for those who want depth and are willing to make the effort, the internet provides a vast and accessible library. We have to be careful about it, some of the “information” there is just plain wrong. However there are also a lot of excellent web sites. We can get medical information from the top hospitals, science information from scientific organizations etc.

Are we going to convince the masses to seek in-depth information before making important decisions? Not unless our education system improves and starts doing a better job of teaching critical thinking. However we can, as individuals, improve our own habits and begin to seek good and complete information before deciding.

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