A hole in our journalism

Like all other genres, science journalism is an essential pillar of the journalistic endeavour

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

What exactly is a virus? Ask the question to the educated, news-watching, paper-reading Pakistani, and you would get answers that are varied, complicated, and most likely incorrect. People may even regurgitate facts, share opinions, point to the Swedish model and the New York death rate, but basic questions would elude them.

At a time when the pandemic is on everyone’s mind, science literacy in the country remains low. Familiarity with data is not the same as scientific understanding. Also, no one has a monopoly on scientific literacy and understanding. For far too long, we have been told that only a few can understand science, as everyone is “not a science person”. Scientific expertise and scientific literacy are not the same thing. Our schools are not the only ones that share the blame of creating this dangerous perception — there is plenty of responsibility to go around. In part, I believe that our general science literacy is low due to a fundamental gap in our journalism. We have never hired science journalists, or invested in science journalism. Here I am not talking about reporters, or those who narrate the calamity and chaos in our hospitals, or those who interview doctors and public health providers, but people who understand scientific nuance, and can communicate with a wider audience in ways that is understandable, relatable and stays with the reader. There is, at the moment, not a single science journalist in the country and this is our loss. But this does not have to be so — or stay that way.

Like all other genres, science journalism is an essential pillar of the journalistic endeavour. Good science journalism matters because curiosity and knowledge are central to the education enterprise. Our ability to understand the world around us — when it is bright and full of mystery, and when it’s nothing but chaos and uncertainty — is central to our ability to lead meaningful, productive and healthy lives. It is also an investment in creating a sense of wonder among those who will shape our tomorrow. We want our children to be curious, rational, thoughtful and rigorous. Good science journalism, with relatable examples, can go a long way in ensuring that.

But science journalism also matters because it allows people to appreciate that science ultimately is a process, at times messy and imperfect, but driven by a process that over time leads to new insight and a better understanding of who we are. It also allows the reader to challenge dogma and avoid bizarre conspiracy theories that are detrimental to our collective wellbeing. The pandemic, explained in simple terms, will only allow more people to appreciate policy that at times may seem draconian and repressive. It can help us understand why antibiotics will not cure Covid-19, and why taking them now is a terrible idea, both for the patient and everyone around the patient. It will also caution us against thinking that drinking hot water, standing in the sun, or drinking some strange cocktail of homemade tea is the cure. And if any of these things do end up showing promise, science journalism can help us understand how to verify these claims before sharing these remedies with a million people on Whatsapp.

Science journalism is about telling stories that are rich, complex, layered and unpredictable. It is also about a fundamental belief that the reader can engage in that story and benefit from it.

But to me, science journalism, ultimately, is about humility. It is about recognising how little we know, how vast the universe is, and how much we all have in common with each other — lessons that are important in both the Covid and post-Covid world.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2020.

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